Why I am an atheist – Quinn

Hello. My name is Quinn, and I am an atheist.

I am also a (not very anonymous) recovering alcoholic, which makes the aforementioned atheism difficult to maintain in the face of fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous. And it requires a fair amount of mental contortion and gymnastics if one intends to put into practice any of the principles on which most recovery programs are founded, while maintaining one’s non-belief.

I suppose what I ultimately seek is fairly common: a well-integrated and coherent view of the world, of my place in it, along with a strong sense of the integrity of the foundation upon which I ultimately build my beliefs. Also paramount is my desire to function as a full and useful member of society in a way that I did not as an active alcoholic. I am well aware that my atheism is not unique within A.A., but most others I have met do not feel the cognitive dissonance between said atheism and participation in recovery programs as I do. Many are what I term “Eh-theists”: they believe in no god nor in any “Higher Power,” but cannot be bothered to argue or care much about the implications of their non-belief, or to look too closely at it in the face of the demands of recovery approaches. I cannot respect this position.

Let me back up a little. I was raised in the wilds of Alaska by two secular humanists (who also happened to be psychologists). The rebellion of my early years thus took the obvious track of full-fledged fundamentalist Christianity, much to their amazement and consternation. As a very young child, I was exposed to fundamentalism by extremely religious neighbors and extended relations, and in my young naivete, I bought the fear of hellfire they were selling hook, line and sinker, as the saying goes. Why I latched onto a religious obsession is still not clear to me, but I suspect it has something to do with my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which as a child did take the form of strange superstitious rituals. My father’s response, in particular, was priceless. He never ridiculed or rejected me: he simply refused to let the matter rest there. He would constantly engage me in what he called “jousts,” where he would question, challenge, and otherwise poke holes in my beliefs so that whatever happened with my religiosity, I would never cease examining it. This had the cumulative effect of giving me the tools I needed to free myself. My doubts and struggles to reconcile my beliefs with what we know about the world thereby increased and reached something of a fever-pitch during my senior year of high school.

As a side note, I would also like to be clear that my parents were people of such compassion, integrity, and self-awareness that I never, even in the worst of my delusions, bought into the lie that one needed God to be good. My parents’ morality was always far superior to that of any religious system, and I early on awoke to that fact.

My eventual atheism was not arrived at hastily, or lightly. By the time I was 18, I had come to suspect that the universe is neither benevolent nor malevolent, but indifferent to us. It behaves in every way as if it were not conscious. I distinctly remember the moment this dawned on me. I had been clinging to the last vestiges of my god-belief for some time during my first year of college, but that year picked up a book on evolution with an illuminating, if hypothetical, chapter on abiogenesis. The description of what was then understood about how the first self-replicating molecules, and even cells, could have come about through the blind laws of chemistry was so clear, even for a lay-person like myself, that I was forced to admit my growing awareness of the obvious possibility that no interference was needed from any ‘designer.’ The resulting relief and sense of wonder were profound and defining for me.

This non-belief, which sat comfortably with me for many years, was first seriously challenged when I entered A.A. nearly 9 years ago.

Any ‘old-timer’ in Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you that without a Higher Power of some kind, your chances are slim to none. And recovery is no joke, this is desperate stuff, so one is apt to listen carefully when one first arrives, shaking, with the wreckage of your life strewn about you.

This idea is often framed as a choice between you being ‘in charge,’ or ‘God’ being ‘in charge.’ Either god is your higher power or you are.

At this point, I point out that as an atheist, I certainly believe in many powers ‘greater than myself’ – depending of course on how you define ‘power.’ The sun’s ability to generate heat far exceeds my own. The gravitational force of a black hole is far greater than any force I could generate. But none of these superior forces are in any way concerned with me or my well-being, so the dichotomy as presented is a false one. This is part of what drives me crazy about AA and the “good old-timers” is their absolute insistence upon two things: bad reasoning, and an injunction against “thinking too much.” Absolute bane, for me.

Of course, the hypothetical ‘old-timer’ is likely to offer that this Higher Power can be anything you wish – a tree, a dog, a bearded old man in the sky, the ‘Spirit of the Universe,’ any concept you can imagine in combination with any personality (or lack thereof) with which you wish to imbue it. Loving, stern, judgemental, you name it. A veritable spiritual smorgasbord from which you can pick and choose as you like. If you still balk, you can even make the recovery group in which you participate itself your “HP,” it doesn’t matter. After all, here is a group of people who (hopefully) are maintaining their sobriety together in some way that they couldn’t do each alone. Clearly, something is going on.

Of course, in one sense this is intended to lower defenses built up against the idea of spirituality by making it more user-friendly. Having problems with that religion of your past? No worries, mate! You can make up your own religion, and it will still save your skin!

This immediately made me suspicious. If the content of your beliefs doesn’t matter, and can vary with an individual’s whims, then clearly it is not the content of the belief that is saving anyone. Otherwise, only people with certain religions or concepts would recover. But this is not what we see in practice. And if the each person’s belief content diverges and is incompatible with that of the others in the group, it cannot be the “truth” of any specific belief they hold that provides the saving grace. Somehow, the act of believing itself seems to make the crucial difference, whether or not the object of that belief is real. But…how can that be? Can a belief in an object that doesn’t exist effect any change in anyone whatever?

At this point, I suspect that the effectiveness of the HP concept in recovery groups is pure placebo. Somehow this belief in belief is helping people find inner resources of which they were previously unaware.

My further idea is that the HP exercise is the first training some of us have in deflating our egos – and most addicts and alcoholics are supremely egocentric. I know I am. Our hypothetical ‘Old-Timer’ is likely to point out, “All you need to know about God is that it’s not you.” I suppose it is possible that it allows one the space and humility to ask others for help when one’s own resources fail. It trains a person to look beyond their own petty agendas to the care of others and to the idea of a ‘greater whole’ than that circumscribed by one’s own small designs. I think it even, in its obsession with prayer and meditation, trains one to mentally rehearse good behavior and positive reactions to real-life situations and to go beyond the idea of one’s own limitations. After all, the command is to pray for the resources to do the “next right thing,” whatever that may be, and never for one’s own desires. Surely this is training in refocusing one’s energies towards more constructive behavior.

But all of this effort spent translating the spiritual beliefs of AA into non-delusional reality begins to wear on one. And the data I’ve seen on the results of 12-step recovery programs is unimpressive. I fear to toss the whole thing out…if nothing else, I do know that simply having a support group of any kind, comprised both of fellow sufferers and of professionals, is crucially helpful in maintaining sobriety. But I cannot continue to try to contort myself into a shape acceptable to the program of recovery. I suppose at this point, I’m not sure what to do.

By the way, never let anyone tell you that AA is “spiritual” and not “religious.” Five minutes spent reading the “Big Book” will convince you of its thoroughly religious origins. AA does not require adherence to any particular beliefs per se, but they have their own threats of hell-fire for detractors: the specter of relapse, easily invoked against those that would question any of the 12 steps.

Is all of this (the concepts used in recovery) what I like to term a ‘functional delusion’ – one which allows us to operate in a healthy way, in spite of an otherwise grim reality? I suppose, however one tricks oneself into it, if there is really nothing out there, then these ‘unsuspected resources’ must be coming from me, somehow. Can you get at these resources without believing in a god of some kind?

I certainly think so…but maintaining this in the face of constant pressure from the group is exhausting. And alienating. Ultimately, I will have to find these answers for myself, and take responsibility for them. And since I value integrity above group-identity, it may be that I simply have to continue my resistance. Perhaps I can even be of service to others with similar difficulties.

In the end, what is clear to me is that many of the concepts used in recovery programs are impossibly flawed, and research needs to be done on what is actually keeping us folk sober, in spite of the delusions.



  1. says

    Any ‘old-timer’ in Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you that without a Higher Power of some kind, your chances are slim to none. And recovery is no joke, this is desperate stuff, so one is apt to listen carefully when one first arrives, shaking, with the wreckage of your life strewn about you.

    This idea is often framed as a choice between you being ‘in charge,’ or ‘God’ being ‘in charge.’ Either god is your higher power or you are.

    Congratulations on your recovery (from both alcohol and religion).

    I’ve been sober for eight years. The first year or so, I went through A.A. I have to admit it was a huge help, but not in the way Dr. Bob would have liked. I simply ignored the cultish “surrender to a higher power” nonsense and basically cherry-picked the parts of the program that I felt would help the most. You know what helped the most? Being with other people who were going through the same thing I was going through. I quickly felt at ease talking about all the humiliating things my addiction put me through, because I was with people who were in the same boat and therefore in no position to point fingers or cast aspersions. It was other people, not some “higher power”, that helped me. We all helped each other.

    Ironically, since I am not afraid of public speaking, I ended up guest-speaking about my experiences at a lot of A.A. meetings and leading them as well. As a leader I had to open each meeting with the Serenity Prayer and close with the Lord’s Prayer. It did not bother me in the least to do so, because I knew these things helped people who needed the traditional 12 step route. Once again, people are what mattered.

    In my recovery, I was in charge, not some nebulous sky fairy. And me being in charge of my own recovery brought me from 24 years of hardcore alcoholism replete with blackouts, arrests and wasted life to 8 years of rock-solid sobriety with no desire to ever taste alcohol again.

    Some A.A.’ers may think they need the placebo of a higher power and it wasn’t my place to tell them otherwise, but my experience shows that all on really needs is a strong desire to quit and the support of others who know exactly what you’re going through.

  2. John Morales says

    Quinn, you should perhaps critically examine the actual facts regarding the relative effectiveness of AA as compared with other programs.

    (I am dead serious)

  3. madtom1999 says

    Congratulations and keep up the effort.
    When I lost religion and found reality I went through a massive withdrawal process that, I discovered later, is not too far off that of addicts of many forms. While not an alcoholic I have several freinds who are and I could still hancker after a cigarette after 10 years without them.
    I have often wondered whether the religeous element of AA is some subversive xian attempt to replace one addiction with god as a recruitment excersise. After all a dealer knows the time to get his victims re-hooked is when they are at their lowest.
    I know thats a lot of a conspiracy theory but the two people I know who lost their lives to alcohol despite years of AA support were both atheists who were told they wouldnt succeed unless they accepted a higher being – and even a bottle of whisky couldnt dim their intelligence enough for them to do that.

  4. joed says

    If I remember rightly there is a program called Rational Recovery. I hear it uses the principles of Rational Emotive Therapy or Cognitive Behavior Therapy. No god, no HP just you and your addiction.
    I hear it works but many folks don’t like it because of the lack of the HP thing.

  5. totalretard says

    In a similar situation, the solution a friend and I work out was that the Higher Power was the court-mandated AA group itself. Nothing else made any sense. Prayer was always another matter, though.

    There are several groups specifically for atheists: Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) and Rational Recovery (RR). The advantage to AA is face-to-face contact with a group to which you owe accountability. I don’t know how SOS and RR work, but their recidivism rate can’t be much worse than AA.

  6. says

    This is excellent. Thanks for writing it.

    Incidentally, looking for articles about Erich Fromm in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology a couple of weeks ago, I came across “William James’ ‘Sick-Minded Soul’ and the AA Recovery Paradigm: Time for a Reappraisal” in the trial issue available online. It’s also here, at the site of one of the coauthors (link is on the left). I get a definite sense from that site that he’s a bit woo-addled himself, but the article is interesting and I agree with their call to turn to positive ideas and practices from humanistic psychology.*

    Best of luck.

    *I recommend Fromm, of course. :)

  7. AshtaraSilunar says

    Thanks for sharing your story! I’d suggest checking out SOS for a secular alternative to AA. They’re online here.

  8. says

    It’s like, have a god, any god. That god will work just as long as you really believe in it.

    So how do you believe in it?

    One doesn’t have such a hard time “believing in belief,” since it’s often far more important to people than are facts, but that doesn’t get you to the state of believing.

    Glen Davidson

  9. says

    Quinn Mander, this was a powerful essay. Your insight is amazing. You are not alone, though it often seems like that to many of us in this god-soaked world. I wish you the very best life.

  10. unclefrogy says

    I have been trying to live using the twelve steps for a long time. I have always been bothered by some of the people I have met who are more obsessive christians and lately met some who I would say were “wowists” so I understand the internal conflict I have felt it before.
    I think there is a tendency it might be a cultural influenced to focus on the belief aspect of steps. After all that is what christianity stresses and the vast majority of the people I meet grew up here in the US. I could see that some of the people I encountered were getting help they were changing their lives and like you I noticed they believed very different things. So clearly it was not the subject of the belief that was doing anything because there ain’t no f’n god! I asked myself and watched what is going on I was still focused of belief but I could not figure it out and like you I knew this was not some game or idle intellectual question this was life or death. So OK those people that I could see were really getting recovery with all the understanding and compassion of acceptance, that were really learning to function here now and were different from each other were “working the Program”. So I kind of gave up a little and tried it, I began to turn it over, then it hit me that is the part I do because that was the problem it was “ME”! and the belief in a higher power was something we needed to learn how to let go of our crippling obsession with our selves. I still meet people who have the belief problem thinking it is more important but with regards to “The Program” it is just what gets you to the point where you can begin to let go one day at a time.

    uncle frogy

  11. miserybob says

    I did Rational Recovery 12 years ago, mainly because I’m a) not religious and b) not a people person. I haven’t had a drink since. RR doesn’t invoke any gods of any sort and actively discourages long-term ‘meeting’ attendance. That said, it’s likely gobbledegook… It just forces you to pit your ‘lizard brain’ against your ‘higher brain’ and asks the musical question, “Dude, are you going to lose to your LIZARD BRAAAAIN!??” This appeals to the egotist in most people.

    I’m of the opinion that nearly any program will work if you’ve truly accepted the notion that you can never, ever have a drink again in your whole entire life. I had maaaany failed attempts because ‘one beer at the ballpark’, ‘one glass of wine with dinner’ always became (after a few weeks) ‘one bottle of vodka on Tuesday’. I finally had to own up to the fact that I couldn’t moderate – it was all or nothing, and the alcohol was ruining my life. After that, it was just details.

    Anyway, there are other options than an AA meeting that you resent, even if it’s working for now.

    Thanks for writing and thanks for bringing up your alcoholism. I think it helps people who have their own drinking problems to see others who have worked (or are working) through it.

  12. millicent says

    I am a recovering alcoholic as well — eleven years sober. I used Women for Sobriety, which was helpful for me in the beginning, because going to meetings with other people who understood what the deal was helped a lot. I like the program; there’s no “higher power” nonsense, just acceptance of one’s illness, and responsibility. The first step in the WfS program is “I have a life-threatening illness that once had me.” I like the way the power is assigned there; yeah, I have this addiction, but I can be the one in charge, not it.

    Of course, it’s a program for women only, so it’s obviously not for everyone. But it beats AA, in many cases (when I realized that I needed to quit drinking,I called AA, looking for groups, and specifically women-only groups. The man on the other end of the line responded with, “Oh, honey, why don’t you like us?” Yeah, so, AA was out of the picture then!)

  13. IndyM, pikčiurna says

    My friend couldn’t deal with the HP nonsense either, so she attends SMART Recovery meetings. On their site, they also link to the Women For Sobriety and Men for Sobriety groups (as well as other alternatives to AA). Here you go: http://www.smartrecovery.org/

    I thought your post was fantastic. I wish you all the best.

  14. mikmik says

    Hi, Quinn Mander. The thing that I detest about the 12 step programs is the misapplication of the word ‘spiritual.’
    As in spirit of optimism, or team spirit, it is a new attitude towards life. It fucking drives me batty when I see others struggle and give up because they ‘just can’t wrap their head around this higher power thing’ and give up. I want to jump up and yell “the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking, not to become religious and join a clique, you heartless fucks.

    The most important part of recovery is helping others and being accepted for your effort to change. I tell people that every time they say, “faith without works is dead,” that maybe they should consider the ‘works’ part as the important one, because as far as I can tell, works without faith works very well.

    That chapter 4 – To The Agnostic – is the most pseudo-scientific and example of the worst juvenile logical fallacy I’ve ever read anywhere, but I hold my tongue because the meetings are about how to recovery, not correcting idiocies.

    I go to meetings, albeit rarely, and zero in on anyone that may be ‘struggling’ with the higher power thing, or declares outright that they don’t believe in god. When I share, I tell the group that one of the pamphlets (N.A., I think) says that doing service work is a power greater than ourselves because it causes spiritual changes, belonging, contribution, personal growth, that are neither predictable or happen on their own (the works without faith thingy).

    It is the sense of belong, the acceptance for who you are, the caring and empathy, and the chance to operate in a new framework, that facilitates recovery. I also do agree that dealing with guilt in the past by making amends, and gaining the insight into our attitudes and behaviors that got us into destructive situations are of paramount importance, but that’s just me.

    I am far from writing off the help these AA groups have given me, and continue to. It’s just that by insisting, wrongly, that it is God that is changing you, and removing obsession, they undermine the fucking intention of the program in the first place.

    John Morales, it’s about 1 – 3 percent, 1% is the figure I hear most for the success rate of AA – which is exactly the same for people that do it on their own! I think that’s what you were getting at, anyways. Sheesh, obviously! They’re all the same, as far as I know.

    Another thing I fucking detest is people sharing about ‘if you have a question, or want to talk, just approach somebody. We are happy to help, and we get more out of it than you do!” I tell those those selfish freaks that if they remember being new, they would remember how overwhelming it feels just being there, and you sure don’t feel confident interrupting an animated conversation between oldtimers that are laughing and joking sarcastically about other events in their lives, just to uncertainly interrupt them with your pitiful trivialities. Fuck.
    We should be approaching them, all the newcomers and uncertain looking attendees, for fuck sakes, you bunch of fucking hypocrites.

    Yes, Quinn, I see my place as a very important one for a larger ratio of the people wanting help than a godbot.

    Courage to change the things we can, brother. Sharing my realizations and successes in an inviting and not threatening manner when I share, or approaching a couple of hesitant or fearful looking babes, I mean newcomers(its just a joke that highlights another pet peeve, I’m sure you all appreciate the 13th) is keeping me sober, and, AND, remembering I am part of a altruistic group of selfless people doing good and genuinely caring work, and not getting too resentful – important, that – is one way I stay sober and clean. So far.

    I admire you, Quinn Mander. “And since I value integrity above group-identity, it may be that I simply have to continue my resistance. Perhaps I can even be of service to others with similar difficulties.”

  15. Mattir says

    I’ve been in AA since 1987 and can attest to it getting way worse for atheists since that time. In the 80s, AA was firmly in the “as long as you’re not the most powerful force in the universe, that’s enough for purposes of having a higher power” camp. For me, that’s meant the wisdom of AA and other human organizations, the and the laws of nature (note – NOT natural law, which is a Christian fiction, but instead the laws of physics, evolution, etc.). Some of the people who wrote the Big Book and helped develop the program in the 30s and 40s were out atheists and remained out atheists, sober, for the rest of their lives. In the last 10-15 years, however, this tolerance has been under considerable pressure from evangelical Christians who view AA not as a place to obtain support from fellow alcoholics but as a place to seek converts for their Magic Sky Fairy. This is not a good thing for alcoholics or for AA as an organization.

    There are, however, plenty of atheists fighting back against the ridiculous cultish abuses within AA and staying sober while doing so. Some of us use AA along with other recovery support groups (Rational Recovery, SOS, etc.), and many of us participate in freethinker and atheist AA groups online, which helps a lot with the aggravation of dealing with god-pushers in meatspace.

    I am very grateful for AA and am fairly confident that I would not have many of the good things I do now without the sobriety and learning I’ve gotten there. Alcoholism is a brutal disease with a significant genetic component (3 of my 4 grandparents were alcoholic, as are most of my biological aunts and uncles). We need better understanding of the mechanisms of addiction and better treatments, and sadly, the hegemony of the treatment center industry, which has latched on to and exploited 12 step programs even though these programs can be viewed as profoundly egalitarian and community based

  16. Mattir says

    Gah – pressed submit too soon. Anyway, the treatment industry has coopted 12 step programs, the judicial system has abused their authority and 12 step program members by compelling people with addiction problems to attend meetings, and research funders have avoided spending money on research on other treatment modalities because AA is free and widely available.

    Pisses me off massively.

  17. says

    Ha! Welcome to Germany! Finally you’re in a decent timezone. Wish I had the time to join AAI, it’s only an hour from where I live.

    Enjoy the beer!

  18. rurrur42 says

    Okay I’m an alcoholic, atheist or apatheist, whatever, no alcohol/drugs since, say, 1971 or so, but who’s counting? I quit drinking after a bad night out — I’d had bad nights before, many, can’t say what was different this time, except I was in my early 30’s and it just seemed harder to keep up. No AA, no therapy (although my background is clinical psych, ABD, booze and drugs aplenty there in them academic days)….just up and quit. Me and my old lady both–and by the way she’s still my old lady.

    I’ve worked in the field of recovery since the 80’s, never discouraged anyone from doing whatever it takes to quit drinking…AA or whatever, give it all a shot. If it works for you, so be it, whether it’s being a friend of Bill or a child of Christ. Whenever anyone says “I’m done, no more alcohol for me…” my response: “Time will tell.”

    I’ve read scads of research, done some of my own, and was particularly impressed with some research that explored how people quit drinking. Turns out that many alcoholics quit drinking without treatment, without AA, without making a big deal out of it–the same way that inveterate 3-pack a day smokers just up and throw their last pack out the window. (One guy told me he quit drinking by taking two tablespoons of safflower oil a day –anecdotal, yes, and so’s my account and everyone else’s who has found a way to quit and stay off booze.)

    Oh, but they weren’t really alcoholics…that’s the usual reaction. As if there was a really good scientific definition. In fact I quit drinking for about 7-8 years before I ever got around to calling myself an alcoholic –people would ask, and I would tap dance, well, I quit drinking, got so I couldn’t handle it any more….because..I had some real alcoholics in my family, like the kind that would rip out appliances and pawn them for wine, so, no I wasn’t that kind of a drinker, I reasoned, therefore I wasn’t really an alcoholic.

    But if I stood back and looked at the role alcohol had played in my life, included the car wrecks, the blackouts, the missed school and work, etc, well, I could hardly deny that I had a problem with alcohol.

    I finally worked it out that you don’t have to be an alcoholic, a stone boozer daily get-out-of-bed, slam it back sort of boozer…to have a problem with alcohol.

    So I was a…yep, problem drinker.

    Well, what the heck, okay I was, am, an alcoholic, because I just liked it too much. And I know if I ever started again, it would not be a pretty sight.

    All of which is to say I’m not a hardliner on the subject, if you want to thump the Big Book, go ahead. If you’d rather delve into Albert Ellis & RET or RBT, be my guest, hope it works for ya. Treatment? Got the $$/insurance who knows, it may help. (One large study years ago, Rand I think, found that the modality of treatment wasn’t the main thing in treatment success, it was the motivation of the alcoholic to quit and a good support system. I’ve found however that friends can also be the #1 factor in relapse…and support systems aren’t always …supportive.)

    But the people who probably can’t relate to much of this are the people who are going to keep saying, well, I’m not that bad yet.

    To which I reply, How bad do you have to get?

  19. concernedjoe says

    I’ve supported friends and family through the years as they struggled (and some still struggle) to free themselves from their addiction. This included attending AA open meetings and informal meetings.

    The HP thing – if I was asked to offer a comment or I felt my comment was appropriate re: timing and circumstance, and wanted by friend or associates – was that I believed the addiction problem is a thinking problem for most people. I buy “it ain’t the drinking/drug taking it is the thinking”.

    One could argue rightly that excessive use of anything that messes with your mind and general body is going to mess you up generally. Fair enough. But people can stop abusing the drug of choice and still be royal flaming addict thinkers and actors.

    The grandiosity, the raging, the misplaced priorities, the lack of integrity, the selfishness, the almost sociopath behaviors, etc. define the problem. I say concentrate on fixing the stinking thinking and the drinking/drug taking problem will fix itself.

    That leads to my opinion on HP – I say – get humble – recognize your “best” thinking seems to have you in a pickle. Your HP is any person or persons that are sober thinkers and free from abusing and who care that you get out of the hole you are in.

    The humbleness and the recognition that you need others to help you be honest and clear – that you need others to help you filter life and avoid the obsessive compulsive behaviors – those others are your HP – the spirituality if you must – that is necessary for you now.

    Many of us who are sober often need “sober” coaches and friends to stay out of trouble – and the more sober you are the more you may appreciate and humbly accept that.

    People with addictions often seem to have a hard time getting the humbleness part down – call it turning yourself over to a higher power.

    Yet I feel it is pure foolishness and a dangerous misuse of resources to supplant the powerful and necessary force of accepting the collective help of others with the non-existent help of some non-existent god.

  20. cry4turtles says

    Thanks Quinn. I’ve often pondered joining Overeaters Anonymous, but they use the HP thing too. I can’t pretend to believe, so I stay at home and binge instead. Definetly not my better moments.

  21. tfkreference says

    Quinn (if you’ve noticed your slice of fame)–I’d like to know more about your dad’s jousting with you. I’m at the same point with my son, though it was my (naive) decision to send him to Catholic schools–mostly because Catholic schools teach evolution without controversy. When he started kindergarten, I was among the faithful (though anything but devout); as he graduates from high school, he’s a fan of orthodoxy and I’m a fan of Pharyngula.

    What arguments of your father’s really made you think? And what ones just made your faith stronger?

    Of course, I’m open to the wisdom of other readers.

  22. fireweaver says

    I am also a former member of AA. About 8 years in, my fallout with them came on account of the line “If you screw up, it’s your fault, if things work out, it is to god’s credit.” Something about that line always chapped my ass, and one day, in a meeting, I spoke up about it. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it went along the lines of “If I can accept responsibility for my failures, then goddammit, I’m going to take credit for the effort I put in to turn things around.” You could have heard a pin drop.

    After the meeting, three people came up to me and “suggested” that I might want to find another meeting.

    I never went back. To that meeting or any other. I now credit myself with 29 years of sobriety.

  23. pipenta says

    Very interesting!

    One of the problems of AA is that it lumps all drinking problems under one umbrella. I think it’s a bit of a taxonomy phail. Alcohol is approached as if it were one kind of disease/disorder. But in my experience it’s a symptom, and usually one of many.

    Two of the alcoholics I’ve known best (and I knew them very well indeed) were classic narcissists so rife with diagnostic indicators that you would have worn your little bowling pencil to a nubbin running down the checklist from the DSM IV. They behaved badly. They made a point of hurting other people. They raged, they projected, they manipulated, they gaslighted, oh they lie lie lied. And I was told, by other folks, that this was classic alcoholism in action. Yet one of these people had stopped drinking, cold turkey, for five years. And it had not stopped the behaviors. Just maybe the rages were a bit less flamboyant. Things took a nastier turn when booze was added to the equation.

    Yet I’ve known people who were alcoholics who did not lie, and were not toxic. The term itself is pretty sketchy. So if you can quit all on your own, you aren’t a “real” alcoholic. And if you behave dreadfully without booze, you are a “dry drunk” and yadda yadda.

    Now I must admit that, like a certain kid who saw dead people, I see cluster B personality disordered people everywhere. But damned if I don’t think that narcissism and borderline PD and sociopathy (to use the old term) are rife. And I think this explains something about AA and the desperate clinging to the idea of a higher power to the extent that all participants must bow their heads to it.

    Because some narcissists and cluster Bs of various types, have a slavish respect for certain types of authority. So the higher power thing will resonate for them and maybe even give them the edge they need to stop drinking. And maybe AA culture has evolved around that. The prevalence of 13 stepping, as it is caused, might be a clue. And cluster B people don’t do the boundary thing very well, so AA has some rules and safeguards built in to try to deal with it, but at the same time they insist on a kind of right thought that is not relevant to all people’s recovery.

    In the meantime, people who are not cluster B wander in to AA and sometimes they can work the system in a way that helps them quit. But then for some, it is not a helpful culture, and they split. If you are drinking, for example, because you have an anxiety disorder, or because you have been stressed out by a trauma or series of traumas, going to AA might just make you feel worse. It is going to depend on the individual.

    But the AA folks work the definitions to support their argument that theirs is the only way. Dealing with a drinking problem independent of AA means it wasn’t a drinking problem, not a “real” one, anyway. And the end run of their argument is that you NEED them, you NEED AA, or else you can’t quit, not on your own certainly.

    Unless, of course, you do quit on your own. In which case, it doesn’t count.

  24. rtmillic says

    I have never been an alcoholic, but I used to suffer from depression. I will not pretend they are the same, but I believe they share the trait of harmful and repetitive thought patterns that a person feels they have no control over.

    I have been depression-free since the summer of 2010. As hard as it is for me to admit it, part of the cure was when one of my best friends committed suicide earlier that year. I would wage that, like it did to me, depression told him that he was not good enough; he did not deserve happiness, and if he was gone no one would care. He took it to its logical conclusion. It was a real wake up call for me.

    I remember the morning of his funeral jumping on a trampoline in my room. I remember separating myself from depression. I was able to take the negative thought patterns and separate them from my identity. Then, I imagined stomping on them as I jumped on the trampoline.

    Ultimately I got over depression by changing my thinking. I realized depression was no more a part of me than a virus is actually part of a cell. I isolated the thought patterns and fought them until I didn’t believe them anymore. I was not an atheist at the time, but there was no higher power involved whatsoever.

    The ability to separate my identity from my thoughts and eliminate the negative thinking was what ultimately got me over depression. I wonder if a similar tactic can be employed with alcoholism?

  25. deee says

    Thanks for this post. I agree with everything you say about the AA, I’ve long tried to put into words what it is that bothers me about the AA ideology, but this sums it up very nicely.

  26. deee says

    ps. I’ve been mostly sober for over 2 years and I take all the credit for that. It’s my accomplishment, and I’ll be damned if I let some kind of AA/NA group take it away from me and attribute it to their imaginary “higher power” or whatever.

  27. kathryngardner says

    I just want to comment on the idea that alcoholism is a symptom comment. I am bipolar, and I found that it was due to the bipolar symptoms that I over-drink, or go to alcohol as a mind-numbing, or ‘upper’, (even if it makes me more depressed). My uncle-in-law also has major major depression and anxiety issues, and he is a recovering alcoholic. I think there’s something in this. I scared myself into a decent sobriety, (although I am not completely dry) due to a few years of not being on meds because I had been convinced (by religion) that God had healed me of bipolar disorder. I had no idea how alcohol and drugs were really fucking with me until I reached ‘rock bottom’ and was nearly about to commit suicide. When I realized what was going on, and got back on medication, it scared the shit out of me, and my focus is on GETTING BETTER with the bipolar issues which keeps my drinking hugely in check. yes, another anecdotal example, but that’s my two cents.

    But obviously people who are alcoholics doesn’t automatically mean they are necessarily bipolar, or have a different mental illness. I’m not an expert.

    But I commend you, Quinn! I agree with the others that seem to be saying that you don’t need a ‘HP’, but focus on your determination to admit you have a problem and face it head on, without having to give your regards or successes to the credit of a god/gods.

  28. kathryngardner says


    Living with moments of complete irrationality (when I’m either manic OR depressed), I have to cling to a reminder (or journals I’ve written, or a documentation from when I was ‘normal’) that I’m going to make it through this, that I have the strength, and SUPPORT of other people. I refuse to be a statistic of either 1) suicide, or 2) harmful self-medicating that leads to a ruined life/and/or suicide.

    I’ve often wondered whether I could make it through this bipolar crap without a HP, now that I am an atheist. But really, it’s the focus on determination, my life’s worth, and people around me that keeps me going in really tough times. Support is huge, when you are thinking irrationally, or craving something harmful to oneself. But knowing how far I’ve come, and knowing that asking for help from other PEOPLE (not a higher power) is a form of strength shows me I am damn strong and proud of how I keep on going.

    I wish you all the best.

  29. says

    I’m an addict. I am also crazy (hello, potential employers! Is this the worst you could find about me?). I am also a recovering fundamentalist.

    I was coerced into going to a few AA meetings by various friends and institutions for various reasons (from “we’re concerned” to “if you want your detox meds tomorrow, you’ll go tonight”), and every single one of them (except for the one held at the Zen Buddhist temple, interestingly enough) sent me into a PTSD flashback in which I found myself back at the church I went to as a child.

    It’s not just the higher power problem, even though that is quite problematic enough; the very structure of the meetings is so often modeled on protestant church services that I could not differentiate between them when I went. Somebody, or several bodies, gave their testimony. The collection plate was passed around. In one we even sat in rows and were invited towards the end to walk up to the front of the sanctuary–I mean room–and take a chip: an invitation! And then the benediction in the form of what they call the serenity prayer. In some we held hands during the prayer. In others we stood in a big circle, arms on shoulders and around waists.

    I fled every meeting except the one in a panic and spent the rest of the day completely freaked out. Sometimes it lasted for several days.

    I did not go back after the last time I was required to go. I no longer drink and I am on a medically-administered maintenance opiate replacement treatment (not methadone but similar) so it is somewhat arguable that I no longer use. The idea that everyone has to go to AA to succeed in quitting is, unfortunately, rampant in the recovery industry, but I’ve done it by getting my own support network together and sometimes bugging the hell out of my friends when I am having a rough day/week/month/year.

    Anyway. Just wanted to share and to suggest that the structure of AA is church-like to anyone with the sensibilities to notice it. The HP bit is just an added annoyance compared to its overwhelming modeling of Puritanic ire against the Sinful Self.

    And also this: it has been mentioned in various articles I have read on the subject that addicts are often traumatized in one way or another, and often have been so from childhood. Narcissistic injury is one result of childhood trauma and abuse and it deserves attention, but it need not be denigrated as rank selfishness. It is understandable to be focused on one’s own needs if they were not met at a time when one was immensely vulnerable to the outside world. Sure one can castigate oneself as selfish and crawl back to one’s Higher Power for both absolution and sustenance, but I have found that it is much more useful and less painful to learn to trust people who love you enough to accept everything about you.

    That’s where the healing has been for me, at least.

  30. numenaster says

    As several others have mentioned, Rational Recovery is a very viable alternative for atheists and other people who want to own the credit for their own recovery.

    And AA was definitely set up following a religious model, somewhat inexpertly scrubbed for publication. There’s a lot of very detailed history of Bill W., the organizations he belonged to before founding AA, and his continuing narcissism and indulgence in most everything EXCEPT alcohol during his “recovery” at the Orange Papers. So erik, what you saw is built into the structure. It may have been less emphasized in the 80’s, and individual groups develop their own culture, but all the roots of a very American style personal religion are there. See http://www.orange-papers.org/

  31. amyk says

    Quinn, I can’t thank you enough for this post. I, too, am a recovering alcoholic (will have 8 months June 8) and am also a newly, out-of-the-closet, church-employed, atheist. Conflict? You betcha! I feel like I’m in constant battle, with myself, with AA, with my employer, with my family, etc. IT. IS. DRAINING. I’m just so thankful to know I’m not the only AA-member who struggles with this so-called-non-religious-program. A chair as my higher power? I wonder, how does a chair restore my sanity? By knocking me over the head? That’s b.s. BUT, my AA groups have helped me with my sobriety and I’ll keep going back and I’ll keep talking about atheism. Thank you, thank you, thank you!