I realize that writing posts like this often causes some arguments to arise, and want to start by saying this is not my intention. I know many people who believe in a higher power, a Judeo-Christian god, or have polytheistic beliefs. These are people who stay sober, help others, and are in recovery with their everyday actions.
I’m not here to say that my beliefs are true, and yours are false. Rather, I just want to share a bit about my experience with my beliefs in recovery. I know that when I share about my personal recovery journey in meetings, I am often met with criticism AND gratitude. I also know that people have different paths that work for them. If you relate, know that you’re not alone! If you don’t, that’s perfectly alright!
Sometimes, I tell people I am an atheist in recovery, and I am told that there’s no way a true alcoholic stays sober without believing in a higher power. This is a ridiculous statement for many reasons, but I want to just offer a few things I’ve gone through with my addiction to share that there is hope out there for “real alcoholics” who are atheists.
I first got arrested for drug charges at twelve years old. I got my first DUI at sixteen years old. I have a criminal record full of drug charges, drug-related charges, and crimes fueled by intoxication. I drank and used no matter what, without any regard for consequences related to the legal system, family, personal relationships, finances, or anything else. I was a polysubstance user, abusing anything that came my way.
I got sober in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, and am incredibly grateful for the experience. I did not have a strong, conscious desire to be sober. Instead, I was there simply to placate a judge and my family. However, I met a man who would later become my sponsor. He asked me a question that really helped me cultivate some willingness and open-mindedness: Are you willing to consider that there may be a better way to live your life than the way you’ve been living it?
I sponsored other young men, led panels at a detox facility and down on Skid Row in Los Anglees, and continued to work the steps to the best of my ability in my daily life. However, I did not believe in a higher power and often just skirted addressing the issue. The only person with whom I was usually honest about it was my sponsor, and he was incredibly supportive of my recovery.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says on page 181: If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you. Lines like this did not make me feel super welcome in twelve-step rooms, but I continued to show up every day and do the work.
When it came time to turn my will and my life over to a higher power, I worked with changes in language. One of the books that helped me greatly was Kevin Griffin’s A Burning Desire. This book looked at Buddhist principles and how we could use them as a “higher power” in twelve-step. This was the jumping off point for me to find some peace with the language of twelve-step rooms and atheistic beliefs.
Often, when I shared with a room of people or individuals that I did not believe in any supernatural higher power, I was met with pity. People sometimes tried to convince me of a power greater than myself. Others told me to just keep coming back. The response I received was often condescending, but I do think it came from a place of kindness and care most often.
Finding a Program to Fit My Needs
After two or three years in twelve-step, I decided to investigate other recovery programs. I had been going to at least five meetings a week for a few years and was active in both service and personal recovery, but still did not feel that twelve-step was fitting my needs.
This is not to say that twelve-step is bad or wrong by any means. I know many people personally who have been active in twelve-step programs for many years and are happy and sober. I have never bashed twelve-step groups and never will. Millions and millions of people have found recovery in AA, NA, Al-Anon, and the other twelve-step groups out there.
Personally, I found a program that worked better for my needs. At the time, it was a simple meditation-based recovery group based loosely on the twelve-steps. However, the group did not talk about any gods or a higher power, and focused more on the cultivation of qualities within ourselves such as mindfulness, self-compassion, and taking wise action.
This later grew into the program of Refuge Recovery, which today has many meetings in many different countries. The reason this program works well for me as an atheist is that it doesn’t focus on a higher power as the center of the program. Instead, the focus is on cultivating qualities that lead to lasting sobriety and freedom from suffering created by addiction.
At the Refuge Recovery meetings in my area, there are many people present regularly who believe in a higher power and/or are active in twelve-step programs. It isn’t strictly for atheists, and all are welcome. However, it is a Buddhist-based program which presents a problem for people who are not permitted by their religious beliefs to investigate other religions.
Lessons I’ve Learned
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned as an atheist in recovery is that staying sober is most important. I’ve fallen into ego-feeding, arguing with others about beliefs. It doesn’t necessarily serve anyone to do so. If I can stay sober and another person can stay sober with different beliefs, that’s beautiful. I don’t need to get wrapped up in what other people believe if it isn’t causing harm.
One thing that has taken me years to learn is that I can speak about my beliefs in a way that is helpful and not hurtful. When I get asked to speak at a twelve-step meeting, I do so. If it comes up that I am an atheist or the topic is related to a step that has to do with a higher power, I share about it. I am often met with some contempt or judgement, but I’ve also built incredible relationships with people who hear me speak and are grateful to find somebody with similar beliefs.
Finally, I’ve learned that fixed views don’t always serve me well. Yes, meditation has helped me greatly in recovery, but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Open-mindedness and willingness to listen and learn is key to my recovery today. My personal path is MY personal path, not necessarily what is right for everyone or anyone specific.
If you’re an atheist in recovery, know that you’re not alone. You may find your path in twelve-step, or you may find other ways to build a support network. Whatever the case may be, it’s okay to have beliefs that don’t fit in perfectly with those around you!