The first thing I should say is: the program works. It works without God, it has to, because there isn’t one and the program does work. I’ve seen it work in people, if I hadn’t I would not have stayed in AA. I should mention though, and this is where people get confused and argumentative, it is not a cure, it is a methodology. Cures work whether you want them to or not. Methodologies work as well as you implement them. These posts are an attempt to help with the details of implementation in atheists of all sorts ( agnostics that don’t believe in a theistic or guiding power, nihilists, soto-zen buddhists, humanists, naturalists, etc,etc,etc).
As a naturalist and as part of my personal practice I try, to the best of my ability, not to believe things in intensity not warranted by the evidence present. I’ve found, in my practice of examining the program, that some of this kind of thought is necessary to aid in the recovery of a sick mind. If you believe you have a problem with drinking severe enough that you need to quit drinking entirely, and further that your mind has not been warped or compromised in it’s ability to see things clearly, I suggest you reexamine step 2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. If we need to be restored, it automatically means we are not there. Fortunately for me, I had a lot of evidence to support the theory that I could no longer resolve reality with clarity.
As someone who is fond of my rational mind, having had education that encouraged me to be lofty and proud of my abilities in logic and reason, I didn’t like the idea of my mind being compromised. But it was. I had good evidence in the wreckage of my once successful career that I had lost something. In fact, I felt like I had lost everything, everything that mattered anyway. And inside, I felt dead. No volition, no desire, no confidence and an overwhelming shame on what I believed myself to be. Being raised by a single alcoholic parent, admitting I had a drinking problem was not only a terrible diagnosis but, I felt at the time; a personal failure to avoid a condition I had 10 years of notice I might have. No one wants to be an alcoholic but, how I was raised, I was resolved to be anything but.
A note on willpower, I have tons, I use it all the time before and after quitting drinking/using. I had a high powered career that demanded it. I went to my first AA meeting with my parent when I was 7. I was in Al-Anon for 6 years before alcohol and drugs went from being a source of relaxation and fun to tearing my life down around me. I had had a period of sobriety at the direction of my Al-anon sponsor in my first 6 months of Al-Anon. I lost 50 lbs, I felt amazing, I had the confidence to approach girls I would have never considered even going near, and I was so confident and in shape they went with me! I did this all on a trip of powerful theism of my own devising. I thought I was chosen to bring the message of recovery to all God’s children.
Without going into it too much, I met the wrong girl and a series of events that I could not reconcile with my invented relationship with “God” unfolded. I had done the next right thing the whole way through. I had stuck to the intuitions I was receiving, been humble, courageous, did all the right things and it still went wrong. I could not understand how I had failed this god. At the time, without it, I could not stay sober. Being off drugs and alcohol for that long was a huge rush, but as the rush started to fade, I realized I had changed so much so quickly that I couldn’t relate to my friends out of program. The Al-Anon rooms were full of 50-something women trying to find serenity around their husbands drinking. They didn’t know what to tell an 18 year old ACOA that was having a crisis of faith. And so I gave up and tried to be like everyone else for 5 years. I still went to Al-Anon, I somehow knew I needed it, but being clean was not for me. I always felt different but actually being different hurt too much and was too lonely. So began a period of emotional pain that would eventually lead me to self-medicate with drugs and drinking, and would not fully begin to dissipate until I was 4-5 years sober in AA.
So what does all that have to do with the 2nd step? Well I felt it was necessary to illustrate why I truly believed, as it written in the Big Book of AA “[We could not see our lives with drinking or without, and we wished for the end]” Or something like that. I was screwed. My rational mind was convinced I had rigorously tried both options of abstinence and controlled intake. I had clearly failed at both and had no recourse; I was fucked. While I did not have the courage to end my life, I believed it truly was a failure. I was a damaged part coming off the assembly line. No point in trying to fix it, just throw it in the bin and wait for the next one to come along. Humans are very overstocked on themselves as it is, we have limited resources. I didn’t work out, no point in having me linger on sucking up food and water. This is how I saw myself, especially in the light of peers I had graduated with that were doing some pretty amazing stuff out there. I had lost my job as an engineer in a very specialized field and had disgraced myself professionally in the process. I had not only lost a job but the professional respect of many people in my field. This, in and of itself, felt like death. At the time, my self worth was tightly wound around my identity as a systems engineer. I should mention that outwardly I sort of looked ok, but internally I had lost everything that mattered to me.
For the first few months, maybe even half a year, I just sort of attended meetings on autopilot. I didn’t have any hope or idea where I was going. I had always had a plan in life. Something I was doing or becoming or was apart of and that was over. I felt totally lost and I think, if I’m honest, I just ran on cigarettes, MMORPGs and energy drinks for a while. But then something changed, I got to a point where my sponsor said it was time to get into my step work. I was proud to be an agnostic sort of sitting on the fence of theistic belief. I was encouraged, as we all are in AA, to be open minded. I was out of gas mentally so I agreed to run through the gambit of abrahamic and eastern faiths and see if they worked for me. Long story short, I found that I had become ‘allergic’ to theistic higher powers. As soon as I started running, what I now know to be, that simulation in my mind, I started to get crazy. I would become obsessed with pleasing that higher power, to determining the space-time path of causality and events it had chosen for me and how I must act perfectly to not fuck it up and find maximum unity with this source that was my only salvation. More on that later, eventually my squirming around this forced me to simplify my search for faith and a higher power…
I was in constant emotional pain for the first 3 years of my sobriety and the 4th and 5th year brought other challenges. That is to say, I had every reason to abandon my current belief system wholesale, and throw myself into the arms of a loving theistic power. Had I not had my previous experiences with a higher power in Al-Anon, reinforced by reading books by naturalist philosophers, I might have done just that. I wished many times that God existed and that I could be saved by him, but it became increasingly clear ‘He’ was not there and never had been. It tasted like ash in my mouth but I could see clearly God was not real and was a human creation. After a lot of fretting I decided to adopt a very small but atomic and unarguable higher power that I could live with. I acknowledged from the beginning that it was irrational, but I also saw in the people around me that some irrational belief was essential to the functioning of this program. So I chose this:
There is a way I can live without drugs or alcohol and be happy at the same time.
It doesn’t sound like much does it? It’s not a bold claim about being chosen by the creator for a purpose, it makes no statements about the universe or I how it fit in it in a special way. It’s simply a statement I had a pile of evidence to refute that I chose to believe, because the contrary would mean surrendering to my eventual suicide. I knew that death was what I was facing so I fixed my faith to the strongest human instinct, self preservation. I had built a program on bullshit and dreams about sky-gods before, this time I resolved to build on the bedrock of reality to the best of my ability. I did this by checking everything I was thinking or perceiving against a host of friends and fellows I had found in the young people’s meetings of AA. I did this because I accepted my mind had become warped and my perceptions and deductions could no longer be trusted until they were run by someone else. My brain had many bad sectors, and faulty RAM, if you’ll excuse the engineer parlance. So I checked and double checked everything.
Once I had my bedrock of faith around this unlikely future in place, I resolved to keep trying to achieve it until it killed me. I wanted to die anyway so it felt like a good way to pass the time.
Step 3 follows…