Since I had no atheist mentor or spiritual guide when I got into AA, I had to learn for myself what people meant when they talked about God and prayer. I had been a believer in my youth, not of any specific denomination, but like many I think I deeply wanted to believe there was something out there looking out for me. As I grew older and read more it became obvious to me that gods were an idea humans invented to feel like we had an explanation for the baffling and overwhelming. That even the most horrible happenings had an order to them and would be balanced later on. I credit our human ancestry highly for such an imaginative psychosocial adaptation. The alternative was to succumb to a paralysis of existential terror and doubt. Pitfalls already precariously vast and abundant in a primate that survived by caution, wariness and ruthlessness.
As I left my adolescence, I found I needed the supernatural sense of order less. It seemed trite and lacked substance when compared to the authors I was introduced to in early adulthood. I took no strong stance on the subject of atheism until entering a program of recovery. It was then that I was forced to get off the fence. Rigorous honesty demanded I admit to myself what I had been avoiding; what did I really feel and think about this higher power idea? It was obvious to me, I thought that the interventionary god was an imagining. A mental and emotional allergic reaction to self awareness and knowledge of our imminent demise. Too much wishful thinking and self deception had been evident in those around me in my formative years. I had a nose for it, and everything I read seemed to pile up evidence for this suspicion. And what I felt, is that this thought scared me.
Though empowered with a sense of righteousness at my rigor in pursuing the truth, I was still no better off for my alcoholism. God being gone or never having been, I still needed daily help. Being wary and observant, I knew what happened to those that shut themselves away. I had seen for myself what being consumed by resentment and obsession over ones uniqueness can do to a drunk, even in sobriety. Most of the fellowship in my area had some kind of supernatural belief and the rituals that go with them; prayer, guided meditation, etc. Praying didn’t mean anything to me without belief so it was just white noise to me. It also seemed like part of the machinery of recovery. I knew only two things for certain: the program worked and god didn’t exist. So I set my restless mind into reverse engineering of what this process could be.
What slowly resulted was a system of translation. At first it was conscious and deliberate. The adaptation came slowly and with great effort but eventually it became instinctive and automatic, allowing me to hear even the most religious member speak and not only understand but benefit in some way. Later I was asked to put this method down on paper and it manifested as a list of rules or tricks to ‘surviving meetings as an atheist’.
The first of these is compassion. I remember that I am a sick person in a room full of sick people. We are all attempting something against our nature; staying sober. Their mind was as warped by the disease as mine was. They may not mean everything they say tomorrow. They may not have the capacity to manifest perfect naturalist beliefs whilst also battling addiction, depression, a failing marriage, a sick child or any other of a multitude of difficulties they are too embarrassed, or unaware of, to mention. As hard as it is to accept sometimes, that the person railing on about Jesus is doing the best they can, just like everyone else in the room.
The second is unity. It is the first tradition for a reason. If I hear someone go on about God or karma or reincarnation or something else I find meaningless, I do myself and the meeting no service by going on at equal length about why I don’t believe in that stuff. The meeting is not some university auditorium I’ve been invited to debate a believer in. It is a gathering with a single purpose, when I forget that to satisfy my ego, I defeat my own purpose in going there. That said, I will express my beliefs briefly if they qualify my sharing in a necessary way. Also if I see a newcomer, just to let them know atheists are here too.
The third is to share my life, not my ideas. I share without mentioning God and that includes, with the above exception, mentioning that I don’t believe in it. People that are interested always ask me after the meeting anyway, I don’t need to advertise. That isn’t the important part though. My focus on unity led me to another observation. I had many friends in the program show opinions and advice I valued. Men and women of profound wisdom and gratitude whom, I noticed, barely mention God when they share. It was not that they didn’t believe, many among them did, some devoutly. The common element revealed itself; those with good recovery kept their focus on themselves. That was what they talked about: what they were dealing with and how, when they were scared, what they were doing to make sobriety and life better. They shared their lives and their struggles, not just their ideas. Their sharing had emotional content and thus was profound and intimate. Don’t be afraid to be the first to open up and share something real. In my experience most people want to, they just need someone to go first.
The fourth and perhaps most difficult is learn to translate. This really isn’t easy and I still fail to do it if I’m having an emotional or irritable day. On a good day, however, I can recall I’m capable of deeper understanding and that I am not different from these suffering humans in any emotionally important way. A member will say “God had a plan for me and I can’t screw it up.” and I’ll understand they’re scared and unsure of their life. They want comfort and to affirm that they’ll be ok, so they can stay functional. I remember that I’ve also dealt with fear of the future and uncertainty. It is affirming of my belief, that it is morally superior to admit one truly does not know what it going to happen and sitting with that can be spiritually profound. Another member may say that “God saved them for a purpose” and I’ll understand I’ve also felt unworthy of the efforts that kept me afloat when my disease took all my self-worth. If prayer is mentioned I remind myself that I think of prayer as any actions or rituals that brings me peace around circumstances I cannot control. Meditation is my mental weed pulling, not only bringing calm but clarity and mental strength as well. Should someone mention a lost friend or loved one and how they are in a better place, I remember those I knew that went back out or took their own lives in sobriety and how much it hurt to lose them. I look around the room imagine them in the empty seats, and remember my recovery is not the guaranteed gift of a supernatural being.
When I got sober there were no other atheists like me in my local fellowship. I had to learn to see the similarities and focus on them or find myself terminally different. I knew what it was to be alone with my disease and what that would lead me to. As a secular humanist I must accept that no one is coming to save me. I am not chosen and I was not saved for a purpose. Yet I was saved when I asked for help and it is up to me to make that have purpose. When I resolved to try this program no one asked me to give up what I believed in, only to keep an open mind and listen. When I got over my ego and took their advice I started to see that believers and I got sober the same way. We asked for help when we needed it, sought comfort when we were scared and when we were grateful, made sure to say so.
In a world where god never existed, all culture is human. As such, I feel no conflict in drawing inspiration from any source. I find beauty in fiction and poetry regardless of whether it was once believed to be a literal truth. It is in that spirit I sometimes read one of my favorite Christian poems, the prayer of St. Francis. It reminds me that though I have a disease that feeds on negativity and divisiveness, there is also part of me that would like to be part of the solution. A part that craves harmony. I am an alcoholic, an atheist and a humanist. I love and believe deeply in my species. I want us to thrive, perhaps even one day see the just city built. I’m not naive about it; I realise that it requires I be better than just telling someone they’re wrong. I have to show them what I’ve found: a better way and knowledge of what really matters. The common humanism that people crave and seek in the supernatural doesn’t require it at all. On a good day I can show my fellows that and leave things a little better than I found them. So I add one final rule for myself: What goes for being a member of AA, goes for being an atheist: You may be the only example that person ever meets; be a good one.