Atheism and spirituality


Some of you may know that I’m a 12-stepper. Which particular program is irrelevant; the main is that for some years now, I’ve been following a spiritual program to help me deal with life (on life’s terms), and one that shies away from defining the divine for you, instead encouraging each person to come to a concept of “God” as ze understands it to be.

What I have come to believe recently is that the idea of “God” just doesn’t make sense to me. Basically, that I don’t need to believe that there is an external force for my own good, because I have an internal force to that purpose.

At a meeting last night a woman shared some things about her concept of God, and I realized while I was listening that I could reconcile my burgeoning atheism with the spiritual program that had effectively saved my life*.

As she talked about wanting to be more Higher-Power centered, she mentioned that her HP had her best interests in mind. I thought, “there’s a part of me that has my own best interests in mind; the part that gets guilty-feeling when I act against my own best interests.” Maybe you’d call that a conscience. She was calling it God.

Before I started trying to define God for myself, I took the biblical Christian God, because that was the one I’d been presented as a child. As I got older, and as I started to question the nature of that religion’s beliefs, I found I could get the idea of a Holy Spirit — an invisible force that connected all life with each other**. God the Father, which I understood to be the God of the Old Testament, felt flawed to me, more like the Greek pantheon than any ‘one true God’ that people talked about in church. Jesus of Nazareth was an interesting figure, to be sure, and was really quite radical in his beliefs and treatment of people***. The literalist view of the virgin birth I thought quite unnecessary to hir good message, which essentially boiled down to “peace on earth, and goodwill to all”.

This is where I was when I started to define divinity as I saw it. The Christian God had failed to save me from crappy things in my life (the drive-you-to-thoughts-of-suicide kind) and I couldn’t trust that The Man Upstairs was really all ze was cracked up to be.

The concept of Higher Power I can get behind. I see this as functioning to keep me 1) humble and 2) from trying to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, i.e., not asking for help when I need it. There are many things I put in this place, sometimes the collective wisdom of the group, sometimes nature, since I obviously can’t make it snow, or stop it from snowing, or make grass grow, etc. Sometimes I returned to a more traditional spiritual being and called it God.

I still occasionally talk about not being able to screw up The Plan, meaning that a decision on my part is not going to make a radical difference continuously for the rest of my life and for everyone else around me — basically that I’m not that powerful. I’m only the center of my universe, not everyone else’s.

What that woman at the meeting said helped me realize that I have the guidance I need, because of working this 12-step program to heal from my sick ways of thinking, and that I don’t need to believe that some great cosmic force is Out There to help me. I can help myself. I can listen to what might still be called that “still small voice”, the one Mohandas Gandhi called “the friend inside”, and make the best decision I can for me today. I don’t have to feel like there’s a great Plan for me and everyone else. We’re all just bungling along, trying to live. And what I want to do is live as fully and with as much unconditional joy as I can.

* Definitely the quality of life, if not also the quantity.
** Yeah, it’s kind of a Star Wars spirituality. The idea worked for me.
*** i.e., that they were people, no matter where they came from, what they looked like, or whether or not they were adult or male.


10 thoughts on “Atheism and spirituality

  1. Good post. I’m close to someone who has considered 12-step programs and then shied away from them because of the “higher power” rhetoric. I’ll pass your take on it along to her.

  2. I’ll also be happy to talk to her (read: listen to her concerns and share my experiences with her) if she wants. If she’s not interested, pushing her towards it will only be counter-productive.

    But yes, I’ve had ongoing struggles with the “God” thing, especially when confronted with another program person who is very churchy. There are people of all stripes in these programs, and I’m certainly not the first theist-come-atheist among them.

  3. I like the way you framed this: what you have “come to believe,” describing a process that took no small amount of thought and experience. That is also the way I came into atheism… after a religious upbringing, a bout of zealous fervor following the death of a loved one, and then the slow evolution of my God concept until I one day realized that I’d been thinking about spirituality minus the God part. I was surprised, actually. Later, relieved.

    But I think that part of the process is important to present to close friends who are God-believers, because it’s hard for them not to view my atheism as a judgement against their religious choice. I don’t want it to be.

  4. tanglethis, I know what you mean about my “non-belief” being offensive or insulting to others who ‘believe’. (This terminology gets me sometimes, because I do believe something, and the co-opting of the verb by particular religious groups intimates that theirs is the only valid belief. Not many folks I actually know believe this, but that’s what the language communicates, in the wrong hands.)

    I have a sister who is recently converted Catholic, and a dad who’s a minister (UMC). Luckily, my dad knows about the 12-step thing, and understands it, and gets that it’s my spiritual program, and essentially takes the place of church. Nigel (Da Spouse) gets that too. I don’t know if my sister really knows how far it’s gone for me.

    I’m sure there are some folks in my life (in-laws, possibly, and acquantances) who might not be as receptive to my differing beliefs as others. My grandfather-in-law certainly would have problems, but I’m not around him enough for that to be an issue.

  5. Nightgigjo,
    Wonderful post, and I support that you’ve found a non-church way to make the 12-step program work for you. (I’ve been going on about atheism at IBTP, and the upshot for me is that just because a person is an atheist doesn’t mean that we don’t need a support structure or network. We do, it’s just that it need not center on a god or organized religion.)

    Use the Force for good and not evil! 🙂

    PS Changed templates, accidentally lost you on my links page. You’re back on now.

  6. Hey, nightgigjo! Compadre! Thanks for writing this – I’m also in recovery – started out, early on, with a nature/meditation sort of innate spirituality, developed eventually into a spiritual belief system which fit in pretty comfortably to the most common language of the 12 steps, then shifted, while in recovery, essentially back to the innate childhood thing. I call myself agnostic, mostly, as a shorthand way of saying I do not believe in an intervening god, but do respect and make place for a spiritual life (mine or others) – though the truth is, atheist is a closer truth, at least as others/religious people would describe me.

    It can be a pain to navigate, sometimes, in recovery, and I occasionally have bouts of huge irritation and resentment of the ‘god got me a parking place!’ stuff some people believe and spout loudly – but what I’ve come to is a balance of being respectfully honest about my own spiritual life and beliefs (including my strong feeling that it’s not appropriate to use an exclusionary Christian prayer in a meeting, for example), while also remaining in close communion with fellows in recovery.

    There is a place for agnostics and atheists written into the founding materials for a reason, and many, many ways to practice the principles of humility, service, honesty, self-examination, integral to recovery without a faith that looks like everyone else’s.

    Celebrated 22 years yesterday, and for more than half of that, I have not believed god got me my parking place. : )

    So nice to read this this evening!

  7. Short note before bed: I used to say I’d brought my Aunt Jean’s luck with me, because she almost invariably finds a front parking space, even at Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon.

    I get a little irritated at the word God sometimes (especially the capitalization!) but less so than at the “He/Him”. But that’s my feminism talking. “HP” works for me, since that’s not necessarily a deity.

  8. I just started reading your blog. I love your share about athiesm and spirituality. My home group is in Rome Italy, where we always close the meeting with the Serenity Prayer instead of the Our Father. I realized in recent years that I never belabored very much exactly what my Higher Power is. In the beginning, in 1985, I used to subsitiute the words “do the right thing” for “do God’s will”. That little trick helped me deal with the language I found so weird, having been a militant agnostic before recovery. I know one thing for sure, often mentioned in meetings, the only thing I really know about the Higher Power is I’m not it.

  9. the only thing I really know about the Higher Power is I’m not it.

    I think this really is the main point. That translates to me that I don’t have to be responsible for everything and everybody, and that I can ask for help.

    I understand the “do the right thing” substitution. I use “do the next right thing” fairly often myself. (Specifying the next right thing helps me stay in the here and now.)

    I always appreciate groups that close with the Serenity Prayer (although I don’t say “God” with everyone most days), or, even better, a declaration that ends “and let it begin with me” and avoids any mention of God. The Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) is too limited for me, and I just can’t accept Christianity as The Way in the program. I know that the founders started there, but if it’s intended for persons of any religious faith or of none, the thoughts we use to guide ourselves should sincerely reflect that.

    //rant mode=off

    Oh, and thanks for coming by and commenting, Michael.

  10. I generally just go along with whatever’s happening. It costs me nothing to say “god,” or just mumble during the prayer. After all, I don’t believe in deities, so what am I afraid is going to happen? As far as I know, religion isn’t contagious.

    I keep my mouth mostly shut, though, because I don’t have the right to disturb the beliefs of someone who may need a god in their life — not if I have nothing to replace it with, that’s for sure! So I simply don’t mention a god as my higher power when I share.

    It’s quite possible to live as a spiritual being without religious ideas, as I’ve written about here. If we really believe in “Live and Let Live” and the other stuff we’ve spouted at meetings, it shouldn’t be too hard to do just that — taking the good of the established 12-step groups that have been so useful for so many, and just ignoring the god v. spirituality issue entirely.

    I once thought about going only to agnostics’ meetings, and then I thought to myself that if We Agnostics abandoned the other groups they would, indeed, be left to those who would peddle religious belief along with recovery. Then those newcomers who are turned off by the God Thing might not find that they do not, in fact, have to conform to conventional religious values, as opposed to spirituality.

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