What, You’re An Atheist? You’ll Never Get Sober!
Atheists in AA may get the impression that they’re going to have it tough. All the talk of a higher power might be abhorrent to you, and like The Fix writer Bill Manville, you might be told that “Booze is too tough to beat all alone without the help of Jesus and His Infinite Mercy.” But is this really true? If you’re an atheist, is AA just a waste of time because it requires you to accept something you can’t fathom? Bill wondered this himself, but he attended anyway and—aside from one short relapse—has been sober for 20 years. So how did he do it? Esprit de corps, or in English: group cohesion.
Lyrics Without The Music: Drawing Parallels With Addiction Recovery
Manville asks if you’ve ever read the lyrics to a popular song without the music pumping along to back it up. If you have, you’ll have undoubtedly noticed that without the thumping beat, the power of the words is diminished. It’s only when those lines are spoken with the incorporeal addition of the feel and strength of the music itself that they take on an almost mystical sense of meaning and importance.
He draws the analogy between this and addiction treatment. When you attend lectures on addiction, learn about the consequences, causes and anything you can about your problem, it’s like reading the lyrics without the music. You understand the meaning in a flat, emotionless sense (and the message that you should stop abusing drugs) but you don’t have thumping, powerful drive underpinning it all that motivates you to action. It’s missing the music.
The Therapeutic Community And AA
The rehab Manville eventually attended called itself a “therapeutic community,” with a counselor commenting that, “it’s the existential experience of going through the process with a bunch of other addicts and drunks—all of whom want to stop too—that changes the self.” Despite his initial skepticism, he found himself beginning to understand the importance of this community aspect.
He likens it to the Army, where the tough experience of basic training builds a group morale that gives the otherwise uninspired the motivation to rush into enemy territory to complete the mission at hand. The fact that you’re part of a larger group that shares your mission and has experienced the same sort of problems you have gives you that same type of motivation. You aren’t just one person being asked to tackle addiction alone. You’re part of a larger, stronger group and that in itself gives you the motivation to fight.
Getting Sober Without God
In AA, the “higher power” doesn’t have to be a deity, to the relief of any addicted atheist. Manville found his higher power in a different place: the esprit de corps and the desire to socially fit in with the new group did it for him. That was where the music came from. His theory is explained perfectly in his attitude to the Lord’s Prayer as an atheist. He writes, “When I join hands with fellow members at the end, I feel so buoyed by this merging of self into the greater whole that I find myself reciting the Lord’s Prayer aloud just like rest, and if there is indeed a God listening above, I hope my over 20 years sobriety will make Her smile.”
Becoming Empowered Without Religion
The feeling of being part of a larger group gave Manville his power to overcome addiction, but the important lesson for atheists in AA isn’t that you need to embrace the group or you won’t get sober. Embracing and connecting with the group is important for many other reasons, but the thing that spurs you on personally (the “music” for you, if you will) can be anything that works for you.
The true lesson from Manville’s story is that atheists in AA need to understand that you don’t need God to get sober, just something—anything—that takes the intellectual lessons you’ve learned and provides the underlying vigor you need to turn them into reality. Becoming part of the group is just one potential solution. You need to find the one that works for you.
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