My sober conversion to atheism

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I stood on a mountaintop and looked out over the sea. A thousand feet below me, eagles soared on thermals. Wind blew through my hair and I felt dizzy. I fell to my knees and cried. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this “white-light” experience was the moment I realized there was no God — I had been struck atheist.

To be accurate and appropriately less dramatic, my atheist conversion was far from immediate. It was a process that began when I got sober about five years earlier.

I finally stopped drinking and drugging at age 30, in the summer of 2004, after about 15 years of relatively high-functioning abuse. I took to 12-step recovery like a fish to water and was especially drawn to Alcoholics Anonymous’ message of a spiritual solution.

I was perfectly comfortable with spirituality. I had been exposed from an early age to a hodge-podge of spiritual ideas by Goldwater Republican parents who had baptized me Episcopalian but referenced Joseph Campbell and the Buddha in casual conversation and sent me to an astrologer in lieu of a child psychologist.

Not that I had an entirely rosy view of religion — far from it. I was raised in the Bible Belt and had plenty of run-ins with all manner of unpleasant kooks throughout my life. My parents also saw fit to send me to a Catholic school for my primary education, where I experienced first-hand how religion could be used to repress individuality and creativity, and it filled me with loathing and terror. At least I can times stuff and write good in cursive.

But instead of turning me off entirely to religion, these negative experiences instilled in me the idea that there was a right way and wrong way to do spirituality. And that was an idea I was willing to go to the mat for.

In my drinking days, I was known to get in passionate religious conversations with anyone unlucky enough to sit next to me at the bar, beseeching “GOD IS LOVE!” through a haze of whiskey and cheap cocaine as my quarry gingerly backed away.

Written By: John Gordon
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16 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve never understood the addiction mentality, possibly because I’ve never had one myself or had a family member with it. A few thoughts spring to mind, as a complete amateur.

    What’s a “sponsor” and why do you need one? Doesn’t this prevent you from taking responsibility yourself?

    Sounds like a lot of worrying and navel-gazing to me. Try changing the subject from “me, me, me” to the rest of the big wide world. A person needs a hobby. Find or create a few hobbies that are worthy of your time. Do something that takes your mind off your problems and puts it onto something constructive that you enjoy.

    • In reply to #1 by Dave H:

      I’ve never understood the addiction mentality, possibly because I’ve never had one myself or had a family member with it. A few thoughts spring to mind, as a complete amateur.

      What’s a “sponsor” and why do you need one? Doesn’t this prevent you from taking responsibility yourself?

      Sounds like a lot of worrying and navel-gazing to me. Try changing the subject from “me, me, me” to the rest of the big wide world. A person needs a hobby. Find or create a few hobbies that are worthy of your time. Do something that takes your mind off your problems and puts it onto something constructive that you enjoy.

      How fortunate that you can sit back and fix the world for others.

      • In reply to #2 by QuestioningKat: How fortunate that you can sit back and fix the world for others.

        What’s with the off-topic ad hominem attack? It’s only my personal opinion and some advice to others who might have such problems, which I admitted was submitted as an amateur. You can take it or leave it. I thought that sharing opinions are what this site is for. I see you’ve shared yours.

        I stand by my original opinion, but I’ll perhaps clarify it. Find a hobby other than drinking, or eating for that matter. I don’t mean it to be preachy or profound, and I could stand to lose a few pounds myself. It’s just that in my experience if you keep busy with enjoyable hobbies or company then you’ll probably spend less time drinking or nibbling out of boredom or depression.

        • In reply to #4 by Dave H:

          Find a hobby other than drinking, or eating .

          I need a hobby too. I thought maybe I’d take up smoking. Cigarettes, that is. Have something to look forward to every morning, get exercise going outside at every break time, whatever the weather, get to have trivial conversations with other smokers, get rid of a lot of discretionary spending power, and eliminate any worries about not having enough savings for retirement. Plus I’m helping sustain an industry that was once a cultural icon with a long and rich tradition, and gives employment to many of the world’s lowest paid workers.

    • In reply to #1 by Dave H:

      I’ve never understood the addiction mentality, possibly because I’ve never had one myself or had a family member with it. A few thoughts spring to mind, as a complete amateur.

      What’s a “sponsor” and why do you need one? Doesn’t this prevent you from taking responsibility yourself?

      Sounds like a lot of worrying and navel-gazing to me. Try changing the subject from “me, me, me” to the rest of the big wide world. A person needs a hobby. Find or create a few hobbies that are worthy of your time. Do something that takes your mind off your problems and puts it onto something constructive that you enjoy.

      Unfortunately those with an addictive personality disorder often don’t have the willpower to put aside their vice for something more healthy, which is why they go to others for help. Also, who is to say they don’t already have a hobby and an addiction? Your advice is a little simplistic I’m afraid, it sounds a lot like ‘bootstrapping’. Yes, people can take steps to help themselves but often they don’t have the strength to do so.

    • I too found your “get a hobby” advice rather weak in the face of what appears to be a serious and tough problem. You seem to have even less understanding than I and I do have a Coke problem, diet of course.

      In reply to your “sponsor” question, yes the mad xtian 12 step program is based on not taking responsibility for your behaviour, specifically in one step where you have to throw up your arms and admit that you need gods help.

      AA’s success rate reflects this and is no better that giving up yourself (5%). It’s not really based on me, me, me either but most recover must have some internal focus or “navel gazing” surely?

      In reply to #1 by Dave H:

      I’ve never understood the addiction mentality, possibly because I’ve never had one myself or had a family member with it. A few thoughts spring to mind, as a complete amateur.

      What’s a “sponsor” and why do you need one? Doesn’t this prevent you from taking responsibility yourself?

      Sounds like a lot of worrying and navel-gazing to me. Try changing the subject from “me, me, me” to the rest of the big wide world. A person needs a hobby. Find or create a few hobbies that are worthy of your time. Do something that takes your mind off your problems and puts it onto something constructive that you enjoy.

    • In reply to #1 by Dave H:

      I’ve never understood the addiction mentality, possibly because I’ve never had one myself or had a family member with it. A few thoughts spring to mind, as a complete amateur.

      What’s a “sponsor” and why do you need one? Doesn’t this prevent you from taking responsibility yourself?

      Sounds like a lot of worrying and navel-gazing to me. Try changing the subject from “me, me, me” to the rest of the big wide world. A person needs a hobby. Find or create a few hobbies that are worthy of your time. Do something that takes your mind off your problems and puts it onto something constructive that you enjoy.

      If only it was that simple. Some chemicals are VERY physically addictive. Once you are addicted your hunger for the drugs is like how a person who hasn’t eaten for a week hungers for food. For the addict their whole life can revolve around satisfying this hunger. They will steal from family, lie to friends, and abuse themselves, do almost anything to get the next fix. Sometimes they try to fight it, but the craving gets so strong, the pain so great, that they give in.

      Other drugs while not that physically addictive are so pleasant that the person taking them likes the drugged state better than real life. Real life is full of disappointed family, responsibilities, failures, and no way out. The drug brings relief, if only for a few minutes.

      They try to quit. They know they are ruining their lives. But they lack the strength. Sometimes they simply won’t admit that they have a problem. “I’m okay, I can handle it, I can still hold down a job, I’ll get my kid back from foster care real soon. I don’t need to stay at this rehab centre! “ Drugs are illegal which adds a load of shame and guilt on top of the physical addiction. You have to admit that you are weak and a criminal before you can seriously accept the help required to kick your addiction.

      Drugs have never tempted me. I’m pretty rational and it was obvious they would not make my life better. But some people seek out thrills, or a way to numb the pain of their failed life. They think they can have the joy of the drug and a normal life. Generally they are wrong. These people are not bad, they simply have different abilities and temperaments from people who are never tempted by drugs. Scorning them as weak willed isn’t going to help – it just adds to their existing shame.

      They need love and support, but NOT enablement. Never give an addict money. Never give an addict anything that can be easily sold. Never tell them their habit is okay. Do tell them that they can be healthy again. Encourage them to accept the help they need.

  2. I understand the problems associated with a narcissistic alcoholic trying to run the show. It’s a potential path back to the self-obsession that was our problem to begin with. My current sponsor often reminds me of the difference between an elder statesman and a bleeding deacon, the latter vociferously fighting for what is right while the former quietly lives what is right. We all want to be Yodas, but most of us are just young Sywalkers.

    Back in my church going days, I would frequently sit in on a discussion group. As in any group, certain people dominated the discussion every week for years. I eventually figured out that they were former alcoholics and were familiar with AA. I have seen this happen in other situations as well. It is wise that the author is aware of tendency of “running the show.” Hopefully, people like him will find a way around this stumbling block to find an alternative to AA.

    Speaking as someone who needs to lose weight, I have found the non-profit alternatives to weight loss to also be problematic. There are plenty of programs – for profit. But if you are looking for an organization, even OA (overeaters anonymous) follows the spiritual 12-step format. It seems as if the science and psychology for addiction and other similar problems has a long way to go and have yet to provide an effective alternative to AA, OA, and other similar groups.

    • Yes, every judge that sends an American to AA as part of his sentence is breaking the constitution.

      It’s just like xtians to pick on the weak and vulnerable at a time when they at their weakest and most vulnerable and of course most importantly wait for the complements.

      In reply to #11 by HellFireFuel:

      I didn’t realise AA was a religious organisation.

      The though of attending puts me off my beer.

    • In reply to #11 by HellFireFuel:

      I didn’t realise AA was a religious organisation.

      There are non-religious branches, I believe.

      The though of attending puts me off my beer.

      Yeah, I get that. Personally, I’m addicted to twelve step programs.

  3. While the author of the article has given up his belief in god, he still holds some of the pseudo-scientific beliefs expoused by AA and the 12 steps. It’s a little hard to pin down, because like a lot of 12-steppers his argument is vague, lacks any real facts and is based entirely on personal experience. But I’ll pick on one little thing.

    It’s a potential path back to the self-obsession that was our problem to begin with.

    Despite what AA says, there is no established link between ‘self-obsession’ (or selfishness or self-centeredness) and alcoholism. Indeed, the only relevant link between ‘alcoholics’ (a word that really needs some clarification itself) that I’m aware of is drinking alcohol.

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