Where does an Atheist go for Alcoholic Recovery?

Where does an Atheist go for Alcoholic Recovery?

atheist go for recovery

If you are trying to get sober there are different programs that you might use.

Go ask for help and you will likely be pointed in one of two directions:

1) AA or 12 step based recovery, which is dependent on finding a higher power and putting trust in them.
2) Religious based recovery, which is completely dependent on faith in a higher power as well.

These two alternatives make up at least 90 percent of the solutions for alcoholism recovery. There are also a few programs that may focus on a behavioral approach or therapy sessions, but these are few and far between. If you are looking for help in getting sober, most people are going to be steered towards the higher power concept.

Now a big part of me wants to convince you that you should be open minded at this point, and that you should go into those programs with a fully open mind. After all, the big book of AA attempts to convince you of the same thing, that you must only be the slightest bit willing to believe in order to make a start in recovery. And this is certainly true, anyone can grow spiritually if they are the least bit willing to do so.

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But that is for another argument. I am assuming here that you are a hard line atheist, and are not interested in changing your beliefs at all. Your question to the recovery community is essentially: Can I achieve long term sobriety without having a religious (or spiritual) experience? Is it even possible? Is there hope for the hard line atheist?

My answer is that “yes,” the hard line atheist can definitely thrive in recovery if they are willing to look past much of the higher power stuff and focus on what is really important.

What I learned in my own recovery journey is that the really important parts of recovery were not necessarily based on faith. In fact, some of my peers who had a seemingly greater faith than I had ended up relapsing, which really screwed me up at the time. This was because I believed that your strength in sobriety was based on your level of faith and belief in a higher power. I was in a “seeking phase” while some of my peers seemed like they had mountains of faith to spare. They relapsed while I remained sober, though. So this shifted my mindset and my attitude. I realized that there were certain things that were important for sobriety, and they were not necessarily the things that I was taught in mainstream recovery.

Even if you are an atheist, you still go through much of the same processes that a faith-based recovery program employs.

You might call this concept “fundamental principles of recovery.” In other words, everyone has to go through a disruption process (and break free from their pattern of abuse) whether they believe in a higher power or not.

The need for surrender and disruption regardless of treatment method

Everyone who wants to stop drinking has to break free from denial. They have to break through their pattern of abuse and get help. The most obvious way to do this is to ask for help and then go to inpatient rehab. Staying in a 28 day program and being “locked up” removes you from the threat of drinking. It is one sure fire way to disrupt your pattern of abuse.

It doesn’t matter so much if you have faith in a higher or if you are an atheist, you still have to go through this process of disruption. You have to get into a safe environment where you are not tempted to drink for a while.

If you happen to be an atheist then you may get offended at the treatment centers, because they are trying to push the higher power thing onto you.

My advice?

Don’t be offended.

It really is that simple. If you want to stay stuck in your alcoholism and you need an excuse by which to do so, then by all means, stay offended. Be outraged that a rehab center would try to push its faith onto you. Stay out of treatment and stay drunk and stay miserable. But how is that really helping you?

I am not saying that you need to compromise your beliefs here. All I am suggesting is that you go to rehab anyway, for the sake of disruption. You can sit in church without being converted, you know. It is possible to go along for the ride without it compromising your beliefs.

The need for learning and support regardless of your religious beliefs

I have a pro-treatment message here at Spiritual River, and for good reason. I went to rehab 3 times and I eventually sobered up at one for good. I lived in long term rehab for almost two years and then later I worked at a rehab for over 5 years (full time). I have watched a lot of people go in and out of treatment. There are certainly worse things you could do to try to get sober. Going to rehab is among your best options, even though it may not be an instant cure.

Regardless of what your faith or beliefs are, you still have to go through a learning process in early recovery. Everyone who tries to get clean and sober has to learn a new way to live. Being an atheist does not exempt you from this. You are used to self medicating every day with alcohol and you need to learn how to stop doing that, how to deal with reality, how to overcome your fears and anxieties.

Most people need some form of support in early recovery. You need to know that you are not crazy, because getting sober can make you feel like you are completely crazy. So you go to AA meetings and you talk with other people who are trying to stay sober as well and you identify with them. You learn that you are not crazy through this process of identification. And it gives you hope for your own future and it makes you feel better. Plus you might also learn a helpful technique about how to manage your new life in recovery without resorting to relapse.

You need at least two things after you disrupt your pattern of drinking:

1) Learning about how to live in recovery.
2) Support and identification from your peers.

Most recovery programs such as AA or others attempt to serve both of those needs. You can actually serve those needs without going to AA but it is somewhat difficult to do so. Recovery takes work and you have to have help in the beginning. Recovery programs attempt to simplify that process and bring support groups together. It is possible to take advantage of that support even if you do not agree 100 percent with their typical belief system.

They have a saying in AA: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” If you can apply this in your own life and still get value out of a recovery program, then this only serves to empower you. The alternative is to be negative and use it as an excuse to stay stuck or to go get drunk.

How to get around the idea that AA is a religious brainwashing cult (it’s really not, unless you take it that way!)

Some people who do not have religious beliefs see AA as a threat. Because obviously the goal of working through the first 3 steps is to get the person to have a spiritual awakening and (if you want put it in these terms) a religious conversion. Now of course the people who tend to AA will say that it is a spiritual conversion rather than a religious one, but the atheist who is already on the defensive is going to use whatever terms he chooses too. If he calls it “religious” then who are you to stop him from doing so? If the atheist sees AA as being cult-like then the chances of him being helped by the program go way down.

AA is not really a cult, in my opinion. There are arguments on both sides of this, of course, but the program is too laid back to be a real threat to anyone. They don’t actively try to coral people into religious conversion like a real cult does. AA is very much “take it or leave it.” They don’t actively pursue people. They let the alcoholic come to them.

So if you are stuck in your ways and you think of AA as being a dangerous cult that wants to brainwash you, I don’t think you are doing yourself any favors. My advice would be along the lines of: “Get real! Go to a few different meetings and see that they are not really pushing conversion at the level that you thought they were. Deep down they just really want to help people to not drink.”

What does it really mean to be spiritual? What is the secret of recovery when it comes to having a spiritual awakening?

I can speak to this from two different viewpoints: My own experience, and my observations of others in recovery (of which there are many due to my history).

Based on my own experience I believe that a person can choose to have a spiritual experience simply based on a decision to stick with recovery. If you take positive actions every day and you take suggestions from other people then the spiritual element will fall into place naturally. You don’t necessarily have to be “seeking” like I was for the first two years. You can let the spiritual side of things unfold in its own time based on your positive path in life. If you go to AA then they will tell you to get specific and that you need prayer and meditation, but I think those terms are a bit narrow. The real spiritual awakening is a lot broader than that, and can easily encompass the atheist as well.

In other words, most people in AA are under the impression that they have to have this invisible entity up in the sky that hears their prayers and changes reality based on those requests. You don’t have to get anywhere near this point with your own spiritual journey in order to live a successful life in recovery. “Spirituality” is much broader than that definition.

So you may be asking, exactly how is spirituality different for the true atheist then? If they are not praying to an invisible entity, then what are the doing to stay sober?

I can tell you in one word how the atheist can become stronger in recovery:


Anyone can feel grateful, regardless of your beliefs.

Maybe you believe in a higher power and maybe you do not. Maybe you are somewhere in between. Maybe you are slowly building a faith but you are still full of doubt.

Whatever the case may be, you can practice gratitude.

You don’t have to be grateful “to” anything or anyone. You can just smile and be happy about the way things are working out. You can feel grateful that you are so lucky, or blessed, or whatever you want to call it.

If the only thing that you mastered in recovery was the concept of gratitude, you would do just fine.

Gratitude is something that you practice. You will never be perfect at it. But you can definitely get better at it.

It takes work. But you don’t have to compromise your beliefs in order to build your gratitude muscle.

If you practice gratitude every day and you make it much stronger then the likelihood that you will relapse goes down considerably.

You cannot relapse if you are truly grateful. Think about that. Why would you take a drink if you feel grateful at that moment? You wouldn’t. There is no need to drink when you are grateful.

Gratitude is the ultimate cure for alcoholism. It is the one universal spiritual principle that can overcome the threat of relapse. This is the secret to living a spiritual life, regardless of your exact beliefs.

Just look at someone who is, for example, a devout Christian. They will talk of their higher power constantly but it is always in “giving thanks.” If you strip away the religion then everything boils back down to gratitude. You are one lucky bunch of molecules to even be standing here in the universe and to be aware of yourself. If you can find gratitude in the fact that you exist today then you can overcome alcoholism. This doesn’t depend on a higher power, it depends on the feeling that arises inside of you.

Gratitude takes practice. It takes work. Belief doesn’t matter. Action and practice does.

Suggestion: Go to rehab, go to AA, see if either of them can help you if you are open minded

My suggestion to you is to go to rehab.

You will likely be exposed to AA.

They will tell you to keep an open mind. They are right. But here is the trick, the key twist that I want you to understand: The people in AA are telling you to keep an open mind because they are hoping to “convert you” eventually into believing, into having faith.

But that is a simplification. Most people in AA have not thought about their recovery this deeply before. They have not deconstructed recovery in the same way that I have done over the years as I write and think about such things.

You should have an open mind when you go to treatment and AA meetings, but not for the reasons that everyone thinks. They all believe that you need to have a religious conversion of faith. They think you “need to believe.”

They are wrong. You don’t need belief, you need action. You need gratitude. You need to practice this on a daily basis.

They think they are right though because of the path that they found. They came to believe, they found faith, and then they found a daily practice.

You can shortcut this process (if you choose to do so) and just go straight to the daily practice. Your daily actions will determine your success or failure in recovery. Traditional recovery thinks that you need faith and belief in order to follow through with those actions. Not true. I know many people in recovery who are engaged in positive action every day, who are building a better life in recovery, and they are hard line atheists.

So my suggestion to you is not to take action because “some day you might come around and believe in God.” That is not why you need to be open minded. I am not trying to convert you.

What I am saying is that you need to take action. You need to embrace a daily practice, of taking care of yourself every single day. That daily practice will include a spiritual element that can be based entirely on gratitude. You don’t need a specific belief to make this work. But you do need to take action, and get to work.

So don’t be open minded about “believing” if you don’t want to be. It is not necessary. You just need to be open minded about the recovery process, about the daily practice, about embracing positive action every day. Start doing the work and the results will follow. Your beliefs may or may not change, and they are beside the point (even though the majority in AA believe otherwise).

Building your own path in long term sobriety

In long term recovery you build your own path.

Everyone does. Even those who stick close to a program and follow directions. Even they have to figure out how to stay clean and sober in the long run.

Long term sobriety is different than having two weeks sober. The biggest threat is complacency. You have to have a strategy to overcome that complacency in the long run.

In my opinion that strategy is based on personal growth. After you get through your first few months of recovery (and the disruption process) you need to build a new life for yourself.

This takes action. It takes work. And after you start making changes in your life you realize that you are improving things slowly over time. Your life gets better and so does your life situation (two different things, think “internal versus external”).

If you stop making positive changes in your life then you risk the onset of complacency. If you get too complacent then you might relapse. This is as true if you are in AA or some other program as it is for someone who is working their own personal program of recovery.

Get stuck, might relapse.

Keep taking positive action and you strengthen your recovery with each passing day.

And if you can also be grateful for the process of personal growth, for the unfolding of new lessons in your life and for the learning opportunities, then you have a very strong position in recovery. And this will be true regardless of your core beliefs about a higher power.

What about you, has your faith (or lack thereof) helped you in recovery, or has it held you back? Are you an atheist who is living a successful life in sobriety? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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