The non-religious population has increased over the years, including those in recovery. According to Pew Research, over 13 million Americans have said they are agnostic or atheist and over 33 million do not practice any particular religion. Hearing “God” or prayers around the rooms of twelve step meetings or in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous can give newcomers the impression that recovery is a religious experience and can sometimes feel like a deal-breaker. In author Marya Hornbacher’s book, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, as a non-believer herself she explains, “People who don’t believe in God are not a-spiritual…that there is a way to spiritual connectivity without any deity.” (TheFix). Regardless of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), at the core of recovery is a shared desire to stay sober and improve our quality of life. There are ways to work around the obstacle of God so that you can still participate in recovery and stay sober. Here is how many non-religious people in recovery have overcome this common issue.
Define your Higher Power (God) as you understand it:
For people who grew up believing in a judging and punishing god, it’s terrifying if that god exists in the place where you are supposed to make amends for past wrongs, address character defects and may not do everything perfectly on your road to recovery. Twelve-step recovery does not require a belief in anybody else’s concept of a higher power except your own. You are not meant to learn to obey a god who is ready to dole out consequences for your actions. A higher power can be seen as an entity or even a force of nature that controls everything you can’t: weather, fate, luck, reality, nature– anything you believe is bigger than yourself. In sobriety, we learn about what is bigger than ourselves so that we can be empowered to let go of what we cannot control. We can only control our effort, how we stick to new routines and how we choose to react to people, places and things. When we give the rest up to a higher power, it takes an enormous burden off of our shoulders that we are not meant to bear. Defining your own higher power is a process and is not something you have to do immediately, either. Let the experience of your recovery guide your thinking.
Focus on the Steps:
The steps were written as a model for what has worked for others in the past. Your sponsor can work with you to tailor the language or help to define ideas in a way that suits your beliefs. If using the word “god” feels too much like you’re practicing a religion, change it to something else. The word “god” is not always critical to understanding and applying the twelve steps.
Connect to your community:
When you see everybody else talking about prayer or god and don’t believe in any of those things yourself, you may feel even more separated from the group. You may feel like they are under some type of trance or spell and wonder if the only thing that keeps you from truly being a part of the experience is the god part. But before you decide that you don’t belong, consider this: these people are not currently drinking or using drugs. They’ve got something right, something to consider having in your own life. Whether they are praying or using words like “god” or not, things have become a little bit easier for them since they stopped playing god themselves. Chances are that others in your community have struggled with the exact same thing and have found a solution. Keep your mind open to hear how they stay sober and take the parts that work for you. You will always be able to learn something new from others and to use what works in your own life.
Be of service:
Research shows that “helping others brings measurable physical and psychological benefits to the helper” as well as helping with depression (GreaterGood). Many addicts find that one of the most fulfilling aspects of recovery comes from being of service. This can be anything from helping to clean up at a meeting or calling someone who has less time sober and asking how they are doing. When you’re sober, you are also now capable of showing up and participating in life! This is a big change and an ability that many in recovery did not have while using. The ability to be of service allows those in recovery to become an asset and important fixture of their community and experience the wonderful things that can happen as a result.
There are many groups in recovery that are not as focused on the aspect of spirituality and god than others. It is strongly recommended to begin with traditional 12-step recovery, but other options are available. If you are struggling to relate to what you hear in AA meetings, you can try alternative recovery groups such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety or SMART Recovery. By exploring your community, you will find what works best for you and the rest will fall into place.