Take your medicine: how a spiritual program can work for atheists

Q. How can an atheist follow a spiritual program of recovery without his or her head exploding in a puddle of existential goo? A. Start by accepting you don’t have all the answers and then fake it till you make it.


I’ve mentioned previously that, when I first encountered the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I saw the word God scrawled across the calico banners on the wall and pretty much ran screaming into the sunset. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the drift. Contempt prior to investigation is probably closer to the truth.

One would have thought that as an anthropologist – someone who is trained to identify their own cultural biases, and who is fascinated by the human condition in all its forms – I would have had a more open mind about this. But no, I chose to put my preconceptions ahead of sobriety and it nearly killed me. After all, I hadn’t believed in a God in more than two decades. Why start now?

I was baptised Anglican in a rural community. I went to Sunday school, youth group and was eventually confirmed as a 13 year old kid with pimples who could eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood. It was about the same time that we were being introduced to biology at school, including the legendary story of Charles Darwin’s journey of discovery in The Beagle. Needless to say, the story of how finches evolved on remote islands seemed more plausible to me than any of the magical horseshit I was hearing or reading on Sundays. Still, the Minister had a drop-dead-gorgeous daughter, so I hung around the Church like a bad smell until I discovered beer and Saturday Nights.

Later, I nurtured resentments against ‘the Church’ for a whole swag of reasons, real or imagined: Religion is a drug that keeps populations subjugated; Christian people are duplicitous; Catholicism is institutionalised tax evasion and child abuse; etc., etc., etc. Worse still, I looked down my nose at people who believed in something spiritual and sometimes got into heated, drunken debates with Christians, armed with so-called reason and a quick, nasty wit.

Then I plunged headfirst into rehab and received my first real introduction to AAs 12 Steps, half of which appeared to exclude athiests:

  • We need a ‘Power greater than ourselves’ to cure our insanity (Step 2)
  • To get well, we have to ‘turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him’ (Step 3)
  • After all that, we then had to admit to God all of our wrongs (Step 5), become willing to have God remove all our character defects (Step 6) and humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings (Step 7), and
  • Practice prayer, every single day (Step 11).

Unsurprisingly, I spent most of the long hours in rehab wrestling with AA’s God concept figuring out how I could bypass the spiritual aspects of the program. While I didn’t have a religious experience, rehab did give my body and mind a chance to dry out, and my loved ones a break from having to deal with my bullshit.

It took three weeks for me to bust after rehab, which took my tally of sober days up to 60. This was the longest I had been without alcohol in my system for more than two decades. I suppose we could call that a success.


If you’re reading this and you don’t have a problem with alcohol, you may think that alcoholics just suffer from a lack of willpower. In response: imagine you wake in the morning after one of your best friends’ weddings in a resort town. You have spent a considerable amount of money to get and stay there, and it was a rare chance to see your old mates together again before they run off and breed. You were so excited to see everyone that you got completely carried away drinking expensive wine and can’t remember anything after the sun went down. Your partner, who will not speak to you for many hours yet, eventually informs you that you were found by the police half stumbling/half crawling down a road in an 80km/hr zone. You’d probably vow off the grog for a while, if not for life. And, you’d mean it too.

This exact situation happened to me. I vowed off grog and I meant it too. Like AA’s founder Bill Wilson, I woke up and meant business:

This had to be stopped. I saw I could not take take so much as one drink. I was through forever…

Shortly afterward I came home drunk. There had been no fight. Where had been my high resolve? I simply didn’t know. It hadn’t even come to mind. Someone had pushed a drink my way and I had taken it.

Later that afternoon, after drinking to blackout and being rescued by the police, I went out with one of my mates to get groceries. Ten minutes later I had a can of ‘Dark and Stormy’ in my hand, the first of many hangover cures consumed that evening.

Like Bill, my best efforts kept achieving the same result and it never took long for the wagon wheels to fall off.  For example, while I was on medical leave to ‘sort out my drinking’, I’d give my partner all my cash, credit and debit cards before she left for work. When she returned, without fail, I would be falling-down drunk.

I spoke to my best mate the other day – a prodigious and regular drinker – but not an alcoholic. He just had a month off the grog and he said it suprised him how easy it was. I was dumbfounded. I asked him if he had trouble sleeping or was irritable. He said no more than usual. I congratulated him, but not before telling him I thought he was an alien from outerspace.

We alkies have plenty of ‘willpower’, the problem is that it is directed towards drinking. Take away our wallet and access to money, we’ll still find a way to get drunk. A recent review of neurobiological advances from the brain disease model of addiction shows that addictions have not only changed our brains’ reward and decision-making centres, they have increased our reactivity to stress and given rise to negative emotions and dysphoria (researchers call this an ‘antireward system’). This means that, ‘in addition to the direct and conditioned pull toward the “rewards” of drug use, there is a correspondingly intense motivational push to escape the discomfort associated with the aftereffects of use. As a result of these changes, the person with addiction transitions from taking drugs simply to feel pleasure, or to “get high,” to taking them to obtain transient relief from dysphoria.’ So, its not a question of willpower, we just aren’t like normal folk.


Gift of Desperation

Apparently fate had decided that I needed to become broken just enough to come back to AA with an open mind: I needed to become desperate enough to suspend my preconceptions about the program, including the fear I might get infected by some virulent strain of Godbotheryitis and turn into Ned Flanders.

In AA, we call this the Gift of Desperation (G.O.D. – see the theme here?! )

The following extracts from my journal provide a pretty good indication of my headspace before and after I arrived at my personal rock bottom. For context, the first extract from August 2014 was written by an active alcoholic who has just had a major relapse at work, and was looking to get his employer off his back by having the AOD doctor write a letter of support. The treatment plan included relying on an alcoholic self-administering a drug that causes life-threatening side effects when it is mixed with alcohol. The second extract, recorded three months later, was my first attempt to write about my rock bottom, still shaking after five days in blackout.


Appointment with Dr XXXXXXXXXX today. I need a plan of treatment and support and a letter to Human Resources after my last bust at work.

After appointment: plan is:

  • Six months of self-administered Antabuse (Disulfiram) 250mg daily.
  • No benzos, opioid painkillers or any other sedative style or potentially addictive drugs.
  • Regular counselling.
  • Engage with and attend AA.
  • Daily diary and journaling (i.e. this)
  • Check out SMART recovery – good for athiests?
  • Read, write and learn more about WHY I drink like I do.

Feel like a big weight is off my shoulders now that I have spoken to the doc and have the letter for work. Back in the pool swimming today!



First day sober, shaking, fearful of my own shadow, jumping at the groan of trees in the wind. Sweating buckets haven’t eaten. Lost litres of fluid in tears. Probably should hydrate.

Stopped taking Antabuse around the 31st and had a light beer but immediately had acetaldehyde reaction, got flushed, heart palpitations, etc. so backed off. Relapsed proper on the 1st and all hell broke loose. From then, piecing together events gets too hazy: at least three bottles of vodka, two boxes of cask wine…who knows what else? I didn’t turn up for work again Tuesday 4th (Melbourne Cup Day) and got my formal, final written warning from work this morning.

Somewhere in there I had a massive argument with XXXXXXXXXX and fear that relationship is over. I also seriously considered stringing up a rope in the garage, but was way too pissed to even make it that far. Fear is pretty much all I’m made of today.

I’m done.


Soon after I penned the above entry into my journal I walked into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and haven’t had a drink since. What changed?

Quite a few things actually. I’ve written previously that I needed to own my alcoholism before I could even think to  change my maladaptive behaviours. This acceptance meant that I  walked into that meeting knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am an alcoholic and that my life had become unmanageable. I knew then, as I know now, that everything good in my life could be taken away in the blink of an eye if I have another drink. This is another way of saying I had succeeded in taking AA’s first step.

Second, I did the opposite of everything I had done before when I attended meetings. Instead of sitting in the corner and not making eye contact with anyone, I shook the hand of the first person I saw and when I was asked to share, told everybody present about what a horrid fucking mess I was in, cried some tears and humbly asked for their help with snot running down my chin. I walked out with a bunch of phone numbers and got a sponsor shortly after.

Third, when people said I didn’t have to believe in any Gods or Goddesses to succeed in the fellowship, I listened to them. I asked them how they interpreted AA’s steps to make meaningful changes in their lives and did what they suggested.

Fourth, I kept going back to AA meetings. I learned to appreciate Nestle Blend 43 freeze dried coffee and Arnott’s Assorted biscuits, and realised that the more I listened to other people’s stories, the less I spent worrying about having another drink or losing my job. In the process of doing this, I stopped isolating and became a human being again. Time, as they say, is a great healer.

Lastly, I learned to meditate and *gasp* pray. Not the ‘Sky Daddy strike down my opponents so I can win the tennis tournament’ type of prayer. No, these prayers are all about forcing a change in perpective in me. If I’m feeling resentful at someone, it was suggested to me that I ‘pray’ for them: visualise all the good things that I would wish for myself, and then project those feelings onto the other person – e.g. that miserable, stinking bastard who cut me off in traffic. If I do this for long enough, sometimes through gritted teeth, the feelings of anger and resentment slip away.

Final word

Australia is a proud, successful multicultural society whose religious beliefs have become more diverse over the past 50 years. While half of Australians identify as Christian, other faiths like Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and Buddhism all increasingly common religious beliefs. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that, in 1966, Christianity (88 per cent) was the clearly the main religion. By 1991, this figure had fallen to 74 per cent, and then to 52 per cent in 2016. Catholicism is still the largest Christian grouping in Australia, accounting for almost a quarter (22.6 per cent) of the Australian population. Those reporting no religion was higher than the number of Catholics in 2016 at 30 per cent.

The fact that there are now more atheists than Catholics in Australia is notable, reflecting a trend that has been happening for decades. Those reporting no religion increased from 19 per cent in 2006 to 30 per cent in 2016.

It is within this context that a number of secular, athiest, agnostic, humanist, and freethinker AA meetings have sprung up in the eastern cities, offering hope to people like me who use their athiesm as another excuse to keep drinking. This is a welcome development in Australia and elsewhere that shows that the fellowship is being responsive to Australia’s changing community, in line with it’s first tradition that ‘the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking’.



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