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Friday, April 20, 2012

We Atheists

On the night of November 11, 1989, I experienced what many alcoholic addicts describe as "a moment of clarity." Alcohol and drugs had not been working for me the way they used to. They could no longer alleviate the punishing, self-conscious thoughts in my mind, and they only added to the fear and emotional turmoil I was regularly experiencing, particularly when I was "in my cups." Thankfully, I acted upon that brief moment of quiet acceptance and I was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous. I had a fixed desire to quit drinking and drugging.

From the start I had great difficulties with the program's spirituality. Raised in a scientific household and community (my father was a nuclear scientist, though my mother was a Christian Scientist), I had no belief in God or a Higher Power. For religion, or religionists, I had no time. Fortunately I quickly got myself a sponsor. I made my first and most crucial mistake in sobriety, however, on that first day we talked (the significance of which will be described below). Knowing me from the time I was out "performing" - his description, not mine - he told me point blank that I would have to take Step Two.

Having been in A.A. a number of weeks before we hooked up, and knowing that this "Power" greater than myself referred to the God of my understanding from Step Three, I asked him what his idea of God was. He told me he viewed God as "Good Orderly Direction," and I adopted this, believing that without the booze and drugs I would sure be able to able to turn around my thinking into some semblance of "Good Orderly Direction." This I tried with a vengeance. I returned to university and then law school, where I graduated at the top of my classes. Surely this was a sign of "Good Orderly Direction?"

Nonetheless, and needless to say, the material success I had in sobriety did not suffice to deepen my spiritual experience, even though I went through the Twelve Steps several times and went to many, many meetings in the first nine years of my sobriety. (I am, I know now, an alcoholic addict that needs more than a handful of meetings a week to maintain my sobriety.)

With life's success taking me to a future I could not have imagined, working long hours as a lawyer at one of Canada's oldest and most reputable law firms in order to support my family and give them the luxuries I thought they wanted and deserved, I turned my back on A.A. I could not imagine taking myself away from my family during the admittedly few family hours my professional responsibilities afforded me. Thus, I made a conscious decision not to attend A.A. in the community we had just moved to. (My second great mistake in A.A.)

For the next 4 and 1/2 years, I held it together as best I could before falling into a profound depression that cost me all that I had worked for, and which nearly cost me my life. In and out of psychiatric wards for the next eighteen months of this tortured sobriety, my life, my family and my career fell apart. All without taking a drink or drugs.

(In his Step Three essay in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. writes: "More sobriety brought about by the admission of alcoholism and attendance at a few meetings is very good indeed, but it is bound to be a far cry from permanent sobriety and a happy and contented life.") (Emphasis added.)

Fortunately, in October of 2003 the best-friend of my first sponsor (who had passed away when I was only 5 years sober) heard I was in trouble and left me a telephone message. I would not return that message until January of 2004 (after a botched suicide attempt), but when I did my sponsor's friend hit the nail on the head: I had become a dry drunk. He took me to an unforgettable A.A. meeting, and forthwith I got a new sponsor and joined a group in the community I was living in, having been separated from my wife and my role as a full-time father

I attended A.A. on a daily basis thereafter. Fourteen-and-a-half years clean and sober, but without a clue as to how the program of Alcoholics Anonymous worked though, as I mentioned, I had gone through the entire Twelve Steps several times in my early, ineffective years in the Fellowship. I had been held back by the prejudice and contempt I had for all matters religious or spiritual.

My new sponsor -  a man who drank at 15 years of sobriety, but had once again reached that threshold - took me through the Steps once more, getting me all the way to Step Seven before he succumbed to cancer. Little did I know that there were other old-timers watching me, and watching me continue to suffer because I did not have a God of my own understanding. (Although I wished to believe in a Higher Power, I could not find one of my own understanding, prejudiced as my thinking was by my understanding of science. I needed a Higher Power that was compatible with what I knew of both psychology and science.)

Fourteen years clean and sober, with my life in shreds and acutely feeling the demise of both my marriage and a brief fling with a very lovely woman, my best A.A. friend and I were out looking for a new apartment for me to live in. On finding and renting the perfect apartment for me, my friend and I went to celebrate by having lunch on a nearby patio. My friend is an interesting and talkative man, so I just listened to him talk as I basked in the incredible feeling of peace, ease of mind and well-being I was enjoying as a result of our morning's work.

Suddenly, however, I stopped listening to my friend and my thoughts turned I know not where, likely to my family or my recent failed relationship. It does not matter, for what I felt as soon as I turned my mind from what my buddy was saying to my own thoughts a wave of great fear washed over me from head to toe. I knew then that my problem was an inside problem, and that the solution to it must somehow also be an inside job.

Several days later, one of the old-timers who had been watching me saw that I was through suffering. (He had been urged by another friend to talk to me, but his reply was, "No. He hasn't done suffering yet.") Approaching me, he offered to lend me a book: Eric Butterworth's "Discover the Power Within You." It was the first book of a spiritual nature (including all the books A.A. had published) that I read with an entirely open mind and new perspective. It was the first book of a spiritual bent in which I did not throw away the 'baby' of those things I could understand and believe with the 'bathwater' of concepts that were beyond my understandings and belief.

A day later, this old-timer and I spent about four hours going through the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous and discussing our mutual experiences. It was not a thorough dissection of the 'Big Book.' Rather, it was an exposition of some of the principle parts of our basic text that I would need to understand if I were to progress spiritually. The main sections he discussed with me were:
  • Page 23: "(T)he main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind
  • Page 55: "We found that Great Reality (i.e., the God of our own understanding) deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that it can be found." 
  • Page 567: "With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. . . . Most of us think that this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. . . . Our more religious members call it God-consciousness." (Emphasis added.)
True sobriety, I was shown, is a matter of replacing the self-conscious stream of thinking in our minds ('self' or the human 'ego') with a greater awareness and higher consciousness - one unaffected by the seeming duality and separateness of the human ego and our ego-centric thinking.

The "first and most significant mistake" I had made so long ago then became clear to me: Instead of asking my first sponsor what God is, I should have asked what "self" is. After all, it was only a Power greater than my "self" that I would need in order to restore me to sanity, not the God of some of the more perverse religious teachings. It is only once we know, understand, address and overcome the workings of the ego/self through meditation and prayer that we can understand God, Allah, Brahman Bhudda-nature, or whatever you may wish to call It. Indeed, I know that it was only then that I, a former atheist, came to believe and then to experience God's presence within and all around me.

Most helpful, was the following passage from the eminent theologian, Paul Tillich, which was included in Butterworths' "Discover the Power Within You." (Tillich was a friend and colleague of Reinhold Niebuhr, the man who wrote our Serenity Prayer.) In a book of his collected sermons, Tillich talks directly to the atheist about the "depths" of his or her being:
"The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth," Tillich notes. "It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated - with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found they are not what what they believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth. . . . "

"The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being," he continues, "is God. That depth is what the word God means. . . . For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or an unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God."

[Paul Tillich, "The Shaking of the Foundations," Scribners, pp. 56-57.]

That "depth" is an ever-increasing refinement of  consciousness, a consciousness that is inextricably entwined with all matter. In its purest form it is God. "When we became alcoholics," we read in the 'Big Book,' "crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn't. What was our choice to be?" I faced that proposition and came to know that God is, in fact, everything - the manifest and the unmanifested, everything within and everything without all beings and even matter itself.

Having experienced the higher consciousness ( or "God-consciousness") that underlies but is obscured by the ego/self, I came not only to believe, but know, that there is a "Power greater than ourselves" that can restore us to sanity. While I may not understand that higher consciousness in all its facets, I know that it is there at every moment. It is "by self-forgetting" that it is found, and found in the last place most people would think to look for it: "deep down within every man, woman and child."


  1. ...Thank you so very much...

  2. Thanks for sharing. I needed this reminder. T)he main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind. The what if's sneak in and I start day dreaming of life before my rock bottom experience.
    I start to wonder how Eve felt after eating of the fruit. She was created for a beautiful life in the garden, but lost that life in the blink of an eye. I wonder how she felt taking those first steps outside of the garden. Was she full of guilt? Was she afraid? Did she miss the simplicity and happiness of life in the garden? That’s where I am today -missing some of the things that were taken as a result of unintentional things that happened while under the influence.