I have been thinking a lot lately about the God of my understanding. I’ve also been thinking a lot about whether there is a God (with or without an upper case G) at all. As an addict, I need to believe in something greater than myself because my self has never been stronger than my addiction. My self has been stronger than a number of things, but in order to battle the monster on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, I need to believe in a super hero of some kind.
One event that triggered these thoughts was an essay I read online by a woman who was having a lot of difficulty with her AA and NA meetings. She is an atheist among a lot of people who espouse a Christian God. She identifies as transgender among a lot of cishets* who, for lack of greater understanding, often advise her to “pray away the gay.” I feel pain and anger and sadness for her because it’s hard enough to be among people who believe in a God that is not of your understanding; even worse to be among people who keep suggesting that who and what you are is somehow a disease of your own making.
Let’s pause a moment for a brief digression into background. AA was founded (more or less) by two white, heterosexual men in the 1930s. These men were not particularly religious, but they had been in contact with the Oxford Group (headed by an Episcopal clergyman), which emphasized what they called “universal spiritual values.” As these sobriety groups grew and multiplied, the members eventually established the 12 Steps and wrote “the Big Book” — often a kind of bible for 12-step groups — which was a description of their beginnings and the rationale for their tenets.
The need for a higher power is, as I perceive it, two-fold: (1) we have already proven that we cannot overcome the addiction of our own power, and (2) most of our problems stem from the egocentric belief that we have power over all kinds of things that are truly out of our control. From my experience, I can say that this is language I have heard over and over in the various Christian churches I have attended: Only God (and usually, only the Christian God) is all-powerful, and our “original” sin is the self-serving belief that we are more powerful than God when it comes to making things happen.
So, it’s no wonder to me that there are people who find AA (and other 12-step groups) to be unwelcoming to atheists and anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to the language of a Christian God. It’s not just because the founders were white-privileged males from a predominantly Christian ethos, and it’s not because western Christianity is always making a lot of noise in this country about how great it is. It’s because 12-step members are addicts, and what addicts do best is try to control things when they should keep their hands off and their mouths shut. It is likely true that they are not drinking or using or otherwise engaging in their primary addiction, but they are still susceptible to various expressions of a pervasive and lifelong disease. And, for better or for worse, 12-step groups are necessarily non-professional. On one hand, that means the cost is always low and therefore affordable to people with no means for professional recovery programs; but, on the other hand, that means that there is no “quality control” among the groups. If the only group you can attend is one that isn’t friendly toward atheists, you’re pretty much stuck until you can form your own group or make new arrangements.
I’ve been to meetings where some members share in a way that reminds me of the testimonies I would hear at the Protestant Evangelical church I attended in my 20s. I understood what these people were saying and why it was important to them, but I felt uncomfortable for my own reasons, not the least of which is that I felt I’d been damaged by my relationship with that particular branch of Christianity.
I used to believe in God in that way. I used to read my Bible and make notes about the weekly homilies and take notes in Sunday School and journal every day. I understood that God was powerful and forgave my sins, that I was weak and in need of saving. I believed God knew my name and everything about me. I was certain I would go to heaven when I died. But people who I’d thought of as friends were starting to be controlling, challenging me (with all love) about the “witness” I was to the world and second-guessing my beliefs. I was such a people-pleaser then, that I let it happen. The end began when I read a book called GodDependency. It opened my eyes to the codependency in my own little church. With that and some other tragedies in my life, I was never able to go back to that way of thinking and believing.
It was a decade or more later that I went to a 12-step meeting for my addiction. The first book I picked up from the literature table was about spirituality, and I’m glad I did because I needed assurance that my higher power would, indeed, be a God of my own understanding and not the God of someone else’s definition. My prior belief in God had been helpful to me, but it had been tainted by the people in the church and by the constant yammering of ugly Christians always in the news (e.g, the ones who claim to follow Jesus but think Hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath toward homosexuality). I needed, as the Big Book states, “a new way of thinking” where spirituality was concerned.
It took me a while to sort out my beliefs. It took me a long while to be comfortable with even needing to sort out my beliefs. In the time since leaving the church of my 20s, I have made friends who are Jewish, Atheist, Buddhist, and just plain free spirits. I have also made friends with people who are vegan, gluten-free, whole-foods-only, paleo dieters, Weight Watchers adherents, . . . the list is long, and it’s long because I’ve discovered that people actually make a “higher power” out of any number of people and practices, whether or not it’s an organized religion.
Here’s what I found for myself:
- I will always describe the God of my understanding in the terms of my Judeo-Christian upbringing. It’s the system and iconography that I understand best, so that’s what I use to frame my understanding.
- Just because I use those traditional terms, it does not mean that my beliefs are traditional. I am a registered member of a socially progressive Christian congregation (United Church of Christ) that promotes an open and welcoming environment to all. (Seriously — you could be an atheist in this congregation and no one would try to convert you or say, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.”)
- I learn from other the spiritual practices of others, and it’s OK for me to use those lessons in my own spiritual journey.
- On my best days, I can feel the unconditional love of the God of my understanding, and it’s an indescribable feeling of freedom from years of emotional baggage.
- On the days when I am having a hard time believing that there is any God at all, I imagine that my Higher Power is a group on neurons in my brain that is forming new and better connections so that my addicted and diseased brain can heal. It’s completely atheistic and perhaps somewhat scientific, but it gives me a Higher Power I can cling to in the dark days.
To 12-Step groups, I would say that some of you need to do a 12th-Step-Within look at how your group operates. I’m concerned that some members start using the God of their understanding and upbringing as their new drug of choice, and that just as hurtful as using alcohol or drugs or anything else.
To everyone who is feeling like your 12 Step group isn’t welcoming to your spiritual beliefs or your identity, I hope you will speak up about that at a meeting. If you cannot, I hope you can find a better group. Whatever happens, keep coming back. You are loved, you are valued, and there are people who will be your friends and advocates. Seek the Higher Power of your understanding because this is YOUR RECOVERY, so you need to find the super power that is going to help you kick addiction to the curb for at least one day at a time.
(*cishets = plural of “cishet,” the description of a cis-gendered person who is also heterosexual.)