March 4th, 2020
A couple weeks ago, I took a young woman to an AA meeting in downtown Racine. It was early on a Sunday morning. I spent an hour sitting in a local coffee shop while the woman attended her meeting.
I picked her up when the AA gathering was over. She was a bit troubled. She was frowning, and her brow was furrowed. Usually, this woman is calm and relaxed after one of her meetings. After a group session, she might not be happy, but she often seems more at ease. This time she appeared to be edgy and tense.
I asked her, “How did it go?”
She replied curtly, “Fine.” That was a non-answer answer.
I drove down a street near the Lake Michigan, and we both remained silent for a minute. Then she said,
“That was weird. They were all atheists.”
That is weird. Atheism and Alcoholics Anonymous are generally incompatible. Six of the twelve steps in AA mention God or a “Higher Power”. A “Higher Power” is basically just a non-sectarian version of God. AA, and the other Twelve Step groups (of which there are many), lean heavily on some sort of theism. A basic concept in Twelve Step groups is that every member is helpless (with regards to their particular addiction) without the assistance of a Higher Power that exists outside of and beyond themselves. That is the program.
So, how do atheists get sober?
From a Christian point of view (and despite all of its non-sectarian pretences, AA is still very Christian), God is paramount. Reliance on God is the only path to salvation (i.e. sobriety). If there is no God, then you’re screwed. That seems to be the message, and that is not a hopeful message for many people who have given up on any kind of deity.
I have spent fifteen years meditating with members of a Zen sangha. This experience has changed my perspective in many ways. I am not a Buddhist. I will never be one. However, for whatever reason, I have been accepted into the fold. I have learned a few things.
For many Buddhists, especially for Zen practitioners, “God is a concept”. John Lennon said those words in a song back in 1970. Does God exist? Maybe. Does it matter? Probably not. Buddhists are not necessarily atheists. They just don’t see the point of having a god, or at least a god outside of themselves. Buddhists (the ones that I know) believe that each person has an inherent Buddha nature. That means that every person has God within themselves. The idea is that we do not need to look for a “Higher Power” somewhere else. That “Higher Power” is inside of us all the time. We just don’t know it. We just aren’t awake to it.
An atheist can accept the idea that he or she already has the higher power to heal. The higher power is internal. We can heal ourselves. If that is the case, then God really is a concept.
Many years ago, back in 2001, I worked with a man named Greg. Greg was a enthusiastic atheist. He was also a wonderful man who loved music and the other arts. Sometimes, Greg and I would argue. However, I always admired him.
I remember quite clearly, right after 9/11, how Greg asked me how he could help our country, even though he wasn’t religious. After the terrorist attacks, Greg felt a longing to be an American, but he also felt that he was excluded due to the overtly religious response to the violence. Greg had the sense that, as an atheist, he couldn’t be accepted as a good citizen. I think that he was right. He was on the outside looking in.
Greg was a good man. I am still amazed that I ever met him. He loved music. He had a pre-dawn radio program on WMSE. I occasionally sat there with him in the studio as he played the songs. Greg’s tastes were eclectic. His music was his prayer. I know that he would bitch at me now for saying that, but I believe it to be true. Greg loved beauty, and in that sense, he loved God.
Our son, Stefan, is also an atheist. However, he embodies all of the Christian virtues. Stefan is loyal, honest, generous, and brave. He is an honorable man. He says that he does not believe in God. I am not sure that this is the case.
I think that Stefan is angry with God. He has good reason to be so. Stefan has been hurt, to the core of his being. If anybody identifies with Job, it is Stefan.
Does Stefan pray?
I don’t know.
I think that he does.