ARTICLES

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Lifeline Articles

An Atheist in OA
I am writing to share my experience as an atheist in OA. I feel disappointed by the lack of articles written by atheists, particularly articles that don’t end with the author finding faith in God. Even the Big Book’s chapter “To the Agnostic” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th. ed., pp. 44–57) encourages nonbelievers to try believing in God. I assert that it’s possible to be spiritual and live a life of recovery without believing in a supernatural God. I didn’t start out as an atheist. I grew up in a religious family, went to religious schools, married in a church, baptized our children and attended church every Sunday. When I came to OA, I was devoutly religious and embraced my God as my Higher Power. I immersed myself in recovery from the beginning, went to meetings, got a sponsor, wrote on the Steps, made phone calls and did service. I have over three years of back-to-back abstinence and have always loved OA. It taught me how to live and to bring my religious teachings into my real life.

The Power is OA
I rarely use “agnostic” or “atheist” to describe myself, and the question “Is there a God?” is not one I give much thought to. Many people have religious or spiritual answers, others have scientific theories, and it’s clear they believe these narratives with passion and certitude. But I came to believe it would be intellectual arrogance for me to feel I have even a clue about how the universe works. A speaker at an OA retreat shared this analogy: Imagine a goldfish in a bowl watching its world happen. Sometimes lights come on; other times it’s dark. Sometimes bits of food drop into the bowl. Sometimes the water is clean; sometimes it isn’t. Imagine the goldfish with its little brain trying to understand what’s going on: A pet owner controlling electricity? Offering manufactured fish food from a pet store? Periodically changing the entire environment using clean water from pipes? That little fish wouldn’t have the slightest chance of understanding as much as we do, and we humans have only been civilized for about 10,000 years on a 4.5-billion-year-old planet, part of one little solar system out of many trillions. It seems to me that thinking, believing, and claiming we know how it all works makes as much sense as that goldfish knowing the greater story.

No Need to Know
I am writing for myself and those who feel they don’t really belong in OA. I’m writing for the atheists and agnostics.My Dad was in recovery in another Twelve Step fellowship for thirty years. He was also agnostic. Over the years when I was growing up, I’d ask him, “Do you think there is a God?” He would always say the same thing: “I don’t know, but I’ll call you from the other side and let you know.” For months after he passed, I’d hear a phone ring and think of that.

Making OA More Accessible
In May 2019, three of us founded an atheist/agnostic face-to-face meeting in Bethesda, Maryland. We’d already had nineteen people at our most recent virtual meeting and had launched a second meeting online. Our purpose has been to help make the OA community more accessible to people who do not believe in a deity or have unconventional beliefs. We begin our meeting with the traditional introduction to OA, and then we continue: “This meeting was started because many of us with long and short periods of abstinence in OA do not believe in God, at least not a masculine, Christianity-based deity who will intervene in our lives and make us abstinent.

Translation for the Newcomer
I am athletic and an atheist. I don’t fit the stereotype of what a compulsive overeater looks like. Twenty-five years ago, before phone or online meetings took off and before anorexia and bulimia were in the media, I attended my first face-to-face OA meeting in Sacramento, California. California, land of the progressive, land of the open-minded, right? Wrong. I did not feel welcome. I did not go back. I suffered the shame and torment of compulsive overeating for more than two decades before I found my first virtual OA meeting. As I continued attending, I’d ask if there were any atheists willing to speak with me about a higher power, and a disturbing pattern from believers emerged.

Clear Intentions
The first time I worked the Steps, more than thirty years ago, I believed in a benevolent HP who was watching my back. I was sure of this because I was very happy at that time in my life. Twenty-five years later, I had a spiritual crisis when I lost my career, and now, I believe no entity was ever watching out for me. I came to believe that both good and bad things happen to everyone in a seemingly random manner. (I say “seemingly” because there’s obviously a wisdom in the universe that has ensured our survival so far, but it is beyond my understanding.) My spiritual crisis did not affect my commitment to or reliance on OA for a spiritual path and help with my food.