How I Got Sober and Converted to Atheism
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Still, I held onto the idea of some divine force. Concepts like universal intelligence, pantheism and synchronicity still held weight with me. I believed in—or wanted to—a creator or universe that was actively looking out for me.
Meanwhile I was doing the 12 Steps, which are often described as a way to find God. But my experience with the steps was more mechanical than magical. The process of inventory, amends, meditation and service simply gave me insight and a sense of purpose and connectedness and helped quiet my self-obsession. Neat stuff, but hardly divine intervention.
So, I was lead to the mountaintop—a real one, on a map: Constitution Mountain, the highest point on Puget Sound’s Orcas Island. It was the last day of a three-week solo road trip up the West Coast. The trip itself felt blessed. Beauty, adventure—I saw old friends and new sights and even managed to sow the seeds of a profound romance.
I decided to spend the last day seeking solitude in the San Juan Islands. But instead, I found loneliness. A sense of despair set in as the fraudulence of my existence stared me in the face. Ah, Mother Nature… I trudged, directionless, through dense woods up a steep path. I wanted to turn around and go home. I kept going.
Two hours in, I was exhausted and hungry, like a Manson Family member primed for a brush with the psychedelic. I turned one last bend and the trees broke. I stood on a sheer cliff, stunned, looking out over the Sound into Canada. In an instant, my self-obsession washed away. I felt connected to everything I saw: the water, the trees, the eagles, the clouds. I felt our shared atoms and immortal energy flowing in time and space. My eyes filled with tears and my legs collapsed from under me. I understood that there was nothing greater—nor did I need anything greater—than this moment. And though I may not have had the words to describe it then, I see now that that was the moment in which any vestiges of a supernatural god, for me, died off. Double-rainbow all the way, man.
Nearly four years have passed. Since then, I relocated to Portland, Oregon, for three years and then came back to New York. My time in Portland was humbling, as being The New Guy often is. But beyond unfamiliar surroundings, I just wasn’t picking up what they were laying down in terms of AA. Don’t get me wrong—Portland is doing fine without me, blessed with a large and vital AA community, but it really can feel a little like a Portlandia sketch.
Portland’s famous DIY, locavore ethos is both its greatest asset and biggest liability. Its militant inclusiveness seems to inadvertently create an atmosphere where you’re either with us or against us. People were happy to tell me I was being “too smart for AA” for trying to invent my own program. Another one I got was the old-timer who “used to feel like you do,” insinuating that I would some day find God. This points up the dirty little secret of AA: People say you don’t need to believe in God, and point to the Big Book chapter “We Agnostics,” saying, look what a large door we have to pass through!
It doesn’t take much to see that the Big Book writers are speaking of former agnostics. These ideas and interactions left me feeling like a door was being held open for me to leave AA. It was a pretty lonely period.
After some time, I did find a few other like-minded sobers who started a meeting we named “We Agnostics”—in part an ironic nod to the very chapter most of us found so philosophically irksome. The express purpose of the meeting was to share our experience of working the 12 Steps without a supernatural god. We wanted to open the door wider to those who we knew needed recovery but simply couldn’t get past “the God thing.”