This post has no answers; only questions. It is an attempt to lay out the pitfalls for an atheist, or any critically-minded person, in recovery. Recovery is difficult enough, but if you have more than average intelligence and are an atheist or a person who has good critical thinking skills, it can be even more difficult.
I think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person (although I have my doubts at times), and this has been reinforced by enough people frequently enough that it’s likely correct (or so I hope). I’m also a logical person, with good common sense, able to think critically, and one who never takes anything at face value. I’ve always been this way, and it has served me well through the years. But there was a time when it made life difficult. That time was the start of my recovery from addiction.
I first started in recovery, at the end of 2009 to the beginning of 2010, in a Christian-based rehab, one that despite my issues with, I highly recommend – Careline, in Hillcrest, Natal, South Africa. (I see they’ve revamped their website. Those photos make it look great; after all it is located in a beautiful, scenic area. But I confess it felt like a cage to me.) I learned a lot of good things there, advice I take to heart even today; information about how drugs work, about what exactly they do to the brain, and most of what I know about avoiding people, places and things that I identify with my drug of choice. (They didn’t teach me what to do when those people, places and things can not be avoided though – I had to figure that one out for myself.)
But there are major issues with the accepted approach to recovery. Two of the three that I’m writing about today overlap, but each is in itself broad and deeply entrenched into the recovery “culture”:
- Theism (Belief in a theistic god.)
- The 12-step plan (A plan that many follow religiously, though there is no evidence either that it really works, other than the anecdotal, or that it has any basis in fact.)
- Fallacious beliefs in the approach to recovery
The way I see it, depending on which side of the fence you’re standing on, God is either:
- The single-most popular placebo in existence.
- The most tempting straw man (to burn) in existence.
That is, there is no evidence for a god, but plenty of people believe in one. No matter how rationally, logically or reasonably I argue with them, the fact is they have a belief in an unfalsifiable god, one that exists outside the bounds of science and reason and is thus not subject to the laws of physics, and they will never change their minds. The only people I can convince are other atheists (who do not need to be convinced) and maybe people who already have their doubts (as I did before I let go of my indoctrinated beliefs). Religiously indoctrinated people will always reinterpret my reasoning in terms of their preconceived beliefs, where they start out with the assumption that god exists.
Unlike other placebos, theists don’t even have to take water or sugar pills, or anything else. For a theist, the belief itself is the placebo. There is one aspect to this that I find really funny: Since the placebo doesn’t involve anything that can be purchased, theism should always be free, so it should also be the cheapest placebo. Yet it isn’t! There are many scammers who con gullible believers out of their money, in return for the salvation and eternal life or forgiveness they think they will receive.
As for the straw man… You can’t prove a negative, and since there is no evidence of God, anyone who tries to argue against theism by way of an example, any example at all, has to contrive something to argue against. For example, Richard Dawkins described the behaviour of theists in The God Delusion, calling out specific beliefs and behaviours, which he then analysed. (I still haven’t read it, so I’m assuming he did something similar to what he did in the documentary.) Whatever examples are used, it doesn’t matter, every one of them can always be called a straw man. So arguing against theism is impossible. (But that doesn’t stop us from trying.)
But faith is more than just that promise of salvation – it gives you something to believe in, and perhaps a personal relationship with your imaginary god that brings comfort throughout life. As such, recovering addicts and others who are desperate to correct their mistakes in life can find great solace in their religion, even though their god isn’t real. I have no problem with those people, and would prefer to leave them be, living their happy-clappy delusion somewhere far away from me, but in recovery I am forced to deal with such people.
In recovery, and especially in the beginning at rehab, I was forced to listen to them talking nonsense about their placebo that can never work for me. (A placebo can only appear to work if you believe.) I was forced to listen to people talk to me about a higher power, and how finding it solved all their troubles. Of course I acknowledge that there are people and things outside myself that are greater than I, but I do not believe for one moment that there is any guiding force, or creator, or karma, or anything of the sort in the universe.
Recovery without the god placebo is quite different. Either way, you are alone, but the difference is that as an atheist, you know it. This meant that I had to find my own way; that much of what I was taught was useless to me. No doubt, the life of a happy idiot who simply accepts Jesus without asking questions, is a much easier life. Ignorance is bliss, but it is not for me.
The 12-step plan
They tell me I don’t need to believe in God to follow the 12-step plan. That, of course, assumes that I will come around and accept a god anyway.
These are the 12 steps I mean:
- We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
- We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Please, somebody tell me how the above can ever work without a belief in God?
- That one’s alright. Yes, my life became unmanageable, and alone, I was powerless over it. Thankfully other people, not imaginary beings, were able to help me. Unfortunately most of those people believe in the make-believe.
- This one is only possible if I can apply something other than God. I’m told I can use anything, like science. But it’s a stretch that makes no sense at all. I don’t believe there is any guiding force in the universe. There is only chaos.
- So which is it? Shall I turn my life over to nothing or chaos? That’s where it was in active addiction. I am in control now, not any drug dealer who takes advantage of me, not any employer who thinks he can bully me into unreasonable work without compensation, and certainly not any magic man up in the sky. Me!
- That one’s not a problem.
- Sure, I can admit to myself and others, and have done so many times over. But I don’t have the luxury of a god placebo to believe in.
- You must be fucking joking.
- I am not humble. I am proud, and strong, and as cool as asking an imaginary friend to remove shortcomings might be, I’m smart enough to know that it won’t achieve anything. Will the imaginary friend reciprocate? I don’t think so.
- There is only one person who I care to make amends with. That is my son. Nobody else matters and for the small things I did wrong, I do not care for forgiveness. What’s done is done.
- I am doing my best to be the best father that I can be. That also involves giving my son advice to help guide him to being able to think for himself. I will never tell him that there is no god, but he already knows that I do not believe in one, and I will do all I can to guide him to learn to be a good critical thinker.
- That is part of life, as far as I am concerned. Learning and growing in my career, intellectually, and morally, is part of what makes living worthwhile (besides seeing my son grow up). I am always happy to learn when I am wrong.
- Refer to number 6.
- Does it count as a spiritual awakening, to realize that there is no such thing as a spirit?
Regarding step twelve, maybe in a way I am trying to bring my lessons in recovery to other addicts, especially if they are atheists. Recovery is more difficult without a god placebo, but I hope that like myself, you can find something real, something tangible to rely on, not flimsy faith in an imaginary being that will never be there for you when the chips are down.
The problem for me is, I ask “What is the correct approach to recovery?”, but I have not found a satisfactory answer. That is, it seems to be normal to follow the 12 steps. But what evidence is there that it works? I mean, how can placing my faith in a god that does not exist possibly work?
I understand that it can work if you do believe, or at least, it can appear to work, but even then, I’m not too sure. When I attended NA meetings, I noticed that even people who followed the program rigorously would slip up and relapse. And the answer to why that was the case would always be the same:
- You weren’t following the program properly. Or…
- You weren’t serious enough about recovery. Or…
- You weren’t truly in recovery.
Can you see where this is going? It’s a fallacy called No true Scotsman. That is, redefine what it means to truly be in recovery, every time someone fails. It’s not only the people who look down on others who have relapsed that think this way, it’s also people who have come back into recovery after a relapse, who then say things like “I didn’t take recovery seriously enough the first time”. They are not even aware of the fallacious way they reason, but in doing so, one could say that nobody who is truly in recovery ever fails, because you can simply reject anyone who fails by saying that they didn’t try hard enough. That way, the anecdotal evidence that the 12-step plan works seems that much more compelling. I call bullshit.
It’s not just that fallacy. People who run rehabs like to talk about the “latest research on addiction” indicates…
What latest research? There are not many scientists working on this, to my knowledge.
There is one famous doctor, Dr Kevin McCauley… I watched a DVD of his at rehab, and while I learned a great deal about addiction and how it works, and I’m sure he has done great work, he lost me when he explained his theories on why addiction is a disease. Yes, he made a lot of sense, but then he digressed into arguing against the “addiction as a choice model”, with which he disagrees to a great extent. But there was something more going on there, in that argument. He argues against a straw man. He tells us addicts what we want to hear, that we aren’t bad, and that we had no choice, that we could not stop ourselves. He tells us what we want to hear, because this is obviously what he wants to hear, because he is a recovering addict himself. (i.e. His research/theory is biased, and he is not aware of his own bias.) I don’t know if his research really follows the scientific method, or if his papers are published and peer-reviewed, but I do know that there are many doctors who have epiphanies, and come up with all sorts of nice-to-believe theories, that have not a grain of truth in them. Thus I am very dubious of this man’s research.
To conclude this section, I don’t believe the standard approach to recovery is anything more than a rather flimsy placebo, and I don’t necessarily believe the latest research on addiction is very useful. As I stated upfront, I don’t have answers – only questions.