Posted by: innerpilgrimage | July 16, 2013

Atheist Spirituality: I Can Pray to Nobody?

      It’s amusing and baffling that I have so many deeply held judgments that I couldn’t fathom praying to nothing, but Marya Hornbacher really made it clear and sensible in her book about atheist recovery: Waiting.

      Just to reconsider Step Three, alone, was staggering. Instead of turning my will and life over to the patriarchal deity of the Big Book (which insists I will find God, if I “act as if”), I have an alternative: I make a daily decision “to let go of my will and to live in willingness, instead.” That, alone is a wonderful acknowlegement that I don’t have to add an external receptacle. It really is letting go to live in the spiritual here-and-now, to not fret about manipulating a trancendent deity into rewarding me for suffering my human fears and desire to isolate from the world. The clarity of Marya Hornbacher’s treatment of the steps was suddenly made clear as the first four steps of the inner journey suddenly became purpose-filled as a means to become part of the world. Not just part of the world, either.
      The point of it, I realized, is to leave the self-willed isolation of addict-thinking and enter a world of purpose, where I listen to my inner voice and use the practice of Steps One through Seven to enter the world as an imperfect person seeking to live in alignment with my own ethical standards. It makes so much sense, too. Revelation of what I don’t want to slog through, my Step Four past, shows me what I am trying to run from in addiction. Well, relapse. Like I said before, I can’t go back to that self-denial that acting out addiction helps. That the perfect bite can create inner peace. The “God-sized hole” isn’t; there is a void, but it’s filled with the small, still voice within which reveals “the next right” action. Perseverence, on a daily basis, is practice of a spiritual life–no need for an external source to grant me grace.
      I found atheism in program, by working the steps. The crisis was, I find now, less about being an atheist and struggling with not having an external source of comfort. As I explore this in myself, I am finding some peace that it doesn’t matter if others do. Part of working THE program, not others’ recoveries for them in order to hide from my own spiritual journey. Acceptance of my own recovery, without an external Higher Power (myself and food, sexual approval, and personal approval included) is part of my journey. There’s no “act as if” for me, yet it’s okay. It really is. I can do it without a Higher Power, and the experience, strength, hope, honesty, openness, and willingness of others who have entered program as atheists or became atheists in program is available to me.
      So, who do I pray to, then? What do I ask grace from or thank for serenity and grace, for the promises made manifest in my life? Nobody. It’s surrender plus effort. It’s letting go without letting God. It is accepting that I don’t know, and that–in the lack of knowing–I find peace.
      So, why no God? Why no “act as if”? Well, it comes down to one of the greatest resentments I bear, which I tear open so often that I am raw and bloody as I try to find a “God” to fit that “God-sized hole”. When I was a child, I believed completely. As a child, I was left in an abusive situation, and the God I prayed to on Sundays did not save me. My Savior at the time, who I let into my heart every week, never made the miracle of lifting me out of the mental, physical, and emotional abuse I suffered. Not one person was used by the God they (and I) prayed to. Not one person was the instrument to lift me from years of repeated trauma. I was labeled, but no one considered why I was shy to the point of self-isolation. No one questioned why I overreacted emotionally when I was forced to interact. If the abuse was seen, no one acted.
      I was abandoned and betrayed by the ominscient and omnipotent God which I was supposed to trust implicitly. A God which was supposed to love me. I prayed to be perfect, and I tried to be perfect. I tried to earn God’s approval, and I fell short as the abuse continued. I was powerless in a life where I relied on others to care for me; I lived an unmanageable life, at the whims of others whose lives were unmanageable. How was I supposed to know love if no one acted to show me that I was worth salvation from the mental, physical, and emotional abuse I endured?
      As an adult, I can reconcile with it being human nature. Addicts in addiction mentally, physically, and emotionally abuse others. I know this because I did this; I know this because the rooms are filled with stories of regret and pain, shame and self-loathing. The experience we accumulated, as a community, is horrifying in its scope. The experiences we forced others to bear in our addictions is equally horrifying. Humanity, I accept, can do this. History supports humanity’s cruelty and self-willed abusiveness toward other humans. If I have to believe in a God who loved me enough to bring me into program, I am left with the ultimate betrayal that God didn’t pull me out of the abuse when I prayed and listened and watched for my miracle as I surrendered. I “let go and let God” when I was a small child, and God left me to become an addict who harmed others because I wanted to punish the world for being punished without reason. Turning toward God means I despair; I have no comfort, no trust, no hope when I consider God. Nature, however, fulfills that need. It supports progress over perfection. It supports growth until the final moment of life. It supports wonder. However, nature isn’t something to pray to; I can meditate on it, I can surrender to my place in nature and let go. I can accept that nature encourages awe, wonder, peace, joy, pain, loss, gratitude, humility, honesty, acceptance . . . all of the hallmarks of a spiritual journey.
      Nature just is, just like deeply religious people know God just is. Not knowing is not a problem, because I can practice humility in surrendering to not knowing. It’s hard when I am in self-will and I am unwilling to let go. However, letting go is part of the natural process, is part of change. Everything in the physical world enters and exits our lives. We change constantly, just like nature. Recovery and nature support each other, and I can believe in both. I survived. I changed. I learned that what helped me survive my youth became toxic to me in adulthood. I learned something new, something which would help me move from child-sized survival to adult-sized “thrival”. Program encourages my thrival, despite the Big Book language which throws me into despair and the desire to relapse at times. The suggestion that God can do what I can’t leaves me with the thought that I was unworthy of salvation, that I was unlovable in a cosmic scale. That I was excluded without reason, that the spiritual life I did lead as a child (and I did) still led to irrational punishment. God may move in mysterious ways, but I can’t reconcile with God wanting a small child to have belt buckle marks and handprint bruises on her backside and lower back. That’s quite a mysterious move for a deity of love, and if love is abuse? Then CoDA and SLAA and OA (tell me that eating my shame over my perceived unlovability is not self-abuse) might as well shut down. Hell, even AA should shut down, because drinking to escape from self-loathing is even part of the Big Book.
      For those who know in their hearts God exists? Then God does exist for them. For me, it’s a question of accepting I do not know. What I do accept is that nature doesn’t support transcendence despite supporting every human experience which is considered spiritual in nature. Program brought me to atheism, and the acceptance that humans responsible for my care suffered addiction then acted as so many addicts before them did is just part of the spiritual journey I am taking to break the cycle of addiction with me.
      As an aside, I accept this is part of my codependent compliance trying to not create conflict with those who do believe in the God I once white-knuckle prayed to as a child. I am deeply wounded, and I blame God. Yes, God–whether it exists or not–is on my list of Step Four resentments for not lifting me or my siblings out of the abuse and into a domestic situation where we could live addiction-free lives. Of my siblings and me, I am the only one working a 12-Step program. We are all damaged, all isolating, all dealing with the devastation we left behind. The burdens we thought we could bear . . . well, I can’t bear mine any more. It’s the ascent to choosing life and program or death after a descent into madness. I want to live, not just clock time until my final heartbeat.
      So, there’s my struggle. Believing there has to be a “to”. Marya Hornbacher proposed I ask, “Why?” I am asking why. Ms. Hornbacher also tossed out some pretty intense questions which encourage self-knowledge and a self-awareness of what is considered spiritual and moral (she does use the term moral a lot, and I acknowledge it’s inner-compass morality instead of outer edict morality). What I am taking from her experience, strength, and hope is that the crisis I am experiencing isn’t as bad as my compulsive self-will is trying to make it. So far, I have been moved by the sweet simplicity that atheists still retain the ability to become useful to others and to ourselves in program. Atheists can acknowledge an awareness of our interconnection to others in the world and make amends then live them. Atheists can practice mindfulness and real compassion toward others and ourselves on a daily basis. Atheists, without God, can work the steps and have Step Twelve’s spiritual awakening as a result of working the steps and living as a spiritual atheist. I believe in atheist spirituality, having read Andre Comte-Sponville’s book. I found comfort that my most profound spiritual experiences did not involve organized religion; I find comfort that even though the Big Book does conflict with itself and that I have heard over and over again that I can believe in any Higher Power I want (well, until Step Three and Chapter Four: “We Agnostics”), the experience, strength, and hope is out there for a Higher Power which is unknown. I have a spiritual hunger, and living as an ethical human being who is grateful to be alive at all and who practices daily to live to the highest ethical standards possible by voicing my concerns then stilling my mind to know the spiritual wisdom which others say comes from God. Does it? I don’t know, though I currently am erring on the side of what is consistently reproducible–that in the world of organized religion, everyone is an atheist in practice, disavowing every god out there but the one s/he thinks exists. Can’t prove but has decided with unerring belief that one thing is static in an ever-changing Universe.
      Me? I like the ever-changing Universe. It means I can change, too. That I can be humble that I am non-existent in terms of physical scale, yet I am awed that I exist at all. At the intersection of acceptance that I am statistically negligable in terms of size, ability, and length of lifespan as compared to the Universe and of the overwhelming improbability that life recombined and I not only was it, I am STILL it? I feel grace, that ineffable awe.
      I just appreciate that I’m not alone in not having to break from the spiritual moment to thank something outside me for it.
      My name is Jess, and I am a binge-arexic with food, sexual approval, and general approval. Martyr or glutton, I live at the extremes. Not one of my addictions is a “quit-and-get-sober” kind. I am beginning to sense that perhaps they reflect my natural spiritual state, that the extremes don’t work. I’m not religious, and I’m not a “new atheist”. There’s a balance for me between being the sum of my parts as just another biological amalgam of cells and electrochemical reactions and being a divine and transcendent creation of a creator which requires faith alone.
      I am a spiritual atheist, and I am grateful that others like me are out there, working program and finding recovery. To them, I offer this simple but powerful prayer: Thank you.



  1. Thanks, Jess. I appreciated this post. I have a slightly different interpretation (who doesn’t!) but yours adds depth to mine.

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