Secular Spirituality, Atheism, and Recovery

If you’ve been through recovery, I’m wondering – how has your recovery been impacted (positively, negatively?) when the recovery culture dialogue turns to the almighty? It seems to happen a lot, and there’s a lot of faith-based stuff out there. And if that helps you recover, then I’m all for it! Everyone’s recovery will look a little different and be unique to them, and hope can be found in many different forms.

But for nonbelievers, the prevalence of religious language in recovery can present an additional hurdle – I know it did for me. Early in my recovery, before I got into more structured group therapy with a counselor, I was attending Twelve-Step groups that focused on eating disorders/disordered eating. I couldn’t recommend them for everyone, but it was what I needed at the time. I had hit an all-time low, and a friend told me about a group that met less than two miles away from where I lived downtown. I went the very next day, desperate for anything that might assuage the constant misery and physical discomfort I was in.

I honestly thought that I was going to go there, they would tell me what to do, I would do it and I would get better – just like going to the doctor and getting a prescription. I quickly found out that that wasn’t the case. But what I did find was a new perspective and a sense of hope – the people there spoke about their struggles with honesty and clarity, as well as an unexpected humility. One of the things emphasized in all Twelve-Step fellowships is admitting you don’t have control over everything, and as you work through that it can really give you some room to breathe. However, part of that admitting you don’t have control everything (a notion that often clashes with our Western sense of independence and individuality – but I challenge you to sneeze with your eyes open or to prevent the sun from setting) is turning that control over to a “Higher Power.”


At least, that’s what I said back when I was 19. It was less of a hurdle and more of a brick wall. I had never been comfortable with the personified notion of God. Just typing the word God I feel conflicted. As I write this, I debate if I should put it in quotes or make the ‘g’ lowercase. And back then, when the word ‘God’ was invoked in meetings or by friends, I would feel myself tune out because it’s something I just couldn’t relate to.

The concept of a Higher Power (HP for short) is intentionally vague in the fellowship groups to allow for as broad an interpretation as you like. Those who already had an established faith took the idea quickly, fitting HP into their Christian or Islamic traditions and finding additional insight into their struggles as they tapped into years of religious practice and understanding. Others found creative, non-religious ways to regard their HP. It could be anything, really. But no one can figure it out for you, because it’s quite personal.

I think that extreme personal nature of it is one of the reasons I was and am so resistant to even using the word ‘God’, because I don’t know that it’s possible for anyone to have the exact same definition or understanding as someone else. I was always afraid if I said it, someone would hear it through the understanding of their own religious practice and interpret what I said through that.

This is especially an issue in the West. The dialogue among atheists most often seems to be in reference to Christianity – which is somewhat understandable since it’s the predominant religion. But even if you completely reject Christianity, I’m not sure that all notions of spirituality or a higher power have to go out the door with it. Just like how if you have some life-changing moment and your belief in an HP is confirmed, I honestly don’t know what leads someone to attribute it directly to Jesus, Allah, or Zeus. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way – I just think there’s a bigger distance than we often acknowledge between a seemingly miraculous event and the embracing of a particular faith in response.

When I was younger and friends would talk about things they felt when they would pray or while they were in church, I used to envy them, because no matter how hard I tried, I never felt anything. Those dots never connected; the light switch never flicked on. I just felt silly. And I would envy those who said they did feel something because it felt like there was something wrong with me.

Never feeling any personal connection to it, I settled on agnosticism for awhile. But like the word ‘God’, I think agnosticism often means a little something different for everyone. It’s a vague term and is more a matter of negation – it does a good job of saying what you don’t believe, but doesn’t really do much in figuring what you do believe. I think I also settled on agnosticism because there is often stigma attached to outright rejecting religion and using the word ‘atheist’ to describe oneself. For those whose religion has a big influence on their lives, such a concept must seem so foreign and empty that they can’t even fathom it. And, even if you’re an atheist, I think there’s value in figuring out what you do believe. I also think that hope is universal and can be found in many different ways.

Hope for me is about finding intrinsic value in living, and finding ways that you can have a positive effect on others no matter how much things might not happen the way you want them to. Everyone suffers. Some of us suffer far greater than others, and some of us have very comfortable lives. But we all still suffer, and we all will eventually die. Some might think that’s a depressing thought, but I don’t. On the contrary, our common existence in those two things outweighs any superficial differences we might fight over. If we could all recognize our desire to avoid suffering as a universal desire in others, I think the world would be a much better place.

It’s that line of thought that helped me work towards defining a HP. If I didn’t care for myself first, I couldn’t be of any use to other people. And the people I met in those meetings gave me hope that I was capable of recovery too. If I didn’t believe in myself, then I never would have recovered.

It makes me wonder how religious language and faith-based programs influence recovery – particularly if you don’t regard the word ‘God’ as a proper noun. Have you ever found yourself held back when the G-word gets dropped, as though someone hit the breaks and suddenly you feel completely out of place? How have you dealt with it?

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5 responses to “Secular Spirituality, Atheism, and Recovery

  1. I’m glad I stumbled across this post. It is something that lingers in the back of my interactions with others recovering. I begin to feel as though everyone is a Christian (or Muslim or Wiccan or SOMETHING) with a faith they can turn to, draw comfort from, and perhaps use to prop themselves up.

    I am not. I am atheist – pretty firmly, fully self-explored, atheist. Like you, I’m a little jealous of people who have faith, because they have a comfort that I don’t.

    In recovery circles there is a LOT of Christianity. Many programs are Christian-based. The 12-steps, as much as they claim to be vague and secular, are also faith based. It took me a long time to realize that such programs weren’t, no matter how I tried, going to be able to be stretched onto my understanding of the world, my eating disorder, and my recovery.

    For awhile I attended a twelve-step group. It was the only support group in my area for people with eating disorders. Parts were good – meeting others who had eating disorders, having a place I could talk about what I was going through – that was all wonderful. It was the first time, outside of a hospital, that I said “I have an eating disorder,” out loud, to strangers. But it was so heavily prayer- and god-centered it very much turned me off. Yeah – when the women would start a soliloquy about how god had saved them from their eating disorders, I would tune them out. Or clench my fists under the table, because sometimes that “god saved me” stuff really bothers me, particularly in recovery circles. When someone says I should turn myself, and my ED, over to God, to me it sounds like they’re saying “if you weren’t so stubborn, if you Just Believed, you’d be better now, like me.” Like I’m making a choice to stay sick, like its a punishment for not believing in a god that I don’t believe exists. Not always what they meant, I’m sure – but how I interpret a lot of the faith-centered recovery talk.

    At the same time, I’ve known a number of folks who managed to find and sustain recovery by using their faith. I think that is great – we need to find and do what works for us – whatever it is that works for us, be that praying, or swimming naked at night – in order to get over this. But it doesn’t work for me.

    As to faith-based conversations in forums, group, and conversations with other eating disordered people, I’ve just reached the point of being supportive of their own beliefs (rather than angry – I’ve needed to grow as I age), firm in my own, and completely supportive of the Do What Works recovery mentality.

    I wonder – do you ever feel Outside of recovery circles based on your lack of faith? I know I do, at times – I can’t relate to that part of the struggle. And not many caan relate to mine; struggling to recover while under the belief that This Is It and Only I Can Do This.

    Sorry for the ramble! Thanks for the great blog!

    • Hi Sarah, Thanks for sharing all of that!

      I’ve found it varies from fellowship to fellowship in terms of how specific the religious language gets. Alcoholics Anonymous is the basis for all other Twelve-Step groups, and since it started in the 1930s the language was very Christian. The original AA Big Book even has a chapter addressed to atheists/non-believers that is pretty condescending, essentially saying that if you “pray and seek him” that you’ll find god/religion.

      The group I attended had a much more inclusive approach to it, and for the record I’m sure lots of AA groups are now too. Despite the preservation of the original literature, it’s not a specifically religious or Christian thing. That ‘Higher Power’ language can still really throw people off, though.

      You asked: “I wonder – do you ever feel Outside of recovery circles based on your lack of faith? I know I do, at times – I can’t relate to that part of the struggle. And not many caan relate to mine; struggling to recover while under the belief that This Is It and Only I Can Do This.

      I’ve been recovered for a few years now and don’t consider myself a part of any recovery circles, my involvement is mostly in the activist side of things these days. But I definitely find myself in positions where I’m discussing other people’s recovery with them and sometimes religion IS a part of their recovery. It doesn’t bother me in the least, since I’ve grown up with religion and religious people in my life. I also work in a hospital currently and patients will frequently talk about religion. Bringing up the fact that I don’t share someone’s beliefs does nothing more than make the conversation about me instead of them, so it’s important to consider what our motivation is for asserting our differences. Obviously, work environments are different than a recovery circle, though.

      I’d probably consider myself both a Buddhist and an atheist, and through studying and practicing Buddhism I’ve come to appreciate the overlap in the messages and intentions of other religions like Christianity, specifically nonviolence. There isn’t a deity in Buddhism the way we think of it in the West, nor does it really concern itself with issues of creation.

      The Dalai Lama actually defines secularism as inclusive of all religions, opposed to the more common idea that secular thought is non-religious. I like his version better, that it’s open to all ideas. I think there’s a little bit of truth in everything, and that if there is a Higher Power, it’s far too big and powerful to be contained within any one faith tradition. More than anything, I think it’s important to just strive to be a good person.

    • I think it is different and uniquly personal for each person. I am a christian and I do believe that my faith has helped me to get through some difficult points in my life, but I do not believe that my hard work and difficult choices did not have any affect on my recovery.

      I believe that recovery can come to anyone, regardless of their faith walk/beliefs. We all have to make those day by day, moment by moment decisions to do what is best / healthy for us and deny the options that harm us. Sometimes, I think faith can actually make recovery more hard because you are held to a different/higher standard by your “peers” than people who don’t believe the same things. It is also easier to condmen yourself for not acting out how your faith should be viewed, which can easily turn to shame, and increase disordered eating behavior.
      As with everything, it the pros and cons and we just take like as it comes and search for recovery; which looks different for everyone.
      Loved your thoughts on this, and I wish more people would talk about religion and recovery.

  2. Pamela Alida

    I really liked this post. The last treatment center I was in was in Utah and very spiritually based. Most of the people who went there were Mormon (although there were some of us who were not as well). But I felt like I was the only one who really didn’t believe in “God”. There were even assignments focused on spirituality. I felt that while I was there I had to smile and nod and pretend I believed in the same stuff that everyone else did (people pleasing much?)

    It has been over a year since I have last been in treatment and this is still something that bothers me. I have had friends tell me to “heal through jesus” or to “not be so mad at god”. I think what they don’t understand is that I am not mad at anyone or anything, religion is just not something I feel is necessary for my recovery.

    I can definitely understand where having a strong spirituality can help a lot of people. But for me one of the biggest things I have struggled with has been taking ownership of my accomplishments. I can put myself down for anything and everything but when it comes to telling myself I did a good job, I cannot do it. I have always felt as though “turning over” my recovery to “God” is a way of me diminishing my own accomplishments. Faith and prayer is not what got me to the point where I can function in everyday life again. I am responsible for that work… and while at times it can be really hard for me to be proud of, today I am, and right now that is all that needs to matter.

  3. crazyupanddown

    Wow, I’m so glad I came across your blog, and this post. I am an atheist and all the god talk is so annoying. They dress it up by saying they are just “spiritual” or something to that effect but however it is dressed up it is still believing in an imaginary supernatural being. I want to feel them that their god must be a psychopath for allowing so much suffering and violence to happen but than some people find they need something to lean on to perhaps not feel alone, or find it gives them access to a community of supporters, whether they realize their motivations or not. I do believe in community but don’t feel I need to have faith in anything to have it. I also don’t feel lonely, ever, and maybe that is a part of it too. I do go to an eating disorder support group and fortunately the god talk is kept to a minimum. At least when it does come up, I can find other folks like myself from them rolling their eyes at the conversation.😉

    Anyway, thanks!

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