This post was first published in December 2014 on our old site, The Easier Softer Way. We are reposting it here because of the amount of questions we receive about being an atheist in recovery, hoping that it is of use to someone!
I’ve recently been asked several times about my atheistic beliefs and my recovery… Twelve-Step programs seem to require belief in a higher power, with lines such as, “Having reduced us to a state of absolute helplessness, you now declare that none but a Higher Power can remove our obsession,” “We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves,” and “Follow the dictates of a Higher Power and you will presently live in a new and wonderful world, no matter what your present circumstances!” My experience in twelve-step meetings and working in an Orange County Rehab has show that this doesn’t exactly work for everyone.
However, the programs also leave it open for us to decide what our Higher Power will be. For some, the first higher power we have is the group or fellowship. One of the beautiful things about Twelve-Step programs is this openness for each of us to choose our own higher power. The Big Book of Alcoholics also encourages us to let go of judgement over the higher power somebody else believes in: “Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God.”4
For me, my “higher power” has consistently been twofold. First, I have the Three Refuges of Buddhism. The Three Refuges are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and are three things that we turn to or in which we take refuge. Buddhism may be seen as a nontheistic religion or a way of life, but doesn’t stress a higher power.
The first, the Buddha, is often assumed to be the historical Buddha. The true idea of taking refuge in the Buddha is that we find solace in the Buddha-seed that we all have within us. We all have the seed of awakening within us. This is the wise, compassionate, equanimous part of ourselves. In taking refuge in the Buddha, we cultivate these wholesome qualities within us. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is a practice in which we turn our will and lives over to this idea of the goodness within us by proactively acting skillfully and investigating ourselves through meditation.
The second Refuge is the Dharma. Dharma is the truth, or the path. In taking refuge in the Dharma, we study the teachings of the Buddha. I also find that the Twelve Steps fall under this category, as a set of teachings that help me. Taking refuge in the Dharma means we learn the teachings or steps, and practice them to the best of our ability. Again, this is a proactive practice without a supernatural “higher power.”
The final Refuge is Sangha, which means community. Those familiar with Twelve-Step programs can see this Refuge as another way of saying fellowship. Taking refuge in the Sangha means that I practice as a part of the community, work for our general wellbeing, and keep an open mind to learn from others. To me, this is very similar to the Twelve-Step fellowship we find in meetings.
The second part of my “higher power,” and what I most often think of when in Twelve-Step meetings or working steps is the idea of karma. Karma roughly translates as intentional action, and the term refers to the idea of cause and effect. When I act in a certain way, I get a certain result. Actions of my past create my present moment, and actions that I take today will create my future. Karma doesn’t mean that if I cut somebody off in traffic, I am going to get cut off in traffic in the future. Karma means that if I lie to somebody and they never find out, I will still feel bad. I have to experience the consequences of my actions. My understanding of karma has allowed me to turn my will and my life over to my own actions. This doesn’t mean that I think I am a god or my own higher power. Karma is the higher power, the power greater than myself. However, it isn’t some abstract spiritual concept. To me, it is a pragmatic approach to understanding experience.
These four individual pieces have really worked for me. I don’t pray to any higher power. I take action every day to align my life with these things, and the results I have experienced help push me forward.