The following essay was authored by John Huey for the purpose of outlining the discussion of our third episode in the Atheism and Sobriety series.
Abstinence and The Purity of Atheist Thought
By John Huey
As Atheists we see things not only as they are in personal terms without the veneer of belief, but, as we look at ideas and states of being as they may apply to the wider world, we can, if clearheaded at the time, come to conclusions that may very well have more universal applicability than might appear to be so on the surface.
Additionally, we can grow to understand that the true essence of Atheism lies, in good measure, in the realization and actualization of our all too human and finite limitations. It is only there, after we fully embrace our true limits, that we find their essence and begin to harness our energies and talents in an effective manner. Given this, in terms of our sobriety, there is no more important intersection than in the acknowledgement of the limits of our humanity and the contingent nature of our continued presence here, as it embraces an unconditional commitment to not drinking or using.
While fully realizing the limits of what we don’t know, we grow to appreciate the hard-won value of what we do know, without the ability to escape the implications of the facts at hand by retreating into a so called “spiritual” world view or other fantasy life. The facts, as we found them, are impossible to escape and, in the context of an ongoing recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, the centrality of abstinence is always present.
Thus, sooner or later, sometimes immediately but often painfully, over time, as sobriety settles in and fully manifests, we come to the facts embodied by the topic in hand. These facts are impossible to avoid or deny if we are, in the end, to be the beneficiaries of a consistent and, hopefully, lifelong sobriety.
To employ an impressionistic analogue, when the sun shines, on a clear day, we see inanimate objects as well as the complexities of the living in well-defined relief and we are able to operate in the shadows which can take on sharp edges and present us with hazardous dead-end streets that we are able to avoid. We can then join in the processions and rituals of daily life with our fellows with purpose and dedication as we traverse the more even paths ahead.
The Atheist possesses this clarity as the birthright of those who navigate the darkness and bring the facts to light in an inherently rational way. This clarity, this purity of thought, that brings us to our appreciation of abstinence as an absolute value is in no way mediated by “force fields”, distortions, or undifferentiated “impressions” that have no true basis in nature.
Despite all of this, as we progress on our own path without any form of belief, we always need to remember that religion works for many people as a primary motivational force that propelled them forward to what seems to be, on the surface, a better way of life for them. This undeniable human tendency can, when harnessed, provide sufficient basic changes in the life structure, thought processes, and behaviors of addicts and alcoholics (without the myth of a so-called “personality change”) to produce dramatic and life changing improvements in the ability to stop drinking and/or in the use of other substances. All this, of course, is a perfectly reasonable way forward for those who chose to believe these things.
The problem this can present to a committed Atheist only arises when the path toward permanent abstinence is somehow conflated with these religious fantasies that permeate the major conventional recovery programs. The sad fact is that many of the adherents to these programs claim universal applicability for them and they attempt to (passive aggressively in most cases) impose those so-called “Steps” and structures on the non-believer. They even sometimes try to “secularize” these religious sentiments to subtlety indoctrinate any skeptics they may encounter. For this reason, for this Atheist, no accommodation can or should be made with such people and their programs. It, quite simply, in rational terms, is a waste of our precious time and resources to engage with them in any way.
While no Atheist can lay claim to “ownership” of the word it seems obvious to this observer that the most valid expression of the concepts behind and actualization of the term “abstinence” as an absolute value are expressed as the only inherently logical response, with no “spiritual” or interventionist component, to a complicated problem. In this way our own Atheism can be viewed as “reductionist” in the most positive sense (as opposed to the more generally negative usage) of that term. This view leaves us without the twisted “aura” of moral superiority or revelation that permeates most of the more conventional approaches to sobriety.
The prevarication and denial that characterizes the thought process of the active alcoholic/addict passes every test for a “trick” of thought and action, a disruption of any sense of time as it relates to cause and effect, and an almost “mystical” belief that the actions and results of one course of action could be different from the inevitable consequences of the same thoughts and actions at another point in time. This distortion of logical process can only be corrected by an initial commitment to, and the incremental advance of, abstinence.
Given the nearly universal applicability of the paragraph above, Atheist thought, in its purest form, and the commitment to logic that it embodies, stands in the face of the more conventional approaches to these seemingly intractable problems while acknowledging at least of some of the “mystery” surrounding why we do what we do, while under the influence of our substances of choice, despite even the overwhelming evidence of the harm we can inflict on ourselves and others.
As regards those widely accepted, “standard” programs, they address the central problem of “why can’t I stop” with the fanciful notion that true abstinence is only achieved through some sort of intervention from an unseen, outside, force.
The Atheist, in a secular setting, provides context and support, despite the underlying illogic behind the word “why”, with the simple reiteration of the absolute fact that abstinence, in and of itself, is the only thing, in the real world, that works 100% of the time. For the Atheist, a bedrock conviction of the truth of this fact can supply the lifelong foundation for continual sobriety that all secular alcoholics and addicts in recovery seek without resorting to notions and practices that just are not true in the empirical world.
This is where, in the end, we can return. Now, with the simple facts regarding abstinence in hand, we can, with all due “humility”, return to that sense of limitation that was mentioned earlier in this essay, and acknowledge that, despite our all too finite intellect and abilities, that we are deploying our fallible human resources in the most positive way that we can by our commitment to abstinence and all of the implications thereof for the many secular people unaware of, or unconvinced of, the purity and simplicity of the Atheist approach to these seemingly intractable problems.
John Huey’s Website: https://john-huey.com/