Atheism and Sobriety

In this episode, I have a conversation with John Huey about atheism and sobriety. This is the first in a series of essays that John will be writing about atheism and sobriety, and in this essay, he examines the moral structure of atheism and how that relates to recovery.

‘What is the “Moral Structure” of Atheism as it Relates to Sobriety?’

By John Huey

At the outset, I need to state, at the very beginning of this series of articles and associated podcasts, that I am not an academic or expert regarding the history of atheist thought and its ultimate impact on society.

I do have nearly 35 years of experience in various phases of the recovery movement and as a long-term (33+ year) member of a Secular Recovery group.

These thoughts, as expressed in these articles and podcasts, are primarily from personal experience only and, therefore, are not at all definitive of or proscriptive for anyone but me.

Unlike many who came to whatever form of “unbelief” defines them as a secular person as an adult, I have been a committed atheist since age 12 and carry very little/no baggage from my early training in a middle class, WASP, mainline Protestant denomination.

Through the entire process of undertaking and then embarking on my own journey in sobriety, I have often wondered why a truly secular position as regards abstinence is so widely and deeply misunderstood. This even includes, seemingly, some who define themselves as non-believers.

In thinking about this, for reasons of general clarity and personal utility, I wanted to, for myself as much as anyone else, delve into various aspects of my life as a determined atheist to delineate and explain my personal positions as regards my own recovery, as well as regarding various so-called recovery “movements”, more clearly.

It is hoped that this striving for personal clarity may have some utility for others as they encounter attitudes and assumptions about who and what atheists are that may not be founded on reality.

One of the greatest sources of misunderstanding regarding atheists and atheism is found in questions surrounding concepts of morality and what constitutes a “moral” life.

What is “moral” for the atheist anyway?

Eric Wielenburg, in his essay, ‘Atheism and Morality, which can be found in the very useful Oxford Handbook of Atheism, articulates distinctions regarding this question quite well when he states that, “sometimes, ‘morality’ refers to human moral beliefs and practices; other times, ‘morality’ refers to moral truths or facts.”

He further goes on to “make the case that the question of whether there are objective moral truths is independent of the existence or nonexistence of God.”

In making this distinction the religious positions regarding “moral principles” can be seen as exactly what they are as being concocted to support the “articles of faith” of specific branches of organized religion and/or as the underpinnings of various “spiritual” movements such as the recovery organizations that evolved from the Oxford Group in the 1930s.

A more holistic, universal awareness of what is inherently good (not killing, not stealing, not assaulting others, etc.) as well as the baser, and opposite, human traits that are referred to as “evil”, concludes that these states are purely human in origin and, thus, more explicable. A newly sober atheist can proceed, as a matter of rational thought leading to more rational actions, to an individual ethical code without the influence of whatever substance may have contributed to the erosion of known, ethical, thought and action earlier in life.

My own assumption was always that it was better and more rational to make these positive decisions and life choices while being motivated by what is real rather than what is unseen and irrational by its very nature. This can be articulated as a response to Natural Law which is, of course, in its classic definition, “a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct” and/or “an observable law relating to natural phenomena.”

An atheist, therefore, is very well equipped to be motivated by volitional, rather than mandated, positive moral choices according to Natural Law.

While it is indisputable that inherently moral principles can be developed while under the influence and guidance of a conventional religion or a set of so-called “spiritual” beliefs, it is equally true that profound guidance regarding moral principles can be, and is, developed by committed atheists responding to the boundaries set by Natural Law.

One of the primary hurdles atheists face when they enter conventional recovery is an assumption that some sort of belief, no matter how vague, in a “spiritual force”, “higher power”, or “God” is somehow required to achieve and maintain sobriety. This patent untruth is further extended to imply that such a belief will lead the adherent to a higher level of moral development based on her or his earlier admission of “powerlessness”, followed by contrition and expiation, with an analogous assumption that they are somehow inherently flawed and that such flaws led them to their addiction, an addiction that only “God” can remove.

These conventional “program” pathologies of thought, when represented as fact, have driven many an unbeliever out into the “wilderness” to fend for themselves.

From the very beginning, I chose another path, and that path was grounded in an animating belief that I had nothing to apologize for or be contrite about as far as who and what I was and that there was indeed a “moral center” to my life that was foundational to my earliest beliefs as an atheist.

While, on the personal level of day to day living, I most certainly had lost my way, developed an addiction to alcohol, and diverted far too many, better deployed, resources to a life of devoted dissipation, these facts were in spite of, not because of, a core belief system that was basically sound for me, but, most definitely, had been “neglected” and abused at times.

For me, the “moral structure” of a meaningful life has always been rooted in self-reliance (a polar opposite of what those “program” people tell you) and a bedrock conviction that my own personal outcomes, for better or worse, were founded on a reality-based, factual appraisal of the life circumstances at hand.

This is not to say that misdirection, denial, and, at times, an obstinate refusal to act on those, sometimes-problematic, thoughts and actions, was not a part of my story, but it does mean that even while in the grip of some self-imposed vicissitudes, that I never truly denied the reality of any situation no matter how painful or peculiar. This, I believe, stemmed directly from my lifelong worldview as an atheist.

There was a bedrock conviction that what the senses presented was, truly, the only empirical data available and that there really was a sense of “this is all there is” which led, as sobriety based on total abstinence took hold and some of the “fog” began to dissipate, to a reaffirmation of a life of rigorous personal honesty based on fact, not fantasy. Atheism, at this juncture, was a true access point to the Natural Law that is foundational to any secular “Moral Center”.

Since it is necessary for me to live in a world based on the facts as I find them, I have further discovered that there is true liberation in acknowledging the proposition that, as a lone actor, in a discrete universe limited only by materialism, physicality and the senses, that, as an individual, I have no inherent rights to anyone’s life, time, property or aspirations but my own.

This modified form of dialectical materialism based on atheism proved to be quite relevant resulting in a set of moral positions founded on a refusal to interfere in the lives of others while always keeping individual autonomy first in mind. Such a position can lead to many positive results both for the individual and any community she or he chooses to be associated with.

As continued abstinence reinforces this tendency other positive results ensue, such as an enhanced ability to understand and empathize with the perspectives and points of view of others, and you no longer consider that “reforming” or “improving” them as individuals is either desirable or necessary. Ideally, this includes individuals you may consider to be deluded or fanciful, but it can be an uphill struggle to achieve this level of detachment.

In a greater sense, the very attempt to be judgment-free and “moral” regarding the personal characteristics and habits of others is, in fact, a “Moral Calling” of the highest order directly related to atheism and the absence of religious dogma and “faith-based” belief as an abstract arbiter of human behavior. In this case, we really do care more by caring less.

Following these simple, self-generated, rules, based on the natural order of things, brings you toward an atheist position standing on more solid moral ground than the theist who is merely following a set of instructions. Therefore, atheism, being algorithmic and linear, when, in our context, it is reinforced by abstinence, directly ties into the individual, positive progress of an alcohol and drug-free life.

There is an inherently moral basis for linear thought when divorced from the control of religion, custom, and traditions imbued with the “God Concept” or the more contemporary foolishness associated with various aspects of New Age “spirituality”.

Paradoxically, the satisfaction of being “on your own” in the world (while still being connected with and learning from likeminded fellow atheists in recovery) and not impinging on the rights of others, can be directly associated with enhanced connections with those we love when they are not being controlled or smothered by our own false assumptions. These personal satisfactions are directly connected to a sobriety that takes personal responsibility for our own actions and follows through.

Where the sober self is sure-footed, the drunken self would have stumbled and blundered into ever more grievous errors, and where the impaired consciousness would have misinterpreted the physical world and the people in it the unimpaired self, in almost all instances, takes, in purely human terms, a more elevated course without decontextualizing others and acting out on distorted or inaccurate information. These are highly moral positions that any thinking atheist would, almost surely, balance against the unfortunate alternatives.

Living on solid ground (without any of the egotistical claims about a “higher” ground or superior plane of existence based on the supernatural) shows the recovering atheist/alcoholic/addict a way forward that, while obviously not free of human error, most certainly involves that sense of a “Moral Center” we have been discussing here while affording us a much higher probability of ongoing successful encounters with others along with the greatly enhanced quality of life it is assumed that all recovering people seek.


John’s website: