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My Sober Conversion to Atheism

Four years ago I scaled a Pacific Northwest peak and felt rush in the great spiritual wind of... no-God. Despite pushback from fellow AA-ers, I've remained happily sober ever since.

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Mountaintop photo via Shutterstock

By John Gordon

02/25/13

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I stood on a mountaintop and looked out over the sea. A thousand feet below me, eagles soared on thermals. Wind blew through my hair and I felt dizzy. I fell to my knees and cried. I didn't realize it at the time, but this “white-light” experience was the moment I realized there was no God—I had been struck atheist.

To be accurate and appropriately less dramatic, my atheist conversion was far from immediate. It was a process that began when I got sober about five years earlier. 

I finally stopped drinking and drugging at age 30, in the summer of 2004, after about 15 years of relatively high-functioning abuse. I took to 12-step recovery like a fish to water and was especially drawn to Alcoholics Anonymous’ message of a spiritual solution.

In my drinking days, I was known to get in passionate religious conversations with anyone unlucky enough to sit next to me at the bar.

I was perfectly comfortable with spirituality. I had been exposed from an early age to a hodge-podge of spiritual ideas by Goldwater Republican parents who baptized me Episcopalian but referenced Joseph Campbell and the Buddha in casual conversation and sent me to an astrologer in lieu of a child psychologist. 

Not that I had an entirely rosy view of religion—far from it. I was raised in the Bible Belt and had plenty of run-ins with all manner of unpleasant kooks throughout my life. My parents also saw fit to send me to a Catholic school for my primary education, where I experienced first-hand how religion could be used to repress individuality and creativity, and it filled me with loathing and terror. At least I can times stuff and write good in cursive. 

But instead of turning me off entirely to religion, these negative experiences instilled in me the idea that there was a right way and wrong way to do spirituality. And that was an idea I was willing to go to the mat for. 

In my drinking days, I was known to get in passionate religious conversations with anyone unlucky enough to sit next to me at the bar, beseeching “GOD IS LOVE!” through a haze of whiskey and cheap cocaine as my quarry gingerly backed away. 

By the time I’d reached my bottom in the winter of 2003–2004, I’d become intrigued by the Christian writings of C.S. Lewis and would often put myself to sleep reading The Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity with one eye closed to correct for double vision. I listened to Louvin Brothers songs of loss and redemption late at night and felt a hair’s-breadth away from divine intervention. 

I made it to my first AA meetings in the spring of 2004, and at that point I had no problem whatsoever reading the word “God” in the literature. I remember thinking I understood my relationship with God so well that I didn’t need a second or third step. I pitied people who had problems with “the God thing.” Not that I couldn’t relate to their disdain for religion in general—but, I thought, “Can’t they just get over it?” The goalposts seemed so wide! 

After a couple years in AA, a man who is a well-known Buddhist teacher became my sponsor. He spoke of a faith in AA born of experience as opposed to the blind faith demanded in most religions. As he explained it, first we hear the experience of those who got sober before us, and then, through our own practice, we develop a faith in the fellowship, the steps, and ultimately ourselves. He encouraged investigation. He taught me the healing power of the 11th Step, and told me that when I prayed it wasn’t important that God hear my prayers, so long as I did. These ideas felt powerful and practical and attractive, and they heavily inform my thinking about recovery and spirituality to this day. 

Still, I held onto the idea of some divine force. Concepts like universal intelligence, pantheism and synchronicity still held weight with me. I believed in—or wanted to—a creator or universe that was actively looking out for me. 

Meanwhile I was doing the 12 Steps, which are often described as a way to find God. But my experience with the steps was more mechanical than magical. The process of inventory, amends, meditation and service simply gave me insight and a sense of purpose and connectedness and helped quiet my self-obsession. Neat stuff, but hardly divine intervention.

So, I was lead to the mountaintop—a real one, on a map: Constitution Mountain, the highest point on Puget Sound’s Orcas Island. It was the last day of a three-week solo road trip up the West Coast. The trip itself felt blessed. Beauty, adventure—I saw old friends and new sights and even managed to sow the seeds of a profound romance. 

I decided to spend the last day seeking solitude in the San Juan Islands. But instead, I found loneliness. A sense of despair set in as the fraudulence of my existence stared me in the face. Ah, Mother Nature… I trudged, directionless, through dense woods up a steep path. I wanted to turn around and go home. I kept going.

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