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I Don't Believe in God, But I Pray

Being free of God doesn't mean I have to be free of hope.

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By Nathan Frank

05/21/14

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A few coins lay at the patinated feet of a statue of St. Jude outside a Roman Catholic church in Brooklyn. The patron saint of desperate cases and hopeless causes stands silent as those wrestling with life dominating addictions enter one of the many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings hosted in the church's basement. 

Even though society at large has grown increasingly secular since the 1960's, inside this enclave many will encourage each other to fortify their sobriety through hitting their knees in prayer to God.

Yet some members, like "John," 43, and in his fifteenth year of recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol, are sharing a new slogan:

"I don't believe in god, but I pray."

Alcoholics Anonymous has a long-standing tradition of using prayer as a means of combating addiction. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA., was greatly influenced by the Oxford Group, a fundamentalist Christian movement that emphasized "God-Controlled" living through prayer. Wilson ascribes his being relieved from late stage chronic alcoholism to the power of a divine being he maintained communion with through prayer over the 37 years of his sobriety.

Yet since its early days, AA has had a minority voice advocating a secular understanding of sobriety. Jim Burwell, a self-described "militant agnostic" and one of the first ten members of Alcoholics Anonymous, was instrumental in the formulation of the society's third tradition, a guiding principle which states, "the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking" - not belief in God or prayer. 

While some contemporary freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics who don't believe in prayer are choosing to migrate to any of the nearly 150 secular 12 step groups in the United States, some are choosing to forge a middle path within mainstream AA. This middle path embraces a non-theistic understanding of recovery, but also advocates the traditional practice of prayer as a tool in recovery. Is this a case of bad faith or are John and those like him early adopters of an emerging understanding of prayer, one that is borne out by their own experiences?

In his hooded sweatshirt and black skinny jeans, John looks young for a man in his early middle age. A bohemian from a time when an artist could afford an entire floor of a Brooklyn loft and still have cash to spend on coke- and alcohol-fueled benders, John shrugs his shoulders with indifference when asked if his is a case of bad faith. 

"I don't care if they think I'm doing it right... After ten years I realized I was doing just fine without belief in God."

Yet it wasn't always like this for John. In his early days of sobriety he was uncomfortable with the Christian inspired language of the Big Book, AA's foundational text. John had no problem with other points of emphasis within AA such as community, accountability and restitution for past harms. Yet the word "god" made him enormously uncomfortable. 

"I was fearful that I would have to believe in something I didn't buy into in order to get sober."

Full of doubt and desperate to be free from his addiction to alcohol and drugs and believing AA was his only option, John threw himself into prayer despite his lack of belief in a divine higher power. Fifteen years of sobriety later, John still doesn't believe in god, but he still prays. Yet asked what he is praying to John says, "I don't have a sense that there is anything listening."

For John, prayer isn't about communion with the divine. Prayer is a vocalization of his hopes and fears, a means of releasing pent up emotions and affirming a mindset of inner peace and well-being. Although he doesn't believe in the god addressed in traditional AA supplications like the Serenity Prayer, he feels they serve a purpose in helping him stay sober.

"I feel centered by the action of prayer... They have reminders in them that put me in a mindset that typically isn't my default." 

John isn't the only one advocating the benefits of secular prayer. For "Paul," 28, an agnostic who has been sober for nearly two years, prayer is about cultivating solitude. After hitting bottom with his drinking, Paul was attracted to the pluralistic tradition of Jim Burwell within AA.

"The selling point in AA was that I didn't have to believe in God and that I could pray however I wanted to."

The son of a Presbyterian minister, prayer was a large part of his upbringing. Yet the boisterous prayers his father would offer before dinner and at the pulpit left him feeling like prayer was about pontification. Because of this, "I had a really tough time with prayer for a long time."

Yet wanting the support community that AA had to offer, he was willing to toe the line in his early sobriety, going so far as to pray on his knees next to his bed per the suggestion of his more traditional sponsor. 

Yet having wrestled with his own lack of belief over the course of his sobriety, Paul came to the hard won conclusion, "I don't have a beef with word god," but I don't feel comfortable with it when it refers to a personal relationship with a divine being."

From this fidelity to self Paul's understanding of prayer grew. Now Paul prays while walking, while riding the subway and even while in the bathroom - essentially anywhere where stress which may make him vulnerable to old addictive behaviors pops up. Paul uses prayer to focus on the rhythm of his breath and clear his mind. As a result of this meditative style of prayer, Paul feels he has a significant tool at his disposal in learning to lead a sober life. 

In November a first-ever agnostics and atheists in recovery convention will be held in Santa Monica, California. This may be evidence that the prevailing mode of thought within AA is shifting, but will credence be given to the experiences of those those who identify as secular, but continue to make use of prayer in recovery? Regardless of the direction AA takes in the future, John and Paul feel that in the present they are embodying, one day at a time, the motto imprinted on the anniversary medallions marking their years sober: "To thine own self be true."

Nathan Frank, art editor for the website greenpointers.com and film critic for the Bushwick Film Festival, is a New Englander writing in Brooklyn. He last wrote about picking up the pieces.

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