Atheist in Drug Rehab

Bottle of NarcoticsI was startled to learn that a close friend, also an Atheist, just entered drug rehab. He lives in another state and I only see him occasionally so it was easier for him to hide his addiction from me than from all those with whom lives and works.  But I was surprised when he sent me an e-mail telling me he was caught stealing and abusing narcotics for two years. I would have never guessed.

My friend was a successful professional, and is happily married with two young kids. His wife is an evangelical Christian.  He has always been very vocal about his Atheism and she married him understanding their differences.  They live near the wife’s very supportive Christian family in the heart of the Bible Belt. The wife takes the two kids to church but my buddy does not go and her church is aware that he is an atheist — her pastor has visited my friend and spoken politely to him a few times without obvious intent to convert.

My drug-addict buddy just started the 3-month rehab program — isolated from family and friends. He can only e-mail 20 minutes per day. He wrote me that his program uses a 12-step AA model.  Part of the program is that the addict is suppose to acknowledge and depend on a Higher Power.

As readers know, I am a sympathetic Atheist who feels that religion can offer many positive functions. To me, when I hear “Higher Power”, I often generously translate it to mean “Less of SELF” — which, in my Buddhist way, I can support. I also feel my buddy’s anti-social characteristics are counter productive for him.

So, when my friend wrote me from the rehab center and wondered what an atheist like him was to do with this “higher power” issue, I wrote him a reply which I consider consistent with the Buddhist notion of “skillful means“.   I essentially suggested he get religion.  Below is my letter suggesting one way to do it.   I’d love to hear your opinions.  BTW, my friend gave his excited permission for me to post his story and this e-mail.  Click “more” to read the e-mail (mildly edited):

Good to hear from ya buddy.

I think, maybe, “Higher Power” stuff would be a great thing for you (as it is for many people).

A concept I like in Buddhism that best approximates a “God” is called “Luminous Mind“.  Synonyms include: Pure Mind, Tathagata , Buddha-Nature.  Consider the following Cognitive Science points that agree with Buddhism which I feel you could use to qualify the Luminous Mind as your Higher Power.

  1. We have no one self — we are a multitude.
  2. We are not independent (!) but are largely defined/formed/influence by others.
  3. We are ignorant of ourselves.
  4. We are even more ignorant of the sides of others that influence us and define us.
  5. Yet our hidden selves talk to us.  Similarly, the hidden sides of the others to whom we relate also talk to us.  So we are deeply influenced by much that we are not conscious of.
  6. A measure of happiness and stability can be obtained by peaceful, healthy relationships with ourselves, others and all these unknowns.
  7. Thus, perhaps you can call this huge unknown “God”.  Then you could envision speaking humbly to this “God” with respect and ask for strength.  Of course it will not be the theist “God” and certainly not the Christian “God” but this Luminous Mind could be one kick-ass “God” for your purposes.

Also, may I suggest that after you are out of rehab, you consider joining your wife’s church with the understanding that you need to be free to be a heretic in their church !  You could use your new notion of a “Higher Power” (whatever you decide upon) to facilitate your participation in the church.  Just a thought — I know a couple of guys that pull that off well for their families.  Also, it will give you a community that can potentially keep you from unhealthy isolation.  Not to mention it will offer a huge shared experience with family and friends.

Again, just a thought.That is my offering to you today Grasshopper. I hope to visit you soon after your monastic retreat.

Shalom brother,

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17 responses to “Atheist in Drug Rehab

  1. I hope your friend gets through this. Greg Epstein mentions a secular alternative to AA in his book, “Good without God.” The book is at home, so I can’t access it right now. I will try to find the details tonight.

  2. Steve Wiggins

    Good advice, Sabio. I know several people in rehab, and I never try to dissuade them from their concept of “higher power.” It gets them through the day. My way of thinking of it is that none of us is omniscient. We don’t have all the answers or know all the factors. Perhaps no one “being” or “force” does, but there is that which is outside of us, to which we inevitably bend. Whatever is out there, as opposed to in here, is a higher power.

  3. societyvs

    I sure do wish him the best in his quest to get clean…and community can help him with that (maybe make friends that are clean and work from that perspective?).

    I am obviously not against the advice given – sounds like it will help and be beneficial!

    However, what needs to be examined is why he felt the need for these drugs…what was it inside of himself that was needing this? Why did he do it? I think if he can find out more of the why he started and stayed with the drugs, and slowly unreveal himself, he will beat these drugs with or without a church (IMO). It’s an honest road ahead for him, he will do well i think.

    I am pretty big on motivation and purpose…I don’t find much accidents in this world. This was no accident where he got to…now it’s an unravelling process.

    Again, my heart goes out to him – I hope he recovers and regains all of this strength – emtionally, mentally, and physically.

  4. Earnest

    Hey Sabio could not help myself had to comment. Great post, there are resources out there for those who are a little uneasy about this Higher Power stuff in the setting of drug rehab:

    This is a reasonable article about 4 secular drug rehab support organizations, which as far as I know are low cost or free. Basically a secular response to AA and NA. I do not have an opinion as to the efficacy or other features of the programs mentioned in the article.

    Definitely believe you are right to actually nudge him toward his wife’s church. This is not because I’m a believer of sorts and you less so. Your statement about the danger of isolation is right on. Temptation and relapse come easily to solitary people in this setting.

    Thank you for using your site to review this.

  5. Earnest

    @ societyvs: you are among the few out there who bothers to assume that drug addicts are actually smart people who do something stupid, and there must be a reason for it. I feel this is the key to actually beating the addiction, to attack the specific reason the drug started in the first place.
    If only there were more people like you!

  6. @ Perpetual-Student & Earnest
    Thanx for the references for secular methods. My friend had no time to shop for Rehab places before entering, but he will have a lifetime to cope and may use some of these. He reads my blog.

    @ Steve
    Thanx. I agree with you. But also, you will notice, I feel that much that is unknown, mysterious, inspiring and such is INSIDE of us. That is because of my view of self.

    @ SocietyVS

    My friend has that “Honest” ability you describe so well. Now he is struggling with strengthening his resolve to honesty and health. I agree there.

    But, I think I am in total disagreement where you said “I don’t find much accidents in this world.” I wrote a post on that “Everything Happens for a Reason” and I didn’t understand your comment on that post just as I don’t understand your comment on this post.

  7. societyvs

    “and I didn’t understand your comment on that post just as I don’t understand your comment on this post” (Sabio)

    Everything, from a human decision process, happens with a reason behind it…there is no accidents (as crazy as that sounds).

    All I mean is we all make decision every day, and those decisions set in motion certain outcomes. Every thing that happens from a human decision can be traced back to that human decision. If there is an accident it is the realm of making the decision and not knowing the outcome of that decision.

  8. societyvs

    “If there is an accident it is the realm of making the decision and not knowing the outcome of that decision.” (Svs)

    Should read

    If there is an accident it is (in) the realm of making the decision and not knowing the outcome of that same decision.

  9. Earnest

    @ societyvs:

    Sorry I think Sabio seems to have more of a data set to support him on the determinism question. But I do stand by my prior comments about you.

  10. @ Society

    Ah, indeed, we need to understand that our apparently small decisions can all add up to both bad and good consequences. I agree on that.

    But accidents happen that can change good decisions into bad consequences too. I also feel people make accidental decisions too. We are in far less control than we can even imagine.

  11. societyvs

    But accidents happen that can change good decisions into bad consequences too. I also feel people make accidental decisions too. We are in far less control than we can even imagine.” (Sabio)

    Give me an example so I know where you are building from on this issue?

  12. societyvs

    “Sorry I think Sabio seems to have more of a data set to support him on the determinism question. But I do stand by my prior comments about you.” (Earnest)

    I think that’s okay – we don;t need to agree on everything – maybe Sabio is making a very valid point and I haven’t caught up to it yet.

    However, with the discussion of data, some things do not have data as a back-up.

    For example, I just watched a documentary called the boys of Buchenwald. It was about all the young boys released from concentration camps, had no families, and ended up being taken inby French orphanages (of a sort).

    Eli Wiesel said the smartest thing I have heard in some time ‘the youngest of us (boys of Buchenwald) had more knowledge then the best teachers there’.

    Experience, in general, cannot be measured and quantified all the time…and Eli was accurate in what he said. None of the Frech teachers actually were in those camps and watched and felt the horrors of the pain inside those places. In some senses, the experience of these children was much greater and imcomprehenisble to the teachers. In the end, the boys became friends and fed off one another for survival (through this trauma).

    Not everything is calculable.

  13. Dale Husband

    I have a cousin who was an alcoholic who finally quit drinking due to an AA program. He was also an atheist who converted to Christianity, due to his wife and other family members persuading him. I wouldn’t be surprized if the atheist that is the subject of this blog entry also becomes a Christian.

    I think of a “higher power” as being dedicated to a cause greater than your individual self, like doing politics and social reform of some kind. It need not be about religion.

  14. @ Dale
    Yes, sometimes there are things far more important than propositional truth — social truth often wins.
    See my Tooth Fairy post.

  15. @ Society
    Probably no need to go into examples of “accident” or “luck” or “randomness” in life. I think it is important to remember these in balance to the statement that “our actions has consequences”. For indeed, “Shit Happens”.

  16. dreadpiratescetis

    that is a fantastic letter! communal support is much needed. i believe atheists too need some sort of church function or at least a time to gather in a pub and argue ethics/philosophy as well as garner support. no person is an island and it is dangerous to live as such. yet the other way to live as part of a “hive-mind” is dangerous as well. the buddhist idea of the “middle path” would be helpful here. YAR!

  17. steven

    Not sure if you know but this place saved my life.

    The Addiction Hotline Free Drug & Alcohol Help
    13071 Springdale St, Unit A, Westminster, CA 92683 (714) 465-5333 () – (800) 232-1444 () ‎

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