I 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.
- We have no one self — we are a multitude.
- We are not independent (!) but are largely defined/formed/influence by others.
- We are ignorant of ourselves.
- We are even more ignorant of the sides of others that influence us and define us.
- 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.
- A measure of happiness and stability can be obtained by peaceful, healthy relationships with ourselves, others and all these unknowns.
- 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.