The Incurable Gonz Blinko: An Atheist in a 12 Step Program

By Chris Hofstader

Hello, my name is Chris and I have a substance abuse disorder. “Hi Chris!” say the chorus of other addicts and alcoholics. I say a bit about what is going on in my life regarding recovery and I pass to the next person. This is how almost all 12-Step programs conduct their meetings.

“But Gonz, you’re an atheist,” you say. “How can you function in a system that requires acceptance of a higher power?”

I came into my recovery program in 1997 and, except for three or four bad days in 2010, have had no alcohol or my other drugs of choice. I came into this program in Harvard Square, Cambridge , Massachusetts, the most enlightened zip code (02138) in the US. I will admit, Cambridge meetings are a bit more enlightened than those in most other parts of the country but the basics are the same.

Tellis Lawson, my sponsor from the day I came into the program until the day he died in September 2011, told me early on, “About god, you just need to remember, gods exist and you aren’t one of them.” A good friend of mine who started about a month after me back in 1997, said he used Eric Cartman as his higher power; I chose the acronym “group of drunks” (G. O. D.) because, as a humanist, I believe that a group of people is stronger than an individual and, also as a humanist, I believe that most good things that happen to humans comes from the effort of other humans.

A good friend of mine who celebrated 40 years of sobriety last month and also an atheist told me early on in my recovery to appreciate Harvard Sq. meetings as, when he first started, “You could pick any higher power you liked as long as it was Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.” Of course, that was 1972 and things have changed a lot.

Last August, I came out as an atheist humanist at a meeting in a church next door to Harvard Law School. I felt especially cranky that day and, when I heard some other drunk say, “God saved me when I got shot…” I raised my hand. When the chairperson called on me, I first said that I had to come out as an atheist as atheist is the new gay and then I said, “If your god loves you so much how come he didn’t save you before you got shot? And, why can’t you simply thank the paramedics, emergency room nurses and doctors, the surgeon who removed the bullet, all of the humans who, over the years, invented all of the tools and techniques used to save you? You were saved by humans not some distant celestial voice.”

I continued, “This program was founded and designed by humans. We’re hear enjoying fellowship with other humans helping each other with recovery. Why must we insult the humans by demeaning their contributions by insisting that a god intervened when all of the evidence points to amazing humans doing amazing things.”

When I stopped, the meeting had grown very quiet. One guy, with about 60 days sobriety under his belt, announced, “Would you listen to this fucking retahd!” I wondered just how many people would be offended and wondered if I might be shunned. After that meeting, a number of people came to me thanking me for expressing what they’ve wanted to say for years. One of those who thanked me is a 82 year old woman who claims that X-Celerator, my guide dog, is her higher power.

Even the hardline believers in that meeting accept me and we don’t debate the existent of a supernatural god when together. I needn’t be a full time atheist evangelist. If people want to believe so be it. My dad and mom are Catholics and I learned long ago that you can argue logic and rationalism until you turn blue and you won’t convince true believers to change their minds.”

“Why choose a 12-Step Program over something more rational and/or secular?” you ask.

There are three excellent programs that do not contain the higher power component of a 12 step program: Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). Over my 15+ years in recovery, I have attended meetings of all three and benefited from them. Unfortunately, these programs are very small and it’s often hard to find a meeting. Even in enlightened Cambridge, MA, none of these have more than one meeting per week while Alcoholics Anonymous alone has more than 1000 different meetings per week accessible by public transit. If you need to find some humans with whom to commune, the popularity of 12 step programs cannot be beaten for finding fellowship.

The tools taught by SMART Recovery (on Wikipedia), an organization that formed over a political split among the founders of Rational Recovery, seem to have a higher rate of efficacy than other popular recovery methodologies. It is based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), especially based in the form of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) made famous by the late Albert Ellis, a personal hero of mine. One can learn these techniques quickly and can apply them in many parts of their lives and one can use these techniques while attending 12 step meetings for fellowship as well.

Some very hardline 12 step members will tell a person that they aren’t working the program properly. These people can usually be ignored as the only thing one can truly do incorrectly is to relapse by picking up a drink or illicit drug.

As I started off, I’m an atheist who has about 14 out of 15 years of very solid recovery. I’ve never dropped to my knees to pray, never believed in a supernatural higher power and I have friends in these programs all over the country and in many parts of the world. If you think you need help with an addiction, please write to me using the contact form at and I will confidentially help you in any way I can. If you need a recovery program and really cannot stand the notion of a 12 step program, I urge you to get involved with one of the secular and reason based programs and do your best to find other like minded people to befriend. Getting clean and sober is very hard and it is made much easier when you have fellow humans to help you with your recovery.

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