Beyond Spirituality

By Adam N.

I used to be a very spiritual guy. Even before sobriety, I rejected the angry anti-theism of my east coast liberal wanna-be intellectual parents. I pursued my inner hippie through embrace of the counter-cultural spiritualist lifestyle, eating copious amounts of psilocybin, LSD and peyote with my Native American friends. Genuinely seeking communion with the gods and the great spirits, we spent our weekends wandering the Catskill Mountains, hiking by moonlight, drinking from pure mountain streams, living in teepees and lean-to’s, intermingling bodily oneness with a series of brunette beauties in flowing flowered cotton skirts.

All the while my weekday, parent pleasing pursuits at City University of New York focused on obscure theologians and holocaust survivors seeking the meaning of life, Paul Tillich and Martin Buber, stories of the Buddha’s life and so forth. Alan Watts and Krishnamurti I read on my own time. Having thus far failed to attain enlightenment, I entered my wanna-be Jamaican phase, grew white boy dreadlocks and smoked pot all day to the perpetual soundtrack of that newly emerging messiah Bob Marley.

Within a few years I was little more than a drunkard, channeling Keith Moon in a tequila swilling party band, some smokable item dangling coolly from the corner of my drooling mouth, in a more or less perpetual state of black out. Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix were my personal role models. Attending class only if nothing better was happening, 7 years into my academic ‘career’ you‘ll be shocked to learn that I joined the ranks of college drop outs.

This coincided with my joining Alcoholics Anonymous. I would still describe myself as a very spiritual guy. But my spiritual pursuit switched tracks. Now it was all about the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I worked them, in order, as prescribed, by the book, multiple times, with multiple sponsors, multiple sponsees, Catholic retreats and Buddhist sanctuaries, prayer and meditation, as I was told was absolutely required for sobriety and sanity.

After a decade of sobriety I returned to school, and was quickly earning highest honors both in my new found major of Philosophy, as well as in Religious Studies. I say this to point out what Alcoholics Anonymous can do with a life. I am tooting AA’s horn here, not mine. But I am also making the point that I was very serious about spiritual seeking. I diligently sought understanding in the works of Saint Anselm and Saint Augustine, Thich Nhat Hanh, Milarepa, The Upanishads, multiple Sutras, Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology and the like, all in a desperate, hungry, obsessive pursuit.

Like every guy I know with a decade of sobriety, I considered becoming an ‘Alcoholism Counselor’ at ten years. That, or else a monk. But what ends up happening to humans while they are busy making other plans? I became a father. I embraced this fully though, as only an obsessive compulsive could. I became a full time, stay home dad to a bunch of kids.

People tend to think the family and the religious life are intrinsically at odds, necessarily mutually exclusive. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps it is a form of male chauvinist bias, a misogyny rooted in the patriarchal dominance within the major religions. If men were more commonly full-time parents, perhaps they’d get how ‘spiritual’ parenting is.

For example, as a good parent, I was devoted to the well being of others, perpetually practicing ‘spiritual’ principles in all my affairs, in a state of more or less consistent self-sacrifice. We lead the life of self-negation which religious esthetes aspire to. Self forgetting, compassion, sympathy and empathy are the everyday stuff of life. Intense discipline is at the core of the project. Parenting embodies the spiritual life as much as does the worldly negation of any monastery.

But, perhaps it behooves me to get to the point. I am an atheist. All of that diligent spiritual pursuit I crowed about, I did that to make a very specific point. We are advised to give the religious side a fair hearing. I did. All that, and then some. As an outspoken atheist member of AA, it behooves me to demonstrate the fact that I did, indeed, give the religious angle a more than fair shake. I am not an atheist by default. In spite of all that spiritual history, or maybe because of it, I am a comfortably humanist materialist atheist. My spiritual quest has reached its happy and successful culmination.

As an AA member, fully embracing atheism was quite a change. Suddenly everything in Alcoholics Anonymous was open to debate, including the claim that we should cease to debate. If the whole higher power thing was not necessarily true, what other falsehoods were being foisted upon me? I, who had self-identified as ‘spiritual, not religious’ for most of my life, began to think critically about what, if anything, that means. After all, spirituality is based upon the same schism that, to me, seemed questionable. There is the world of experience, about which we can make knowledgeable claims and speak meaningfully. Then, allegedly, there is this other realm. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that anything other than the world of knowable experience is little more than an expression of our fevered imaginations.

Worldly claims can be shown to be false. This “falsifiability” is the key distinction. Science actually embraces it. So, for example, one can claim that positive social interactions produce natural endorphins and opiates in the human brain which make people feel good. Theoretically, this kind of claim can be proven false. Like evolutionary theory or the theory of gravity it has the quality of being falsifiable. So far, none of these claims have been proven to be false.

On the other hand, spiritual claims do not admit of falsifiability. “God could and would if he were sought” is a claim which is not falsifiable. It cannot be proven to be false. Famously, therefore, in the spiritual realm one can claim anything one wishes to. The tooth fairy and Santa Claus are on the same epistemological ground as Yahweh and Allah. Thus is born the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster! (Check it out. It’s ‘a thing’.)

Science can explain religious and spiritual beliefs as robust tendencies naturally selected into the human brain over the course of millions of years of evolution on the savannah’s of Africa. These Cognitive Biases explain how our brains naturally tend to interpret experience. We are hard-wired to interpret the world in religious or spiritual terms. This is why belief in god or gods, witchcraft, superstition, and other such supernatural interpretations are so widespread and universal.

Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, or Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, both offer excellent explications of how a host of various Cognitive Biases combine to tend humans towards spiritual beliefs. But, just so we have one example, consider our natural tendency to ascribe agency. This is a robust human trait which can be tested for and scientifically discerned. It is falsifiable. Here is how it works: ever notice how dogs rile up at the slightest aural provocation, assuming some agent with intentions lurking behind every knocking or rustling sound? So did Darwin.

This natural ascription of agency is all the more potent in the hominid brain, giving rise to animist beliefs about nature in it’s parts, monotheistic beliefs about nature as a whole. Our default interpretation of events is that a mind or a will are behind phenomenon. One can see how natural selection would have tended this way. Any beings without such a natural ‘paranoia’ would have quickly been extracted from the gene pool by one stalking predator or another!

So, I have become a lover of science. Why not just reject spirituality outright? Because some phenomenon which we describe as ‘spiritual’ are clearly of some import, are very relevant indeed. Which leads us, finally, to the real point: spirituality is a dated interpretation.

In 1935 we had certain options available to understand our experiences. What we had was inherited largely from Christianity and the Oxford Group. The conceptual and linguistic materials which we could bring to the interpreting task, the ideas we used in our minds to comprehend, and the language we used to describe, were determined by the time and place. Yet today we are living in a different era. Knowledge of the human brain and behavior has grown by leaps and bounds, exponentially, and promises to open up vast new avenues in the imminent future. Those experiences would be interpreted and described in very different ways today.

For example, the ‘Spiritual Experience’ is central to recovery as described in Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather than throw out the baby with the bath, we probably most all agree that this is describing something relevant and important. Perhaps you might concur with those who feel that a large, wholesale, even moral transformation is a central aspect of recovery. Or perhaps you would only go so far as to acknowledge the importance of a personality change sufficient to bring about freedom from alcohol. Once fatally overpowering for us, this former obsession simply vanishes.

Either way, something important has happened, some internal transformation which many of us consider central to the process of recovery. For most this change occurs more slowly than the emphasis upon Bill Wilson’s story would imply. Sometimes we don’t even realize when that change has happened. Then, one day, we retrospectively note freedom from the obsession and compulsion, or perhaps from a character trait which had previously haunted us. Over time these little changes add up. Then, one day, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we wake to find that we are significantly transformed.

Today this sort of psychological and behavioral transformation is generally interpreted in secular, scientific terms. AA’s conservative nature, it’s unwillingness to translate this sort of experience into a more contemporary, accessible form, may be at the heart of our small and diminishing role in helping humanity to overcome the ultimately eradicable scourges of alcoholism and addiction.

Or consider, for example, the oft repeated expression ‘living by spiritual principles’. I am concerned that calling the principles spiritual serves more to obscure than to clarify. I find members are generally talking about:

  1. Psychologically sound principles: like surrender, or letting go of extreme self will. Or acceptance. Principles which are beneficial primarily to the agent in question.
  2. Moral principles: Kindness, tolerance, respect. Principles which we live by which make us good, conscientious members of the tribe.
  3. Pro-social principles: selflessness, charitableness, service to others. Principles which are altruistic, or good for the larger tribe. Of course, there is a mutualism involved here: many in recovery experience how being of value to the tribe feels rewarding.

Undeniably there is mutualism and overlap. Humility, for example, fits in all three categories. The ambiguity therein perhaps sowed seed for the usage of umbrella concepts like ‘spirituality’ to begin with. But there are scientifically sound, empirical explanations for all of these human traits, moral and otherwise. Religious interpretations thrive like mold within the dark crannies and the gaps in our knowledge.

Why would it make any difference? A rose by any other name is still a rose, right? Who cares what we call it?

There are some very good reasons why this is not merely a semantic argument. Importantly, spiritual explanations stand in diametric opposition to naturalistic ones. After all, the problem is of a spiritual nature, not a worldly one. Spiritual approaches tend to close the door on debate, curiosity, and open minded inquiry. Naturalistic explanations, on the other hand, set the stage for further inquiry, learning, and progress.

We gain nothing by ascribing the traits in question to mysterious realms separate from nature. Evolutionary biology, to name just one secular alternative, offers more highly plausible explanations for beneficial attitudes and actions like humility, compassion, service to others and making amends, than does any theology. By eschewing non-natural interpretations, we open the door to a range of promising naturalistic interpretations. Cognitive, neural, psychological, chemical and brain-based interpretations are sure to shed more and more light on alcoholism, addiction, and the process of recovery in the foreseeable future.

But, just as importantly, I believe it is time for us to stop giving god all the credit, humanity all the blame. When we place these transformative experiences or principles within the realm of the supernatural, we are saying that they are not a part of human nature. On the contrary, current scientific understanding clearly teaches us that these most beneficent of traits are fully within the scope of human nature. By failing to employ this more contemporary interpretation, we continue to place recovery in the hands of mysterious supernatural forces, and reinforce inaccurate, negative stereotypes about we humans.

We should embrace the fact that human nature is not all sinful and devoid of goodness. On the contrary, recovery consists precisely of our learning to bring forth and nurture the very best of human nature. Rejecting spirituality means accepting that humans have a naturally good side. In fact, embracing and cultivating this good side is exactly what recovery is all about. After all, my name is Adam. This is personal.

Since Darwin, we have made unprecedented leaps towards understanding that human beings are animals, very much like other animals on our world. Recently we’ve begun some highly rewarding inquiries into the human brain. The psychological and social changes we call recovery can be understood in terms of neuro-plasticity, psycho-social processes, and the like. Placed squarely within the province of the falsifiable, we can learn more and more. That knowledge will build up over time, growing exponentially, resulting in progress, change, and more and more tools for a better future.

I’m writing this, and you’re reading this, so you and I are clean and sober. Good for us. We got ours. But far more addicts and alcoholics are wet than are dry, are suffering than are happy, joyous and free. It is these folk we need to think about. How can these experiences and principles be made ever more accessible and available? I do not think that “Back to Basics” is the answer. Au contraire, mon cheri. (I threw that in for the Canadians!)

We will get much farther when we interpret our experiences as we now are able to do, utilizing the language, knowledge and understanding of the 21st century. Confession, the making of amends, learning to focus less on ourselves getting, and more so on giving to our fellow tribe members, the inevitable transformation which occurs within us when we live by such principles, these are all psychologically sound, moral and pro-social principles that fall within the realm of the knowable, the evidentiary, and the falsifiable. Factual, increasingly accurate interpretations and descriptions all serve as arrows to point in the direction of further inquiry, investigation and discourse, whereas antiquated concepts like spirituality serve not to engender fruitful understanding and discourse, but rather to lead Alcoholics Anonymous directly and irrevocably into a foggy and fruitless cul de sac of stagnation and ever increasing irrelevance.


CSR CoverAdam is an alcoholic and addict, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and an atheist.  He is the author of Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous and is currently working on a second manuscript whose subject matter concerns reinterpreting the tools and modalities of recovery for our increasingly secular world.

On July 5, 2015,  an article by Adam, The Great Chain of Being, was posted on the website, AA Agnostica.

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John S
5 years ago

Later, I allowed “spirituality” to creep back in, though I cannot even define spirituality in any meaningful way. The best that I could come up with is “spirituality is the poetry I use to communicate with other people. It’s how I connect with others. It is the language of the 12 Steps that is instantly recognized by others in AA”. I was satisfied and set forth with this new approach. I remember being the same way some twenty-seven years ago when I was a young man facing a life threatening crisis and feeling frustrated when told “I have a new… Read more »

Bob C
Bob C
5 years ago

Wonderfully written. Very clear. As a fairly spiritual agnostic, I guess I tend to have as much a challenge with staunch atheism as I do religious folks (OK maybe not that much!). As you have alluded: any good scientist produces more questions than they do answers. Evolution theorists are no exception. In fact, many of the great debates in evolution (ie such as the missing link between humans and apes) are massively overshadowed by the mystery of how so called inert and unintelligent material sprouts life. In my view, the very fact that humans exist is evidence that the universe… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  Bob C

Bob, a bit tangential to the topic at hand, but in response to your comment: Science fiction writer James P Hogan makes a good argument against evolution theory in his essay Intelligence Test in his book Catastrophes, Chaos & Convolutions. He does say (in my paraphrase) that this does not mean that we now should run back to our judeo-christian gods for explanations, only that we have not found a reasonable explanation yet, but that it looks to him like there is intelligent creation involved in some way. Whew – we could really get sidetracked here, but i did indeed… Read more »

Steve K
5 years ago

Great essay Adam and a very articulate point of view. I tend to see recovery and the changes we experience in the terms you describe and have viewed the principles inherent within the steps as moral virtue, rather than spiritual principles. You break these down even more accurately. I have been guilty of using the term spiritual in referring to our higher or better nature, no doubt in an attempt to fit in within the fellowship and its tenets. I previously didn’t think it mattered a great deal in using the term spiritual as an umbrella word, but you argue… Read more »

Jon S
5 years ago

A wonderful essay, thank you. I wish sites like this had been around when I got sober. I’d encourage any atheist or rational thinker to study such material. It can avoid a great deal of confusion in sobriety.

Vic L.
5 years ago

Clearly written & informative. The best yet. Thanks so much!
Vic L.