A Pantheon for Agnostics

By Cope C.

When I’m away from home, I don’t expect to find agnostic meetings. A number of my favorite groups are prayer-full, and I’m generally ok with some spirit. My agnosticism doesn’t weigh too heavily; it’s as vague as my religious upbringing. The Bible stories in Sunday school were as far as I got, and I read them as fancy, not fact.

This Christmas I was out-of-town and grateful to find fellowship on a day when solitude can morph toward the mournful. And truth to tell, I’m a sucker for holiday music and sparkling lights on dark nights. The ancient pagans agreed; they gathered evergreen boughs at solstice to assure themselves the long winter would end.

The meeting I happened on was of the down-and-dirty sort, with some serious strugglers and not much easy banter. Sharing moved its way around the room, the faces and stories as familiar as “how it works.”

One man’s manner drew me to attention. There was a glint in his eye, a defiance that dared the group to challenge his attitude. His message was anger without apology. He wanted to fly, and forces held him down. I was tempted to holler yes! Don’t give up! If he’d roared off on a motorcycle, I could imagine leaping on for the ride.

In my early years sober, I resisted the beaten-down quality I saw at meetings, the steps oversize on the wall . . . admitted we were powerless, turn our will and lives over, humbly ask . . . and the implied omnipotence of that impenetrable “god.”  I had not grown up with a loving god. The family version was a stern figure watching every move, waiting to pounce and declare me a miserable sinner. Worse yet, women were the source of temptation and original sin. I much preferred the dashing hero I found in my father, bold and fearless, who brought us kids into his fun.

I loved his stories. As a teenager, he loved nothing better than to start a fight at a county fair just for kicks. He bragged that his highest college achievement was drinking a case of beer in one night. To his baby daughter he bequeathed unrepentant genes and a taste for the wild side. They’ve led me to fight my way where I want to go, to taunt the limits. And sometimes not to know when to stop.

No one called my dad’s drinking excessive; he worked a good job and kept the family housed and fed. But he loved nothing better than to party. When he got home from work, the sun came out in a tense household. My mother despised housekeeping and being tethered to three kids, and we knew it. Looking back I’m bemused that he was the alcoholic, but she had the behavior. She raged with random outbursts, always at us kids. She was smart and ambitious and poisonously jealous of my father’s freedom outside the family.

Every night like the town crier Dad declared the “hour of charm.” We kids would perk up, and Mom relaxed her angry control. The martini shaker came out and erased the difficulties of the day. It was obvious to me that alcohol was the elixir that eased every conflict. Even 15 years sober I can feel a knee-jerk relief when cocktails come out and the mood shifts from “what a drag” to “what the hell.”

I didn’t find my way to AA for the first ten years I was sober. I had good support systems and toughed it out. Early on I tried a few meetings but couldn’t stomach the god talk and rough edges. But one day a thunderbolt struck and I saw for the first time that my refusal to follow rules was damage waiting to happen–and it did. I let my dog run off leash, free like my father, and she was hit by a car and died in my arms. A pattern of past incidents took on clarity through this new lens. I realized that “alcoholism” was more than alcohol and I was still under its power.

This time I needed help from people who understood the disease. It hurt enough to force me to try AA once again. I was welcomed with compassion and understanding without judgment. I stuck it out and did the twelve steps, god and all. Amends lifted the dark burden of wrongs that I had denied weighed me down. The martini shaker was long gone, but the magical thinking still swept my misdeeds into corners where they lurked, waiting for their time to claim vengeance. This time I was forced to attention.

I always wanted there to be someone bigger and smarter, who made it all happen. I just didn’t like the god I encountered at church. When I was a kid, the Greek myths fascinated me. The gods were beautiful and brash; Zeus led an unruly bunch in their sovereignty over sky and earth, seas and harvest. Helios drew the sun on its course each day behind his golden chariot with fire-darting steeds. Poseidon wielded his trident over the oceans and caused earthquakes with a wave. Hades ruled over the underworld, alongside the Furies. He seized the beautiful maiden Persephone from a sunlit meadow and dragged her below to be his queen–but her mother Demeter, goddess of fertility and harvest, in her grief brought winter to the land. Hades was forced to release his bride for enough months to allow planting and harvest–and this explains the seasons. Dionysus–god of the vine, grape harvest, and yes, ritual madness– led his followers with wine, song, and dancing into the ecstasies of religious mysticism.

The Greeks had a story to explain every mystery of the natural world–and the foibles of human nature. Larger than life, the gods and goddesses were still achingly human. Jealousy and rage, love and longing played out in their beautiful landscapes. No matter the human failing, it was made epic in the pantheon.

On Christmas, I sat in a clubhouse complete with artificial tree and glittering ornaments–to honor the birth of he who preached meekness and mildness. But that one defiant share grabbed my heartstrings and transported me far away to the rocky coast of Crete where the mortal Icarus dared to fly.

The Greeks told that Crete was ruled by King Minos, son of Zeus and the beautiful but human Europa. Each year Minos was required to sacrifice his best bull to the gods. One year the chosen animal was of a magnificence he had never known, huge and fierce and pure white–and he could not bear to kill it. In secret, he substituted another. Poseidon saw through the trickery and in his cunning cast a spell that made Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall blindly in love with the bull. From their union was born the horrible Minotaur, with the head of a bull and the body of a man, to live forever under Minos’ care–with the curse that its hunger was satisfied only by human flesh.

To conceal the Minotaur–and his shame–Minos had the great engineer Daedalus and his son Icarus design an elaborate and inescapable labyrinth. And Minos compelled the king of Athens to provide seven youths and seven maidens each year to feed the monster.

This was too much for the Athenians to bear. Their prince Theseus slipped in among the youths, penetrated the labyrinth and slew the Minotaur. He was able to retrace his steps and emerge from the maze with a thread Daedalus secretly gave him to unwind on his journey. In Minos’s rage at this betrayal, he imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in their own labyrinth.

Daedalus had too long been held prisoner by Minos and was determined to find a way out. In the labyrinth, he collected feathers and wax and fashioned huge wings. Over months he labored and finally had a means of escape. He strapped the wings onto Icarus and himself and prepared to rise above the walls and over the sea to freedom.

Daedalus cautioned Icarus gravely: don’t fly too low or the ocean spray will soak the feathers, and they’ll fail. Don’t fly too high or the sun’s rays will melt the wax, and the wings will collapse.

I can imagine Icarus, desperate to escape yet daunted by the clumsy wings, helping his father strap them on, to attempt the impossible.

He stands in disbelief yet sees his father slowly move his arms, huge wings attached–and the feathers flutter and catch the air. Icarus attempts a flapping motion and senses a slight lift. More experimenting, more awkwardness–and then the breathless moment when his feet rise off the rocky ground. A few wing-beats–a thud back to earth. He sees his father rise, impossibly–and then Icarus himself, at last, catches the air in his feathers and feels himself lift to defy gravity. He circles, rises, falls, and rises again. He finds himself at the top of the labyrinth wall–stops, catches his breath, and takes the leap that begins his flight across the sea. He slowly learns to swoop and soar. Then–ecstasy!

Daedalus continues steady and straight, but Icarus is intoxicated. He forgets his father’s warnings. He swoops low, a wing brushes an ocean wave, and he rises quickly, then feels the warmth of the sun on his face. A glorious climb, but one feather shakes loose from the wax and flutters away. Then another–and Icarus remembers his father’s warning. His wings no longer respond; he cannot rise out of that last plunge. He desperately attempts to recover, but it is too late. He crashes to his death in the sea. 

The self of mine–who longs, who aches, who dreams to fly higher than I can sustain–that self is still part of me. Drink once lifted me toward the sun, but it became the betrayer that plunged me low, and my wings became drenched and heavy. Drink assumed power until all thoughts of flying were gone. It took years to find my way back to where I was content simply to walk, one step after another. Grateful to be on the ground.

I still dream.

I do not want meekness in my sobriety. I want to live as big as I can.

Icarus still yearns in my own heart. Is that a defect of character? Or can I honor that daring and reckless side? Learn to harness that energy for better uses–and not crash? Better yet, not drag those I love down with me.

Isn’t it better to have tried to fly than never dreamed?

In the rooms, I sit with the fallen–but the spirit still soars.

And so what do the Greek gods have to say to us? Live big. Know your magnificence. Love and long. Don’t judge. See the beauty in failure. Teach through stories and our shared wisdom.

It’s a beautiful world, and we’re a part of it. Let the fellowship celebrate the great sweep of humanity. We are sadder and wiser–and joyful still. Glorious still. There are mountains to climb, mistakes to make, sunrises to astound, wonders to share.

About the Author: Cope C.

Cope C. is a devout member of the agnostic group Many Paths in Urbana, Illinois.

Images assembled by Cope C. (with apologies to the sources)

Man flying: Wildworks.Biz from production A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

Frieze: 17th-century relief from Musée Antoine Vivenel

Satyr and Dionysus: Athenian red-figure kylix, c5th century BCE, Antikemmsalung Berlin

Falling feathers: DeviantArt, Inc, modified by Cope C.

Audio Story:  Len R.

The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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  1. Galen T. February 22, 2017 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    Cope- Thanks for your provocative article. Sometimes we can forget that while we are powerless over alcohol and drugs, we are not powerless over all the other aspects of our lives.

    Interesting take on the Daedalus/Icarus tale, which is usually interpreted as a caution against hubris and willfulness.

    I suppose the trick is to balance living large with an awareness that pride and self-assertion can lead us in directions we will later rue.


  2. Gerald February 21, 2017 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Cope. I certainly won’t measure my spiritual progress by how well I conform to, what I feel, is a profoundly ill society, just a deeply flawed way of day to day living that is antithetical to the psychological nature of our species … And AA doesn’t ask me to do that! 🙂

    It would be easy, however, to find a sponsor, for example, who will tell you just how you need to conform to this, that, or the other thing. It would be easy to find a fellowship like that, too 🙂 If you want it, it’s out there 🙂

    But it sounds like you don’t want that Low Road in AA: the first half of Step One, the last third of Step Twelve, turning your will and your life over to a sponsor perhaps? or to a select few charismatic old timers in a particular fellowship? Or perhaps substituting religious belief for that Spiritual Awakening that is described in Appendix II, the very error in reasoning that the Big Book warns against.

    We don’t have to settle for that nor for those fake freedoms, that fake happiness that we might have seen modeled for us in the home environment, where Mom & Dad couldn’t teach us how to be fully alive because they simply didn’t know how. Simple as that.

    I got very lucky in where I landed in AA. They told me I would have to find out who I was but that they could not tell me who that is. Ditto about God.

    It was a Steps & Traditions community, you know, that High Road in AA. They practiced a real humility – not a fake meekness nor a fake anything else. I was very lucky to land there. There weren’t, by the way, any fellow atheists in that community to welcome me and make the program of AA accessible to me. No, they were simply good AA members practicing the Traditions.

    Meek? On my long list of resentments 🙂 that’s just not there 🙂 I’m preoccupied with other things, I guess 🙂

    But that “meek” sounds like a churchy message to me. That’s not an AA message, OK?

    Humility is an AA message, and humility means being right size.

    Yes, you can keep your brains and your fiery independence. I have. You might hear that there’s no such thing as being too dumb for the program, ha, ha, ha, really funny. Well, guess what? We’re surrounded by AA members who are too dumb to get the program. They make of AA a simple non-drinking society. Religious faith substitutes for the  Spiritual Awakening that is the promised result of doing those Steps, and they cling to the Fellowship because “my sobriety depends on your sobriety,” but the directions say that our sobriety needs to depend upon God, right? And I’m saying this as an atheist, 23-year sober member of AA, but I’m saying it in all earnestness.

    No, that Low Road, that ain’t living. It’s depressing! 🙂

    Indeed! Live by these Steps and Traditions. Go be alive, fully alive! And tell us how it’s working out! 🙂

    My happiness begins with me.


    Gerald, alcoholic, Japan

  3. Thomas B. February 20, 2017 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    Bummer — somewhere, the comment I made on my iPhone while I was driving to my hometown got lost in cyberspace. Ah another shot at humility.

    Anyway, I loved the story, grokked it, and hope you write some more.

  4. Jack Blair February 19, 2017 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    Very well said Cope.

    lofe is supposed to be big and messy. Timidity is not part of my life at all. Booze beat me down but not any more.

    I’m going to be dead for a long time; I have no intention of doing things by half measures until then!!

    thanks again Cope!

  5. Len R February 19, 2017 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    What a beautiful way the metaphorically describe the suffering, struggle and triumph of our disease. Thank you, Cope C.

  6. steve b February 19, 2017 at 11:28 am - Reply

    A refresher in Greek mythology. I’ve never come across anything like this before in AA. But why not? It was interesting and creative and refreshing.

  7. Joe C February 19, 2017 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Joseph Campbell said that myth reveals truths in ways that nonfiction/journalism cannot.

    More and more in sobriety I come to enjoy great story telling. Thanks Cope.

  8. Pat N. February 19, 2017 at 10:39 am - Reply

    Wonderful essay, Cope-thank you. Many years ago, it the throes of my addiction, I wrote a poem on this myth. I was in the emotional turmoil of late-stage alcoholism, and a big part of my agony was knowing how I was failing my beloved kids.

    I can’t find it right now,  but the final couple of lines were words of Icarus, looking up from the waves, saying: “Thanks, Dad, for teaching me to fly.”

    I think I realized, in my sodden brain, that I couldn’t guarantee my children peace, joy, fulfillment, or anything else. But, like your Dad, I could give them a clumsy example of living as fully as possible. Thanks to the fellowship, I was able to stop drinking and set some other decent examples as well. I hope.

    I will use some of your words. Thanks again.

  9. John S February 19, 2017 at 8:36 am - Reply

    Thank you Cope. Your talent amazes me. I loved this article and I find it inspiring and I relate well. “Teach through stories”, that is probably the secret of AA. We simply share our stories with one another and that connection builds trust and makes sobriety possible.

  10. John L. February 19, 2017 at 7:58 am - Reply

    Wonderful, inspiring  article by a fellow Pagan.  I certainly agree with Cope’s, “I do not want meekness in my sobriety. I want to live as big as I can.”  Many years ago I led the service at the Provincetown Unitarian-Universalist Meeting House.  My sermon was on “The Greek Spirit”:

    http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/GREEK.HTM .

    I should add that my paganism also includes Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things), which poetically argues that no “soul” can exist apart from the body.

  11. Chris C February 19, 2017 at 7:51 am - Reply

    Thank you, Cope, for your vision of sobriety. I can identify with it. I especially liked the way you wove the tale of Icarus into it. Auden, in Musee des Beaux Arts, and Williams, in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, exposed the humanity of that tale to me. (Both poems inspired by the Bruegel painting.) I understood it in ways I never would have before reading their poems.

    Speaking only from a personal perspective, of course, I think it was necessary for me to immerse myself in my powerlessness early in my journey out of active alcoholism. It is probable I would not have stayed the course otherwise.

    On the other hand, a few years further along my path in sobriety I found that wallowing in powerlessness was less than helpful. Treading a balanced approach has worked better for me. Being able to celebrate success without hubris, accept failure without sinking into despair, and finding, in general, a sense of joy in everyday life has been the path that works for me.

    Thanks again for your contribution here.

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