Atheist Without a Foxhole

By Sarah S., your NoVAtions editor

When I was a kid, not more than five or six, a stranger in a park walked up to
me with a Bible and started talking to me about Jesus. (This was this Deep
South. It happened.) My immediate reply was, “I’m an atheist. Leave me

Just like I’ve probably been an overeater all my life, I’m a lifelong atheist. Not
an agnostic, not spiritual. An atheist. I know there is no god. So when my
addiction became apparent, and I realized I needed help, my reaction to OA
was the same: “I’m an atheist. Leave me alone.”

I knew about OA for years, and I knew it was the help I needed. Still, there was
no bleeping way I could become a member, because there was no way I could
believe in a higher power. Not even a doorknob. Not even my cat! How could I
give myself over to something that didn’t exist? Eventually a friend who is a
member of several fellowships explained to me that I didn’t need a specific
Power Greater Than Myself, I just needed to believe that I’m not the most
powerful thing in the Universe. That got me in the rooms.

Since then I’ve still problems with the concept of a higher power. Within a few
months of coming to OA, I had a lightning-bolt moment in a meeting when I
heard so much wisdom from my fellows that it struck me that you—the group,
the program—are a power greater than myself that can restore me to sanity.
But it hasn’t been as clear since then. I don’t understand how I can pray to the
group. I still have a visceral negative reaction to the word “god” in almost all of
our literature (and don’t get me started on referring to “god” as “he”).

I know people, some of whom I love very much who completely identify as
compulsive overeaters and have come to meetings, but have been repelled by
the requirement to believe in a higher power. The literature says we can define
it however we like, but to some, even “We Agnostics” in the Big Book comes
off as condescending. How can we carry the message when we ourselves
don’t entirely believe it?

I’ve been doing a great deal of searching lately. I’ve found books and podcasts
that are created by and for nonbelievers in 12-step programs, I’ve called into
“alternative spirituality” OA phone meetings, I’ve found atheist versions of the
steps, I’ve spoken to other fellows who don’t have a traditional higher power.
Most importantly, I’ve scoured the many exceptional NoVAtions submissions
on the topic. It hurts me that so many feel that they need to remain anonymous
atheists and agnostics. I cried when I first read the article that appears on the
top of page two of this issue. We spend our lives being ostracized for our
weight and hiding our disordered eating; we shouldn’t face discrimination and
judgment in what is supposed to be a safe space. I feel so lucky that everyone
I’ve come into contact with in OA has been non-judgmental about my militant
atheism, and that reinforces my definition of the program as a power that can
restore me to sanity. It’s a continual effort, but I keep coming back.

When I’m struggling, I still go back to that essential belief: that I’m not the most
powerful force that exists. I can turn to the most basic of physical forces, let go
of the food, and let gravity draw it to the floor. Eating things off the ground is a
whole other issue, so that doesn’t always work. But for a control freak to admit
that she can’t control everything… well, that is a Power Greater Than Myself.