Tell Me About It: Atheist is wary of meetings

Posted: July 25, 2011

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: I think I have a substance abuse problem, but I don't want to go to Narcotics Anonymous because I'm an atheist and don't think I can "let go and let God." What should I do instead?

Answer: Go anyway. If the meeting you attend is God-centric, ask about other meetings, or shop (more plentiful) Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for one that's more your style. The "higher power" isn't God, necessarily - it can be goodness or reason or whatever you regard as an entity that's bigger and more enduring than you are.

Think of it this way - when people have big things to wrestle with, often they take comfort in seeing mountains, skylines or beaches. Why? Because monumental things make a person feel small and impermanent. So all you need for the higher-power process is the idea of something that makes you, by comparison, small and impermanent, something that will long outlast your pain. It's about bringing your problems down to size.

Q: A friend of mine had the opportunity to meet my future father-in-law in all his childish, sexist-joke-making, benignly obnoxious glory. Within five minutes she was totally offended by him.

I used to feel the same way but have grown desensitized and now just sort of tune him out. But my friend was really annoyed by his behavior, and was also offended that I didn't jump in and censor him for her benefit. In her mind, if I really objected to the way he expresses himself, I would jump in and protest whenever he starts up. I just don't think it's worth correcting people all the time, particularly not older ones who aren't likely to change.

And if I have to be around this guy on a regular basis for the next who-knows-how-long, I might as well do what I've already done, which is to develop armor against it. Right?

A: Your friend is right in one sense, that if you "really objected to the way he expresses himself," you would jump in and protest.

It's just that in this case, you don't "really object." You see him as an anachronism best brushed off without fanfare. That's a calculation a lot of people make, and it's often a legitimate one, though it does tend to expose fault lines with those who feel drawing a harder line is appropriate. Your friend, meanwhile, was free to voice her own objections; she didn't need your protection.


E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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