Episode 51: How to Find Recovery Without A Belief in A Higher Power

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Episode 51: How to Find Recovery Without A Belief in A Higher Power

(Disclaimer: This transcript was made using AI technology. Please excuse any errors).
Music 0:00
Welcome to the Atheist in Recovery Podcast, where we talk about finding hope in recovery

now your host, Dr. Adina Silvestri,

Adina Silvestri 0:11
Hello Atheists in Recovery and welcome to Episode 51 of the Atheists in Recovery podcast. And today we have a guest on that I have been looking forward to having on the show for a while now, Mr. JOHN Sheldon. And we talk a lot about AA, what it means to be an atheist in a and how he pivoted from his home group when his Atheist view was not accepted and what he did next. Let's talk a little bit more about my guest today. JOHN Sheldon. JOHN stopped drinking when he was 25 years old, which was about three two years ago. And at the time, all He knew was to go to AA. And that's exactly what he did. After 25 years of attending a meetings he realized that he was an atheist and sadly his Atheistic view of AA wasn't accepted at his home group. So with a friend he started in a meeting for agnostics and atheists. This was almost six years ago and today they're in a six secular AA meetings a week in Kansas City. In September of 2015, he started the website and podcast AA beyond belief, which provides a home for people who travel, a secular path to sobriety and a, they have posted hundreds of stories on their website, and john has recorded over 170 podcast episodes, and he writes this website and in particular, the podcast have absolutely transformed my life. And you could hear the passion in his voice. Alright guys, let's get the show started.

JOHN Sheldon, welcome to the show.

John Sheldon 1:54
Thank you. Good to be here.

Adina Silvestri 1:56
I'm excited to have you on I've been a fan of your For a while now, and I believe it was my our mutual friend Joe C, from Rebellion dogs podcast that that initially told me about you and your podcast. So yeah,

John Sheldon 2:12
that's great.

Adina Silvestri 2:15
So I thought I'd start this conversation like I do, all of them by inquiring about your spiritual background from childhood.

John Sheldon 2:23
Well, my parents come from the southeastern United States, a little town in Florida, and they were raised Baptist. And in my very early years, I mean, very early before I was six years old, we would go to church, you go to a Baptist Church, and my father even taught Sunday school. But in my dad went to father was military and he went to Vietnam and came back and a lot of change occurred in our household when they came back. And one of those is we didn't have anything more to do with religion, which really turned out to be helpful for me because I grew up without any idea of what religion involve I didn't know the difference between a Catholic and Protestant. I didn't know anything about the Bible. I knew nothing about religion whatsoever. So I wouldn't even describe myself as an atheist. I was just it was just not anything that I considered. But as you get out into the world, oh, boy, all of a sudden religion becomes really important. And that's, that's when I it started to become a problem when I because I felt like man, there must be something wrong with me because I can't believe this. I can't believe in a God. But what I did in ultimately is I somehow tried to conform to what I thought other people would expect of me. And you know, that that was it. But I much later in life, really about several years ago, I really realized that I'm an atheist, and that's where I'm at today. As far as my spiritual beliefs go,

Adina Silvestri 3:58
yeah, and I'm sure This will weave itself into your recovery story. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that about your journey?

John Sheldon 4:07
Sure. Yeah. Well, I started young and I ended young. I started, I started drinking. before I was even a teenager. As I said, I grew up in a military family and my, my father used to have these huge parties and all these army people come over and so forth. And, boy, that's a eight 910 year old after these parties, I'd go down and I drink the leftover alcohol that was in the classes after the party. And, you know, I didn't I didn't know what I was doing, but came back on I nailed himself even then got drunk for the first time when I was maybe 12. You know, and it was immediately a terrible experience for me, and I immediately had felt the shame of doing of doing what I did, and swore I wouldn't do it again, and I didn't drink till I got into high school. And at that point, it was, this is the 1970s and Most of our parents were happy that we were drinking as long as we didn't do drugs. That was the deal. And society as a whole didn't have a problem with drinking, for example, we would get beer and drive around on our cars, and get drunk basically. And if the police never found us, this is back in mid 70s. It was not a big deal. It was just you know, pour out your beer boys and going home type thing. But what happened with me is my my drinking was never really normal. But it just became worse over a period of time. And by the time I was in my literally by the time I was 19, is when I first thought about getting help. And what happened. There was a I was in college and I was having problems with drinking and having a life at the same time. And there was an ad for Alcoholics Anonymous in the newspaper. And I thought about going to that meeting and I just said to myself, I just can't I'm just too young. This is crazy. And that that word alcoholic was really something that prevented me from getting help with that. Because I didn't think that I was an alcoholic. I thought I was way too young for that. So anyway, I life got worse. And I ended up living with my parents when I was 21. And my mother committed suicide when I was just shortly after my 21st birthday. And I was there and it was a traumatic experience for me and my drinking accelerated from from next five years. And so for the next five years, I was probably surely hardiness 30 years ago now, so it's hard for me to remember it properly, but I was either drunk or sick from being drunk, and I was constantly dealing with problems related to my drinking. And so after what happened, I got a start getting arrested for drunk driving. Now it's in 1980s. And they're taking drinking and driving a lot more seriously than they did when I was a kid in the 70s. So I got three DUIs, and each one was about a year apart, and on that third one, I lost Everything, I lost my job, and my apartment and everything. And so that's when I decided I needed help. And I went to a and that's, I've been sober ever since it's been going on. I think it was 1988. So 31 years now going on 32 I think I have to do the math.

Yeah, but it's been a long time.

Adina Silvestri 7:25
Yeah, thank you for sharing that powerful story. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your experience with a and, you know, we've mentioned in talking before that you didn't find that sort of sense of belonging when you went to a you know, I don't know how aware you were in the process of your recovery. But

John Sheldon 7:46
yeah, so yeah, so a really surprised me. So growing up, you know, we all know about Alcoholics Anonymous, and we know it from the movies. We know it from reading in the newspaper and so forth, but I never knew That there was anything having to do with God in a, I had no idea. And so at this first meeting that I went to, there's God written all over the walls and his steps and everything and they pray at the beginning of the meeting, they hold hands and pray at the end of the meeting. And one hand I felt comfortable that I was in a place where with people who understood me, but at the end of the meeting, when they held hands to say the Lord's Prayer, I once again felt that sense of being different, because that's not my experience to pray with people. It's not It's not what I do. I don't do that. And I felt uncomfortable doing that. But my life was so bad that I kept coming back. And I began to rationalize in the beginning, the religious aspects of a and it's pretty, it can be pretty heavy. And it depends on the people that you're talking to. But I had rationalized and I said, Okay, so these people are doing these things, praying and that bought all this stuff and they must be getting some psychological benefit to it. So I even then I was thinking I didn't even identify as an atheist, but even then I was trying to rationalize what they were doing. In a way that kind of made sense to me. But what's so powerful about Alcoholics Anonymous is that community and that and that's in it's good, but it can also it helped me but what I find disturbing as I look back at my experience was without knowing that I began to conform to what I thought the group would want to hear from me and what the in an AA you get this internal language, this jargon that I learned to speak and when I spoke that people approved, and I was the heads not up and down, he's got it. But and I did that for a long time. And after 25 years, and ay ay ay finally came to the conclusion that I was an atheist and I thought about the program And I looked at it as an entirely practical terms going almost back to where I was in the beginning when I tried to see some way to make sense. And it did it made sense to me that finally that no, it's not what I believe that's important. It's what I do. And I began to express that in meetings. And I started getting some criticism.

Adina Silvestri 10:19
Can you tell me or tell the listeners what exactly you were expressing? I think that might be important.

John Sheldon 10:25
Yeah. Well, one thing is what's important for me is that I'm sober because of what I do, not because of what I believe, and it's other people that have helped me, it's not a god. And I reject the entire language of higher power and so forth. And so one of the where I knew I needed a divorce from my home group is we were having a meeting one time, and the topic was about how humans would fail us and we had to have a belief in God, the only God could help us is crazy. And I remember at the meeting saying no, that's not true for me, because there is no God. And people surely can fail you. But that's all I have is people. And I can always reach a human being. I can always reach a human being, I can't reach a god. So, anyway, so I started getting some pushback. And that was really that was really where I started having problems plus, also in the literature. There's really incorrect descriptions of a lot of atheists and agnostics. And there's a lot of pressure to not be that. But it was really this idea that I had to have some sort of a supernatural power to stay sober. That was a deal breaker for me. I had to I couldn't do it anymore. I could not. I had to be who I was. Yeah,

Adina Silvestri 11:45
yeah. So you start to receive pushback from this home group. And you decide, okay, this just isn't working for me anymore. So what steps did you take next? Well, because these are the people that you counted on.

John Sheldon 11:59
Yeah. And that That's what was so weird is these were people who I had known literally many of them for 25 years. And these are people who accepted me. And all of a sudden, I wasn't getting that acceptance. It was a really difficult time. So I started searching and even before my final break with my home group, I started searching for atheists and agnostics, and a specifically at that time, there really wasn't a lot out there. But there was a little bit there was a website, that in New York, there was Rogers website, AA agnostic, there was a few other websites out there. Anyway, I learned that there have been atheists and agnostics and atheists since 1975. And there were actually specific AI meetings that were designed specifically for atheists and agnostics. And I had no idea. And so I started to meet these people online and connect with them. And next thing I know they're having a conference in California in Santa Monica. So I go to this conference in 2014. And now at this time, I've already started in a group and Kansas City for atheist and agnostics it started that in July. Yeah, in July of 2014, I guess. And in November of 2014, I go to Santa Monica and I meet all these people from all over the world who are atheist and agnostics in a. And it just changed. It just changed everything. For me. It was huge. And actually, I became more involved in my recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous, and it was just a huge deal for me. So I've gone to that was the first conference that we've had we ever had. And we've had now three of them. I've been to all of them. So it's just been amazing. Yeah,

Adina Silvestri 13:38
yeah, I have to go to my first one. What was supposed to be this year, but because of COVID-19 I guess it'll be next year.

John Sheldon 13:44
It's there. They're really interesting. What what you'll find is that there's a huge variety of even people who identify as an atheist. They can't agree on anything other than we don't want to drink basically yet, but You'll have atheists who pray, you'll have atheists who have who for whom it's important to have a spiritual experience, then you have atheists who absolutely cannot stand that and are and will loudly debate you for even thinking of such a thing. And so there's just a huge, huge variety of thought, you know, which makes it interesting because at your typical AA event, it's like everybody's pretty much in the creepy you know, but at these AIA conferences for atheists, agnostics, there's you don't have that sense of that so much, but I mean, there's there's a, it's kind of hard to explain. It's not all black and white like that. But there's more variety, I guess, of experience than you might find otherwise, and people will find that interesting. I think they, it's interesting. Yeah, you think that an atheist is just, you know, one way but now there's a huge variance in how they approach the program. And I've actually evolved a lot over the years over the last five years, I've changed my my views and thoughts and probably will continue

Adina Silvestri 15:00
Yeah, yeah, I changed him I think on a daily basis. But you know, I've heard people in my practice and and on the podcast say that when they've, if they've if they've come from a religious background, when they are in complete crisis, even if they identify as an atheist, they hit their knees, they go straight to what some of those old and true sort of habits and beliefs and so I find that interesting

John Sheldon 15:27
and I do the same thing. So I didn't grow up in a religion but I grew up in a in a is the Serenity Prayer is huge and I still to this day will recite the Serenity Prayer. And it's not that I think there's a there's some God out there that's listening to me and giving me anything but I'm just saying the words helps me it comforts me. And there's a lot of truth in that prayer, of seeking the serenity to accept things I can't change wisdom, to courage to change the things I can and wisdom difference. There's, that's that just summarizes my how I like to live my life now. So that's i that is still an important part of how I live, I guess is to keep that prayer. Yeah, repertoire I guess.

Adina Silvestri 16:14
Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you for sharing that. I see. I feel like a lot of individuals that I talked to struggle with aa and not fitting in. And so it's good to know that you can leave your own group and, and have the courage to do so just by putting your recovery first, really?

John Sheldon 16:32
Yeah, yeah, there are more and more now, there are a lot more secular age groups, but you know, you don't have to limit yourself to a either. Recently I took the smart training to become a facilitator for smart recovery. I don't know if I will follow through with that or not. But it's it's kind of interesting because I, I finished my training during this time when all of the meetings are online. So I haven't actually been to a smart meeting. So I've gone to some of the online meetings and they're huge right now. You of COVID. And so there's been like over 100 people in these meetings. But they're really interesting. And they're very well presented. And so I've gotten a lot out of it. But there are options out there for people besides just a you can you can go to a meeting, you go to secular a meeting, you can go to smart meeting, all kinds of, and then more and more people are doing a lot of different sorts of things online. In fact, I heard one of your guests in your podcast talk about, you know, she likes to read recovery memoirs, and that's, I love that too. And that's, that's huge, you know, so that there's an option of AA is everywhere and it And the thing about a just like any other group, whether it be smart or anything else, your experience is going to depend upon whatever group you go to, and whatever meeting you go to. There isn't just one way to say what AA is or what smart is you it's gonna depend upon that particular group of people that you're meeting with.

Adina Silvestri 17:51
Yeah, I love that. And maybe just also and I know this is this is hard, but to not be judgmental by going Two different meetings. Yeah, right. Yeah. of yourself of others.

John Sheldon 18:05
Yeah, that's what frustrates me the most about the recovery community, but it's mainly an online thing is you've got a group of people who absolutely hate a. And I understand that there have been people who've been harmed by Alcoholics Anonymous. And they just so they're just passionate against a and then you have people who are, you know, in the smart camp, and they think a is bad. You got people in a who think smart, it's just crazy. But there's a there's a whole new generation coming up, who's like, I just do whatever it works for me.

Adina Silvestri 18:38
Yeah, let's just build our own recovery system. Day by day.

John Sheldon 18:43
It's like, it's like, my generation and the people older than me are fighting the culture wars still, but there's a whole other group of people that are coming up that really don't want to get involved with that and they just want to do what works and what makes sense for them and often mind sets just find some friends who to hang out with who support them.

Adina Silvestri 19:04
Yeah, have the same goals. Yeah. Recovery goals. Yeah. So I thought we could switch now switch gears now to talk about your rad podcast a beyond belief. It's been a coming up on five years now. Correct.

John Sheldon 19:20
Five years in September.

Adina Silvestri 19:22
Yeah. So I want to read them just a little bit about what a beyond belief is. And it's more than just a podcast so a belief is a refuge, a home and a for agnostics, atheists, free thinkers and all others who seek a secular path of recovery within Alcoholics Anonymous. And then you say the stories presented here reflect the broad and varied experience of those who choose to walk the secular path in a this is a big deal. I'm wondering what informed your decision to start this community.

John Sheldon 19:51
So back in 2015, Roger see from Hamilton, Ontario. He has a site called a agnostic which is huge. In the secular community, and he wanted to retire and stop posting articles, so he asked me if I would create a site to succeed that. And I said, Sure. And so I created a beyond belief, and I wanted to have a podcast component. At that time, I had been a guest on up on one podcast, and I was listening to podcasts, and I really liked them. And I just wanted to have that experience. So in September 2015, we started publishing articles and articles are written by people within the secular community. And we started the podcast as well. And so we that's what we've been doing ever since. But that's the reason I started it. That's how I got involved with it to begin with. Now, Roger never did retire. So now we have two websites.

Adina Silvestri 20:48
That's pretty funny. Yeah. And how, you know, I think you've asked me this question, and so I'm gonna steal it from you. How did you transform from the beginning of starting this community till till now? Well, just looking back,

John Sheldon 21:02
it's it's broadened my world. I'm no longer limited to the people I know, here in Kansas City, you know, I have met people from literally all over the world, and I've had the opportunity to get to know them and, and listening to a person's story. That's really an intensely personal experience. And I To this day, all these people I've talked to, their stories are still in my head, you know, they really have touched me deeply. Because you know, when you're when you're working on a podcast, it's not just the conversation that you're having at the time, but you later go back and you do the editing, so you really listening to people. And I noticed that my listening skills have really improved quite a bit since I've been podcasting and just my everyday conversations, I'm a little bit of a bit of a better listener. So in that way, it's transformed me. It's sometimes overwhelming. I have to describe this. I don't say it's overwhelming, but it's another believable when I hear from people who tell me and and the number of people who tell me that they are helped by that podcast, I never dreamed that it would touch so many people and make such a difference in a person's life. So I've had people write me and tell me that and I just don't know what to do with that. That's like, I'm not. It's just incredible. But what it really is, it's not me, it's all these other people who come on the podcast and give this information. And you know, when we're not when we're not sharing our personal stories, where I've also talked to authors, doctors, and we've even looked at other recovery programs like refuge recovery and smart recovery and the Sinclair method actually, which I find really an interesting way to recovery. So we also look at things outside of the typical a box. So I think if anything's changed me so much is that fact that it has broaden it. I've learned more and I feel more connected to people outside of my, my local community here,

Adina Silvestri 23:03
yeah, I love that, you know, it just really expands your awareness when you're learning from people that aren't sort of in your wheelhouse, so to speak, and that you would that you'd normally associate with. So, yeah. So as we kind of wrap up today, going to ask a question that little out of the box, but if you could write a phrase or an a billboard, you know, for all to see, what would it say?

John Sheldon 23:28
Oh, okay, let's see.

Well, I would say that your recovery isn't about what you believe it's about what you do. And that might be controversial. It's not what you believe it's what you do. I think that I think that a person's actions mean more than what they believe. And I think that if we focus on what are the things that we do and the people that we know and less on the beliefs that we might hold, the better off that will be. Anyway, I hope that isn't too hard. controversial but I don't mean to be because I'm not saying I don't respect people who have beliefs and gods and so forth I really don't have I respect their beliefs but I just like the idea that you know, focus on what you do. You know, that might not be the best billboard in the world but there you go.

Adina Silvestri 24:17
Yes, but it's your Billboard. That's my Billboard. You can look you can change it tomorrow if you want I

John Sheldon 24:25
probably will.

Adina Silvestri 24:26
All right, how can people best find you on the social

John Sheldon 24:31
Okay, on

social media, you can just search for AA beyond belief. We have a Facebook public Facebook page and we also have a private Facebook group that you can join in Find us on youtube just search AA beyond belief. We have a YouTube channel, there's a lot of stuff there. We were doing live streams. Now if you're interested, we do live streams on Friday, seven o'clock central eight o'clock eastern, where it's a lot of fun. We it's a it's a live podcast, we have people call in with questions. And comments and people also commented in a chat room. It's a lot of fun. We do that every Friday. It's kind of like having a, it's kind of like having a party and a meeting at the same time. Sometimes they're light hearted topics, sometimes more serious. And it's just fun. So if you'd like to do that, you can find us on YouTube as well. And then on our website, Yeah.

Adina Silvestri 25:20
All right, john. Well, thanks again for being on the


John Sheldon 25:22
Well, thank you for having me. It was a lot of fun. I appreciate it.

Music 25:25
Thank you for listening to the Atheists in Recovery podcast. For more great info and to stay up to date, head over to

Welcome to today’s show!




  • How John’s early view of religion helped shape his identity in the world
  • Why did John ultimately decide to conform to religious beliefs even though his family had decided religion was not a part of their worldview
  • How John’s traumatic experience (and how he absorbed that experience) led to his accelerated drinking
  • How after 25 years in AA, John came to the conclusion that he was an Atheist
  • Why John rejects the concept of a higher power and how this led to a fracture with his home group
  • What informed John’s decision to start the AA Beyond Belief community
  • John talks about how he has changed as a person from the beginning of the podcast until now
  • What would John write on a billboard for all to see





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