Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12-Step Program — one of the most popular ways to quit addiction — involves surrendering oneself to a higher power, but what do you do if you don’t believe in God, or any other form of deity?
For atheist Barry Hazle Jr., the answer was simple: you stand your ground. You don’t recognize a higher power, and you don’t participate, despite the repercussions.
“They told me, ‘Anything can be your higher power. Fake it till you make it,'” he said.
After serving a year in jail for methamphetamine possession, Hazle was released on parole, but ordered to participate in a 90-day inpatient drug treatment program at the Empire Recovery Center in Redding, California.
Being an atheist, Hazle scoffed at the program’s idea of surrendering to a higher power, and asked about secular drug rehab programs. They told him that he could find a higher power anywhere — that it didn’t have to be God — but it seemed they were missing his point. The program included prayers and reference to God, regardless.
“I have to become powerful to overcome problems in my life,” he said. “A higher power, to me, is a fiction.”
Hazle then continued to object, and was sent to jail at the California Rehabilitation Center for over 100 days. Officials said it was because he was being “disruptive, though in a congenial way, to the staff as well as other students … sort of passive-aggressive.
In 2007, he sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and the substance abuse treatment organizations the CDCR contracted to coordinate parolees’ rehab, for violating his religious liberty.
Seven years and two federal court hearings later, Hazle won a $1.95 million settlement, but the money wasn’t his goal.
“I just want to make sure that somebody else doesn’t have to go through this kind of thing,” said Hazle.
The CDCR agreed, citing a federal case law, and issuing a directive saying that parole agents can’t compel a parolee to participate in any religious-oriented programs. They must offer nonreligious alternatives if the parolees object.
Hazle now spends his days farming his family’s 10-acre plot of land in Redding, having handled his drug problems on his own.
“Everybody falters here and there, but I’m committed to [recovery],” he said. “I’m no longer a user.”