Editor's note: Marya Hornbacher's latest book, "Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power," explores what spirituality can mean to the recovering person who does not believe in God.
By Marya Hornbacher, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Kicked back with his boots on the table at the head of the smoke-dense room, the meeting's leader banged his fist and bellowed, “By the grace of this program and the blood of Jesus Christ, I’m sober today!”
This was not an auspicious beginning for the project of getting my vaguely atheistic, very alcoholic self off the sauce.
I wondered if perhaps I’d wandered into the wrong room. I thought maybe I’d wound up in Alcoholics Anonymous for crown-of-thorn Christians, and in the next room might find AA for lapsed Catholics, and downstairs a group for AA Hare Krishnas and one for AA Ukrainian Jews.
But a decade later, I’ve become aware that 12-step programs are home to people from every religion, denomination, sect, cult, political tilt, gender identity, sexual preference, economic strata, racial and ethnic background, believers in gun rights and abortion rights and the right to home schooling, drinkers of coffee and tea, whiskey and mouthwash, people who sleep on their sides or their stomachs or sidewalks.
Anyone who cares to sober up, in other words, can give it a shot the 12-step way. The official preamble Alcoholics Anonymous states: "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
And millions of people want that and find a way to do it in this program. I’m one of them. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a raging drunk. Now I’m not.
It wasn’t magic; it was brutally hard work to get from point A to B. I do believe I’d be dead without the help of the people and the structure of the steps in AA.
But I don’t believe in God.
And this can be something of a sticking point when you’re sitting in a meeting room, desperate for almost any route out of hell, and someone cites “the blood of Jesus” as the only way to go. Or when you realize that six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power or He.
But this shouldn't be a dealbreaker. I’m going to make a lot of old-style AA’s cranky with this, but it’s perfectly possible to sober up sans belief in God.
At first that wasn’t clear to me. It’s unclear to most people because AA has a reputation as a cult, a religion unto itself, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings or morons, and it isn’t those things, either. It’s a pretty straightforward series of steps, based on spiritual principles, that helps people clean up their lives in a whole lot of ways.
But if you are of an atheistic or strongly agnostic mindset, chances are you’ll walk into a meeting, see the steps hanging on the wall and want to scream, laugh or walk back out.
I tried another tack: I made a valiant attempt to believe. I figured a) these people were funny, kind, and not plastered; b) they believed that some kind of higher power had helped them get sober; c) they knew something I did not.
So I did research. I read every word of AA literature I could find. I read up on the history of half a dozen important religions and a wide variety of frou-frou nonsense. I earnestly discussed my lack of belief with priests, rabbis, fanatics and my father.
People told me their stories — of God, the divine, the power of love, an intelligent creator. Something that made all this. Some origin, some end.
I told them I believed in math. Chaos, I said. Infinity. That sort of thing.
They looked at me in despair.
And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”
On the contrary. I think I am among the smallest. Cosmically speaking, I barely exist.
Like anything else, I came into being by the chance, consist mostly of water, am composed of cells that can be reduced and reduced, down to the quarks and leptons and so forth, that make up matter and force. If you broke down all matter, the atom or my body, you’d arrive at the same thing: what scientists call one strange quark, with its half-integer spin.
And I find that not only fascinating but wondrous, awe-inspiring and humbling.
I believe that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility. The recognition that we are flawed, that we can and must change and that our purpose not only in sobriety but in life is to be of service to others.
I believe that I exist at random, but I do not exist alone; and that as long as my quarks cohere, my entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things.
That keeps me sober. Amen.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marya Hornbacher.
This author writes well, but hears nothing.
AA is a God program. Without God you are not working the program. You may be going to meetings, but you are working YOUR program.
AND NICE JOB EXEMPTING YOURSELF FROM THE TRADITIONS THAT WERE PUT IN PLACE TO PROTECT THE PROGRAM FROM PEOPLE LIKE YOU....
AA is an excuse program that gives it's memebers an out for any of their actions without any personal responsibility. It breeds worse quality citizens than alcholism. "It was the disease that made me do it ..HOnest!"
Just be happy for this fellow drunk whose found sobriety. My brother is an atheist, and in the program, and very successful in it. I cannot stand hard-liners who try to tell other people how the program is "supposed to work". You love God? Beautiful! Now work your steps and leave this author, my brother, and all the many many MANY other AA members, who do not believe in YOUR chosen god.
Harpo you have it backwards, but thanks for playing.
Hortha, how do you turn your will and life over to the care of God if there isn't one or if you don't know who He is? That would be silly.
The program is DOING the steps. If that's "Hardline" than call me a hardliner.
Tony, if it works, what the hell difference does it make? You're basically saying "She's sober but she did it wrong." Does that make sense? Are you okay with that logic? If I apply your logic, I can easily say "Well, I believe in God, so I shouldn't need a program at all, I can just pray real hard."
Using caps doesn't really get your point across better
It works for her and millions more maybe we should leave go at home or in fairy tales where it belongs.
Tony, you’re a perfect example of why people think AA is a religious cult.
If I could just get rid of that damn self, I know I could be happy, joyous, and free.
What I'm not understanding is that, the writer iof the article, Marya Hornbacher's believes it seems in Hell, but doesnt believe in Heaven or for that matter Jesus Christ. Isn't that a contradiction of terms or in this case beliefs???
Maybe the contradiction is that too much alcohol will not only kill of the senses but anything that resembles faith or a belief system...
You're being a bit too literal. I think she uses "Hell" in a metaphorical way.
Troy – can you name a single prophecy that has come true? And it has to be empirically based – repeatable and verifiable.
Why don't you read the Bible before you try to argue against it.
Why don't you try reading the Bible before you argue for it.
I can absolutely name a prohecy that has come true. Jesus said "they will hate you because you follow me."
LOL Atheists hate Christ, religion and me for writing this! Now, you must admit it seething atheist, I have proved that proposition empiracally haven't I ! Keep on hating in the name of rationalism ! That's rational!
Chud, your wrong, I don’t hate Christians because they follow Christ. I don’t even hate Christians as a group. What I do hate is the way Christians try to force their religious rules onto the rest of us. For example laws against abortion or the fact that your god’s name appears on my money
If you don't like a treatment program because it involves an incompatible mythology, find a different one. Or make your own. this is the kind of flawed logic that turns people into alkies in the first place.
If there is one thing I learned in AA, It's that I'm an atheist.
Don't forget to breathe today.
TONY, HONEY, TIME TO GET OFF THE INTARNETS AND STOP BOTHERING PEOPLE, COME UPSTAIRS AND GET TO CHURCH YOU KNOW HOW I HATE TO BE LATE
I cleaned up in 1993 without any intereference from god. The problem with traditional AA for me is that the whole concept of "higher power" never fully requires a person to take control of his/her life. I wasn't comfortable with that. It's now 18 years later, I'm clean, and I've never said a single prayer. Turns out I was my own higher power. I suspect the majority of AA participants would find this, too, if they had the confidence to pursue such a path.
Like the author, you are not working an AA program. You are working your program, which obviously does not involve respecting the traditions.
Alcohol is but a symptom. How's your cause?
Ugh. People like this Tony Beaver guy... I just can't wrap my mind around why he cares HOW someone gets sober. Are you Bill W.? Did you invent AA? Who crowned you king of who is, and who isn't "working an AA program"? If your faith in God and baby Jesus keeps you sober, HOORAY!!! If your higher power is your love for your daughter, or Jimi Hendrix, or The Force, why should anyone else care? At ease, you can stop being an AA cop now.
TONY, I'M NOT ASKING AGAIN, TIME TO COME OUT OF THE BASEMENT AND GET GOING AND MAKE SURE YOU RECYCLE ALL YOUR BEER BOTTLES FROM LAST NIGHT
This article is enlightening. Its a pleasure to see the media and people in general open up to the reality that there is no God. We have to realize that just because there is no bearded old man on a throne up in the sky somewhere before or beyond space does not mean that we should live like animals. We should do our best to avoid the temptations of our nature. We should love and be true to our word. hurting ourselves is hurting others. Drinking hurts everyone around us including ourselves. A painful life dependant on drugs or alcohol is a cop out and a means to a painful death an losing everything you care about on the way to that death. Its truly pathetic. I say so not to offend but ask any recovering addict what living a life on drugs is and the word pathetic could sum it up. find a passion in the world there is something for everyone. Marijuana is not so bad either. Dont smoke cancer to fill the void (cigarettes)
It is interesting to hear her viewpoint at a certain level, but I would be more interested in knowing her sponsor's thoughts on the matter. Perhaps her sponsor could share on the 11th Tradition as well..... :)
thanks for the comment on the 11th tradition- it worries me so that people ignore our traditons so blatantly!!
@elgee – 'our traditions', LOL. Stop making it sound like AA will come get you in the night for violating the sacred traditions so blatantly.
I have often felt that god as others understood him/her/it was a distraction for me in recovery. Getting to the core of my "defects of character" was the journey and I took what worked and left the rest. It was not about what we all believed collectively but what we were empowered to do by the support of the human spirit we all have.
Mark is so educated that he has to disrespect people to get a point a cross. Good Job! Some athiest amuse me when they talk about a book that was written 2000 years ago but all those prophecies it talked about came true. Answer that smart athiest! LOL!!!!!!
Not human spirit its called will power. People throw the word spirit around like it is nothing.
What prophesies have come true? Name one that can be empirically proved or admit its just a book of myths and stories.
Troy – We might have given thought to your prophecies if you at least knew how to spell atheists.
The prophecies only came true if you believed it in the first place. What prophecies can you prove came true?
Troy is so smart, he can't seem to reply to the correct post.
AA must be a pretty good program for helping those who need help to stop destructive drinking. It has been around for a while after all. As for belief in God or not, thats just a choice we may or may not make. Why do people always try to say "their" way of thinking is the "only" way to think, and try to force it on everyone else? Remember when science told us the earth is "flat" – we now know better. There is much more to learn about our universe and all the make up in it, so lets just keep learning and move on. Our concepts of man & God & life are constantly reshaping as we learn more. Oh, and my choice as of this time & experience in my life is , yes there is a God & he is definatily in my life & I love Him totally, just can"t help it. All roads lead to God for me. But you research & decide for yourself. Okay?
I don't think 'science' ever said the world was flat. Science as we know it wasn't around in those times. Wasn't it the people that wrote the bible that thought the world was flat? Otherwise, I like what you say.
The anonymous clause applies to other people,not yourself. You can tell people YOU are in A.A. but you can't out anyone else.
Gbird is right. Meredith didn't break anyone else's anonymity. But AA's are fast to judge, like many Christians, those who do no believe as they do. "I believe in God and got sober. Therefore, there must be a God." That's selfish thinking.
Well, the 11th tradition says "We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films." A person is free to "out" himself or herself to friends, co-workers, doctors, relatives, etc. But, one cannot hold oneself out publicly as a member of AA. To do so, destroys humility. The 12th tradition says "Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions . . . ." I guess the writer doesn't believe in following the traditions.
The 11th Tradition states we need to maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio and films. This counts as press. This is definitely against the 11th tradition, but it's just a suggestion.. ;)
The long form of AA's Eleventh Tradition states: "Our relations with the general public should be characterized by personal anonymity. We think AA ought to avoid sensational advertising. Our names and pictures as AA members ought not be broadcast, filmed, or publicly printed. Our public relations policy should be guided by the principle of attraction rather than promotion. There is never need to praise ourselves. We fell it better to let our friends recommend us."
Let it be. Let the Athiest be who they are and let Christians be what they want to be. Look at the comments on here. All they do is spread the hate from both groups. Oh and by the way, this is not "news". Yes, I am annoyed.
Right, it's not news, which is why it's *on the opinion blog*.
Thanks for this, Marya. That's almost exactly my experience. S an agnostic, I've often felt like "the help" in meetings. But using many of the same methods, by the grace of rational thinking, I've been sober 23 years. To those here who say the know" god exists: If you know it, you should be able to prove it. As the say goes, the plural of anecdote isn't "data"
Self management and recovery training. SMART. Scientific thought without the AA dogma that drive so many of us "thinking people" away from AA. Science based. I'm not powerless, I am very powerful. The choices I make to drink or not to drink are my own. Used to be called Rational Recovery. IT still is rational, not ridiculous like AA is.
Marya H. has broken her anonymity, and one of AA's basic traditions, which is the spiritual foundation of the AA program; very thing that saved her life. Tradition 11 reads "Our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion; we need ALWAYS maintain personal anonymity at the level of PRESS, radio and films. We seek a spiritual awakening as THE result of THESE steps. Never does it talk about Jesus or the hereafter. AA is only concerned with your seeking something you can call on at 2:00 in the morning when the hounds of fate are ripping at your throat, and the program teaches how to stay sober in the here and now. These principles have worked for me for 27 years.
I thought you weren't supposed to break other's anonymity. What's the difference if you break your own?
She broke her own anonymity, no one else's. She's not outing the whole program in the press. Seems like that's all a lot of folks got out of this article. "Ooh, she's doing it wrong!"
The Problem SCA is that no one is a spokesperson for AA. It's a matter of humility. AA works by attraction, we do not promote our program in the media. Also AA does not require you believe anything. Only that you have a power greater than yourself. The program of AA is working the steps and practicing the principles in your daily life. Many will tell you that you will get drunk if you don't find god, but the truth is I have seen people stay sober by having large displacements of old ideas with new ones. They maintain that they do not believe in god. It's not my story but I've seen it.
There is not a problem with Marya H. not believing in "God", and, by the way, I have been to AA in 64 countries and have never heard someone say you must believe in Jesus. I would have noticed because I'm a Christian and would have respectfully spoken to them in private; "we don't 'bring outside issues' here". There is a problem with a person deliberately ignoring the Tradition of anonymity. We certainly break our anonymity at a personal level. What is the difference? When we take a ~ press, radio, or films, spotlight, we are saying we are the spokesperson/posterchild for AA, which we are not. AA will not suffer but the person who becomes too big for AA will. As I understand, or don't understand Marya, she has not learned the tenents of AA. If she had written a book solely on Atheism, it wouldn't have gotten so much attention, I suppose. Alcoholics Anonymous is a program for people who have lost the power to control their drinking. If powerless is the problem. What is the solution? Power. The steps are the vehicle to get you to that power.
Well I understand the points in those steps.
1) It's fundamental that you do not break anonymity.
2) If it's your own – you can tell your closest confidences.
3) But not to the free press.
–Now the idea of not breaking it out to the free press I can understand if it constrains and brings negative hardships upon the organization as a whole. But this particular case (it has to be decided by others on a per case basis : in my opinion) it is not a bad idea for this author to come out and break one of AA's rule.
Most of the people's comment who are actively against the author think she has done an act which is wrong.
So your opinion of her is negative, but others see that her right to do her outing is a good thing. She is telling her experience which is a service to a majority who are atheists that might have issues accepting they have a problem with alcohol.
It seems she's doing a service to help. That in my opinion is all the matters. The author has not compromise and blamed AA in any matter, she isn't suing or destroying AA in any matter.
If your rationale behind AA is about helping, why are you against this author who wants to help atheists?
To Answer: Alcoholism is a life or death disease when left untreated kills. I only step up when someone tries to dilute, or tries to change what has worked for millions, for decades. I believe the programs works. It works no matter what, or who, your higher power is. It works even if someone writes that it doesn't. I take notice when someone breaks a tradition and calls attention, in a negative way,to the very thing that supposedly saved their life. "Against her"? I'm for AA. Even AA is a human power...what it does is..leads you to trust in something, other than yourself, to help you do what you've never been able to do before..not drink. Along with people who will assist in your sober walk. Alcoholics Anonymous is for alcoholics, not a platform for religious debate. I am one alcoholic who has found in AA, a solution I never dreamed possible, and I simply wanted to pass that along. I honestly question Ms. H's statement about having been in AA and saying Jesus was mentioned ~ I think there is intent in her book that is not credible.
I live by the AA slogan "One Day at a Time." I say the Serenity Prayer every day, thanking God for each day of sobriety, and it has worked 25 years for me.
Serenity now, serenity now! Like on Seinfeld?
Serenity now – insanity later. Right?
I've been sober 20+ years, 12 of these years wearing Buddhist monk robes, a visible agnostic. It doesn't go over as well here in AA meetings in South Carolina (USA) as in more cosmopolitan regions. But my presence gives hope to the despairing godless newcomers.
We alcoholics are by definition people who can't control our drinking; yet also by definition we are the ones who must stop drinking: hence we find ourselves caught between a rock & a hard place. (Step 1.) Therefore we may become desperate enough to try AA's path, thinking perhaps there is a spiritual solution which has worked for others. (Step 2.) The quality of inward total surrender is the key to escaping the alcoholic predicament, almost regardless of to whom or what one makes this motion - whether to Jesus, a Hindu guru, Nature, Buddha-Dhamma, or any other spiritual icon. (Step 3.) Starting with that, one can build a new life no longer battered by alcoholic compulsions and related character liabilities. (Steps 4-9.) The remaining Steps are to maintain a good spiritual condition on a daily basis, keeping the alcoholic mind balanced & well enough to not want to drink (Steps 10-12.) It really works, and it's all pretty reasonable, especially if you understand the underlying desperate condition of an actual alcoholic. However, it remains reasonable only if we keep at bay the potential for religious dogmatic oppression or proselytizing of vulnerable people in AA.
AA's primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety, but some members seem to think AA should save souls, not save drunks. A few fanatics would rather have a miserable drunken convert than an atheist delighting in a new life in sobriety. Here in the USA's South, nothing undermines AA's ability to help the newcomer worse than Christian efforts to convert them and Christian trappings in meetings.
I've been told, repeatedly, that if I don't like the Lord's Prayer (Jesus' prayer that starts with "Our Father") spoken at the end of our meeting, then go to another meeting; yet every AA meeting in the county also uses this offensive principles-breaking Christian prayer.
I wish I could show this article to members of my AA Home Group, to encourage them to lower the volume on the Christian testimony, but the author broke our valued tradition of public anonymity, which destroys her credibility and undermines her message to those whom I'd like to reach. Too bad.
The zealots of the pushy dominant religion disrespect the AA's principle of not being allied with any sect or denomination. The author of this article disrespects AA's principle of anonymity. Whenever AA's principles get ignored, it is the suffering active alcoholics who lose.
I liked what you wrote.
Also, just an opinion... yes, 'she' broke the code of anonymity, however, that doesn't in any way, shape or form 'negate' the 'validity' of her opinion/experience/message.
I general, I agree, but not with your anonymity argument. As they often say "you can tell anyone else that YOU were here as long as you don't tell them I was here." She didn't violate any tradition.
To Rick: The often-read 11th Tradition states that "we need we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films."
For more info see this look-up of the word anonymity as it appears in AA literature: http://www.164andmore.com/words/anonymity
Hilarious! So much for the "anonymous" part of the program. One of the tenets of AA is to remain anonymous and not use the program for your personal gain. Oh well!
Ultimately the author is just another circle jerking member of the atheist mutual admiration society. Sadly, digital age atheism is nothing more than pseudo-intellectual childishness from the post-modern cult of the supposedly "rational" child.
The only thing less rational than believing in God is "believing" your decision to not believe is the definitive word on the subject.
Let's hope she asks her quarks about her irrational quirks before writing anything else.
Stupid!! Looking for publicity for herself!!
" The only thing less rational than believing in God is "believing" your decision to not believe is the definitive word on the subject. "
Hmmm... 'That' is the 'only' thing "less rational"...? I wasn't aware that 'believing in a Deity' was a necessarily 'rational' behavior, especially believing in one (deity) that promises to throw the non-believers into the lake of fire, yet loves us so much.
Also, I didn't get that the author was stating that she 'is' 'the' 'definitive' 'source' on the subject of the AA religion.
But, she certainly stated her viewpoints and opinions.
And I supposed you believe in the great book of fiction (bible) that was supposedly written 2000 years ago for some poor & uneducated sheep herder. Atheists today don't believe in that crap because we are educated and we don't need the religious fanatic spin doctor try to cram "praise the lord" crap down our throats.
"believing in God is "believing" your decision to not believe is the definitive word on the subject"
I do not believe the author of the article offered any "difinitive word on the subject." She offered her experiences about being outside of faith and entering a world where faith is all but required. She offered her experiences and her opinons as to how she succeeds in sobriety. HER experiences.
"final words" on anything seem to only come from people of faith. Science claims nothing of finality. Science is always searching and always falsifying–breaking down what was believed to move forward in understanding. Religion–dogma–is a 'final word'. 2000 plus years of believing something written in a book by man. THAT sounds more like a "final word" than anything the author issues.
But hey...we are just human. what do we know?
Sorry Chud, but you're not going to survive your own death. I know it makes you angry to have to face your own mortality, but atheists didn't take away your god. It never existed in the first place. Time to move on from the Bronze Age, I'm afraid.
These AA anonymity rules are there to give the members a false security blanket so they will want to keep coming back. Nobody cares about these made up rules outside of your circle. What are they going to do about it anyway? Enforcement?
Let the athiests think what they want. In the end, it does not change the reality of giving an account for their decision. Yes, they will have to give an account of why they denied Christ and what happens to their soul will be the result of their own decision.
I would rather go to hell than worship your lazy and pathetic god.
Sorry Colin, despite your hate, you have only speculation to base your statement/ opinion on.
Tut, tut, tut, not very scientific or logical now, eh?
Awkward, don't let me stop you!
Okay. Race you there! hehe.
So violating AA's Tradition of anonymity is cool with this author? THAT is disturbing.
She is only outing herself as an alcoholic; there's nothing against the traditions in that. It is by bravely sharing one's own story that we help others. Anonymity does not mean hiding away in shame; it simply means "don't name other people; that's their business."
You are always allowed to break your own anonymity. It's not a secret society.
I have been sober for over 20 years, attended AA for a couple of years. Guess what, if you don't believe in God, (I don't), IT'S NOT A BIG DEAL. "Take what you need and leave the rest" is also an AA saying. You are not required to bow down and worship God in order to attend meetings.
The problem some people have with AA has a lot less to do with God, and a lot more to do with a lack of humility. You know what, nobody cares about your "beliefs." You are not special. You're just another drunk. If you don't want to say the Lord's Prayer, then don't say it. If you want to come in and assert how much better your method works, then hey–go found your own group. No one is stopping you. Otherwise, sit down, shut up, and try to get something from the people that will help you stay sober.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.