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My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA
Six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power, or He.
August 28th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA

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!”

I blinked.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • My Take

soundoff (3,939 Responses)
  1. God Bless the Illuminati

    Ultimately, everyone's higher power is themself. I find it sad that so many fail to recognize that. But if they stay sober, what difference does it make?

    August 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  2. Anonymous

    I appreciate your comments, no personal religious beliefs should interfere with AA's Spiritual development and indeed any agnostic or atheist can recover with an honest desire to. A question:why as an agnostic/atheist do you believe you have the right to break our Anonymity Traditions? If you really believe that your duty is "is to be of service to others" why not starting by keeping AA safe and solid for future generations by adhering to our Traditions? If you really believe "that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility" why don't you apply it by being one among many who just follow without breaking rules?

    August 28, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • BGko

      Like no one knows what AA is all about.... please.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • sam

      She's a heretic! A heretic! Breaker of traditions! All is lost!

      August 28, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Rick

      I've been in for 23 years. She did NOT break the rule unless she tells us YOU were there.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Where have you been for 23 years? Have ever you heard about Tradition 11? We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films. Or is it OK because it does not mention the web?

      August 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Jay

      Rick she clearly violated the 11th tradition. You can't even argue that she didn't.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  3. Mausfink

    I knew a man in AA whose Higher Power was a tree. It kept him sober, and that's all that mattered.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • I wonder

      I don't have a drinking problem, but years ago I attended an AA meeting in support of a family member. One woman stood to speak (a Southerner?). She kept saying that she always had her 'harp hour' to help her. I thought, hmmm, well, harp music can be relaxing and calming, I suppose. I found out much later in the meeting that she was really saying, 'higher power' !

      August 28, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Jay

      Perfectly put.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Jay

    I've been to thousands of AA meetings and I assure you that no one...ever...has credited their sobriety to the "blood of Jesus Christ"...please Marya. Also I have met so many atheists in AA that I don't even blink when I hear that someone doesn't believe in a god. You need to believe in a power greater than yourself in order to do the steps. It doesn't have to be God. It could be group of drunks (G.O.D. for short... get it?). The whole idea is that as a drunk you turned your life over to a higher power(alcohol) and now you need a higher power to combat the alcoholism b/c obviously we are powerless over it otherwise we wouldn't have been drunks. In my humble and meaningless opinion have not practiced the steps but more importantly it is clear that you haven't followed the traditions. As a grateful member of AA who would surely be dead or in jail w/out the program, I do not appreciate your hyperbole and innaccuracies when discussing the program.
    Here's the 11th tradition: 11. 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.

    Read it agan. Articles such as the one you just wrote may prevent a drunk from coming in and saving his/her life and his/her family's life.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Chris

      Apparently, you've never been to rehab in the south. In Houston, it's get in with Jesus or you aren't getting the treatment you deserve, and therefore you can't be released until "you see the light". I've seen it happen to my father and one of my friends, they were forced to play along with the religious cult undertones involved with AA/NA..

      August 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • ed

      I do his grace and the power of the blood of Christ I have 15 years.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • lhayes

      I, too,have been to thousands of AA meetings and have a lot of show for it. I believe that the Traditions, like the Steps, are suggested as a program of recovery. In my opinion, the Traditions reflect the philosophy of the organization; the Steps reflect the philosophy of the individual who chooses recovery. The excerpt from Marya's book might just as well encourage one of us to come into the rooms, knowing that it's not necessary to believe in a prepackaged god or have a religious affiliation. Not every drunk can get sober in AA; not every sober person joined the AA fellowship. It's about achieving sobriety, not so much about how you get there.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • sam

      "I've never heard it myself = therefore it never happened."

      Wow.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Jay

      Sam – I'm just saying that it would never happen in a typical AA meeting. Marya's hyperbolic description of a meeting and claiming she heard someone say "the blood of Jesus Christ" I mean c'mon. Let's gets serious. I never saw AC/DC play a live concert at an AA meeting either = it probably never happened....double WOW!!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  5. territriple

    There are a lot of things people can do without God. But when the author comes across a problem that she cannot solve through her own efforts is she going to post a CNN blog that says "I was wrong". "I get it now". Probably not. That's why it's better to keep some opinions to yourself......They are likely to change......

    August 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Fred1

      Yes, now that I am an atheist I’m terribly embarrassed by all the things I sad and did when I was a christian

      August 28, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  6. The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

    This Coming Sunday, September 5th will be my second anniversery of sobriety, My past life "love affair" with many family members of the alcoholic liquidities ended via my own beckonings to see an end to imbibery's tactiled intrusions that lasted over 30+ years. My internal faiths along with AA's opening my eyes to a social experience of speaking to a crowd of people with like-minded wants whereas each of their pasts differing ever so much, we are all being given chances to eulogize openly and confess our natured relationships with alcohol without condemnation or disaproving staminas akin to disbelievers of the 12 Steps of AA. I am currently on Step 4 which is rhetorically making a "complete moral inventory" of our life's escapades. Although Step 4 deals mainly with negative issues in one's life, I have made to myself a commitment to write upon all apsects of my Life including positve and negative moralness. This may take me a year or 2 or 3 or longer.

    My finally acquiring me a "sponsor", someone to talk things over with and help in understanding the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, I have finally turned the corner of my life path. Soon, 2 years of sobriety will be behind me and as I venture down the meandering pathway of Life, I praytell I will never need or want to ever again imbibe or drink another brew of alcohol.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Matt

    First, I'm disappointed but hardly shocked by the hostility to the author in the comments. There is nothing wrong with being an Atheist and there is nothing wrong with seeking help for an addiction. The way I interpreted the article was that AA is designed to fix the later by instilling the former, and the author was just saying that this isn't necessary, and that people who want to find help don't necessarily need to find religion (or at the very least, not Christianity). But second, I'm disappointed that the author didn't actually explain how she got over her addiction. So she went through AA as an atheist. So what? I'm sure other people have as well. I want to hear how this affected her recovery or her experience with the program.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      That was just a teaser. The rest is in her book, which is for sale.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • God Bless the Illuminati

      What difference does it make? Why are people so concerened with "the program"? The goal is sobriety. She reached the goal. I did the same thing without the interference of an imaginary "higher power." We're no longer drinking. End of story.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Rick

      There re many books and web content for us atheist/agnostics. The best I read early on was "The Skeptic's guide to the 12 Steps" by Phillip Z. Google Agnostics 12 steps or agnostic 12 steps. We're doing what the god-people are doing, just in a slightly different way. And there ARE agnostic 12-step meetings that fully adhere to the AA guidelines.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Patricia D

      "We're no longer drinking. End of story...." Hey God Bless the Illuminati, frankly, it is just the beginning of the new story. And that's the MOST important part.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  8. God Bless the Illuminati

    Believers in god,

    I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Jay

      Oh that's deep.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • USN Ret

      The beauty of the GOD of MY UNDERSTANDING doesn't REQUIRE me to believe in him. My choice and I like that about him . It works out good for me though because I believe in him freely without you or anyone else granting me their permission. Atheist ? Me ? I think not. !!

      August 28, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Lance

      Jay: It actually is deep if you stop and think about it. I used to be an evangelical Christian, and I gave no thought or importance to any other world religion. To me they were clearly false and worshipped non-existent gods. I felt pity for them when the trumpet would sound and the Christian God would descend and all of their faith and piety would have been in vain. The non-believer feels that same indifference to one more god than a believer does.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  9. Jorge

    For me, it was a higher power from the major religions, but I respected those who believed in nothing.

    Atheism is a form of spirituality. The belief of no higher power is a belief in of itself. That is your greatest higher power. I used that argument to help atheists in the program. So Math, Chaos, Infinity, the nature universe, it all falls into line with the authors beliefs. It is still something greater than the alcoholic or drug addict.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Atheism is not a form of spirituality. I don't think you understand.

      Religion can exist without Atheists.
      Atheists can not exist without Religion.

      Get it?

      August 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • sam

      No, Awkward, no one gets it. Your logic failed on that one.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Sure ;)

      August 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • rtbrno65

      Awkward: That's like saying people with moustaches can't exist without people that don't have moustaches, since everyone would have a moustache since there would be nobody without a moustache, and here is my cute litlte face :(>

      August 29, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      I'm talking about the existence of ideologies here.
      If religion did not exist there would be no such thing as atheism.
      However, since religion does exist, by default those who do not subscribe to believing in a god are automatically labeled as atheists.

      Also, the ONLY thing that atheists have in common is their absence of belief in supernatural deities. Which is rather odd if you think about it – to define somebody by what they don't believe in. But it's convenient to do so in this scenario since religious belief is so prevalent at this point in time. Atheists can be humanists, naturalists, existentialists, nihilists.. and so forth with their philosophical beliefs.

      Atheism is not a form of spirituality.

      Religion can exist without Atheists. [Religion is not dependent upon atheism in order to exist.]
      Atheists can not exist without Religion. [Atheism is dependent upon religion in order to exist.]

      August 31, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  10. USN Ret

    Being a recovering Alcoholic for over 20 years and a firm believer of the 12 Steps, I don't recall the necessity of believing in GOD to get past the hardest step ... Denial !! The " Higher Power " required to begin the road to recovery can be anything or anyone as long as practicing Alcoholics admit that they are weaker than their addiction and also willing to acknowledge they can't stop themselves. If the word " GOD " has been taken out of your 12 steps, then you are NOT in the AA 12 Step Program.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • MadBluDog

      The third tradition of A.A. clearly states, "The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking." Perhaps you have confused A.A. with The Oxford Group. A.A.'s New York Central Office has approved an atheist's/agnostic's version of the 12 steps. Keep comin' back!

      August 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

      Retired? US Navy? My nephew joined the Navy right after ve graduated from High School. Anyways your stating a "higher power" can be other than GOD or God and that leaves room for godly men and godly women to be one's "higher power". Is that what you are asserting USN Ret?

      August 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  11. Patricia D

    I don't know anything about AA. What I have to ask Marya, this self-proclaimed atheist, is what do you think that consciousness is that you are speaking from? What is the quality or the energy in you that animates your body and gives you thought and reasoning ability? You talk about your "quarks cohering." How did you come up with that? This sound to me like your definition of the Creative Source, and that's OK. Maybe you can't see this. You don't have to believe in the word "God" or in any of the man-made religions. You don't have to look outside of yourself for any answers because you contain all that you need, right within your heart. Your quarks are cohering just fine as long as you believe in yourself.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  12. anonymous

    Tradition Nine: Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

    Tradition Ten: 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.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • anonymous

      Sorry, thats tradition ten, and eleven.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Tradition 71: Make the members follow traditions which don't really serve to protect them. [They protect the organization. Don't want people from the outside poking around asking questions if this thing really works now do we.]

      August 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Anonymous

      I don't actually care what your particular beliefs are, but I do care that you think you get to be a self-appointed spokesperson for the AA Fellowship. Maintaining personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films is not to protect you from people knowing you go to AA. It's to protect AA from you and the potential damage you could cause.

      Someone who actually respected AA would not have done what you have done here.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  13. Keith

    "Good Orderly Direction" offered by a "Group Of Drunks" when I had absolutely no idea why my life was such a mess. How to fix that and how to stop drinking, druging or any other instinctual abuse found along the way was offered. Now that was a Higher Power that I could believe in, and applied. "It works, it really does."

    August 28, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  14. Josh

    The question is not how those quarks work, but why? You are right in being small and humble. We are but a breath(psalms).

    Consider alcoholism as disease? Is it? Can you rid yourself of any other disease by making decisions and following through? If this were the case we would have beat cancer and influenza by now. That is my two cents =)

    August 28, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

      Josh wrote on Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 1:12 pm, stating, "The question is not how those quarks work, but why? You are right in being small and humble. We are but a breath(psalms). Consider alcoholism as disease? Is it? Can you rid yourself of any other disease by making decisions and following through? If this were the case we would have beat cancer and influenza by now. That is my two cents =)

      To my ever humbling wannabe mind, I view alcoholism as a 2 step disease. The 1st step is acquiring a taste or psychological need for it and the 2nd step is becoming "physically" addicted to it. I know of others who have had such a psychological and physical dependency need for alcohol, they would go to any extremes to get it and many were placing their physical wellness in jeopardy. My "Love affair" with alcohol did not go beyond that. I never suffered the physical needs for alcohol like many I know have. I feel I am obe of the "lucky" ones of Alcoholism's cunningness.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  15. God Bless the Illuminati

    Tony Beaver – you're totally missing the point. You can call the "program" whatever you want to call it. You can also follow prescribed steps if you want to. Again, it doesn't matter. The goal is sobriety. A lot of us get there without god or any other imaginary higher power. It doesn't matter how you get there. JUST GET SOBER! Why is that so difficult for you to grasp?

    August 28, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

      "JUST GET SOBER! Why is that so difficult for you to grasp?"

      You GBtI fail to see the lifstyle that many alcoholics manifested and came to love, being with otherly folks who imbibe the sauce. Their whole world was at one time revolved around the lifestyles of Alcoholisms' Demeanor or outward behavior. Their life was ruled by other's who themselves were trapped in a constant cycle of repetative behaviorisms. They all just loved to be part and parcel of what they thought was "The Life".

      August 28, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  16. NF

    A higher power isn't God as most of the religious types define God. There were lots of religious types in AA when I went to meetings, but they didn't bother me. I just figured they were finding their own way. Typically, the ones clinging to "God" and "Jesus" were the most desperate. I don't think they were digging deep enough via the 12 Steps.

    Been 10+ years now, and I haven't been to an AA meeting in many years...once I stopped drinking, the rest was easy. You have to find your own path, adapt AA to yourself, and reap the benefits. There isn't a single path, you have to find your own. AA is a great program, very simple (except for the soul-searching part), and the article here is nothing new. Ones like it seem to appear every few years and reflect an inner anger by the authors, a bad sign for them.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  17. Chud King

    What atheists can't admit is that if they were alive in the 12th century they'd be religious zealots leading the crusades.
    Atheists worship themselves as tiny, angry gods, knowing it all and sending religious believers to secular damnation. Comical and pathetic at the same time. Must be quantum physics.

    August 28, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • sam

      Well, someone's cranky and irrational this Sunday!

      August 28, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • BREAKING NEWS!

      you sound like a typical christian.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Bioartchick

      Why do you believe this?

      August 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Sheila R. Mortaine

      tell me about your mother...

      August 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • RichardDawkins

      No Quamtum Physics is the physics that describes the behavior of things on the "Quantum" level or very small level. all the smart phone technology you use us based on SCIENCE and yes, quantum physics. if prayer worked, we'd run our cars off it but it doesn't so we use what works...SCIENCE!!!!!!

      August 28, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      You have no idea the laughs we have at you religious people's expense. When you start talking about god it's amusing to us like a dog chasing its own tail or a retarded kid trying to do calculus. By all means, carry on.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  18. God Bless the Illuminati

    Tony – the goal is sobriety. What difference does it make how you label the "program"?

    August 28, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  19. noname

    I am sorry you are getting so blasted though I suppose you are used to it with 10 years under your belt. Congratulations, it sounds very much like you have been able to truly and sincerely apply AA's program to your life in a way that provides you with what you need to address your condition. Let us not forget that AA has a long tradition ( right back to the opening pages of the Big Book ) of providing personal information about those who share their experiences. I mean, please... "friend of Bill", like nobody knows who you are talking about. The anonymity many of us value in recovery is a spiritual principal, not rhetorical dogma to be used to create un-bendable limit on our creativity and expression. That is why we have traditions, not laws. Thanks for letting us know we do not all have to conform to any particular belief or culture to find freedom through the twelve steps, even if we feel surrounded by it and out of place.TW, Why is a pre-requisite for "rational recovery" like programs bashing 12 step recovery? I think that is interesting, particularly to see that people see the admission of powerlessness as a loss of personal power when in fact it is quite the opposite. I could go on forever but I will let the rest of you do that. -love

    August 28, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  20. dopaminedialogue

    http://www.dopaminedialogue.wordpress.com – I have a blog that is designed to eradicate the stigma of addiction. I loved your article!

    August 28, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.