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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

soundoff (3,939 Responses)
  1. urshadow

    Agreed – God is not needed to quit. You have a problem with drinking or any other vice, then the rational thing to do is stop. If you need support, that's ok too. In fact someone who is deeply religious doesn't really need God, Christ, Mohammed, whatever to quit. The addict needs to make a decision NOT to let the habit control their life and to take it back – they are freer in doing so.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  2. MN26

    God created science. Best quote I have ever heard. "If you want an atheists opinion, don't go to the physics lab- you won't find any tthere. Just go to the Philosophy department".

    Just goes to show how ignorant the comments of "I believe in math. I was created by chance. Religion is for those who can't understand science."

    If all of you were actually to do a bit of research, and if you actually understood science, you would realize that first and foremost, and many physicists will agree, there is no way we are here by chance. It is by an infinite chance that even an amino acid forms by itself,and there are a ton of those in a protein. So do you really think that was created by chance? Nope, now that is impossible.

    To Marya, congrats on the sobriety. Great. Just because you can stop being a raging alcoholic, does not disprove the fact that there is a God. Like I said, the fact. It's not even a discussion.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Realist

      silly, then say the same for satan. It would hold as true as yours.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • urshadow

      No need to put down the atheists although I am not one. I appreciate how rational they can be and don't get offended. "God" forbid you insult religious people as they can get violent. "Science flew us to the moon, but Religion flew us into the twin towers."

      August 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • icebalm

      So because we don't exactly know how abiogenesis occurred on our planet then "a wizard did it"? Even if the chance of abiogenesis is infinitesimally small, even if we are the only planet that managed to create life in the entire universe, then it must be ours, because here we are talking about it.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Fred1

      I think created by chance is a better answer than created by an invisible sky fairy. If god created life, what created god?

      August 28, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • WOW

      So what you are saying is that there is a better chance of there being an invisible man somewhere controlling everything that is going on, than to believe in evolution. Wow.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  3. Gavin Ford

    "Faithlessness" is something to be proud of. It means you think, and true happiness is being free of all religious BS.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • urshadow

      Agreed. I have certainty for myself that there is a creator of the universe, so I don't believe in the egocentric Gods of religion. Being an atheist means you have the rationality to drop all religious and cultural beliefs, THINK for yourself and keep an OPEN mind, which is TRULY free.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  4. Ericka

    I've been waiting for an article like this. Thank you for writing it. I lost a good friend to the religious world of Al-Anon, and I fear will never get her back. I hope she found what she needed, but it sure has hurt a lot of her friends and family in the process.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  5. Sean Dean

    .... the sad truth is that for many in AA who relapse, the "higher power" will always fail. It is one's own cognitive decision to stop destructive behaviors that creates the change in behavior. Change starts on the inside, and belief in external causes as either the source or the solution of the problem is dangerously erroneous thinking...... perhaps the success rate of AA would improve without this focus on an invisible, undefineable mediator as source of sobriety.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  6. J

    Marya,

    Real AA's don't have a problem with your belief....they don't appreciate your disrespect of their Traditions. I would think someone as so supremely intelligent as you (and you read all the AA lit!) would have a major problem with this story. I guess you skipped the part about "press, radio and film???"

    In fact, reall AA's not only don't have a problem with your belief...they respect it. If fact, most AA's wouldn't care what you believed in....that's your deal. They do find it funny that you need to write an article and put it on CNN though. "Look at me...I'm really smart and I have recovered (not so!) and I don't believe in a HP." The old-timers would just chuckle!!

    You are so smart though. You should be so proud to have poked holes in all those religions and still came away not believing in a Higher Power. It's almost like you are too smart to believe in God....that is amazing...truly an elite mind. I've never heard of that before...haha !!

    August 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Feeling a little defensive, J? I also quit drinking in late '04 and smoking in early '06 and eschewed all the "higher power" nonsense, let alone the helplessness they actually teach.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • gerigirl

      The author of this piece is a writer – a very successful writer, who has an incredible ability to convey her experiences in language and manner that is sorely needed. It is too bad you felt compelled to take her inventory instead of recognizing her AA experience.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  7. LouAz

    Twas a woman who drove me to drink. I never had the decency to write and thank her ~ WC Fields

    August 28, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  8. George Rowland

    Believing in math is the same thing as believing in God. And it will definitely work for the 12 Steps.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • AA - those are my initials

      like a quadratic is a higher power than a linear equation?

      August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  9. DeConstructor

    God is not needed. Nor is the AA faith.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Realist

      Correct. In fact try speaking with one of those who enrolled in AA. Tell them, to need to claim you are still free from alcoholism –> is stating it still controls you.

      Those who quit without religion and AA, and solved the real problem in their mind, look at alcohol as if it were casual choice. That's right, they could drink one or none and it no longer becomes a debate with them. <– healthy alternative.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  10. peterf

    12 years clean, athiest. NA I find to be less religious.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  11. Realist

    The problem is that AA does not have a very good success rate, that should speak volumes. More so, it does not properly seek out the root cause. No, alcoholism is not a disease. It is however a complication to an already existing condition, ordinarily found in those who experienced childhood trauma – in over 80%. And if anyone wishes to claim, get over it. To those, I might suggest they educate themselves. http://www.childrescuebill.org

    I hope this helps.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • peterf

      it has a 100% success rate for those who follow the rules: don't drink no matter what.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • icebalm

      Similarly law has a 100% success rate for people who follow the law.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Realist

      nope, the root cause still exists. You are wrong. More so, it further destroys the personality. Sorry, but that's the truth, live by it.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Don

      You are totally ignorant....I expect "AA" never "worked" for you, but it has worked for millions of people....

      August 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Peterf Yeah, AA has a 100% success rate amongst those who never drank again. Brilliant. And I've made 100% of the basketball shots I tried that actually went in. And yet, no NBA career! Scandal!

      August 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Su Lynn

      Perhaps you should take the advice of your own post & educate yourself. Alcoholism is not caused because by child abusers, who are not sentenced to the longest possible jail terms. Frankly, an entire different topic – I don't want to pay for them to stay in jail, they should be put-down like the rabid animals that they are! However, there will still be alcoholics who need to get sober & if AA can take 1 drunk driver off the road before they kill someone then it is a complete success!

      August 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  12. BigEd

    18 years sober, I believe in the power of the universe, but not some dude with a long white beard, floating on a cloud in a golden chair. I use Buddha as my higher power of convenience. Siddhartha Gautama seemed less judgemental than a lot of the other cranky, made up deities, and that works for me. :)

    August 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Realist

      a door handle works just as well.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  13. popseal

    I'm sharing the love for one that is delivered from the bondage of alcohol. The 'nameless deity' of the AA program doesn't exist anyway. That's the way it is with politically correct, unoffensive products of mankind's imagination. The Risen Savior however, is a whole different ball game. Glad for the sober one again.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Realist

      Fooling oneself is avoiding again. Avoidance is what enabled one to become an alcoholic, er escape.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  14. Lee

    Try Schick Shadel...Their aversion treatment works on a different level of the brain. I drank every day for 20 years and after two weeks in that program I have not had a desire to drink in over 16 months. I've been to like, two AA meetings and those folks are...sad. I've never been to a meeting or anything after completing Schick's program. Of course, your mileage may vary.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  15. Joseph

    Marya, that program which saved yours and my life might be needed in 20 years to help save our children's lives. So I would have much appreciated it if you would have observed the 11th Tradition.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • BigEd

      She did not "out" anyone, and a million books have been written about AA. I think she can help a lot of people like me, who never bought into the whole God thing, but really needed stop drinking. It would have been helpful to me, when I began this sober journey 18 years ago, to have Ms. Hornbacher's perspective on this topic.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Northern Crab

      Joseph, I'm not certain that Marya's work here is bound to destroy AA... Anyway, and this may have been pointed out already but one can appreciate and follow the teachings (or philosophy) of Jesus (just focusing on Christianity here to Keep it Simple), as an historical figure independent of any notion that he (He?) was the "Son of God" and ignoring tales of spectacular miracles, etc. Anyway, it seems to me there can be no more humble position a person can take than to openly admit that he or she has absolutely no idea of whether "God" exists. I'm truly on the fence here (i.e., Agnostic), but strongly hold the belief that a God who is both loving AND all-powerful must not exist.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  16. derek rodgers

    too stupid to understand science?....try religion!

    August 28, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • popseal

      I understand that given the mathematical impossibility of hundreds of thousands of working parts randomly/accidently being formed into the first, simple reproducing life form, intelligent design not only makes a lot of sense it's an absolute requirement. My jock isn't in a bunch over the issue becasue I know that most will not believe even though One is raised from the dead before their eyes.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • BigEd

      Ha! My favorite bumper sticker: "If You Don't Pray In My School, I Won't Think In Your Church".

      August 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Realist

      however take trillions and the possibility becomes more realistic. Then again, we are limited thinkers. Man is simple, which is why a god is needed, otherwise randomness to present day is too complex for us to realize. (In other words we are not that intelligent to begin with, so it only seems complex. The big bang is more than possible.)

      August 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @popseal There is nothing random about biochemistry or evolution. You are indeed simply too stupid to grasp science and therefore cling to childish creation myths.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Fred1

      @popseal: You have your god raise someone who is truly dead “from the dead before my eyes” and I’ll convert in an instant. The problem with Christians is they are all talk and no action. They have endless stories about all the miracles there god has done; but, can never come up with one when they are asked. They can’t even come up with evidence that a real miracle has ever happened. They don’t even claim eye witnesses for christ’s rising from the dead

      August 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  17. SoberAtheist

    This story is a lot like mine. In 1983 there were two choices: rehab or AA, so it was really no choice for me. I put my trust in Good Orderly Direction and Group Of Drunks. Making amends to people is so un-Christian. In Christianity you get forgiven whether you repair the damage you've done or not. You just have to say the right words. In A.A. you take responsibility for yourself. Ignore the extremists, find a new group, or at least find a sponsor who will support you, and sobriety is indeed possible for an atheist.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Chud King

      Sorry, forgive me but that's a mischaracterization of Christianity based on your own misunderstanding or perhaps bigotry. Granted there are lots of Christian hypocrites but that doesn't mean that you still aren't wrong.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • icebalm

      Acts 3:19 – "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord." Seems pretty clear, all you have to do is repent and all is forgiven, no amends needed, but again, I am not a believer....

      August 28, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  18. Lukas

    I have 20 years clean . . . I also teach the AA Big Book and the 12 Steps at two recovery centers. I make it real clear to people it's FAR from a religious program, just a spiritual one. If someone in AA was pushing religion in a meeting, they are full of crap. One of the great things about AA is that it doesn't care what you believe in (or don't). I clearly didn't make the Grand Canyon or the Pacific Ocean . . a much Higher Power then I did. I believe in that (whatever it is).

    August 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • SCAtheist

      How does the Grand Canyon make you sober? I don't think it is a sentient being that has real influence on your life.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • god

      The grand canyon was created by water. I guess water is a higher power than you.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • icebalm

      What would you say to someone who is not spiritual?

      August 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Chud King

      The important thing about believing in a higher power is to not care what thickheaded people think.
      If someone is so shallow minded as to see the Grand Canyon as simply a hole in the ground well, wish them well and don't waste your time with them.

      It's the concept know as "pearls for swine."

      August 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • icebalm

      It is a hole in the ground. A fantastic, humbling, awesome, beautiful, breath taking hole in the ground made from millions of years of erosion from water, but a hole in the ground nonetheless.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Chud King

      So all holes in the ground are the same? That's not only not true and not scientifiic, it's stupid.

      I love it when allgeded rationalists are stupid.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Lukas

      I'm sure you 'debaters' know what I'm talking about. The Higher Power I'm referring to could simply be the intelligence of nature OR whatever created it. .

      August 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  19. SCAtheist

    Wouldn't this higher power actually have to exist, and wouldn't it have to actually be a higher power?

    August 28, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      I like to smoke marijuana cigarettes. You can believe in me, I exist.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Chud King

      No one cares if you believe or not. Sorry.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  20. SCAtheist

    So believing in a doorknob as a higher power is going to get someone sober?

    August 28, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • w7rkd

      I am a member of AA and have been for over 19 years and a person has to do what they have to do when it comes to believing in a strength greater than yourself, the result of that is a person being embolden with a power they never had and help them overcome difficult situations that they would rather drink at than face alone.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Chud King

      Obviously, you are as intellectually powerful as the finest door knob in the universe. Hands down! One can only hope you have many followers.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:36 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.