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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. V01D

    I found this a touching article. As an atheist, it's always been a burning question of mine to know how an atheist or agnostic would fare and benefit from AA. I thought that the minimal requirement to truly enjoy the oft religion-driven tenets of the program was to admit to being at least a deist. Your story is a true testament to human will and the great strides it's capable of. Stay strong, Marya. Every day you refuse the glass is another boundary shattered.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Jon P

      As you know we are an inclusive bunch. We don't want anyone to feel otherwise.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  2. Kyle Carney

    It makes me happy to see good news pertaining to atheism.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  3. Tim M

    Nice article. I'll recommend it to other people standing at the door of the rooms turned off by the God-language.

    One small correction? If you broke yourself down, you wouldn't find strange quarks, only up quarks and down quarks, plus a bunch of leptons and bosons. The other four quark flavors (strange, charm, top and bottom) turn up only at higher energies than I've ever seen in even the most caffeine- and nicotine-rich AA. But all that's a detail, of course.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  4. george

    I believe god had a reason and purpose for making me love alcohol. Let's remember, he gave his only son, in fact, he let his only sone be brutalised, ala Mel Gibson's portrayal, for our sins. Would it be almost sacriligious for us not to sin, after such a sacrifice?

    August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • god

      The blood of Jesus is wine, and he told everyone to drink his wine-blood.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  5. William

    This is not about atheism vs. christianity. I would say it is more along the lines of reasonable vs. unreasonable....

    August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Realist

      in the same order, I would agree.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Jon P

      And there is nothing more reasonable than an alcoholic with a drink in their hand.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  6. John C

    I have 29 years of atheist sobriety. The collective consciousness of AA members had a big influence on me. I deconstruct the steps to make sense for someone living in the real world. Step 3; Chill out and move on!

    August 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  7. Brigham

    Great article. I've been walking the same path and have felt your pain in the same areas but all the while feeling very grateful our program exists. Keep on keeping on, Marya : )

    August 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  8. Geno

    Marya;
    The thing I don't get is; If a person smokes for 20 years and then quits are they still a smoker? If one is fat and then loses the weight are they still weight challenged? Why is a person who once drank excessively then quits or kicks the habit, one who no longer desires to get intoxicated still referred to as an alcoholic? Why are they (or me for that matter) branded with affliction that will NEVER be cured? Why is one "a recovering alcolholic " for (pick a number) of years?

    I don't get the need for branding someone for life if they have changed their behavior. Why do I write? Because I have smoked but do not anymore, I have been fat but am not anymore and I have drank to excess but do not anymore. Why only alcohol?

    August 28, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Realist

      The organization without fear, as with religion, couldn't thrive otherwise.

      The real question is; If the AA is so successful (quite opposite in reality) why are the same people still going there?

      Fact is, AA robs peoples personalities. That is correct – more mind fooling games created by them. yes, the mind games that caused them to drink.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Realist

      The organization without fear, as with religion, couldn't thrive otherwise.

      The real question is; If the AA is so successful (quite opposite in reality) why are the same people still going there?

      August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Jon P

      Those are great questions Geno. But smoking and being fat never got us a DWI (s), caused blackouts, caused us to be violent, destroyed our health so absolutely and rapidly, impaired our judgment, caused us to steal, put women in situations that caused them real harm, took us to a depressive and dark place, commit suicide, kill another person in a blackout, kill someone while driving.....need I give you more?

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

      You are limiting yourself Jon.. All those mentioned, and alcoholism, are later effects of other more realistic problems that need addressing. In fact other alternatives = lawlessness. AA doesn't know squat and fools people into believing it's a disease. It's not and never was. It is in fact masking a more serious problem that AA is not capable of dealing with. Then again the AA leaders love the power, they'll do whatever to keep you coming.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  9. laurie

    I have not read through most of the posts, but came to believe that my higher power is the spirit of my alanon group. That is where I derive my inspiration, hope and support. It is very clear in my group that your higher power CAN be the god of your choice, but does not have to be.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Jon P

      Very insightful Laurie. Good luck out there!

      August 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  10. Bo

    ============@Harpo==================== If you are still there, I could give you a lot of Bible prophecies fulfilled, but it would take a lot of Bible study, but I can give you one little fulfiling prophecey. Daniel 12:4 "But thou O' Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book even to the end of the end: many shall run to and fro and knowedge shall be increased. Just look at how much knowledge has increased in the last 100 yrs. A 100 years ago the car could only go about 10 mph. 100yrs ago man couldn't fly, now man has gone to the moon and back. That computer you are using, maybe in your lifetime, in 1980, the PC. was only a key board hooked up to the TV; that was only a little over 30 yrs ago, now look at everything that depends on computerization. Yes, in these last days men are running to and fro very quiclkly and knowlege has increased by leaps and bounds. This is just one little prophecey, there are others more important.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • god

      How is that a prophesy? Its just a statement of fact. Knowledge was increasing during the time period before, during, and after the bible was written.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Sid

      It's OK god. Bo is just stupid, like so many of your other creations.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • icebalm

      Wow, what a prophecy you have there, that humans acquire knowledge over time, and that acquisition of knowledge accelerates when we have a larger population. Who would ever have thought that?

      August 28, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Careful

      We must be careful in trying to get Bo off the Bible "sauce". Can you imagine him thinking for himself?

      It's going to be a big order trying to help them if/when they ever realize that their 'manual' is based on myth, legend, fantasy and superst.ition..

      August 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  11. Bob

    You say that what keeps you sober is the belief 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." I'm afraid I don't where you get that idea from the world view you've outlined. It certainly doesn't come from "Math ...Chaos ... Infinity - That sort of thing."

    August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Ed

      Watching the trendy atheist attempt to explain their faith in the confessed abscence of faith is quite confusing.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Realist

      However a Realist will never become confused. Why? Simply the discussion of god and religion are at the same level as Santa.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Ed

      Most Atheists can have an intelligent conversation about faith and science. The trendy atheist simply puts religion in the same categeory as fantasy to attempt to make themself look superior.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • icebalm

      No, an atheist puts religion in the same category as fantasy because that's what it is. The worlds religions do not agree with each other. Just remember, the worlds religions cannot all be right, but they CAN all be wrong.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • i get it

      Ed,

      Maybe you need to "go humble" and admit that WE DON'T KNOW a lot of things (yet), and quit making up imaginary scenarios, with absolutely no verified evidence, to explain the unknown.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Ed

      I'm humble every day. I know that we do not have all of the answers and also know that no religion is the "correct" one. That doesn't change the immaturity of equating religion to fantasy.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  12. Ll

    Here's a bumper sticker I just saw:
    "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries"

    August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  13. Realist

    If those who claim that AA is so successful, then what are those who claim it is still engaged in it? Truth. Any denial is merely a deflection. AA has a very small success rate.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Jon P

      Good luck out there Realist. Hope it works out for you and your sobriety.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Realist

      But I don't drink regularly. Maybe a drink every two months or so. If AA had it their way, everyone's an alcoholic. Then again their leaders need members. AA is not a reliable approach. It is a failure to 99% of those that go there.

      50% leave and still drink. 48% still go there. Tell me? How is it successful, no one cured.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Karen

      AA does not fail....a drunk has to have a really bad case of the "want tos", has to be ready to hear what they need to hear to survive...don't go after the messenger...

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

      I'm sure you've heard this in previous responses but you breaking AA traditions like you did sucks (personal anonymity). You know what I'm talking about and more important, why that tradition exists. But I guess you know better than our founders though, huh? Just my opinion but there it is.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  14. Roger Franco

    Marya – The bottle will always be there for, even if God isn't. Don't hesitate to return to it if you need some liquid comfort – nothing can love you like alcohol can.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • george

      I'll drink to that.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Jon P

      Roger, please let me know where you live. I want to see the train wreck you and george become one day. We at AA never want to see a person in pain. But when we run into those like yourselves it is truly pure entertainment as you spiral into a vortex of pain and insanity. We see it all the time. But of course your not like that. Best of luck!

      August 28, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  15. george

    I was thrown out of AA whern one of the esteemed older members solemnly said, " Alcoholics only have jail, hospital or death to look forward to". I replied that the same held true for abstainers. The befuddlement this caused amongst the troops, caused an incursion against my presence.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  16. Ed

    A higher being and facts of science are not mutually exclusive.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • god

      False

      August 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Ed

      How's that? Or were you just trolling?

      August 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Recently, Ed said "git". Then he went all ad hominen. Now he's calling someone a troll.

      Take your meds Ed. Go Ed go.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Ed

      Poor guy....have no argument so your reduced some incoherent spew? Sad. It's you who needs meds plus a little tolerance.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • icebalm

      Alright, prove your higher being exists using science.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Ed

      Prove one does not exist.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • god

      I exist because I am currently posting on CNN. I am an all-powerful, all-loving, all-present, and all-knowing. This clearly violates the laws of science. Therefor science doesn't exist.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • i get it

      Ed, "Prove God does not exist"

      Nope. The one making the claim must prove it. If I say that there is an invisible polka-dotted frog sitting on my left shoulder, I must prove it. You cannot disprove it.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Recently, Ed said "git". Then he went all ad hominen. Now he's calling someone a troll.

      Take your meds some more Ed. Go Ed go.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Ed

      I'm going out on a limb here and assume you are speaking of the christian god. Please let me know if that is not the case.

      The christian god is said to be all-knowing and all-powerful. If he is all-knowing, he will know the future. If he knows the future, he knows what he will do in the future. If he already knows what he will do, he has no choice but to do it. If he has no choice but to do what he must, he isn't all powerful.

      If, on the other hand, he can change his mind and do as he pleases, he can't know what the future holds.

      Therefor, being all-knowing and all-powerful are mutually exclusive, ergo the christian god can't exist.

      There is your proof.

      I can't prove that beings for which there isn't any evidence, don't exist. So, technically there could still be a god, or even multiple gods, but the christian one is most certainly a fairy tale.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  17. george

    I was thrown out of AA whern one of the esteemed older members confidently said, " Alcoholics only have jail, hospital or death to look forward to". I replied that the same held true for abstainers. The befuddlement this caused amongst the troops, caused an incursion against my presence.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Jon P

      George, just keep drinking and I will be there to listen to your story or be at your funeral. Good luck!

      August 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  18. Emanuel

    I'm a Christian and I found the article interesting. I was just delighted that you found your freedom from alcoholism. I pray that you will continue to remain sober.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • jimbo, st. louis mo

      Pray all you want dude. That don't do anything.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  19. gustavlover

    I'm so glad you found sobriety. But....how can you not believe in a higher power when you take a look at our world? It takes more faith for me to believe in evolution than God. Anyway, congratulations again on overcoming alcohol.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • i get it

      gusta,

      Sure, the easy (non-thinking) way is to say, "goddidit".

      August 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Ed

      Why do so many people with no faith like to reduce religion to magic or attempt to belittle believers as non thinking idiots? Must be hard to be so non-tolerant in this world.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • say what

      You must be very ignorant if you need faith to believe in evolution. Evolution is observable, proven fact. Take a simple course on genetics and maybe you can begin to understand this.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • ashree

      there's more evidence for evolution than gravity but you sure don't deny gravity do you?

      August 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • i get it

      Ed,

      If "goddidit" folks had gotten away with that theory, without challenge (or as you call it 'belittling'), we would still be tossing virgins into volcanoes, sacrificing goats, and believing that the Earth is the center of the universe.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Ed

      i get it,
      Do you really think that you or any person of no faith has progressed faith and rituals in those whose have faith? You don't have nearly the impact that you proclaim.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Psst, Ed, believers are not necessarily non-thinking idiots. They are wrong-thinking idiots.

      There, fixed that for you. Go Ed go. Loosen up your collar first.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Ed

      Also, if you choose. One could go read up on the many articles being written about Quantum Physics and God.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Ed, please do tell us all that you understand about Quantum Physics. A single sentence will be more than sufficient.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  20. fredgreene

    great job with the whole anonymity thing marya.

    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.