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.
Jay – I've been following you here and on other CNN blogs. I'm really getting to like you. You're cute and loveable in a simple sort of way. Yes, I am happy with my creation. Indeed I am.
man created god and then called god a delusionalist.
problem is that you have a high opinion of yourself. Yes, to small minds as ours, this universe thing seems complex. The simple human answer, easy way out, is to claim some god created it. mm. where is your god now?? Afraid to show up? Or do you need to make excuses for him
Realist – I like the way you think. You make me proud and you bring hope to the world. I love you very much.
Enjoyed the column so far ... would have liked to hear more about how her principle of service somehow made the transformation that keeps her sober.
Atheism is Ironic in that its concept heavily relies on existence of God. Without God there is no Atheism. lol
Correction, without people "believing" there is a god there is no atheism
It relies heavily on the INSISTENCE of masses of like-minded people that a god exists. Not actual existence.
My point exactly there is no atheism without God.
Nofed – that is incredibly profound. Did you come up with that yourself?
What do you know about existence other then what you are told? You think you are capable of making rational decisions?because your mind it running a certain type of program.
I'll bet that you think that is clever and original, huh?...lol
Nofed, atheists believe that man invented God. They believe God is a fantasy and a concoction of the human mind. They believe that there never was anything except the world around us to believe in.
That is, without a doubt, the dumbest argument for god there ever was.
"Because some people don't believe in god, there must be a god"?
Right. I also don't believe in the yeti or moon crabs. Therefor they must exist.
I don't follow your logic. You claim that atheism requires the existence of a god? The reason why there are atheists is because there are theists who believe in god, not because a god, or gods exist. Atheism is just the direct opposite of theism. Just like hot is the opposite of cold. Nothing more, nothing less and it makes no implication whatsoever on the existence of a supernatural power.
Nofed, you're equating the belief in god with the existence of god, but they are not the same thing. I can believe in a three headed two tailed five eyed creature called a "ragamufinco", but that does not mean that one actually exists. It is a concept. God/s is/are a similar concept. Just because the concept exists doesn't mean that the thing itself does. This is common sense and you've failed it. Reflect on that, won't you?
===========@Daniel/3:53================= I don't get offended a atheist for what they believe, I'm annoyed by some of them ridiculing Christians. By the same token, I'm embarrassed by the way some Christians act, or at least they claim to be Christians.
Exactly. In some ways a lot of Atheists and Christians are alike, as in they can't accept people who don't believe what they do. I'm Agnostic and get tired of being lumped into the same group as Atheists, mostly by Atheists. Still, in the real world, there are plenty of open minded people of all religions as well as those that lack religion.
I consider myself an agnostic also, but the tag 'atheist' applies too. Agnostic = lack of knowledge (of a god); Atheist = no belief in a god.
If one has no knowledge of a god, how can one have belief in one? Do you pray and worship a god one week and not the next?
The thing is AA works for millions around the world. It is true that AA was formed on Christian principles. The founders would like you to turn your will over to god and to be saved medically and Spiritually. On page 63 of the AA book it says "we were reborn" meaning, by accepting Christ. That is what they wanted but AA is open to everyone. And after you have a spiritual awakening, which most never do, you are invited to share your experience strength and hope, regardless of where that came from. AA is really more of a support group for people with the disease. Only a very small percentage of Born Again Christians are in AA. There are far more X Catholics who have been so beaten by religion that it is very difficult for them to come to know the love of God, which is where spiritual awakenings come from. A small percentage of nonbelievers do actually accept Christ through AA by witnessing what Christ believers have (spiritually). Many who have very hard bottoms just surrender to God because they just know they have to give up and be freed and loved by a power greater than themselves. For all of the atheists in AA this is good place to get sober. I know it is hard to hear the God stuff but all are welcome. AA gives you hope, helps you feel un-alone, and God's help is there if you want it. Many people there turn their will over to the God of their own imagination but that does not seem to bear as much fruit. Understanding the spiritual part of the program is difficult for many because it is not logical. That's the issue. Spiritual things of God are spiritually discerned. You have to come to Him believing or you will never understand. For all the nonbelievers who will read this and want to respond... have at it. But remember, that God so loves the world..., including you.
Well put except that god doesn't exist. This article is an excellent example that fact as Mrs. Hornbacher's journey clearly demonstrates that the principles that make programs like Alcoholics Anonymous work are those of discipline, community, and distraction, not a belief in god. We can remove god entirely from the program and it would still work as advertised. In fact I could remove the word "God" from your post and it would still make sense because the moral and social principles that we all live by are the SAME whether one is a devout theist or an ardent atheist. So what we find are that these are not Christian values. They did not derive from the bible. They did not come from god. They are foundational to stable personal relationships and thus tantamount to stable society. As such these principles are universally recognizable throughout the world regardless of the dominant religion. When we remove god from the picture and our world view becomes much clearer because we see the world more as a whole and not something constructed only for the privileged few who believe in one of ten thousand of different and equally probable gods.
We Atheists encounter religion saturated into every corner of modern society, and accept it as part of our culture. We accept religious belief as playing a large role in human history. So it's not surprising in the least that an Atheist can put aside the religious agenda and accept the help of others. Good for you Marya, your actions speak louder than a preachers televised sermon.
Actually, God is opposed to religion.
Its Question of Theory and practice. Some Ideas work in theory and not in practice and vice versa. Atheism relies alot on semantics. There is talk of history but failure to understand the meanings of words and how they relate to theory and practice. The Fact is everything came from religion. Science, Math. if you look at sacred geometry for example. The zero came from the concept of god absence. Atheism comes from concept of god. It is a phallicy to think the past was ignorance and linear. Civilizations golden years were at a time religion and science, art were one in ancient times. what we are coming up with no in quantum physics existed already in ideas but worded differently.
nofed ... and religion came from the mind of man.
Atheism existed long before any of the myriads of religions, it just didn't need a label, but you are correct that we only need that label now because of religion.
"Actually, God is opposed to religion."
Depends on the god and the person defining it.
Nofed – it's a fallacy (spelling correction, sorry...) to believe that the zero concept must, by definition, be based on absence of God. If I have 3 apples, and someone takes away my 3 apples, I have a lack of apples, not a lack of God.
Note to SB. The God is our creator and the person describing it was Jesus.
But Jennifer M .. that analogy only works if you actually had 3 apples in your hand at some point & didn't just imagine or were told they were there.
"Note to SB. The God is our creator and the person describing it was Jesus."
Da King, not according to every other religion on the planet. And their stories are just as believable as yours from an atheist's point of view.
============@DeseertDude/3:39============ O' come on, what kind of garbage is this? I think you owe a appoligy to all the atheists out there! I'm christian and I would never make such a remark. I may think their beliefs aer erronious, but I would never attack their character like that!
Much respect to you then.
Atheism: How the weak-minded and stupid ty to convince others they are smart.
Got the latest iphone? You must be smart!
Atheism = the belief in facts, science, and logic rather than the fallibility of the human emotion and desire
ignorance is bliss is the cornerstone of all religions, starting with the garden of eden. So trying to discover any real truth about our world and universe is always called evil.
murray. Science comes from religion. There was no separation from the divine, art and philosophy in ancient times. its seems they were more advance in science of the mind. dont be fooled by propaganda.
Yes, please defend your fear of knowledge by calling people names. It makes you look so clever.
Tony, your ignorance is exactly what they want. Ever hear about the Dark Ages? No one but religious leaders could read. Everyone else was oppressed and forced to believe whatever religion the King or Queen held. Religion is disgustingly outdated, and so are the thought processes that come with it.
Atheism is accepting that we don't know everything and that we can't know everything, and that doubt and criticism are paramount to the progress of individual knowledge and the collective knowledge of mankind. Theism is a belief in fairy tales and a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) disdain for knowledge. How can you claim that atheists are trying to convince others of their intelligence when the "Word of God" EXPLICITLY claims to have it all figured out? Name it the pot calling the kettle black or false equivalency. Either way, you're flat wrong and need to re-evaluate your understanding of atheism and perhaps also your belief in god.
Atheism = bigotry.
Bigotry has evolved from race and religion to the psudo-science of digital age atheism. Pathetic and tragically human.
Do you even know the definition of a "bigot"? And you're assuming that only an atheist could possibly be a bigot?
Think before you type.
The answers are "yes" and "of course no".
Take your own advice and think before you type. It's a hard concept for pseudo-scientists, no?
Well, because you say so it must be true. No need for things like fact or reality.
So then you clearly don't understand the term "ironic" or "hypocritical".
Stay on, though; I find you hilarious.
Chud – as the creator of the universe, I've seen and done a lot – more than you can comprehend, actually. So, please explain to me how failure to believe in me equals bigotry. I have never thought that of non-believers but perhaps you know something I don't.
i'm an atheist and not a bigot. i think all people are equal and only their actions can raise or lower their standing. and most people are atheist in part due to actual science not pseudo-science as you are saying. there are scientists who have created life, not cloning but created living organisms.
there is far more intolerance in believers. maybe not always overtly but you're a christian so you must think that you will be saved while everyone else burns in "hades" so while you may not overtly do anything, you are fine living you life. in fact you must want to get all the jews bak to is real so you can get to "heaven" it's part of your belief system.
do you know your own "religion" well enough to know how many times the bible, the supposed words of god has been edited and rewritten due to science?? i laugh every time i see politicians saying they don't believe in evolution. it is still actually happening. you can believe in whatever you want and i'll be totally cool and fine with your life choice, until you make comments denigrating what i believe to be true. i can tell you that nearly every religion was started as a way for the rich to control the poor. back then might would have easily overthrown wealth. but once you convince a population that their actual life is short and their afterlife is long you can control them with rules. now we have both religion and laws to do it. as an atheist i think laws are enough.
============@DeseertDude/3:39============ O' come on, what kind of garbage is this? I think you owe a appoligy to all the atheist out there! I'm c
Well-stated and important messages for non-religious people who might be helped by AA. I agree, however, that the concept of "humility" fundamentally stems from AA's Christian routes and is not helpful to many people, particularly the many who come into the program feeling terrible about themselves. Also, I see a fundamental conflict in your thinking that you came into being "by chance" and "barely exist" but you go on to say that "our purpose in life is to be of service to others." I think you mean that you've found that this is the way to give your life meaning, which is great. Good luck with your book and your message. It's absurd to keep this to yourself because of "anonymity" – how else can you help people?
I LOVE WITNESSES!! It is always a joy to receive speakers from the various religious denominations into my house. They are warmly invited it, offered refreshments and non-confrontational conversation. Their literature is not thrown back in their face, my door is not slammed in their face, they are not met with swastikas or inverted crosses. They are welcome, their opinion is welcome, their view is welcome because understanding these many views and opinions (and all of the "laws" that go along with each religion) is important to me.
However these discussions over the years have truly solidified my belief that religion is nothing more than a money making governing body for simple minded masses that are not capable of being held fully responsible and accountable for their own lives and choices.
So go forth you potent little sheep, witness to the masses!! If you show up on my doorstep I'll even give you cookies for being so entertaining. :)
When I walked into my first AA meeting and met with a room of sober people I was amazed. I was told to pray to a higher power, and the chairperson never said God is your higher power. He told the room of pepole you can pray and use your favorite rock star, football player and any one that inspires you and can draw strenght from to stop drinking thats great. If AA changes people's mines to believe in God, that's that person option. I grew up a Christian and believed in God and Jesus so I prayed to Jesus to stay sober and still do and for other reasons.
I am very happy for Maria for taking the first step to stay sober and I pray she can stay sober the rest of her life. Staying sober is not easy for a lot of people, it takes hundreds of AA meeting and the 12 step program to do so. One of the AA sayings is "99 meetings in 99 days" to do that it's not easy to do, I did not do it.
From p. 9:
"Alcoholism was becoming a concern of the American public before it was even officially recognized as a disease. Prohibition in the 1920s did little to curb the desire for alcohol and increased the power of organized crime mobs that specialized in the illegal production and sale of alcoholic beverages. As early as 1945, the federal government had attempted to place warning labels on alcoholic beverages. "
"WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, during pregnancy can cause mental retardation and other birth defects.
WARNING: Drinking this product, which contains alcohol, impairs your ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.
WARNING: This product contains alcohol and is particularly hazardous in combination with some drugs.
WARNING: The consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, can increase the risk of developing hypertension, liver disease, and cancer
WARNING: Alcohol is a drug which may be addictive. "
Unfortunately, the last three warnings were not used in the revised warning labels attached to alcoholic beverages.
“l. According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. 2. Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.”
Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. Recovery can happen inside and outside of AA, with or with out a belief in god. If you are real alcoholic who can't stop on your own, find something that does work. AA works for some; counseling for others; church; insane asylums and even prison. Statistics show, however, that most real alcoholics, don't ever recover.
Don't you realize that life as an atheist has no more value than that of a pedophile or a serial killer? If they are able to prey upon the weak and take advantage of others to bring pleasure to their existence then they have exemplified the survival of the fittest. Just the thought of that makes me want to drink.
Religious people never prey on the weak. Just ask all those children that were abused by priests.
Do you want us to post a list of Christian pedophiles and serial killers? Do you? It would take up the whole page here. The atheist list would perhaps occupy a couple of lines...
The fact that you honestly just compared "atheists" to "pedophiles and serial killers" just goes to show everyone reading how truly, truly deluded you are.
Also it makes me comfortable to know I dont share the same views of someone like you.
Why do people get so offended by those of us who dont believe in god?
Daniel: probably because they're insecure about their belief in the first place.
They're the vast majority, so that's the only explanation I can think of; there definitely not "oppressed" or anything.
It's the Atheists who are so insecure in their beliefs they feel threathened by religion.
Aw chud thinks I feel threatened lol, cute. Last I heard people were free to choose religion as they wanted, not to have it forced on us. I treat people how I want to be treated, funny how im more christian than most christians
You must be very proud of yourself for making up facts about people who you don't know. I guess name-calling and lying are hallmarks of those christians who consider themselves the truest believers. Just take a moment and realize that if you had any real proof at all of your god, there would be no atheists.
Nah, atheists just get tired of people shoving religion in their faces. Their motto is "live and let live."
If Marya did read all of the AA lit...she would not have written this article. Disrespectful toward her fellow AA members....whom do not care what she believes in.
Good luck on your journey Marya, but please respect the program and what has helped millions of alcohilics worldwide. It's Anonymous...please keep it that way!
..."it’s perfectly possible to sober up, sans belief in God." That's disrespectful to those who, you say, don't .. care ... what she believes? Interesting...
Tradition 11. We always maintain our anonymity at the level of press radio and file.
12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all of our traditions ever reminding us to place principals ahead of personalities.
I understand where you're coming from. I used to believe in evolution, and didn't think the Bible could possibly be true. And then I experienced salvation. It's not a matter of "religion", it's a matter of relationship. God sent part of Himself to die on the cross for ME. But after I accepted Christ, I wanted to know that what I was reading was true. So I did hours and hours of research, reading books, etc. to see if there could be any evidence to support Creationism/Intelligent Design. What I found surprised me. And there is very little evidence that supports the Theory of Evolution as theorized by Darwin. It was astonishing. I would highly suggest looking further. Some good books to read might be: "Evidence that Demands a Verdict", by Josh McDowell; "The Case for Christ", by Lee Strobl, and "Mere Christianity", by C.S. Lewis. Congrats on being alcohol-free!! I understand that struggle!
I hid all those dinosaur fossils just to mess with your heads.
Have you also read the rebuttals and refutations to McDowell, Strobel and Lewis? You are not finished reading.
Can I tell you about my 'relationship' with my invisible pet unicorn sometime?
You" accepted Christ", and ... then ... you decided to see if what you believed was true? Isn't it a bit challenging, perhaps even impossible, to do objective research that way...?
I don't think you really understood evolution before you decided to convince yourself it couldn't be true. Try reading "Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne. This is a well-thought out book that gives you simple and true evidence and examples that show that Darwin knew what he was talking about.
I am happy you were able to sober up... Whatever it works to free someone from alchool is very welcome.
However, I have to make a point on the conclusion of your article where you praise the humilty of AA.
The valorization of humility to the rank of virtue is typically Christian. Ancient Greeks and Romans were merely associating it with defeat and debasement.
It took a God, who humbled Himseld dying on a Cross for all our flaws, to introduce all the humanity to the healing power of humilty. And this is true also for many other good things, like the concern for the poor, the weak, the disadvantaged, the sick, and so on. All categories that in the classical world were quite endangered.
Sometimes, non believers should appreciate more that they are building on Christan foundations. Although I agree that too often Christians, including, me, are not very up to the task of witnessing the Christian heritage power of restoring lives, I don't think is totally fair to say that your recovery doesn't have anything to do with religion.
Very good luck to you, wth my prayers and empathy
Sorry but christians don't get to lay sole claim to virtue. Get over yourselves.
Some of us are building our own foundations, using compassion and empathy, rather than a 2000 year old book written and edited by people with a personal agenda. Humanity survived and formed civilization long before any of the bible was written. Humanity has learned to live in societies because it is beneficial for the species. The simple morals of not killing and not stealing were not invented by the authors of the bible; they have long been a part of human culture.
You give the bible and your religion far too much credit, especially as it has been used to excuse some of the most atrocious acts that humanity is capable of, such as the torture of the Spanish Inquisition or witch trials, or the slaughter or enslavement of the indigenous people of every populated continent.
And yes, I know that someone will list a bunch of "atheist" leaders like Stalin or Mao here, as if that counters the argument an any way. Christians are no better than anyone else and should look at their own actions before they judge the actions of others.
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.