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.
You never read Taoism my friend. its religion and it believes in motion and change.
Just another tradition breaker trying to make a dime off their AA involvement. Press,radio and film hmmm.
Read the latest science on the Higgs-Bosen and the Bose-Einstein condensate. Don't forget to check out superposition. Seems that science (quantum) and spirituality are moving closer together. Religious dogma and spirituality are not the same; one is a doctrine, ones a personal experience.
There is currently a controversy in this community over whether or not to include a "we agnostics" group (a 12 step AA group) in the local directory of meetings. Apparently they are not following he 12 traditions to the letter while it is also obvious that the local AA service board is violating at least 4 traditions in taking the group off the list.
"Seems that science (quantum) and spirituality are moving closer together"
In what way does a Bose-Einstein condensate suggest this any more than any other state of matter? Let's put Bose-Einstein condensate in context with all intermediate states..
Are we feeling more spiritual now? I don't think so. Same goes for superposition. Certain authors have proposed very round-about ways of linking these and other concepts in physics to their long-held spiritual beliefs. But their arguments are ambiguous and untestable as there is no objective way to define spirituality, such arguments remain permanently unfalsifiable.
Think about religion as another drug addiction. Instead of "mind altering chemicals", people are getting "mind altering illusions". Same thing. People love their addictions and are willing to down-trade to religion, but not give it up entirely!
message from me
That is a powerful message for the people of the world, you O atheist is who we have been seeking for ages, you have finally arrived to enlighten us how this world can be so much more better with 'Faithlessness'
you have it wrong. it goes:
How about the real message from you?
"I'm a christian pretending to be an atheist so I can lie about what atheists are. That way I can feel better about myself and my special bonding with god. You see, god doesn't mind if I break the commandment about bearing false witness, because I'm pretending to be someone else. God likes it when I lie about others to protect him."
Fact: Religion is fraud, plain and simple, and needs to be eliminated – as any fraud. All it does is cause tremendous damage to the society. The church is the equivalent of drug dealing organization that sells drugs (illusions) to the masses, and collects a huge amount of tax free money back, without any danger or scrutiny by the governments. What drug cartel wouldn't want that situation? No guns needed, no fear of imprisonment!
Read O Read the article, it is about faithlessness? Why dost thou twist it to suit thine convenience, an argument is an argument, read o read!
I understand that those are feelings which *you* think that *you* would experience if you stopped clinging so tenaciously to your fantasy. You know little to nothing of realism, do you?
@i get it,
Did you really get it? the article is by an atheist about faithlessness and cure for addiction.
Without God, how did anyone invent burning at the stake?
or the inquisition?
Tony and Realist – thank you for bringing those up. Those are two perfect examples of people TOTALLY misunderstanding what my son and I are about. It really irks us when we see that kind of behavior. Alas, we have the power of final judgement and we've had some unhappy souls around here over the years. Anyway, thanks for letting me clear that up. I really love you two.
Nope god, you lose. They do this stuff because they made you up. Don't be afraid, god, you are not real – poof
Realist – you may be right, but don't go too wild telling that to others.
OK – here's the truth. I'm not real. But my illusion keeps a lot of people on the straight and narrow. And it that works for them, what difference does it make to you? A lot of people have imaginary friends. I just happen to be a really popular imaginary friend.
This is our secret, OK?
Great article, and I'll take the quote "I believe that I exist at random, but I do not exist alone" as one of the best quotes I have heard in journalism, ever. Atheism is in many ways a humble stance – we are nothing compared to the greatness of this universe. Atheism is valiant as well – simply because we don't know where we are going after this – maybe nowhere.
Thanks for a good read.
no wars ever fought in the name of atheism. Yet the believers call atheists arrogant?
Your a pantheist? great. point is its belief is a personal truth.
realist Communists are Atheists and look what happened in russia. Stalin killed more people then hitler.
What I find interesting about Atheists in general? The simple fact that they feel human scientists KNOW how life really came to be, that there's nothing more intelligent than a human, and that everything simply appeared from nothing.
ROTFLMAO. A definite score.
Dude, atheists simply aren't satisfied with "I don't know, so I believe god did it." That's an intellectual cop out. I am willing to give science time for discovery, as it requires actual discovery and evidence. Religion requires nothing more than someone telling you a lie that makes you feel good.
Ever heard of the Joke of the Atheist reincarnated as a tree that was used to print the bible?
Did you ever hear the one about the christian who died, and was buried, then decomposed, never realizing that there was no heaven or hell, just death?
That would be a lot funnier if atheists believed in reincarnation. But I still love you even if your jokes are lame.
I heard the rest of it, and the atheist tree became part of the environment, but the religionist destroyed the environment by cutting down the trees to brainwash others with their bibles.
tala. Have you heard the joke of atheist who is not dead but makes claims of the afterlife without having any idea?
Always good to hear from God, the expert on "lame",,,
what if the guy who owns the lumber and paper company was atheist and sold paper to the religous man who makes bibles would it be fault of the atheist or the bible making man. think aboot it.
Simply replying to the original post in the spirit in which it written. No one knows for certain what happens after death, but if someone makes a lame "joke" at my expense, I am not afraid to make a "joke" myself.
oh snap. you pulled the self righteous thing on me. I cant compete with self righteous believers. you good man in this post.
I sometimes regret that when I created this universe that I didn't insert a simple law of physics that required all jokes to be funny. I made that correction in subsequent universes and some of those organisms are a laugh riot. But don't get me wrong, I still love you folks who don't have a decent sense of humor. You're kind of funny in your own special way.
Without Faith how did one become sober?
Read the article.
Life is meaningless.
I feel sorry for you if you think your life is meaningless. I've never met an atheist who didn't value life more, because it's the only one we get.
I barely exist, better still i don't exist
The human mind? It's a powerful thing.
Faithlessness to nowhere?
Atheism Opposes itself. You believe in science yet fail to prove the origin of the universe with science. Thus Atheism falls victim to the same ideas it claims to oppose. which is the belief in whats not real or doesn't exist. lol priceless. in essence atheists become same self righteous sobs they trying not to be.
"...self righteous sobs they trying not to be." At least we try not to be sobs .. very christian of you nofed. lol
Considering that the search for the origins of the universe has been going on for a relatively brief time, how about you give it a few hundred years before giving up and giving credit to the supernatural power of your choice? Those of us who don't need an immediate or easy answer are willing to wait for the correct answer, even if that answer somehow is a supernatural source.
It's about proof, not wishful thinking.
Not Christian at all. Think about it. You claim God is mans imagination and science is proof there is no God. Yet the science you claim is proof doesn't exist to prove creation. Its all theory. Its same theory your trying to oppose but semantically different.
talla. so your a christian awaiting proof of your religion? by your login. Same way a christian awaiting jesus you are waiting proof.
Its wishful thinking without the faith.
The difference, nofed, is that there is proof that the universe, however it began, formed in a very organic way. There is proof that life, however it was sparked on this planet, has evolved to what we are now, and continues to evolve. On the other hand, there is no proof that any god, ever, has existed. That is the difference.
tala. True There is experiential proof in our lives that this particular reality exists within the universe however. the force behind the origin is not known. so it still comes down to belief and faith on both side in an idea. coopeash
Nofed .. science is ever going.
Atheists know it. Atheists understand change. Changes that we find to disprove our system of science. That is the fundamental part of science. Yes atheist is in fact a force unto itself. It disproves itself because it must.
We must prove a negative to find out the truth.
Nofed, I get that you are an agnostic. That's fine. That's your choice.
I have formed an opinion based on the evidence I have learned. I am not afraid to say that until proof of a god is offered, I do not believe in one. That is my choice.
unlike religion, science doesn't claim to have all the answers. It searches for them.
answer, Oh snap Pulling the old Taoist philosophy out. Your a good Taoist answer. I admire that.
If the religious person were to ever accept the fact that you must accept change and prove a negative must have to be thought out they would see the truth.
Religious people always patronize about "you'll go to hell". Well I'll patronize with this"
"No – my friend – my family – my son – my daughter – "he/she/they CAN'T be dead!"
"Please tell me NO! It can't be true!"
Well its the chicken and the egg. NEW FLASH science came from religion. check out sacred geometry. Also there was good book that outlines History and concepts of space that outlines well religious origins of certain ideas.
anywho religion and science are same. Alot of old indian texts have been used for modern science and google uses vedic scripts as an algorithm. its mathematically synonymous
Yes science came from religion. Do you know how?
Because people who did science understood that change was inevitable. That is the answer.
Science was born of curiosity. Most ancient cultures have their own scientific contribution, some rudimentary, some quite advanced. Perhaps it was begun in the name of whatever god that culture believed in, but good, old fashioned human curiosity is the driving force of discovery. You could use some curiosity yourself.
So true. Salutes to you.
Oh no, science doesn't have the answer to everything! I guess we should just believe dumb old fairy tales then.
AA has saved not only my physical life but my emotional one as well. When I arrived at AA's doors I held a desire to be close to God (if there was such a thing), but I felt that I couldn't be close to God because I couldn't feel close to the church. And I blamed God for the mistakes so many God-seeking people in the church make along their spiritual journey. Anyway, I realized this blockage wasn't God's fault and overcame my reluctance to approach Him. For me God isn't a gray-bearded guy waiting for any excuse to punish me forever, but rather the same energy that is self-realizing through the physical world, which includes me. The better my life is, and the better I can enhance the lives of those around me, the better God's reality is. Anyway, all of this mumbo jumbo has allowed me to go through the AA program "by the book". Thank you for sharing your story, and I wish you the best of good health and fortune in your future whatever your beliefs (or non-beliefs) regarding God are.
The diety posting as god is an imposter – maybe even a pagan diety. I am God. See, I know enough to capitalize the G. So who are you going to believe? You've been outed, god.
But wouldn't the real God know how to spell "deity"...?
Excellent, asreal. I knew I could count on you. I'm so delighted you're using the spelling and proofreading skills I imparted upon you. I love all my children, but today you're making me especially proud. No smite for you! (That's an old deity joke I like to tell.)
This article only told her thoughts on being an atheist and not how she actually over came addiction. Plus, most of the stuff she described as helping her is actually in the Holy Bible. Love it!
That's because I love her.
A willingness to consider the possibility thatGod exists would greratly help recovery as the Big Book states. Try praying to God on your knees every day for a month and see what happens.
Some of us don't enjoy being on our knees as much as others.
Try repeating self help slogans on your knees everyday for a month .. you'll see the same result.
Thou shalt know my by thy rugburns. On they knees.
Really sore knees would happen, I imagine...
people claiming science and religion without having any proof of origin of existence is religion in itself. its self defeating.
Even though I created the universe, I find your comment confusing. But I still love you.
Congrats on sobering up, and I loved the tone of this article, wasn't threatening at all. I would like to point out one thing, though, as a believer. You say 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." But my question to you, as an atheist, is this: flawed from what? If we're flawed, then we're obviously not meeting some kind of standard or we've "fallen" from some former state of being. Why change if it's all chaos? What's the point of service to others?
Flawed from being perfect as compared to other humans, it's really quite simple. In this case the example is alcoholism, we sometimes harm ourselves or others, which is not a perfect way to be. No God needed to gauge perfection.
You see the words "humility" and "flawed"?
And the contrary "God" and "perfection"?
A perfect being created a flaw servant. There is that contradiction to religion. God can not create a perfect servant.
That is what that statement tells us. So idiots do not ask "why did God not create us perfectly?"
Any sensible atheist has asked the theist on it. We still do not know why they won't give an answer.
Look, Matt. There's been a misconception on earth for way too long that I am perfect, infallible, omnipotent, yada, yada, yada. And while all this is flattering, it's all overstated. Granted, I am really awesome, but perfect is a reach. As such, my creations aren't always perfect either. Sorry, about that. And, yes, humans are a pretty flawed bunch. I eventually worked out some of the problems with subsequent universes, but you folks do have some boo boos and I apologize for that. But don't be sad or disappointed. I don't love you any less than my more "perfect" universes.
Now that you're here, take those christians along with you. Or are you too busy?
Sorry to bug you.
Answer – I hear what you're saying. Where I come from we call those overly righteous types "suck ups." (Eventually I let that term come to earth, too.) My advice to you is to treat those types like flies at a picnic. They don't really hurt anything, they're just kind of annoying. But I am NOT giving you permission to swat them. Love you folks!
So you'll swat them yourself. Ok.
I'll accept that. That is your answer then. You'll swat them?
Or did you say you won't? So no punishment from you? No hell in your mind? Ok.
So there's no hell then. Oh thank you for that clarification.
- Final question : did i interpret what you said as correct?
Answer – so far you get the award today for the most leaps of logic in one post. I have to say I'm often quite pleased with the level of creativity I gave humans. Unfortunately, there are a number of other qualities that I wish I had put more thought and effort into.
Skip the compliments God. I don't need them. I know most answers but am still learning.
You have a schedule? Now where does a God vanish off to? An omni-presence persona wanting to get away.
So is there a sign at your door "God is out! To Lunch!" ?
Another schmuck who wants a crack at spreading false love. i love that! :)
In the book Alcoholics Anonymous (often called the "Big Book") "How it Works" page 60, just after it lists the twelve steps:
"No one among us has maintained anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection."
NOBODY can claim to live perfectly by spiritual principles. And that's okay. Because no one can adhere to those spiritual principles perfectly, everyone has character defects, ergo we are all inherently flawed.
There are standards for perfection which each one of us has (and they might not all be the same), but these standards ultimately are unattainable.
===========@carefull/4:03================ Thank you, although I don't know why you think that I can't think for myself. I don't think atheists think for themselves, after all where do they get their information–I dare say from atheisic scientists. Did you know there are more Christian scientiests tha atheists?
And Christians get their information of bronzed-aged lunatics. I'll go with science, thanks.
Bo – I love you very, very much but I want you to work on your spelling. I gave you far more intelligence than you are displaying here.
Laughs @ God :)
The religion of "Christian" scientists is probably a little different from the religion of the "Christians" who think of science as some kind of cult in its own right.
Science is a method of thought and discovery – it's not an explanation for the universe or a religion of its own. It's just a metric to assess whether some phenomenon has been proven to exist, or not, and to describe how it works.
Science and religion butt heads because science has not, as of yet, proven the central concepts of any religion correct. On the contrary, over time, many parts of religious dogma have been debunked by science. Perhaps scientists presume that laymen distrust science because they feel that their cherished beliefs will be disproven. Perhaps laymen presume that scientists have the arrogance to think they know all the answers, as if they were priests of some foreign and sinister religion.
Bo, I form my opinions from the facts I learn. I have no idea the religion of the scientists I listen to. I am only interested in learning what they have observed. I don't believe in god because there is a lack of hard evidence and "personal" evidence is not compelling to me. Both of my sisters believe in god. That doesn't bother me at all. Every person makes their own choice. Mine was deeply considered, and based on the honest fact that I don't believe in god.
It seems strange that there are several posters spewing very similar unbelievably ignorant and hateful postings a. Presumably they are actually the same psychotic individual. Maybe not even out of high school yet.
I want names, Tony. I have the power to smite and I'm not afraid to use it. But I still love you very, very much.
Ugh God, you don't need Tony to name names. You already know.
You must be getting senile.
See, Answer, that's yet another misconception about me that has been popularized over the past two millennia. I actually have multiple information sources. And some of those sources would probably surprise you. I actually have a special place in my heart for what you on Earth call "snitches." But I do have the ability to determine truth from lies. Love you, Answer! Let me know what else I can help you with.
Feel free to help me as you like. I'll help you overcome your problems too.
That's very thoughtful of you, Answer. I appreciate your words. Love you!
Now when God types out text over the internet... can it be interpreted as "real" or "false love"?
That is a question to be proven. I could lie over the internet so easily. Hmm, so is anything you type (God) ever a lie?
Since this is the internet after all. Curious...
Answer – you have been given the gift of intellect and reason. I'm afraid I'll have to leave it at that. I love you.
Anser – I've given this more thought. I'm going to start out by telling you how much I love youand that I think you're very bring and compassionate. But here's the deal.
I'm not real. But my illusion keeps a lot of people on the straight and narrow. And if that works for them, what difference does it make to you? A lot of people have imaginary friends. I just happen to be a really popular imaginary friend.
This is our secret, OK? And please stay modest.
Yep I already knew you'd be bailing.
Nothing says false love better than posting things over the internet big guy.
Is in keeping tradition that important to AA members?
Rather than the idea that AA is about helping others deal with alcoholism?
This is the most absurd sort of complaint you members of AA are dishing out.
Religion was a tradition. We see that it too changed and broke apart.
Is that your current rationale? – this is what I want to ask you AA members.
Your religion or cult will break apart? If an atheist has an idea of helping others through her ideas right?
So it's preferable if the author was a religious person and wrote a book? That is the jist of argument right?
Go to an open AA traditions meeting, and ask about it there.
Also, it's the 11th and 12th traditions
11 states: 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.
12 states:Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Staying anonymous is about humility, not just anonymity for the sake of anonymity. She could have written this article with just her first name, and without a picture. Instead she chose to go the much more public route, often an indication of one's ego. In terms of helping another drunk, which is the purpose of AA, she needn't post her full name.
Also, all you have to do i google "AA meeting guide in [your location]" and you will come up with plenty of places who are more than willing to help. There are also plenty of 24/7 hotlines you can call for help getting to a meeting, or just to talk if you're struggling, and there isn't a meeting anywhere nearby at the time.
Either way AA ain't the only way, it's just the industry standard. I believe some peoples higher powers these days are a far cry from the God of the Bible. So, as an atheist you could make the solar system a higher power, thus that becoming your God.
I'm not sure why some people believe in God and others don't. I won't try to convince you either way, my advice is to just ask God to reveal himself to you.
You must not understand the concept of embracing the truth, do you?
Andy that is the first step to God. By asking him, really, it show that you believe, even if just a little. That is enough.
That will open the door.
Andy if you started to ask the Tooth Fairy to pay you more for teeth I'm sure you'll see the same thing that Da King has retorted.
You'll be getting closer to to Tooth Fairy also.
Completely illogical comment. All gods are fiction and all atheists know that. So how could an atheist become god by calling the universe a higher power? Atheists don't believe in God hence the word ATHEIST! Religious people have never been known for having common sense.
Andy, there are plenty of ways to get sober and to kick ugly habits. A lot of folks ask for help through me. Plenty of people take paths that don't include me. But I love them all just the same. I just like to see my children happy, healthy, and productive. And if they go to church once in awhile, well that's just icing on the proverbial cake for me. Love ya, buddy!
I believe in God and you're funny.
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.