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.
Might I suggest, my brethrens, if the bewitching and treacherous voice of Demon Rum calls you, to heed instead the honest and faithful voice of the humble yet miraculous peanut?
It's Mr. Peanut to you, bud!
you can ferment peanuts?
About 27 years ago, I dragged my agnostic ass to an AA meeting, heard the Serenity Prayer at the beginning of the meeting and the Lord's Prayer at the end, and took off. I wanted to get as far away from those kooks as I could and as fast as I could. Two more years on the sauce and I crawled back in, this time as a patient in a rehab center. I was still an agnostic, but I was also afraid of dying drunk, so I stuck around. I found people like me: drunks. I also found people who didn't believe in God, or as they put it, in a Higher Power, that was anything like what I imagined. (There were, by the way, the Bible thumpers, too, but they generally got put in their place – and quickly.)
I listened to the ones who made sense to me - the ones who weren't pushing a specific kind of god or higher power. They just said, "Hey, if you don't believe in anything, pretend that you do. Fake it until you make it", which I did. It's been twenty-five years now, and I do have a belief system that is very different from what it was when I got to AA. I'm even a practicing member of a religion; which one is totally unimportant. I made it because people like Mayra Hornbacher were there to help me, while they were helping themselves. I believe what I believe, and that's okay with them. I'm sober today. That's what matters - to me and to them.
In the end, you traded mind altering drugs (alcohol) for mind altering inlusion (religion). Not good, but thank god (wink, wink) you are no longer drinking!
if your an atheist why quit drinking? lifes a party then u die. so why quit? doesnt make sene to me. thi guy most of been a real jerk when drunk...
Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean I can do whatever I want. My actions affect my family, my friends, and all of those around me. As long as I'm aware of that fact I cannot simply drink myself into oblivion. The only difference between a theist and an atheist in this regard is the origin of emotions of altruism, guilt, love, etc.. Theists believe they derive from god, which is ridiculous. I believe that they derive from evolutionary patterns of behavior, and there are quite a few papers written on the subject detailing equivalent behaviors among other species to support this assertion. Remember: Theist=I Want To Believe and No Amount of Evidence will Shake my Faith. Atheist=I Want to Know and Evidence will Guide me to the Truth. That's really the only difference between us. Otherwise our behaviors are very much the same.
What because someone is an atheist they can't want to better themselves or be a positive force in the world? Do believers only do good so they can go to a better place? Get real!
Actually, atheists are just as if not more in tune with the rest of humanity than the religious. Religion gives purpose in the form of getting into heaven, communing with a god, and spreading the word to others. Atheists have only themselves and the rest of the universe to contend with. Given that morality is an innate human quality and NOT taught explicitly by religion, atheists must make their own moral path based on what they think is right. More often than not, the morals of atheists hinge on the idea human suffering, or suffering in general. The path of an atheist is to try to reduce suffering as much as possible. Since they are not side tracked by religious mandates, atheists are free to improve the quality of life of everyone, and they treasure each moment they have on this planet. Because this is the only life you get.
Neo, did you read the article? First, the author is female. Second, alcohol abuse is very bad for your health and the people around you. It is true us atheist enjoy and appreciate life a lot more than religious folk. But I'd like to live a full and healthy life before I go. Not a short and sad one. Third, the author specifically mentioned the reason she goes through the AA program is for the people around her. Religious or not, this is something every body can appreciate. Again it takes a religious person to twist facts to fit into their own distorted view of reality.
Liberals find a way to push their anti-God agenda however they can, but connecting alcoholism and getting sober is a bit of a stretch.
I'm both liberal and atheist and can see a good reason why those who believe in a higher power and need AA would want to combine them. Though I don't believe in god, if I did, I would strongly suspect I would use that believe to help myself fight an addiction.
Nice try but there are atheist conservatives.
Liberals, conservatives, they are all the same: extremism. They are extremes on the opposing sides of the political spectrum. One might advocate the extreme absence of religion, the other the extreme presence of religion. But if there is one thing history tells us is that extremism is never a solution. Everything conservatives blame liberals for, liberals blame conservatives for. Nothing but a bunch of kids fighting over a favorite toy.
p.s. If you ask me, I would say the vast majority of atheist would be found in the center of the political spectrum, not the extremes. Since most atheist are highly educated and intelligent people. They don't fall for propaganda from conservatives or liberals.
Jon – are you aware that my son is a liberal? And we don't care if you are a conservative. We still love you.
My mother beat alcohol without the help of religion. It was love, not threat of damnation or fervent devotion to a deity, that won her over. She would not choose alcohol over her child.
I've seen plenty of people who chose alcohol over their family. I've also seen people choose religion over their family. Love is the only thing that should matter.
Folks: You have every right to be an atheist. That's fine. But are you trying to impress the rest of us with what "free thinkers" you are? Trust me, we of faith are not impressed. I'm also not grinding my teeth and punching holes in the wall. I feel a bit irritated, as well as a bit sad. But that's it. I hope it's enough to tide you over. When children throw a tantrum for attention, parents learn to ignore it so that they will stop. Part of me wonders if all this militant atheism of late is just that–children having a tantrum for attention.
Atheist say the same about religious beliefs. Nothing more but tantrums of people afraid of death and being alone. And thus the eternal struggle continues of people too afraid to admit they belief in the adult version of Santa Claus.
My best friend is very much atheist and AA has helped her get through her terrible addiction. It's a place to reach out for support and help from those in a similar position or who have gotten through difficult times and want to be there for others. Some people really need that consistent support structure, and AA happens to be just about everywhere (they even have meeting on most major cruise ships... look for the 'Friends of Bill W.' events) and it's nice for people going through that to have a reliable place to go with people that you know you can relate to. And if the "higher power" bs really bothers you, it can be absolutely anything...my friend uses "art" as her higher power as well as the power of her love for her children. Basically, you can define it as you may or even altogether dismiss the steps that don't work for you. Who gives a care what your higher power is if it works for you? And all "powers" aside, AA has helped so many people that I don't see why some talk so much crap about it. Why don't you guys start your own non-religious group and make it as widespread and accessible as AA? Until then, it's not fair to badmouth people who are doing what they can to get better. And if it doesn't work for you, congrats on trying and being open-minded and move on rather than talking down to those who really get the help they need from this program. I really just do not get why people are against AA so much like it's doing awful things to people (although I know some people may misuse it, not the majority). Get over it and do what works for you, should you need the help.
Now me personally, I would never go to AA if I had an alcohol problem. That's just because group setting meetings to talk about feelings and issues would not be my "thing" and would make me pretty uncomfortable. So I readily admit that it is great for some people and not the best for others. Leave those alone who enjoy it and benefit from it, like my best friend who is happier than I have ever seen her and a far more useful/better person. And encourage those who don't benefit from it to seek help elsewhere. And if you can't fathom being in a room where God is mentioned then go right ahead and find a better program but don't use your personal qualms to shut down and chastise others who are getting better. Anyway, this post is full of childish and egotistical comments, and I just think everyone should do what works for them and encourage other to find out whatever works for them, but there is no need to be so disrespectful because what works for them is against your beliefs. So go ahead and post your silly replies, because I have better things to do than waste any more time reading them. Too much negativity /rant
I see almost no arguments with a point. Do what makes YOU happy and don't try so hard to discredit others who have found their form of happiness. And get over yourself. You're not nearly as intelligent as you believe and you don't have all the answers. Plus, in the grand scheme of everything, there are far more important and bigger things going on in the world then your hang-ups over minor issues. Not worth it.
Unfortunately, we are dealing with mentally sick people when it comes to religion. Psychologists would call it untreated "Delusional Disorder" (google that one!). Very difficult to cure, and only if the patient recognizes his/her problems as a sickness and is willing to be treated (therapy sometimes helps these people). What needs to be done is prevention – the government should be strongly opposed to any religion, and our children, starting early, need to be taught about the fraudlent and absurd gist of religion. Kids under 18 should not be subjected to religious brainwashing at all. As adults, they would hopefully have gained some basic reasoning skills and will see religion for what it is: hogwash. That's all it would take for any religion to die a "natural" death.
Interesting argument, shame it's copypasta.
The problem with government intervention is, it's not sticky. What I mean by that is that if, as a government body, you impose a law or decree or requirement that the people desperately want or need then it will be lasting and accepted with almost universal agreement. But if you impose such a thing that the people do not want, regardless of what that thing is, then it will be opposed socially through distrust or in the worst cases through civil war, and it will not last. Unfortunately religion and belief in assorted fairy tales is one of those things that people don't want to give up. And we can't impose a requirement that they do without expecting serious backlash as a result. The world is not ready to give up religion just yet. But I firmly believe that the day will come. And when it does religion will wash away on its way, no imposition required.
SB – you have to start somewhere – read "9/11 Ceremony won't include clergy or formal prayers" – New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg won't allow clergy to attend the ceremony. Small step for him, a great step for mankind!
Dear Ms. Hornbacker, I appreciate your story. AA helps millions and though it is a Christ based program, all are welcome. There are actually very few born again Christians in AA. But many to come to believe eventually. Most attendees are not believers or they are x Catholics who have had a bad experience with religion. All really are welcome and can benefit from attending if the want to give up booze. Many do develop a spiritual life there. I have noticed that atheists and believers get along well in meetings and can be good friends. Though, those who are open to Christ just a little may find them selves Born Again through believers there. I find that believers and nonbelievers get along just fine if they are secure in their own beliefs. Believers know that you may be saved in the future. And nonbelievers can not comprehend anything from the spirit world because it is not logical, it is spiritual, so they do not have to be bothered by believers. It is very difficult for a atheist to accept God but you can love, but that could be a little risky, because God is love, to believers.
Unfortunately, we are dealing with mentally sick people when it comes to religion. Psychologists would call it untreated "Delusional Disorder" (google that one!). Very difficult to cure, and only if the patient recognizes his/her problems as a sickness and is willing to be treated (therapy sometimes helps these people). What needs to be done is prevention – the government should be strongly opposed to any religion, and our children, starting early, need to be taught about the fraudlent and absurd gist of religion.
Christ is dead right? Or did I miss the memo?
How do you get closer to a dead guy? Not sure about where you are from, but even here in the banana republic of Florida that's probably illegal.
AA is not a Christ-based program. If Bill W. were alive today, he'd be the first person to point that out. Go back to your snake-handling, tongue-speaking home group.
AA is *not* a Christ based program, it's a program based on everyone finding their own concept of a Higher Power, *as they understand it.*
That Higher Power can be a river, a tree, their own AA group, a mountain, Allah, Buddah, or any other deity the individual finds that works for them. DaKing, you are incorrect in believing that AA is Christians. There's a great deal of Christian bias in many AA groups. This is unfortunate, but there are other groups that don't rub Christianity in the faces of members. One can only hope that this will change as time goes on.
My Jewish friend was uncomfortable in a meeting with the Lord's Prayer. The others there knew she was Jewish and insisted on it irregardless. That seemed to me a selfish act on their part when there are many other prayers that aren't strictly Christian in origin.
AA is absolutely NOT A CHRIST BASED PROGRAM. As the author so eloquently explains, AA is for everyone, regardless of any outside issues.
She has pinpointed one of the basic tenants of AA – a belief in something outside ones self. Emphasis on belief. Unfortunately, organized religions (christian in the USA) have cooped this magical word.
Almost everyone comes to AA having no interest in the god of organized religion. That's fine. At some point, we each come to believe in SOMETHING, no matter what that may be. The author has described her belief beautifully.
I can only hope that the next person to speak pointed out that the program isn't christian and reminded that person (outside the meeting) that AA espouses no specific belief system.
Chartneuxe, Actually Bill Wilson was a born again believer. That's why it says "we were born again" on page 63. When he had to justify the Lords Prayer, the words of Christ, he used scripture to do it. That's not the point. All are welcome. And it says "having having had a spiritual awakening by the steps we shared our experience strength and hope. It would be great is your Jewish friend shared her ES&H. I have heard people share on their faith in satin. That drove people to God. Though it is not frequent people are converted to Christ through AA connections. My history on Bill W. is correct. Dick B. wrote most of it.
Ever think that maybe Atheism is causing your drinking problem?
So if I believe in god I won't drink...
So what does that say about the millions who believe in god and have an issue?
what do you think makes "the believes" drink hard?
believing in a good thing is a good thing; it does not make you or any of the believers in that better!
I bet its the exact same program but the crossed out the word God and replaced it with I
My name is David and I will always be an alcoholic.
A couple of years ago, like the author of this article, I realized I was a raging boozer (and militant atheist) who, not willing to leave anything to chance and hating to be a specialist, also liked to pop the pills.
When I came to realize I had a drinking and drugging issue and found myself in a traditional AA room, I was told to get sober I needed a higher power. A god, a tree, a door knob, anything...
Really? Is that so?
Which got me thinking - if praying to a god is like praying to a door knob, what does that say about the efficacy of prayer?
I was lucky enough to have googled "aa agnostics" and found a comfy little room, in an oddly located church in the heart of Boca Raton, filled with some very eclectic individuals - our group consists of freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and well a quaker or two I believe; maybe even a Communist to boot. With them, I've managed to get a handle on my boozing career; I've learned not about god, not about bad people getting good, but about sick folks getting healthy. Our mission isn't about getting sober, it's about living life sober.
Which, as many well know, can be a real ***** at times.
Our group preamble is "this group of A.A. attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in A.A. without having to accept anyone else's beliefs or having to deny their own."
If you find yourself in Boca and in need of a meeting, stop by on Friday night at 8:30pm. We gladly welcome regardless of race, color and creed.
Yours in sobriety.
* Now, when I chair the meeting, I put a doorknob I bought from Home Depot front and center on the podium.
AA is a good place to share your experience strength and hope after you have had a spiritual awakening. It' a good place to evangelize by just sharing your story.
If I am ever there, I'll be at that meeting! Learning to live a sober life, in a dignified and gracious way, was a gift I learned from the folks in AA (regardless of their spiritual or religious or agnostic/atheist bent). I am an agnostic, however, and am always grateful for the chance to share our experience. strength and hope in meetings like yours.
Hope to meet you as we trudge the road of happy destiny :)
Looking forward to a trip to Boca just to meet David and JW. Another agnostic AA here.
Doesn't being agnostic mean you just haven't made up you mind yet? It took me 40 years. God never gave up on me. Now we know each other.
Your higher power can be a ham sandwich for all I care. The only thing that matters is that you stop drinking.
... still chuckling about that Texas lady's, "harp hour" !
It's beyond me that we tolerate provably delusional (religious) idiots that make rules for the rest of us. It's like having a bunch of drug addicts, high on mushrooms, making decisions on things vital to the nation of 360 million people. Incredible!
Better still we would prefer to have a 'faithless' group of people making decision for rest of humanity!, Oh, yes I can believe in the decisions they make, they were faithless to begin with...I get it!!!!
No faith required to make intelligent decisions!
Where were you u all along? we have been looking for someone to make intelligent decisions for rest of the economy, what a relief we found you!!!!
That's awesome. You can PROVE there is no God? The world would love to see your proof, so we can all get on with our lives. Please share.
"Atheist" is way to specific to describe rational people (that reject delusional beliefs of any kind and believe in reason and logic, using tools such as evidence, facts, and probability), as disbelief in god is really just a tiny aspect of being normal, rational human being.
Perhaps we should coin a new, better word to describe those people, such as "realists" VS "escapists" (religious people).
==========@tallulha/4:51================ So, where do you get your facts? May I guess? from what you have heard and read, am I right? That is the way an overwelming number of people get their information. When I read some information in the Bible that is evidence that the person knew about nature, but scientist didn't discover it for hundreds or thousands of years later, I have to ask myself, "How did that (Bibical) person know that without it being revealed to him by some higher power. To me that is evidence there must be a higher power? (Continued)
I have found that once a fact is known, one can shape just about any cryptic writing into being proof that someone already knew. It's rather like Nostradamus. The guy spouted nonsense, but after the fact, people will search his writings for something that fits. My knowledge comes from the observable and the provable. I have no reason to believe in any god, because there has been no proof. I have absolutely no problem for you believing as you please, but I will defend myself when people insult me.
Bo, I don't know if you can get web sites on your cell phone, but here is just one place where your so-called magical precognition of scientific facts from the Bible is discussed: http://home.nctv.com/jackjan/item65.htm
Everyone,,, Please click 'Report abuse' on all videos. Thanks for helping.
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!
Robert – your approach could put a deity like me out of work. That's a fine 'thank you' for all I've done for you. On the other hand, you are using your intellect and that makes me very, very happy. I love you.
P.S. No smite for you!
Hey, God, have some faith in the government, for Chrissake! That unemployment check will get printed for you!
Oddly, Robert, deities do not have social security numbers. It's got something to do with that whole separation of church and state thing, I think.
Answer, Not so fast. Science and religion were one. like sacred geometry. do you read. look it up. There are more ancient and pretty advance.
You tell me your source you want me to read. You've convinced yourself right. You don't need to convince me, I would like the source of your belief.
Do you know why it is inherently better that you provide your source? Rather than to tell me to research it?
Do you want me to argue why? No you don't. That is why.
I did as you asked and looked up "sacred geometry". Were you aware that just because someone calls something sacred, it doesn't automatically make it so? Did you ever consider that some patterns are repeated in nature simply because that it a pattern that creates greater stability and allows a greater success of survival and procreation? A successful pattern will show up more often than an unsuccessful one. This is the very essence of evolution.
There is nothing profound about "sacred geometry". At best it illustrates symmetry in nature. At worst it deludes spiritualists into believing that there is some sort of geometrical "code" to unlocking the secrets of the universe, a shortcut to understanding god. It's pseudo-science and poor theology combined into one.
spiritual infers the supernatural. i have 18 years clean and sober, am an atheist, and do not believe in the supernatural. there is no evidence for the supernatural. i do agree that i am no better or worse than any other and exist purely by chance.
Ron – I'm really glad you're sober. And to everyone else on this blog, I can vouch for Ron. He cleaned up and has stayed sober all on his own. He didn't rely on me or look to me for anything. He speaks the truth and I'm very proud of him.
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.