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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. Red Bull

    I used to believe in Jesus, that was until one fateful cold January morning. I had just prayed to Jebus the night before that my abusive step mother would pack me a PB&J sandwich for lunch. Turns out she spited me by giving me a peanut butter sandwich. How dare she not heed the word of master Jebus and neglect my jelly. Ever since I've been on a mission to spread the word about how the great one short changes the needy. it was like 20 cents worth of jelly! C'mon now! I also sell urinals with pictures of your mothers on the cross laser etched in the porcelain for 229.95 plus shipping. look for me at selling door to door in an area near you shortly

    August 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Red Bull

      I can print mohammed sitting in a Bob Evan's booth with gravy on his shirt on those urinals as well, but that runs 319.99 special order only.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  2. Sean

    I know that after a tornado leveled my home in Alabama, an evangelistic group came through and was talking to the traumatized survivors about JC and his gang. Some people went with it, because they had been softened by the horror of the storm, but later felt silly about thanking a Whomever who, if it were real, just destroyed their houses! AA is the same way - take a traumatized group and throw "God" in there, make them lap up the nonsense. Christ is a joke and Christians are morons.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Joseph Mzrnski

      do you have the guts to say that about muslims or jews?

      didn't think so atheist coward swine

      August 28, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • lisa

      Well that's awfully atheist of you!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • what

      @Joseph ...swine? Seriously? lol

      August 28, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  3. William S

    There are many atheist meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous worldwide. Unfortunately, no one attends them. It's a God thing.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  4. ChristyinKansas

    Well said.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  5. God

    I am perplexed. As the creator of the universe you'd think that I would be upset by people who don't believe in me. But I'm not. What does bother me, however, is watching my followers confuse non-belief with hate. As I look around, atheists are not hateful. In fact, many are quite the contrary. But I see so many of my followers and believers getting agitated with those who do not believe and hurling the term "hate" very freely. There is just no call for that, Christians. Atheists do not believe in me but that does not mean they harbor any hatred toward Christianity, Islam, or any other deity-based belief system. They simply don't believe. Nothing more and nothing less. Atheists are persons looking for concrete proof of my existence. And the moment you or I prove my existence with verifiable and repeatable evidence, we will vanquish atheism forever. But until you or I actually provide such evidence, there will always be atheists.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • N. Naik

      CNN needs to add ROFL emoticons. Anyway, Thank you God!!!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • lisa

      Dear God, you must not be reading some of the nasty remarks by atheists on this blog. Too bad the miracle of life and death itself isn't enough "proof" for some people.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • mcore

      @lisa – the "miracle" of life? I thought a miracle was something that defied natural explanation. There is nothing miraculous about birth. Pick up a simple biology textbook and read the part on human reproduction. You'll see it's a VERY well understood phenomena – which happens thousands of times every single day. And death is even less of a mystery. Our bodies eventually wear out and stop working. End of explanation.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • Red Bull

      Dear god, i sure could go for a PB&J sandwich.

      Oh btw strawberry jelly please. and no crust

      THANKS BUD!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • God

      Alas, Lisa, life and death are not conclusive proof of my existence. That's just biology at work and scientists have figured that one out fully. But appreciate your sentiment. I love you deeply even if I'm not always evident to you.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • God

      Red Bull – you're about to be greatly surprised. My pal, Roy (aka, the Tooth Fairy), is going to be in your neighborhood tonight. Be sure to check under your pillow in the morning.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  6. lisa

    I'm glad the author is sober by whatever means but I think she's being a bit cavalier and disrespectful to the AA folks.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  7. William

    So sorry for you you.. no wonder you tried to find truth in a bottle..

    August 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • what

      Sorrier for you, since you have to come along and be patronizing to show how enlightened you are.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  8. N. Naik

    Hmmm....Because the word "atheist" is in article, and for that matter even if the word "God" was in article, this would've turned in to a battlefield regardless. But I believe the author was saying something else than "God" worked for her. That's all. At the end of the day, whatever works for you is right for you. If belief in God works for you, keep you sane and peaceful, then belief in God is right. God is right or not if different story but your belief in God is just right!!! Likewise for atheists like the author!!

    August 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  9. anntique

    The laws of physics work great as a HP. E=mc squared, gravity, and all that worked for me.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  10. Science

    I stopped doing heroine with no religion and no 12 step program. Its called discipline and willpower.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • N. Naik

      True, but not everyone have what you have, even your siblings, and so if they use other methods then it is all good!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • nicoleandmaggie

      I hope she found someone better!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  11. On my knees for God's pleasure

    Apparently Jesus" blood was made of wine, and he wants you to drink it. Count it as a libation to a deity.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  12. Rob

    Congratulations Mayra! Its not easy to be either of the things you are. I wish you the best.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  13. RonRon

    There is no purpose for your accidental existence. There is no such thing as being remembered, just like your grandfather's grandfather's, no one remembers his name, and neither will anyone remember you. Your future can only look forward to one thing, death and you and your consciousness gone.

    The tooth fairy is not real but you find the tradition endearing. You giggle when people read their horoscope. When somone says God you suddenly all get twisted and feel to tell everyone the ridiculousness of the thought.

    With that kind of outlook, do yourself a favor and go back to drinking.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  14. Steven J. Schultz

    I find it disturbing that CNN does not seem to take issue with other nations with predominately Muslim populations that incorporate religion into nearly every aspect of everyone's daily lives. In fact, many of CNN's reporters walk on eggshells as to not offend such "diverse" cultures. However, there definitely appears to be a double standard in place when it comes to those people whose cultures are based upon the principles of Christianity.

    Why is it that Christians are continually singled out in negative editorials on CNN's website by pseudo-intellectuals who have a true bias against those who have found a lasting, authentic peace with the Lord, Jesus Christ? The intention of the author is clear when she mocks Christians by stating, "That keeps me sober. Amen."

    Would this article exist at all if A.A. were hypothetically a Muslim-based organization operating in the heart of NYC?

    August 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • what

      Because last I checked, Christians have plenty of extremists too, but not one of them is willing to strap on a bomb and visit CNN's headquarters.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Frank

      Sounds like you have an issue with Muslims. It's off to Islamoholics Anonymous for you, bub.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • Jesus is God

      So, so true. Thank you for pointing it out.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Bill

      Do you frequent CNNs opinionated articles? If you did, you probably would retract your comment. They have literally had articles to appease/offend people from all backgrounds. If you're looking for a news outlet that only caters to Christianity, try FoxNews. I honestly wish respectable companies would stop giving soap boxes to people to spew out their fairy tales about "Gods" and "Prophets" who have zero proof of existence. But, I simply don't have to click on the article. You should try doing the same.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Jane

      "I find it disturbing that CNN does not seem to take issue with other nations with predominately Muslim populations..."

      Last time I checked, CNN was an American company, this edition is for Americans, and Americans – you know, the audience here – are predominantly Christian, and AA does not typically push Allah... Matters related to Islam are of primary interest to Muslims, while matters related to Christianity are of primary interest to ... ? Now, I don't expect logic to be a strong suit of Christians, but come on, you graduated elementary school, did you not?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Tiffany

      We're talking about the US. In the US we are supposed to be guaranteed separation of church and state. Unfortunately, separation is not the reality. Non-Christians are beaten over the head – constantly – by Christianity. It's probably something that washes over you and goes unnoticed if you are, yourself, a Christian. I am an Athiest. If you want to talk about double standards you should have the clarity to walk in my shoes. You'd be appalled by the way the government forces Christianity onto Americans.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  15. b4big bang

    "For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty." Simon Peter the Apostle

    This would hold up in court, and is one of several reasons that i can believe with confidence.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • sam

      Hold up in court for what? Are you planning something we should know about?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • Inglourious

      God would answer a subpoena to appear in court?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • sam

      @ Inglourious
      I swear, that was one of the Oh God films with George Burns, wasn't it?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • Jane

      Why is this Simon person being taken to court? Did he molest a kid?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  16. bobsaget

    stupid Atheist... just stfu no one cares about your nonsense.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • The Olsen Twins

      omg Bob that is so wrong!!!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • God

      C'mon, Bobby, you know better than to carry on like that. There's no call for kind of behavior here. But I still love you – potty mouth and all.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  17. koga

    Anyone who believes in god is stupid. period.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Steven J. Schultz

      So, anything that you cannot understand or agree with is "stupid?" Try being more considerate of the feelings of others for a change.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • what

      That's the best trolling you can come up with? n00b

      August 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Jane

      Oh, I am sure OP understands gods, or rather, why we created them. It doesn't take a genius to do so. It's rather easy, really, if you are not afraid to use your brain.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  18. Megan

    Too bad for the Atheists....the 12 Steps are completely based on CHRISTIAN values and doctrines....they use Higher Power rather than "Jesus".....the majority of non-believing 12 steppers eventually come to find out that there IS indeed a God and HE is the ONLY way to manage addiction!

    August 28, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • *frank*

      Wrong. Go away.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • LOLcat

      You Megan, need to read a book.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • God

      Oh no, Megan. There's nothing "too bad" for the Atheists at all. Millions have kicked addiction without my help. Persons suffering from personal challenges can go it alone, ask for my help, or take some other approach. It really doesn't matter. All we want is for persons suffering to kick their demons.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • tl123

      Megan, you might want to read up on the history of AA. While the program is based upon the Oxford group's program, Bill W, Dr. Bob and the 100 decided to remove the direct references to Christianity. This allows the program to be utilized worldwide but many non-Christians!!!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  19. William Saunders

    I do not know where Ms Hornbacher is located, but in Rochester, NY there is an organization called SOS (Secular Organization for Sobriety) that requires no belief in a higher power. Information on it can be obtained through the First Unitarian Church. Perhaps there are such organizations in other cities.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • SomewhatSkeptical

      There is a "Secular Organization for Sobriety," apparently run by a Unitarian Church? Am I the only one who is skeptical about the ulterior motives of this particular church?

      On a similar note, I would like to inform everyone of a Christian Revivalist Camp being held later this week by the Atheist Alliance International. Come and worship!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  20. luis

    I decided to take a god into my life.....behold the Emperor of Mankind (Warhammer 40K) He rocks! Not only is he the ultimate humanist but also he hates all other gods and doesn't consider himself one. He cares about the advancement of humanity into the stars to claim our birthright to inhabit the galaxy. Now that sound cool.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Jeff

      I too have taken the Emperor of Man into my life.

      Keep vigilant for Xenos, and heretics of all kinds Luis! Purge the witches! "A small mind is a tidy mind"

      August 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • luis

      Ave Imperator!! http://warhammer40k.wikia.com/wiki/Emperor_of_Mankind

      August 28, 2011 at 8:37 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.