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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. Fred

    There are far too many comments to read through to see if this has been mentioned so I'll just have at it. There's a program called "Rational Recovery," aka "RR," that is a secular version of AA. It's based on Albert Ellis' Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy. More at http://rational.org/`

    August 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Fred

      Sorry, that should be http://rational.org/

      August 28, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • Realist

      A medical professional should be their FIRST visit. Cognitive therapy only works with recent traumas. Other therapies offered by by Psychotherapists are he best alternative when addressing deeply hidden traumas.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • conchchowder

      Yeah...instead of telling you you will always be a failure (never ending "recovery") you learn cognitive behavioral skills and become a successful former addict/alcoholic.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  2. well

    I'm just wondering why atheists feel so superior. I mean, their belief system is generally based on faith that there is no god, even though there is no proof for an absolute materialist universe, which is as much a statement of faith as a religious persons'
    Note I am agnostic and find both extremes goofy.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • Martin T

      I wonder why theists ALWAYS say that atheists base their understanding of the world, somehow, on a faith of sorts. We DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT use any faith at all in our understanding of the world, nor do we have any "beliefs" in the way we feel. We simply do NOT believe that there is a god, any god. We are faithless, and without belief, and I for one, resent the implication that I somehow have to indoctrinate my understanding of the world in the words or thoughts of theists in order to be understood. I think you would understand us better if you would stop trying to think of us as "fallen believers" and think of us more as people who have freethought.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • well

      Right... If you do not have a faith one way or another you are not an atheist. You are agnostic. If you believe that there is no God, then you have made a decision and chosen a belief based not on evidence and reason, but on your preferred world view, and nothing more.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • Martin T

      I DO not have to have faith that there is NO god, I KNOW there is NO god or gods. I do not rely on faith, I rely on science, reason, and evidence; and those tell me there is NO god. I know there is no god, just as I know that Thor and Isis, and all the other gods do not exist... it doesn't take faith, it takes a mind....

      August 28, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • well

      Sorry Martin you really haven't a clue. Your statement that you KNOW there is no god is as silly as a young earth creationist. You don't know. There is no evidence that there is no god, and plenty that there might be. Your statement of knowing there is no god is a statement of faith, and you just don't see it. Claiming knowledge without evidence is by definition FAITH. If you disagree, you really don't understand the difference between faith and reason.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • Martin T

      @ Well, well you have your right to your thoughts and ideas as I have my right to mine... OF course I'd LOVE to see this evidence you seem to think exists that there is a god.. could you share the scientific journal that published that empirical evidence, please.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Martin T

      No, what I don't understand is why Faith Heads, can't seem to accept that they are wrong.... like you, Well... You are obviously deluded and angry at atheists. I bet you spend your days worried about my salvation, don't you?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  3. LCain

    Has anyone studied The Holy Scriptures to see what GOD really says? It is evident that you have not. I pray that your hearts are open so that you may see the error of your ways. There are MANY lost people among this crowd of commentators. Pay attention before it is too late. Please.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • *frank*

      You are wrong. Go buy some calf-high socks at Target or whatever stupid people like you do on a Sunday evening.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • luis

      I have and guess what? You can interpret any verse in it 100,000 different ways. It's antiquated and if you followed it literally you would go to prison.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Martin T

      LCain, why is it that Christians always think they know everything because they either, a) read a 2,000 year old THOME that has NO relevance to today's world; or b) you sit every Sunday on a wooden bench in a stuffy church and have a preacher tell you what to believe. Stop worrying about me, as an atheist, stop trying to put your faith into my government and my life, and I'll stop trying to shut you down. How's that?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  4. Johnny 5

    Thor had a 10 step AA program. Thor's father Odin then taught him humility and created a 9 step AA program. 'Hammering' your way to recovery was born.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  5. Red Bull

    God works as a camp counselor for disabled children his name is Steve. He touched my va jay jay when i was helpless. No means no GOD! Case pending

    August 28, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  6. God

    People, she got sober. Why does it matter how she did it? I would be just as pleased with her if she meditated upon a cheese sandwich and it brought her the peace to vanquish her personal challenges. Why is everyone getting so hung up on the "how?" She achieved sobriety. That's really all I'm concerned with, so why are so many of you getting caught up in this story of success?

    August 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • Just a Citizen

      Dear God,

      Why do you have an IP address that maps to Valparaiso, Indiana? I expected that your internet provider would be in Charlotte, North Carolina or Houston, Texas. Wasn't Indiana voted the most racist state in the Union? I’m not defending that accusation. Just telling you what I read on the web.

      Sincerely, Curious Citizen

      August 28, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  7. Scort

    You are made of up and down quarks, not strange quarks.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  8. Shaneeda Quit

    I enjoyed the blog article for focusing on the importance of sobriety over the importance of religion.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • b4big bang

      "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."

      August 28, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  9. Atheist

    Long John Silver, according to Jesus (John 15:6) : "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." Sounds like an egomaniacal rant, but maybe it's a misquote.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  10. archimedes109

    God made every person on the planet. He alone is responsible for every hair on our heads, every freckle on our faces, and every desire to consume alcohol that passes through our minds. God made alcoholics. Now, you sinners are trying to sober up, with complete disregard for the Almighty's Plan. Surely you will roast in fire for all eternity for your willful disobedience to Him!

    I'm confused...why are all good things the work of God, and all bad things the result of 'free will'?

    Wait...oh, yeah...because God is man-made, and only WE could conceive of something so devious and hateful as religion...

    August 28, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • JuliusCaesar108

      "God made alcoholics. Now, you sinners are trying to sober up, with complete disregard for the Almighty's Plan. Surely you will roast in fire for all eternity for your willful disobedience to Him! "

      Actually dude, this is a hateful comment. Passing judgment on people's eternal destination when you alone aren't to judge on people's fate is a wish just because you don't agree with their lack of faith in what you believe ~ that is intolerant and hateful.
      What makes you think God makes alcoholics? Apparently for this atheist, it worked because of her humility that she isn't that big, but quite small. This humility from this atheist is what I think she and Christian believers (should) have in common.
      I am not an atheist, I am a Christian. But if I were a believer, I would stay away from people such as yourself that make such hateful and judgmental comments ~ I still try to stay away from them because they are so prideful in their own beliefs to look down on others.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Joe

      ALL that matters is she is not using today and she is a better person today
      ! ASk yourself " Who am I to judge?" Then you will see

      August 28, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • JuliusCaesar108

      "But if I were a believer"
      * Not if, but SINCE

      August 28, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  11. Realist

    AA misses the root cause.. See a medical professional. Alcoholism is not a disease, but a mask.

    'Most people experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives – either a natural disaster, accident, or a man made event.

    Research routinely shows that between 6-and-18 months after the traumatic event, people may begin drnking alcohol or using other drugs to "cope" with the effects. People who are non-drinkers begin to drink, current drinkers may drink more, and many people who are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction can relapse back into full addiction !

    Trauma... even chronic stress... may make a person up to 5 times more vulnerable to drinking or using other drugs to self-medicate!"

    Note: many do not realize a trauma was experienced as a child. A child will escape the trauma and memories will get tucked deeply away as a self protective mechanism.

    AA will introduce a new escape, complicating matters worse. See a professional or lose your personality, because that is what happens when your mind layers escapes.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • trinitynzxt

      Realist,

      You miss the point. Alcoholism isn't just some disease you pick up or a "mask" for a trauma. Alcoholism wouldn't be an issue if it was that simple of a problem. It is an addiction which engulfs your way of life. Most people who are recovering alcoholics look at your statement and just laugh or shake it off. Why? Simply put, because you will never understand.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Arran Webb

      A bold response that might reveal some amount of first hand experience but mostly a miss match grouping of medical non-facts bordering on diatribe.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • jim

      The DSM-IV now says alcoholism is a disease.
      QED.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Realist

      I only hope those who are considering AA, see a medical professional first. Trauma is what most don't understand, In fact studies point to 'childhood trauma' as responsible for over 80% of all chaos in society; drug addition, alcoholism, lawlessness...

      AA is not a medical association. It is an organization that thrives on its own mis-beliefs.

      Fact; AA has less than 1% success. Most drop out, most who stay in will go to meetings forever. That is NOT success.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • Answer

      @Realist

      The success rate of even .01% in a statistical count of 1000 people is still called success. You obviously want your version of success to be 100% to be consider a success in your opinion.

      What's the matter with your math? Accordingly, anyone should view success as when it even saves 1 person.
      If you're looking for better results, that should be your clarification.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Answer

      Realize this Realist:

      Success is what you can achieve. Not what you were hoping for, or were expecting.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  12. TR Navillus

    Good for you. As a practicing member of AA, I fully support your being able to find humility and surrender. Although I'm a Christian, AA has taught me HUMILITY, and who am I to say that there isn't more than one way to skin a cat? If it works for you, awesome! And any AA meeting that you attend where there's explicit "Jesus" talk should be shut down. That's NOT what it's about. Thank you for your article.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Joe

      ALL that matters is she is not using today and she is a better person today

      August 28, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  13. Tim

    Eh, she may be an atheist, but she's still spiritual, and that's virtually the same thing. Two different denominations of woo-woo.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  14. Jeff

    Thank you,
    I really enjoyed this article. I am also an atheist, and have attended aa meetings. I found them to be a bizarre combination of cursing and references to Jesus. But, if you are motivated to quit drinking, having some support is helpful. You can just ignore the religiosity. I did.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • GBMartin

      Sorry, I couldn't help this;

      "a bizarre combination of cursing and references to Jesus"

      That's how one could describe christianity.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • *frank*

      haha, true...

      August 28, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  15. Inneroasis

    I am an addict/alcoholic. I have not needed to drink or drug for over 29 years now. I certainly credit working 12 step spirituality with the help of other addicts/drunks for this accomplishment. The chances of me doing doing this on my own are almost certainly zero. In this time I have heard people say their higher power was everything from butterflies to jesus christ and honestly I don't think it makes a damn bit of diference as long as they don't consider it as being themselves. I also believe that if there was a god it would probably not have a human ego and would not find it important what you called it

    August 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • TR Navillus

      Amen brother! Very well said.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  16. Kittens and Jesus

    The 12 steppers are full of it. I quit my heroin and cocaine addiction without believing in a higher power. I was not powerless or a recovering junkie, as they would have me believe. I recovered. I am no longer an addict and have no desire to use ever again. Of course they will tell you this is impossible, but I am living proof that you don't need to sit around moping about your last relapse in a room full of chain smoking coffee guzzling Jesus freaks.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • TR Navillus

      It's not about Jesus. Try out other meetings. An AA meeting run appropriately won't have any mention of Jesus, Buddha, Allah, or any other "personal" diety. And "God" is used in a generic term, meaning that thing that's bigger than me, and is not necessarily a religious thing. It might be to me, but certainly doesn't have to be for anyone else. There's no wrong way to work the AA program, except to try to shove religious principles down people's throats, regardless of the religion.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Realist

      You were a 'healthy' abuser, so to speak. You have strength. I agree, however those with addictions should stay far away from organizations as AA. Many, unlike you, have experienced real physical changes to the brain as a result of trauma. This will mask the underlying cause.They need professionals, not AA. Addiction is many times an escape, a self protective mechanism to preserve sanity. Playing the AA game is another escape, far from reality. AA will complicate their condition.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Joe

      ALL that matters is she is not using today and she is a better person today!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  17. Mike p

    Get ready for the very soon rapture. Read "I am coming" by Susan Davis.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • what

      Can't get here soon enough

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

      What a crock of S__T!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • luis

      Another thing that urks me about "The Righteous" . You folks are not about this world, this earth, this reality. Your treasures are in heaven so why worry or care about the rest. Thats self centered if anything else.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • adrifter

      Just curious, Mike. Where is the rapture described in The Bible?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • God

      I really wish people would quit talking about this rapture stuff. There is absolutely nothing to it. Tim LaHaye is in for a stern chat. But I still love him and all you who think the rapture could actually happen.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Martin T

      You mean that "rapture" that has been coming soon since Jesus suposedly lived and died, 2000+ years ago? Sure, sure.... Your tin foil hat is on too tight.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  18. c d kaplan

    Seems the author doesn't believe in the AA tradition 11: 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.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • sam

      I'm so glad someone finally brought that up. I can't believe it took so long. You should report her to AA. There must be something they can do.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • conchchowder

      So your mission statement is more important than your mission?

      August 28, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • trinitynzxt

      Kaplan that step refers to others in the AA program. Not yourself. If you are willing to out yourself as a recovering alcoholic in order to possibly help others or shed light on a topic it is not frowned upon but looked at as a major step in recovery. "God" (take it or leave it) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the power to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Nowhere in the serenity prayer does it say you cannot talk to others to try and help spread your own personal story in hopes of helping another.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  19. Agha Ata (USA)

    Evolution may have organized the universe, but our life is nothing but CHAOS, with NO guide line, NO purpose whatsoever, except the one that we give ourselves as members of a society, as we have to live together which is engraved in our nature, thus making us social animals, perhaps, and necessiciated for the continuity of the our species. Evolution. And I am happy with it. Morality, self preservation in a healthy and socially- acceptable way is our need. Not a commandment of any god. AA is there. It does help those who want to be helped this way. I am not one of them. I have been drinking for 29 years, and know how to.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Rob W.

      Mandelbrot may disagree... as may Godel...

      August 28, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  20. Ed

    She is not Faithless...she has faith in herself. It's just the she looks at God as internal, others external. NOt so different in the end...

    August 28, 2011 at 8:14 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.