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.
I'm another atheist who found sobriety in AA 23 years ago. I heard at the very first meeting I went to, "Take what you need, leave the rest for somebody else", and I took that to heart. There were lots of other drunks who told me I'd "come around someday," but all I did was go to meetings and not drink. It worked. AA is not perfect. It's made up of human beings and some are sicker than others. I made a lot of friends. Some stayed sober and many didn't. My take is, if you want to stay sober more than you want to get drunk, you'll do whatever it takes to stay sober.
Well said Bill, and I say whatever works for you, my friend is fine. Keep up the good work, like you said, if you want it bad enough you can do it.
Great story, Bill. Thanks for posting.
You know, Bill, it sounds like you were in a group with *real* people whose only agenda was to ween themselves (with help) from a destructive habit. Sure there are always the religious types that like to remind you that they have 'connections' with the divine, but for the most part I think someone who is truly at their lowest and most humble state simply becomes an unpretentious human capable of reaching out to others in support. Very powerful! Glad you made it through!
I will assume you've seen this: http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-somehow-overcomes-alcoholism-without-jesus,21146/
As regards the Onion story, there is an important fact that is overlooked. (Mark, I know that you mean well, but I sometimes find Onion reporting to be a bit off base.) What if Tom’s wife, Susan, is actually a conduit to the Divine? Are we overlooking this possibility? Word is that she attended High School in Valparaiso, Indiana so let’s keep an open mind, shall we?
I have been sober 21 years. That is an awesome view. I'd like to discuss it more. Please keep coming back so we can talk.
102% of all liberals are athiest child molestors....wikipedia says so
I love your hatred ANJ...... It excites me. I am waiting for you. I will be there when you least expect it...
@ A Non Jew
So how long have you been non-sober?
Dis-ease....it's not hard to find me....I'm at your house...in your bed...with your wife....and daughter....and your son is recording it
Another CNN Article that starts off with "WE HATE CHRISTIANS" even though the President we worship is one himself.
This article we be followed by our usual "White people are bad and Black people are oppressed" article
I can't decide which I find more amusing. Your ignorance or your paranoia. Tough decision.
"The President we worship is a Christian himself?" – – – – Wait, what??? I guess the USA does worship Obama – this is very true, but he is no Christian, even though he attempts (recently) to say God bless you, God bless America, blah blah... I would have to say he truly isn't anything. Read his biography? Watched carefully over the last two years about what he promotes, and what he doesn't? He is a blatant contradiction of Christianity. I would prefer her rewind back 4-6 months and stop saying "God bless You, etc etc..." and go back to who he really is. I like too see integrity, someone that doesn't change to suit the masses but is himself in any situation. That would be a real man, but then again that would take actual integrity and some humble qualities... Words and qualities that will never be mistaken for this President. History will prove my point.
Newyorker – A tough decision for you is deciding whether or not to pull down your pants before you take a crap.......because your a god-less retard.
excuse my typos.....I'm laughing way too hard at this talkback
PD – You're a retarded bag of cat crap....and if there is a God...I;m sure he hates you and will give you brain cancer
why dose this comment page get funnier every minite
If you're doing AA without God, then you're not doing AA. Not that you should...it has about a 10% success rate, and you'll wind up dying of lung cancer from all the second hand smoke.
ha ha ha i agree
Everything you say is contrary the Marya's information. You must be reading another news story.
John's correct. The success rate is very low (it's probably below that 10%). There's no sobriety when you replace one crutch with another.
From what I've seen over the past nine years, AA is 100% effective for those who do the things suggested over and over by a wide variety of people who have recovered successfully. I've seen no one get rich or powerful in AA - only better if they worked at it. If something else works, great! You found your answer. Keep doing it. But if you do what the "something else" says you should do, and you follow directions rigorously, and youi're still miserable because you can't quit drinking alcohol, try something else, including AA.
@Martin T: Free Thought – thought unrestrained and uninfluenced by dogma or authority, esp in religious matters. Online Dictionary
Seems to me that atheists are influenced a lot by authority. The authority of scientists. Indeed, i would venture to guess that the total amount of scientific writings may exceed the total word content of the Bible. Also, yesterday's scientific dogma is overturned by today's new dogma.
As a scientist and Christian, I kinda gotta laugh at your comment. No, it's doubtful if you put all scientific writings together they would be less than the bible. And others assume, quite incorrectly, that being a scientist precludes one from religion. For some people, yes, but not for everyone.
Therein lies the problem with religion...........it provides answers without question, e.g. hurricanes are because god is angry.
Science questions the answers, e.g. hurricanes are caused by warm moist ocean air being drawn up into the cooler atmosphere and creating a wind pattern though we are still open to consider other factors that may have influence on this cycle.
Which is EXACTLY why science rules and religion will NEVER be the way. Science lives to overturn itself, to learn, to challenge, to search; whereas, religion does the opposite. Religion seeks to NEVER question, NEVER seek, NEVER learn, except what is in the bible. I LOVE religious types, and their interpretation of what atheists believe and think.. so funny.
@ Brenda Star – ONLY about 97% of the top scientific minds in the world do NOT believe in a personal god.... sure not ALL but clearly a HUGE majority do not believe in god.
@ Big Bang – Why do you think that scientific "authority" have influenced me in any way. I was actually an atheist at ten years of age, when I first realized that the BS in the bible was simply beyond even my young mind's ability to stretch. Again, I just LOVE the way theists stretch for ways to claim that atheists are somehow applying the same "faith" to what we understand as do theists.. Just cute as a button, it is..
Interesting. I never considered science to be dogmatic, but they are as human as the next person and fallible. Fortunately, hypothesis and theories are subject to a method, the scientific method, which is designed to arrive at a provisional conclusion based on the evidence at hand. As new evidence becomes available, the theories are updated and modified. So, even a scientific law like gravitation, is still being subjected to new studies which modify our understanding of gravity without radically changing its core tenants. This sort of self-corrective mechanism is not present in religious doctrine. Any new observations about the cosmos have only one explanation–god made it that way. See for yourself: http://www.icr.org/tenets/
"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."
Well how did that happen then? Where did the chance come from? Who would have thought of creating water, cells, quarks and leptons? All we've done is discover that stuff. If that's all you think you are, life must be really depressing for you. Water, cells and quarks don't have feelings, but since you don't believe in something greater, I guess you're stuck.
Sense, so you really think that some "higher power" created you? You actually believe that there is some magic sky god, who is both omniscient and omnipotent, but who also "NEEDS" for us to worship him, got lonely enough to create us, and knows the future but gives us "free will" at the same time? Wow, what a delusion...
Marya is a spin merchant herself. She is the full quark spin merchant. I look forward to her cooking show on Food Network.
hello to the person that this aritcle is about, i feel i have the urge to tell you that i would say that your a very lame person yes very lame and gay indeed
And LameCow, you're a lame cow who can't write or spell. So there you are silly..
Been sober 20 years myself...Marya has the key ingredients to staying sober... humility and being of service. God is a word that can be defined in so many ways...The biggest hurdle for any alcoholic or addict trying to get clean is SELF...maybe humility and being of service is Marya way of getting out of self. 10 years of sobriety is not easy. Keep doing what you are doing Marya.
I love this, but I wonder how she processes the "higher power" language. I wonder what she means when she says it, or if she says it at all. Her book will probably be an interesting read.
I am waiting... waiting for you.... your soul, your life, your wife, your home, job and children. We will go to places you never imagined. Places so dark you may welcome death. We will start out slow. Take our time and you will not even know I am there. You will help me build that prison in your mind. You will imprison yourself with my help.
Depression, anxiety, self-centeredness front and center. I will trick you so you blame others for your problems. You will point your fingers at others and never at yourself. Insanity will slowly take everything. A vortex of pain and suffering. It will s u c k everything you touch into your dis-ease. You will leave everyone devoid of all hope. You will experience excruciating hopelessness. If I have my way your bottom will be death..... and if I am lucky you devastate all those that once loved you.
I will wreak havoc on your family. Your children will be so sad and lost. They need you but you make sure you are imprisoned in your mind. You once consumed the drink of alcohol...now it consumes you. And as you pull the trigger.... You finally believe you have relief.... But what you leave behind is far worse than anything you could have imagined. So see you soon my friend. Bottoms up....
Nice prose. You are actually called the black dog. But there are a lot of products like you and gas-ease being one.
I can feel your fear Arran.... I live in your fears, worries and anxieties. Come to me. I will be here for you...
Very well said.......
I'm confused, are you the daemon of acid reflux or what?
What is a daemon? You mean demon? Demon of acid reflux? Yes, I am what you want me to be. And I am here for you, waiting, watching your fears closely....
I am sure you will. Mr. Dis-ease is an excursion in metaphoric poetry and will not earn you any truly evil privileges.
I don't think daemon was a spelling mistake. Daemons are good or benevolent "supernatural beings between mortals and gods, such as inferior divinities and ghosts of dead heroes" and differ from the Judeo-Christian usage of demon, a malignant spirit that can seduce, afflict, or possess humans. (Wiki.) I kind of go back and forth. But Mr. Dis-ease is still small time evil. Get a bigger malevolence.
Well, here's another example of atheistic hypocrisy. If you don't believe in God, then why go to a meeting that is based on Him? I'm sure you could have found an atheistic type of sobriety meeting. And, some dude, I don't think anyone blames God for their drinking, they do blame themselves or they never take that step to get sober.
'cause she's not actually an atheist. It's pretty clear from the story. She must have been too drunk to realize that.
The true hypocrisy is believing love, faith and peace can come from worshiping a god who, supposedly, has and will again destroy humanity.
Well, she clearly believes in something, but not sure it can be labeled Christian, especially since the words God and Jesus incite enough contempt in her to want to leave the room. AA is not just for religious people, it's to help anyone, which I'm sure she figured out at some point during her jouney.
Scott, if you knew anything about Christianity, which it's clear you don't, you'd know that it is the opposite of hypocrisy. Christians (and most religions) realize that bad things are going to happen. Not all of us believe God has a hand in everything that ever happens anywhere. Like I said, if you actually knew anything about religion before making your typical comment, you'd know that already.
Said like a true cultist.
Sorry Brenda, but you are wrong... Christianity IS the definition of Hypocrisy!
God has not destroyed humanity. Humanity has destroyed itself over and over again.
God is metaphorically a "him" but it would be difficult to pin down a gender determination.
See, just like an atheist to make fun of anyone who believes in anything. You have no other arguments, so you resort to name calling and insults. If you had the brain power of a flea, you'd at least be able to come back with a worthy comment. :-)
Martin, if what you say is true, can't you at least come up with an example instead of just using the same dull rhetoric? Please do so.
Actually, I would go to AA just as a study in group behavior. THAT is the real key to the success of the program–group psychosociology. It just so happens that the religion of the program's founder became the genesis for induction to a common group. Ascribing to a specific deity is no longer a pre-requisite for the program, but it still has the original religious overtones to it. It's nice to see that someone has been able to successfully navigated through this type of program without having to make an oath to a nebulosity like God. I think I will pick up her book.
Nah, spin it however you want, AA is a religious program. As an Atheist, I would not be able to sit in a room with people shouting out "Jesus!" and be told to turn myself over to a "higher power". If the author believes herself to be "spiritual", then I thinks she's closer to Christianity than she is to Atheism.
Bravo. Well said. While I don't happen to share your beliefs, I can appreciate your honesty and your commitment to your chosen lifestyle. Good for you for sticking to your guns. I'm not a Christian who pushes religion down other's throats. You feel what you feel, and that's the way it is. I detest hypocrisy no matter what the person believes.
Fascinating. Even the churchless church has its share of outcasts and sellouts; people who don't practice the fundamentals of atheism are ostracized amongst the atheist church, for not being true to the faith.
This is the first time I've ever seen this. Truly remarkable, I'd love to write a thesis on that.
Everything you say about you is 100% accurate.
@What? See, my friend, there is your mistake, to think that ALL atheists somehow adhere to the very same "doctrine" as theists do. We do not! In fact, if you got fifty atheists in a room, chances are the ONLY thing that each of them would agree on is that there is NO god. How they got to the decision would be very different, and why they got there equally different. I could care less if this woman is a believer or atheist, in fact I could care less if ANYONE is a believer or non-believer. Personally, I think that religion is plain silly, but as long as theists keep their beliefs out of my house AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, out of my government and laws, then I'm pretty much fine with it.
I disagree. I am a skeptic of the religions of Abraham, but, as a longtime student of psychology, I know that the Reason and Logic we all rely on is the product of a central nervous system that is terribly limited, actively creates reality, applies cognitive facades to preconceived notions, and is perceptually so limited that 80 percent of the earth's biomass is invisible to our senses. There are things going on in the universe we have no idea about, so far beyond the user interface of human consciousness as to defy comprehension. My personal opinion is that there are unwavering laws concerning the nature of matter – but I also know that those laws are, for the most part, not comprehensible to me. So if someone wants to believe in Divinity, or the Holy Trinity, or any other thing that somehow gives them peace, what difference does it make to me or anyone else, as long as they don't rain on my parade? The handful of religious zealots that do foolish things are far outnumbered by people who are inspired by their Faith. I have no idea what ultimate Truth is – but I know what it isn't and that is finding fault with people just because they are comfortable with beliefs that are contrary to my own.
The significant problem with Marya Hornbacher's story is not that she is an atheist who found sobriety in A.A. Congratulations Mary. It is that it is an anonymous program and the anonymity is a function of humility. Marya Hornbacher is serving herself and CNN and has misplaced the knowledge of what was there for her when she walked into an A.A. meeting when she was a "raging drunk."
Late Dr. Eric M.D. Berne, a famous psychiatrist, was once hired by the AA to help solve alcoholism. He discovered AA-members were playing a game called "oh man look at how druk I got last weekend, what trouble I got into!". The AA-members were actually re-inforcing each other to keep on drinken, so these great disaster stories could be shared with the group. When Dr. Berne discovered this, he solved their alcoholism by making them stop playing the game. When the game was over, people stopped drinking – it wasn't fun to drink anymore.
Dr. Berne was fired – because the AA didn't like to lose its members. And today I understand why: the AA does not really want alcoholics to heal, the AA wants alcoholics to become Christians. Time for reform: re-introduce Dr. Berne's succesful solution and end the existence of the AA.
The not-so-late Doctor Reginald Stockhausen proved the theories of the esteemed Dr. Eric M.D. Berne to be base on a small sampling and inherently flawed due to a comprised control study.
Ms. Hornbacher: No AA meeting I attend will tolerate the mention of Jesus' name (generally from a newcomer) more than once. AA's Tradition 10 clearly states that it has NO opinion on outside issues. And that includes any and all religions.
You have a right to be an athiest in AA; you do NOT have any right to break your anonymity, especially with your PHOTO! Have you never considered the concept of ANONYMITY–which is one of the main causes of end to EGO, which is certainly not humble. I pity you,Ms. Hornbacher, you are playing fast and loose with proven sobriety principles. Blair
You think pitying somebody is being humble?
The AA hit squad will get her, don't worry. Breaking those traditions is deadly.
When god decides it’s my time to leave this world I only ask of one thing. I want to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in Wendy’s hamburger meat. Maybe a regional distribution center would suffice. This way as I travel though all of your small intestinal tracts, I can cause all you freaks upset stomach and diarrhea.
Anything we can do to speed up the process? Not to put you in the meet, but to flush you down the toilet.
I've been sober almost seven years. All I needed was myself, cause that's the only person that can change you. Religion certainly had nothing to do with me getting sober, just like it has nothing to do with my entire life. Silly nonsense. People need to own up to their actions and not blame anyone for them nor rely on anyone, especially fictional characters, to fix them.
That's great for you, but others need a support group. They still do it on their own and blame it on themselves, but they need someone there to remind them they can do it. To call that silly nonsense shows your lack of respect for their process. Shame on you, as a recovering alcoholic, to call them silly.
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.