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 am or was an atypical alcoholic. I was never dependent on alcohol at least that what I think. However I lack the ability to tell when I am drunk unless I am very drunk. At its peak I was drinking a pint of hard alcohol at a single sitting. It was about the time that I started peeing out my liver that I decided I had a problem. I quit almost cold turkey. It was almost five years before I had a beer at a party and only one beer. Today I drink 2 or 3 times a year and no more than 3 beer in a day. I have never attended an AA meeting and it is my belief that if I had tried AA it would have been more difficult to quit mostly because I am an Athiest.
my uncle just got a DUI.. :(
Simply put, I became teachable. Self will run riot did not work for me. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Your Higher Power can be anything you want it to be in AA. Hence, Group of Drunks (GOD) My life is second to none. I have been freed from the bondage of self. But I have to practice the principles in all of my affairs. Thank you AA
I've been sober, in AA, for 31 years. I agree with your column and your openmindedness. I have a feeling we'd enjoy having you as a member of our home group. Blessings on you!
Thank you Joe in Seattle, if I am ever in the area, I would be happy to chair and share my experience strength and hope
"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."
Did you investigate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If you honestly investigated Christianity, you would have done so.
Erection you say?
My experience with AA was folks swapping one addiction for another one, two or four. Dark rooms full of people shoving down coffee, cookies, cigarettes, religion and of course AA.
In my 6 months at meetings I was never terribly comfortable with the system nor the people. Obviously it works for many, but its not the only way and for people of atheistic bent it might not be the best.
I agree with this post.
“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
It is interesting in saying you do not believe in Man-God – a tale made up and written down as proof – and that because there is something big i.e. the universe – somehow there has to be something bigger – Man-God and if you do not believe this you think 'You are big' i.e. akin to a super-natural being is a logic that can only be rational if the basis for logic is irrational.
Amazing if you believe in an invisible self-realized bucket you will no longer be a disappointment.
As to you perception of being relatively small so is everything else so you are as big or as small as you feel you are – given we do not know one way or the Other for sure – what we have stumbled into – a guess given the incredible diversity of life it may have had something to do do with singularity – a very lonely place indeed. So maybe nothing at all to do with calculated divine determination but simple blind terror of being alone – anything is better than nothing.
Who knows what type of universe the next big bang will bring – though maybe possibly nothing as some have postulated if the Universe had expanded at a different speed dark matter and matter may have cancelled each other out. mmmm God simply may be momentum.
Not that I am certain of anything – nature of being human.
Shame on you CNN for posting this garbage.
HAHAHA, you clicked it and read it.
Shame on you Michael for never maturing past fairy tales and sky daddies.
Martin, I never said there was evidence of god. If there were, I would be a believer. I merely said there is plenty of evidence that he might exist, and non that says he can't exist.
Modern cosmological sciences, near death experiences and statistically reliant PSI data (All three subjects have been in numerous peer reviewed science journals such as the Lancet) give God quite a large playground to exist in.. if he exists at all. Anyone looking at real science and following real rules of logic can only reach agnostic, not theist or atheist.
Have you told that to the 97% of scientists? Dawkins, Hawking and the countless other Atheists in science? Just curious..
@Well, I'm happy you have your thoughts and beliefs.. good for you.. as for me, well, I have my own and right or wrong, they are mine. There is as much EVIDENCE of the Christian god as there is of Zeus, Isis, and the thousands of other gods that have been proven to be mythical. Oh, and please don't get me started on "near death" experiences.. sheesh...
Martin, your arrogance is ill placed. I suppose you have talked to Polkinghorn, Hoyle or Collins. All three highly esteemed scientists who believe in a creative force. All three have done real science, such as head up the human genome project, unlike Dawkins who is just a popular author.
And sorry for bringing near death experiences into the discussion. There are several studies, published in peer reviewed journals that are really quite suggestive that consciousness is in some way unrelated to the biological functioning of the brain. But your reaction.."sheesh" is all that needs to be said. You know better with or without proof, just like any good zealot.
To quote you,
"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"
So all that being said, what is it that makes you believe being a "raging drunk", isn't acceptable ... all things being considered.
There has to be something (or someone) that has determined that you exist for something great. Otherwise, spending your randomness as a drunk shouldn't be considered unacceptable, because who's going to notice or care anyway?
She's not allowed to choose for herself that being a raging drunk and dying prematurely isnt how she wants to spend her time? it has to be that something is calling to her, telling her she is great, and that she was made for a purpose?
haha, "I can do anything in the power of myself!!" Narcissism at its finest.
There is believing in yourself, and thinking you are the center of the universe. Learn the difference of the meanings "Confidence" and "Narcissism" you'll get farther in life.
Belief in "God" OR belief in math, chaos, infinity,that sort of thing? I don't see why they have to be mutually exclusive. I believe in the quark that I am, and God and math and chaos and infinity and evolution for that matter ... Why not ....
If you are nothing, what do you have to live for anyways? Spirituality is a wonderful thing. If you truly don't believe in anything, then I won't judge you, but I will feel sad for you.
I believe that "change" is the only constant. I believe nature is an incredibly complex organism evolving constantly. Look at the difference between average life spans over the past 200 years. Did God finally decide to let us live longer than people living 200 years ago?
I believe God created the original spark, by His design. We evolved, by His plan. And when we reached a point of maturing, we received his Spirit, by His plan. Our bodies are from the dirt. It is what we do with our Spirit that ultimately matters.
WOW, I have made the stupid mistake of committing two DUI's in my life. I am guilty and part of both convictions was attending VASAP. You can look it up if you wish. But in addition to the weekly mandatory meetings and alcohol tests, I was required to attend AA meetings. A court system requiring you to attend weekly meetings when you don't believe in God were the worst.
I couldn't breathe from the chain smoking. At the end we had to hold hands and say "The Lords Prayer". Did this really change me? No, I continued drinking and driving after the first DUI and cursed the "freaks". It was only after having to spend a weekend in jail after my second DUI that I stopped drinking and driving.
But, I congratulate you for what you have done. Regardless of the way you got there. Thankfully I never hurt someone but myself with my stupidity.
I'm happy for you that you were able to quit, but not everyone can do that alone and they go to AA. For some it works, for others it doesn't. Yep, you were pretty stupid for doing it a second time, but at least you got yourself together. Good for you.
You believe in 'math'? 'Chaos, infinity, that sort of thing' ... HA HA HAAAA HAA .
I'm a Scientist and and Engineer – and that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard – ESPECIALLY AFTER YOU LAMBASTED PEOPLE FOR THEIR OWN FAITH.
MARYA: MATH IS A TOOL. A FRAMEWORK FOR GUIDING US THROUGH THE WORLD. IT IS A HUMAN INVENTION. IT IS NOT TRUTH OR FAITH OR A 'REASON' FOR ANYTHING.
Math is a calculator, a hammer, a nail – one of the tools we use in life.
Can you grasp that??
The only thing more pathetic than people who believe the earth was created 6000 years ago – is people like you who believe in 'math'. Or have 'faith' in 'logic'.
THE PEOPLE WHO INVENTED MATH DISAGREE WITH YOU. Most of the ancient Greeks whom we credit with our logical and mathematical foundations – BELIEVED THAT WE HAVE SOULS.
It's one thing to lament religiousnists who are crazy and don't believe dinosaurs existed, but you are a spiritual coward for propagating such stupidity.
Yes, but you don't have to be inslting, which is what atheists resort to every single time there is an article that mentions God or Christianity or anything. Funny how you never seem to attack Islam and Jews, only Christians, and all three religions came from the same roots. People can believe what they believe, and we'll find out in the end what the truth really is. Just agree to disagree rather than calling people stupid becuase they happen to have beliefs that are different from yours.
Capslock makes everything true.
@brenda star: I'm a Christian who's fascinated by science & technology (i'm a lay-person, not a scientist). I know several scientists who are Christians, including a Professor of Physics who also pastors a campus community church. Also a Bible teacher who left his job as a geologist with the oil companies to teach Bible full time. The thing i find funny is the definition of "free thought". Quite ironic.
Yes, I know quite a number of people like that as well. There's really no barrier. Christians can believe in evolution (not that most really do) because there was definitely evolution. Look at man as a prime example, and diversity. Big Bang could be explained as the creation. I've never understood why evolution and Big Bang have been ruled unacceptable for Christians.
There is nothing contradictory about Science and Religion. Only narrow minded Scientists and 'Religionists' who can't grasp the truth in their own theology – have a problem.
Most of the great Scientists in history were religious, and many many Scientists today are. Einstein was a Jew, Newton was Christian etc..
The Greeks invented math (roughly speaking) and beleived that we have souls.
A Catholic Priest – Georges Lemaitre – conceived of the notion of the 'Big Bang' – though could not prove it. The Catholic Church (and the Dalai Lama) are perfectly fine with the Big Bang.
b4 big bang – did you know the Big Bang was conceived of by a Catholic Priest (Father Lemaitre).
Also, did you know that the vast majority of Christians outside the USA believe in Evolution – and that the Catholic Church, the largest Christian organization is mostly fine with the theory of evolution as it stands? THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ACCEPTS THAT WE EVOLVED.
Where do you people get all your crazy ideas? Do you think that the nut-job Evangelicals actually represent mainstream Christianity in the world? Evangelicals, Mormons, many Baptists, Jehova's Witnesses – hey – they are all good people – but they are crazy if they don't believe in evolution or contradict science.
James, you talk about Einstein being a Jew. Think again:
From a correspondence between Ensign Guy H. Raner and Albert Einstein in 1945 and 1949. Einstein responds to the accusation that he was converted by a Jesuit priest: "I have never talked to a Jesuit prest in my life. I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist." "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one.You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from religious indoctrination received in youth." Freethought Today, November 2004
"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." From a letter Einstein wrote in English, dated 24 March 1954.
Not sure who you're taling to, James. I think we all agree.
The majority of Christians (about 75%) world wide belong to a church that actively affirms evolution and modern cosmology to be if not proven, then highly likely (Catholic and Orthodox) It is only the fringe groups that read the Bible as a science text that have a problem. It's just that these fringe fundamentalists are unusually strong in the US.
Well, Ive been in AA for a few years and didnt stay sober this whole time. Ive had periodic relapses with 3 years now behind me no drinking. So, can someone that doesn't believe in Gid join AA and be sucessful? I'd say absolutely, Ive seen it happen. However, for the most part, Ive seen athiests come in and within 6 months they believe in God. This doesn't happen with everyone and Ive seen some good people leave and give up because they won't believe in God. I'm a person that believes in God, but I cannot stand when people try to shove that idea down a newcomers throat. You will run them out the front door before you make them believe in God. You can subsitute God with the meetings, or the people in the meetings. They are a higher power , in that they were able to stay sober and I couldn't. So, there is it. If you can't or don't believe in God, just go in and make the group your higher power. Thats all you need to make a really good start!!
Of course it's possible to be cured from Alcoholism – even from AA – and to not believe in God. Second – it's not so much 'God' that you are after. In my ealrier response I lambasted the author for 'believing' in Math (which is pathetic), but in fact – if she wants to use that rather narrow-minded verbiage as representation of 'a higher purpose' than herself – than so be it. Most people confuse 'Atheism' i.e. not believing in an all-powerful Zeus-like God – with a deeper Atheism, which is really 'Materialism' i.e. not really believing in anything that we cannot measure or discern directly.
Nobody needs to believe in God for AA to work – but having a sense of personal alignment with 'the greater force' will definitely help.
James AA is very up front that it doesn't "cure" a person of alcoholism. In AA once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic
lol @ imaginary friends
LOL@ you, no friends.
Dear Jana, if your solution to a lack of friends is to invent them, then you are pathetic.
Dear Pest, suitable name.
Pest,wow, your post makes no sense. Where did my post say that? The original post was instulting people who believe in a god, and my response was to insutl that person, saying they had no friends. it had nothing to do with me creating imaginary friends. You, my friend, are the pathetic one, that you felt a need to respond to my post.
Oh jeez, I guess I'm pathetic-er then... :(
AA misses the root cause.. See a medical professional. Alcoholism is not a disease, but a mask. Over 80% of all chaos in society is a result of childhood trauma. Everyone experiences trauma, however it's coping alone as a child which yields a negative impact. Trauma is many times hidden as a self protective mechanism to preserve some sense of sanity.
'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!"
AA is NOT a medical organization. Please seek medical attention first. Addition is a continuation of the escape.
AA will introduce a new escape, complicating matters. See a professional or lose your personality, because that is what happens when your mind layers escapes. Go to meetings for the rest of your life, AA enjoys the growth in members. or live a full life without the addiction.
Ok – you make a very good point with the 'childhood trauma bit' – but that doesn't invalidate AA.
AA is a good group – even if it's not pointing directly at 'the problem' as you may say.
I applaud you Realist. I thank you for doing my job. I need those souls you are turning away from that dreaded AA program. Many can do it without them. But for those that cannot, and then fail due to your recommendations I thank you greatly. I will rip their lives apart. Destroy their families. Take away the jobs, homes, wives and homes, parents, grandparents for generations to come.
I need more people like you to keep up the good fight. Darkness knows no bounds. Evil will win this fight because of warriors like you! Thank you!
Well mr de–ceased. The real cool part of what I'm saying, is that those as you no longer put fears in the minds of people, children especially. I win and so do those who need real help.
Who cares .AA helped 5% or 7% onlyof the people that came into those meetings. AA has helped millions recover and stay sober. That is 5% ot 7% who have not died or killed someone because of alcoholism. Let me know the percentage that were actually helped because of other treatment, the same, less or more. Or, they still using because they do not get to the root cause? SELF !! ISM I, Self and ME.
That is the amazing thing, the choice. Billions on people on the planet with trillions of choices each day. To drink or not, to believe or not, to take care of ones self or not, AA or other
Realist, slow down your typing, your fragmented sentence is hard to understand. I am your disease. My minions conjure of the fear in their own minds. I just observe and exploit it. I welcome your hatred of my point of view. I feed on that as well. As you know there is only one way to fight off evil. But please preach the word of treatment just as you are. It is working just fine for me. Evil cannot be beaten at its own game.
AA is for getting people sober and stop drinking. The are other grave and emotional issues that cause the alcoholic to drink and professional consuling is suggested. By hearing this the alkie can hear in the AA meetings how others sought this help and aided in recovery
@Realist – Just because you don't "believe" that alcoholism is a disease or you simply state so does not make it fact. Decades of research by experts contradict your non-expert, fallacious 'belief.' Could it be you are in denial?
Check out what the AMA has to say about it: http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/alcohol/alcoholism_treatable.pdf
H-95.983 Drug Dependencies as Diseases
1. endorses the proposition that drug dependencies, including alcoholism, are diseases and that their treatment is a
legitimate part of medical practice, and
2. encourages physicians, other health professionals, medical and other health related organizations, and
government and other policymakers to become more well informed about drug dependencies, and to base their
policies and activities on the recognition that drug dependencies are, in fact, diseases. (Res. 113, A-87)
As to the author of this article, she does not know much about the organization to which she claims membership or she would not have published this article under her own name, as she violated one of the basic tenets of it – i.e. the 11th Tradition of maintaining ",,,personal anonymity at the level of press..." It is an ego-feeding proposition to identify as an AA member at the public level.
I am responsible for anything I do, and any path I choose. It was my decision to make changes in my life and no one else, and it certainly didn't happen in 12-Steps.
You're missing the point of the program, moreover, if you worked in marketing, as have I, you would realize that although we do theoretically make our own choices, we are HIGHLY susceptible to influence, far more so than you would realize. Only an arrogant person with no sense of self-awareness can't grasp how strongly they are influenced by outside ideas.
James is correct. You have little control over the choices you make. We form beliefs when we are young based on our parents beliefs. Then as we go up we accept things that support those beliefs and reject or repel ones that do not support them. This is why children of alcoholics so often pick up the drink.
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.