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.
then you did not do the 12 steps of AA.....my hats off to you....btw.....did you get paid for this article.....
The whole believer vs. Athiest aregument is such a waste of time because neither side can present any evidence to support their case. I will say this though. As a betting man...it is a terrible bet to bet on Atheism because there is really no upside. I mean what if you believe in God and then you die and your wrong? No harm done. What if you spend your whole life speaking out against a belief in God and then you die and God's like "and how can I help you?"
Well, that would be okay if religion didn't cause wars, abuse little boys, and a whole raft of other nonsense.
David, I would agree with you for the most part if science wouldn't give us weapons of mass destruction, mechanized warfare Nazi Eugenics Programs and such. Science and religion just are. Both can be good or evil.
Are you kidding me? The exact argument that you're referring to is referred to as "Pascal's Wager". (Look it up on Wikipedia) Pascal's Wager is ridiculous, because even if there is a god, that god would require for you to believe in him/her/it GENUINELY. And since god is all-knowing, then they WOULD KNOW if you were "believing" in god "just in case." Sorry, but believing in god "just in case" is that same as not believing at all in the eyes of an all-knowing god. However, if that god is NOT all-knowing, then why is it a god in the first place?
Jay, the problem with your "Pascal's Wager" argument is that, once one does not believe, one can only pretend to do so. If an atheist were to pretend to believe in God as insurance, and there was a God in the end, He would know that the atheist was only pretending in order to play it safe. The point is, you cannot make yourself believe in something you don't, plain and simple.
@Jay – let's for a moment imagine that you are right. That believing is the right "bet" and that we are going to hedge that "bet" by going to church and doing all the Christian things that are required. Problem with that theory is that IF god exists, then he knows what's in your heart and your mind; so if you don't truly believe don't you think going through the motions just for the sake of society and to hedge your bet, isn't any more right than admiting that you are an atheist?
Haha Blue Sky Guy! We must have been writing at the same time. Great minds, etc!
Also, I would "bet" that if god exists he'd rather have me take the rational approach to life, that he would understand why I believed as I did, and that he would look not at whether I went to church or not, but what I did with my life. Was I honest, kind, loving, a good father, a citizen of the world? Did I help my fellow man? I would think he would put more value on my doing good for the sake of good, and NOT because I wanted eternal life.
"As a betting man...it is a terrible bet to bet on Atheism because there is really no upside."
Yes everyone wants to be a winner or potential winner. You can not win over death however.
It's a vain attempt to try to escape death. For most people they've come to accept that we will die.
You want assurance that you will survive into the next "forever" – a good dream, so you want to bet that way.
You want that – it's your right. So is the right of others who don't care if your own tricks are working for you.
They are happy for not using those tricks and are willing to go on living for the time being til their end comes.
The fact of the matter is – no one likes to be pushed around. That is what religion is trying to do.
And everyday more people are saying just that – don't push me around.
Well said Jay, a lot of these atheists first words heard after their dying breath
"SO can ya here me now?" "We have lots to cover."
Let me ask you this Jay,
If everybody someone comes around and starts calling you a loser, what do you do?
Do you have the confidence to reject their claims upon you – that you are really a loser?
Just answer that. It's enough to settle this matter, on why there is argument on this.
CM- did you not read what others wrote on here about Pascals???? Just commenting without and debate structure huh? go away
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager PASCAL'S WAGER
For the folks commenting that God can see thru your false belief, Pascal addressed that:
"Following his argument establishing the Wager, Pascal addressed the possibility that some people may not be willing to sincerely believe in God even after acknowledging the enormous benefit of betting in favor of God's existence. In this case, he advises them to live as though they had faith, which may subvert their irrational passions and lead them to genuine belief"
@Martin: Dont know what god you're talking about, (the one you refer to that will appreciate you for the job you did here) .
Certainly that is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has laid out a very specific way of getting into heaven, one and only one way. Jesus Christ, that's it. He has been very specific that only 1 person in the history of the world has been good enough here to get into heaven.
It was my strict religious upbringing that drove me to drinking in the first place. I stopped drinking right around the same time that I finally quit the church for good. Go figure.
Religion is the biggest scam in the history of mankind, and the number one cause of all strife in the world. It's not about faith at all, it's all about control. When will the human race finally wake up and realize that? The day I did was the most liberating moment of my life.
WELL said! I grew up in the Bible Belt South, I was indoctrinated from birth, AND I made the error of marrying a preacher's daughter, to boot. The Christian Church nearly ruined me... of course it was MY fault, and I corrected my mistake. I was deep down an atheist from about the age of ten.. even then I knew that the magic sky god made no sense.
Myra - I'm so glad you have been successful in dealing with alcoholism! I, too, believe in math,chaos, infinity,and that sort of thing. And I agree entirely that we are flawed. Also, I love your power of expression, for example: "And I find that not only fascinating, but wondrous, awe-inspiring, and humbling." As a Christian, these are sentiments I find apply not only to the staggering beauty of science, but also to the infinite goodness of God. How did Jesus know what he did? What, for example, did he mean when he said to Nathaniel, "I saw you under the fig tree?" May you continue to be sober and happy.
If surrendering yourself to a "deity" is what it takes to quit drinking, then fine. If you are a non-believer, then take what you can from AA. The end goal is to stop drinking.
Yes I too had difficulty with the spirituality of the program initially. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say difficulty with other peoples spiritual beliefs. It seemed odd to DECIDE to believe in anything, least of all a "God". However, with time and open minded investigation I did not need to make a decision to believe, just a discovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a tradition that IT is Anonymous at the level of press, radio, etc. Ms. Hornbacher has a right to express her opinion on the subject of non belief in GOD, but not mix it with the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Faith, Belief, Spirituality, or any other "Higher Power" anyone chooses before or during recovery is an extremely personal choice of that individual and the relationship that develops between the believer and their "Higher Power" is also.
Wasn't the point that the 12-step program she attended did mix faith in with the recovery?
I love when people call AA a cult. Well, it is and its the lamest cult ever. I really feel intimidated by those old ladies in Queens who compel me to keep coming back to church basements to eat cookies and hear about their problems while drinking possibly the worst coffee ever. It must be mind control to make me wade through snow to open up the meetings in January at 8am. Believe me, nobody is hanging around AA that doesn't want to be there. Even the people who love AA occasionally get bored out of their skulls. But you know what? It works. How? Just fine, that's how.
There is nothing special about this woman who too a book out of context. Better luck on your next book.
So, you've been created by chance-random processes. Therefore, your brain is created by chance-random processes.....how do you even know if you're asking the right questions then?
I appreciate your comment, I was going to say something similar.
Wow, I wonder if that statement was somehow random, and maybe you didn't know what you were saying...
It is only the Protestant dogma of Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) that has led to the rancorous debate between creationists and science. In splitting with the Catholic church, protestant movements held their Bible to be word for word factual, even scientific information. This was in "protest" to the Catholic belief in the scriptures as both factual and parables, with the tradition of the church guiding one in understanding the difference. If Protestants didn't cling to the literalistic meaning of the Bible, they would (as the Catholic church) have no problem with evolution or a 4.5 billion year old Earth.
I wonder if your lack of self esteem contributed to the alcohol excess. If I thought of myself as a meaningless quark, I probably would start drinking also.
I am an atheist, and I don't think of myself as a meaningless anything... Why would one think that an atheist would have no meaning in life? The fact is we value life MORE than theists, much more.
@Martin T: Camus would beg to differ. Camus would beg to differ a lot. The Marxists with their "March of Progress" are illogical. The Existentialists with their "will to power" are illogical. The Absurdists, made it clear: If there is no god, then there is no meaning, nor hope. Lifes is valueless, and for two dark years of my life, I couldn't find anything wrong with his thinking. At least until I stumbled across the work of Søren Kierkegaard and the digital physics of Paul Davies and Keith Ward.
@Capercorn, and you may beg all you like. I am speaking of today's atheists, and just as there are certainly Christians out there who are fringe, there would be atheist types, as well. If you look at today's rationalist/atheists you will find a greater trend toward doing good deeds, taking sides in social issues, etc...
Also, at fatalist mentality has nothing to do with atheism, it is a mental issue, in my opinion. Anyone who believes that because there is no god, there is no meaning in life, is sick... mentally sick. Because I have shed the shackles of religion I, and my wife, are much more free to live our lives without restrictions set by theology. We have a much better relationship with others, we no longer have to hate people. And, before you or anyone says that Christians don't hate people, when I came out as an atheist, you would be surprised at the number of family and friends who turned on me and now hate me because of my choices.
Ax. 1) There is no reason behind the universe's existence, save for blind natural processes.
Ax. 2) We exist as a result of there being a universe. The universe being run by blind natural processes.
Th. 1) Therefore, from an objective view, there is no meaning to the universe, nor anything in it.
Th. 2) Therefore, there is no meaning to life, or hope or anything.
Th. 3) Therefore, any opinion to the contrary is nothing more than magical thinking.
@Martin T: Religiosity is a byproduct of the survival instinct, and the fear of annihilation. Your atheism implies that annihilation is inevitable, and that idea is unbearable to most.
Their hatred of your worldview, from an external and objective standpoint, is 100% justified as a psychological defense mechanism. I cannot feel sympathy for your position as a result.
For me to say otherwise, would be me injecting my own emotions into it. That is unacceptable, and leads to wishful thinking, which I cannot allow myself to do.
FYI, fatalism is not tenable nowadays; science decimated all forms of determinism over a century ago: first with thermodynamics, and then with quantum mechanics.
Capercorn: The thing about atheists is that they are individual. There is no dogma to bind them, simply the lack of belief in a god. I know many atheists, and all of them value life, even the lives of others, because this is the only life we get. I know you don't want to believe it, but I find the truth is much better than a comforting lie.
The biggest problem I have with religious nuts is that their heaven is going to be full of Christians...Yuck! How could it possibly be paradise if it's full of self righteous pinheads? My check kiting, bridge burning, passive aggressive sister in law is born again and claims she is going to be there...NO thank you! Ugh, and think of all the Republicans. Eternity with John Ascroft singing songs about doves and eagles? Blecha.
@ Jonboy, That is PRECISELY why I do not want to go to eternity. Imagine NEVER being able to get away from those Faithheads... Can one commit suicide in heaven? Eternity, NO WAY...
Why does the Christian heaven bother you? Why do you even spend time on something you don't believe in? Maybe, just maybe because secretly you think there might actually be something to this God and the simple reality there is nothing after you die scares the life out of you.
@ Dude, Yeah that's it!!! NOT!!! Could it be that I am making fun of the concept? Could it be that secretly I am feeling sorry for all the faith heads who are living their lives in anticipation of something that isn't ever going to happen? Why would one think that because I made a statement about not wanting to be tortured in eternity with the likes of Billy Graham and his wierdo son, or any number of others, mean I think about it more than the time it took for me to write the statement? I JUST LOVE THE FAITHFUL.. ALWAYS IN THE MODE....
Tradition Three: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Anything else said in this forum is hogwash. Remember your traditions, kids.
science has proven that life can not spring from non living matter.
Thus, Life could NOT have sprung from DIRT as the bible claims Adam was created from, and since life can't come from lifelessness, ergo, life can not come from god since there is no proof he is alive....
You are so full of crap....
It is VERY possible.
Where is that proof?
There has never been a self replicating life form found, modeled on a computer, designed, or generated simpler than a bacterium. Nor has there ever been a reasoned scientific model for how such a simple life form could arise. This does NOT prove God in any way. We could find self replicating DNA strands in nature tomorrow. It does show that anyone claiming to KNOW that life arose without external help, is lying, deluded or making a statement of faith.
Is it possible the evolutionists and theologians are BOTH correct? Why does everything have to be either/ or? Try thinking BOTH/ AND.
It takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in God.
@ MIke, WOW, like I never heard that one before... although quite incorrect, but keep trying.
@ Well, a lot of what you are saying is correct, however, your delivery is less than desirable and somewhat haughty... might be why no one is agreeing with you.. just saying.
Also at Well, could be that the reason we haven't been able to "replicate" life in this way is that we haven't had three billion years to make it work.. give science enough time.. Think about it, in less than 100 years, what have we learned and been able to do scientifically... what will happen or be discovered in the next 100..?
Martin, this is exactly why I say this is not proof for God. It is becoming more and more likely that life originated somewhere other than Earth, so we are really talking 14 billion years, but who is counting?
Mike you are correct to a point. It takes about the same amount of faith to say "I know there is no god" as it takes to say "I know there is a God" It is just that one of these people admits it to be an act of faith. The other truly believes otherwise.
I am an atheist and have been sober for 25 years in AA. AA has its roots in a Protestant organization called the Oxford Group but after a few years I think Bill W and others realized that it didn't seem to matter what kind or God people believed in or if they believed in God at all. In an appendix to the book Alcoholics Anonymous that was added 16 years after the original printing, Bill Wilson wrote about members who had had spiritual experiences that "with few exception our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a power greater than themselves." He is talking about something inside all of us that many are unaware of that we can "tap" into after we have let go of our resentments, fear and guilt. It worked for me and it has worked for everyone I have worked with. That inner resource can be anything – it is very much up to the individual which is why AA works. I see it as just something inside us that has no supernatural connection but many people view it as connected to some sort of force outside of them. It works either way.
My name is David and I will always be an alcoholic.
A couple of years ago, like the author of this article, I realized I was a raging boozer (and militant atheist) who, not willing to leave anything to chance and hating to be a specialist, also liked to pop the pills.
When I came to realize I had a drinking and drugging issue and found myself in a traditional AA room, I was told to get sober I needed a higher power. A god, a tree, a door knob, anything...
Really? Is that so?
Which got me thinking – if praying to a god is like praying to a door knob, what does that say about the efficacy of prayer?
I was lucky enough to have googled "aa agnostics" and found a comfy little room, in an oddly located church in the heart of Boca Raton, filled with some very eclectic individuals – our group consists of freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and well a quaker or two I believe; maybe even a Communist to boot. With them, I've managed to get a handle on my boozing career; I've learned not about god, not about bad people getting good, but about sick folks getting healthy. Our mission isn't about getting sober, it's about living life sober.
Which, as many well know, can be a real ***** at times.
Our group preamble is "this group of A.A. attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in A.A. without having to accept anyone else's beliefs or having to deny their own."
If you find yourself in Boca and in need of a meeting, stop by on Friday night at 8:30pm. We gladly welcome regardless of race, color and creed.
Yours in sobriety.
* Now, when I chair the meeting, I put a doorknob I bought from Home Depot front and center on the podium.
Awesome post! Best wishes!
"if praying to a god is like praying to a door knob, what does that say about the efficacy of prayer"
If you pray to a door knob, you are praying to an inanimate object. When you pray to God, you are asking a person for help. Big difference..
God is now a person? Jim Carrey is a person. Is God Jim Carrey?
Very nice, thanks a lot! Wish you the best.
Dan Rather is a person, is Jim Carey Dan Rather?
They are two distinctly different persons, not sure how you feel your argument makes any sense..
You're trying to tell me an imaginary figure made up in your mind is a person and I am accused of not making sense?
All the best to you. Say hello to Santa Claus for me.
@chad – Tell ya what. Let's play a game. We'll take a 2000 pound pendulum bob, draw it back, and each stand somewhere in a straight line from its swinging path. You stand inside the period and pray. I'll measure the distance from vertical (using a doorknob as my yardstick) and stand just outside the period I calculate using the amplitude and measured distance, while praying to the doorknob.
What I'm saying is that God is real.
Laughing at it or making flip non-nonsensical arguments, with out doing any investigation of it, doesnt make a lot of sense given what's at stake.
If you HAVE done the homework and can make a case for why the Bible is wrong, the Jewish nation doesnt exist, and Jesus was a delusional mad man that's one thing. If you're just laughing and making flip comments, that's another.
Why don't you just say that you refuse to accept God than say that you don't believe in him. When you say that you believe in chaos (confusion). Whatyou are really saying that you support the author of it-And that is perfectly fine because God is the author of Democracy. You get to choose. If you want to study God through math jsut study Trigonometry wher you will find that you can't make one with out three. It is there where you will find out why we exist "traveling one" and you will find the true definition of marrage and have a true understanding of humanites make up. That's math. You will find thatscience created none of this.They just discovered it. Trigonometry. Marriage = A Covenent between God, Man and Woman; Man= Body, Mind and Soul, a family= Man, woman and Offspring; Earth= Land, Water and Air; development = Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom. What is three 90 degree angles? Can an Angle be made without three points? Can a man navigate without three angles "Traveling Man" Man created nothing on earth. They discovered it. This is Balance and perfection and not Chaos. Mathmatically you can't make one without three. But I understand perfectly that you need to take six intellectual steps instead of seven faithful ones. This is wisdom.
What if God did what ever we asked when we asked it? God however knows better. Would it be a good idea if you as a father did what ever your 2 year old child wanted, all the time?
God has however said that if we search Him out with our whole heart, He will allow Himself to be found. That's a commitment we should all take advantage of.
I like this article. If church was all one needed to get sober, than there wouldn't be a need for AA. The program isn't a religion, and you don't have to believe in God. I do, but someone else doesn't have to. A higher power can be God, but some people see it as something else....the power of the group. I think the point is that if someone wants help, they shouldn't be afraid to check it out, regardless of their feelings about God.
If you don't need God then why go to the AA program if you are so well able to deliver yourself with logic and intelligence alone as you have said the whole program is based in a relationship and faith in a higher power something bigger than yourself??? No pun intended but it is like a drunk going to Jack Daniels distillery with the expectation that they will deliver you from drinking.
YAYYYY!! Marya has another book out! She is wonderful :)
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.