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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 • My Take

soundoff (3,939 Responses)
  1. Lenny

    There is a 12 step program that is specifically non-religious. Maybe that was more what the author was looking for.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  2. fmf

    11th tradition!!!!!!! read the daily reflection for Aug. 29th.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  3. CW

    Ms. Hornbacher,

    You may not "want" to believe but I will say this: "One day you will". Its my hope that someday you get to the point of believing through life's struggles or by someone who is able to speak the right words to you. Make no mistake its your enternity and no one else's that you will have to account for one day. I'll leave you with this "One day every knee will bow and every eye and mouth will acknowledge that he is Lord of all"....see the book of Revelation.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • wayne

      It's amazing that anybody would buy into the crap you're spouting. Do a wiki search of famous atheists. Once you are dead that is the end. Life is precious, death is final.

      August 29, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Chrissy

      Can you make a more ignorant, unintelligent comment? Religion isn't like taste in food- once people's minds are set on believing or not believing, type of religion, and how they choose to reflect their spirituality in everyday life, they are set on that decision forever. Way to once again perpetuate the stereotype that all Christians want to convert everyone and they all have the IQ of a potato.

      August 29, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • No Belief

      CW,

      It is ignorant comments like yours that make people build walls against religion. Can you not just accept a different opinion and go on with your life? Please don't tell Ms. Hornbacher or any Atheist what they "will" believe. You have no idea just like we have no idea.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Pilgrim's Progress

      Spoken like someone who happened to be born in a Western country between 1000-2000CE. Had you been born in Nepal, you'd be a Hindu, had you been born in Yemen, you'd be a Muslim. Had you been born 1000 years ago in Sweden you'd believe in Thor, or Central Europe you'd believe in Woden. Of course you are an Atheist to all these silly faiths and you don't lose any sleep over their threats of torment in the afterlife for non-believers...

      ...so you'll forgive me if I don't lose any sleep over your threats either.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Ateo

      that book was written by man

      August 29, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Dan

      CW – You WILL shut up.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  4. absgarden

    it's all semantics

    August 29, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  5. anonymous

    Marya, as somebody with 22 years of sobriety in AA, I agree with much of your opinion. However, as somebody who has read "every word of AA literature," I'm shocked that you missed the 11th tradition, or failed to learn why it's important. How does promoting your book, while ignoring the welfare of the group, square up with your stated belief in the importance of humility?

    Surely, you could have made your opinions known anonymously OR not specifically identified yourself as a member of AA, as people versed in the traditions, who speak publicly about their recovery, do.

    August 29, 2011 at 7:50 am |
    • Chrissy

      Write your own book then. Get off your high horse and stop whining about her book.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  6. Paul Adams

    I am atheist, and I have 929 days sober. I too went to AA and I too had a difficult time with the steps because of my non belief. The trick is to "fake it till you make it". Just keep doing what they do, even if you dont believe. If you dedicate everything you have to staying sober, you can do it. ;) I did, and I was the saddest case there is.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:34 am |
    • Chrissy

      Congrats on your sobriety. I liked your comment a lot... it takes a strong person to sit in a room of people of another belief and just roll with the punches. Cheers, mate.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  7. Jim Lahey

    I thank you for posting this. As a recovering alcoholic and an atheist, I've struggled with these very same issues. And you're absolutely right: The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. In my experience, we (atheists) are under-represented in the field of recovery. We can be good without god; We can be sober without god.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:18 am |
    • Dan

      Yes sir you can! A mythical sky god who supposedly listens to prayers (but allows people to die in plane crashes, robberies, etc).....is not the solution to a substance addiction. It is the power of yourself along with professional help and support from family and friends! Best of luck to you.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:17 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Jim Lahey

      Good for you, my friend !

      Peace...

      August 29, 2011 at 3:51 am |
    • Ryan

      Jim-

      GOOD JOB. You will do fine. And it is about your support group. Don't trade one addiction for another.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  8. Not God

    All the Experts practising a little contempt prior to invetigation?

    August 29, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  9. aussieboy

    As they say in Alanon, How important is it.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:07 am |
  10. Anise

    "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."

    No kidding. Hornbacker has now written a book about being bipolar (Madness: A Bipolar Life ), a book about having anorexia (Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (P.S.) ), a book that... I don't know... this one was last year, and you REALLY would've thought that this one should have summed the whole thing up (Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps), and now this. I'm sorry to say it, but here does it all end? Was it that her novel didn't sell well enough? I'm not an advocate of not telling your story, but is it necessary to cash in on everything?

    August 29, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Anise

      Does her 'cashing in' in any way invalidate or discount her real world experiences of being an 'atheist' and going through the AA program...?

      I'm not sure why some people are making such an issue of this vs. her message and experience, which she claims to be an over-all positive one.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 29, 2011 at 3:22 am |
    • Paul Adams

      You forgot about the 13th step. Cash in like a BOSS. Cha-ching!!

      August 29, 2011 at 5:46 am |
  11. Reality

    WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, during pregnancy can cause mental retardation and other birth defects.

    WARNING: Drinking this product, which contains alcohol, impairs your ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.

    WARNING: This product contains alcohol and is particularly hazardous in combination with some drugs.

    WARNING: The consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, can increase the risk of developing hypertension, liver disease, and cancer

    WARNING: Alcohol is a drug which may be addictive. "

    August 29, 2011 at 12:29 am |
  12. letstalk

    Martin T
    "@ Letstalk.. FAT lot of good your god is doing to eleviate those things."

    Classic Jung theory of transferrence. Your anger is manifesting itself.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  13. Marlow

    This is the kind of weak, agenda-controlled/driven journalism that makes popular media so useless. Obviously, it's trying to associate atheism with alcoholism. That's so superficially transparent that it's embarrassing. Where are the stories about the hundreds of atheists that aren't drinkers or drink casually and moderately? How many stories do you read about on CNN about the thousands of theists that are drunks? I'd say that moderate, casual drinkers are the majority of both of those groups.

    If this writer was such a non-believer then why doesn't she realize that there are rational, realistic reasons for not being an alcoholic and wouldn't need to use some "higher power" as a crutch to understand that when you do anything to the point where it physically damages your body then it's time to realize that you've taken it too far? If she did, then it wouldn't be a problem to take it down a notch. People who have problems rationalizing something like that are often people that live in the world of the unattainable "moral" dissonance that comes with the psychology of the modern religious person.

    Oh, right. I suppose it isn't as >controversial< as a story of someone who wants to get over a personal issue without having to rely on a two thousand year old irrelevant system of authority disguised as morality. Nevermind.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • Dan

      Actually I didn't get the impression the writer was equating athiesm with alcoholism. I thought it was an interesting discussion that needs to be had. I know several alcoholics, one that's become especially religious after going to AA. And I've wondered what would I, an athiest do, if faced with the reality of hearing such crap at meetings. I honestly don't understand why people have to feel the urge to belong to the "god" club and pretend they believe in something which they will never see and will certainly never "know" to exist. And on top of all that, they need to believe in god in order to break the addiction? It makes no sense. If god is so awesome, why would he let people be addicted in the first place? Don't tell me about free will. That's a cop out that makes no sense either.

      Anyway...interesting article on something that needs to be talked about. How AA is really a religious organization "hell bent" on making people into jesus freaks during the most vulnerable time of their lives.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • Paul Adams

      I see your point, but I am both Atheist, Alcoholic and have struggled with AA due to it's reliance on belief in god, and this article hit home for me. Sorry, spin again. Too much tin foil in your hat.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:39 am |
  14. Jack

    I am so happy that AA is there for people but I don't think we need a book to tell us how to get through it without God. AA has been around alot longer then the author of this book and no one needed a book to make it through before this book was written. The author here has really questioned her on spirituality. To spend time to write something to help others get through what she claims doesn't excisit. If it doesn't excist why write about it...Many atheist's who are authors inspire Christianity some spending all thier time trying to make others deny Christ. Actually this opens doors to inspire some individuals to investigate thier spirituality and find themselves becoming Christians. So thank you for your book and keep writting. Thank you for inspiring me to comment here. If Christians actually read and understood the bible they know God and Christ's love for you is the same as it is for them. But the bible tells us that once someone is told how to enter the kingdom of God and refuses to accept God's opportunity that we should forget about thier souls. The bible says "Dont throw pearls to swine" if they deny the opportunity that's there decission. But It does not say that we should not love you and be respectful toward you. As you have made choices with your life we as Christians have also. Actually we are all loved and cared for by our Lord in heaven no matter what we have done or written. Christians just have a lttle extra insurance concerning eternal life.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:09 am |
    • Dan

      The Magical Spaghetti Monster loves you too. Do not deny his love. He will save you in your time of need. Pray to the spaghetti monster. Do so by boiling water and cooking pasta. Then chant "AL DENTE....AL DENTE"...then you will have his protection.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:01 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Jack

      Hey -Jack...

      You Said: " To spend time to write something to help others get through what she claims doesn't excisit [sic]. If it doesn't excist[sic] why write about it..."

      In my opinion, she was attempting to sincerely write about her experiences as an alcoholic in a group that has an extremely strong belief in "God" or "Higher Power." So, being an 'atheist' in an environment like that is a unique experience. And, I believe one worth sharing about. I think a lot of people assume here that her writing this was to foster 'atheism' when in reality it was about her surviving and thriving... finding her 'own' path within the the highly dogmatic and structured religious organization known as AA.

      I've been to a few meetings myself, and I can certainly concur with what she was saying... it 'is' a lot of proselytizing...and... it's not just about a 'higher power.' I went to a multi-tude of different meetings in different cities, and almost all of them not only had a heavy emphasis on the 'higher power' aspect, which...hey... i get.. but, most specifically, they were all about 'Jesus' and being 'saved', even though... it is supposed to be non-denominational.

      I extremely happy that the author, as an atheist, found a way to work the program, in spite of the heavy proselytizing that goes on.

      And... I didn't get that she was 'promoting' atheism, but showing 'others' that even if you are agnostic, or atheist, or even non-christian, you can still derive benefit from the program.

      So, if other atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc... can see the value of what she has gone through, and also feel that they can try it, to save their lives, then... don't you agree that the book, just 'may' have been worth writing...?

      Respectfully,

      Peace...

      Many atheist's who are authors inspire Christianity some spending all thier time trying to make others deny Christ. Actually this opens doors to inspire some individuals to investigate thier spirituality and find themselves becoming Christians. So thank you for your book and keep writting. Thank you for inspiring me to comment here. If Christians actually read and understood the bible they know God and Christ's love for you is the same as it is for them. But the bible tells us that once someone is told how to enter the kingdom of God and refuses to accept God's opportunity that we should forget about thier souls. The bible says "Dont throw pearls to swine" if they deny the opportunity that's there decission. But It does not say that we should not love you and be respectful toward you. As you have made choices with your life we as Christians have also. Actually we are all loved and cared for by our Lord in heaven no matter what we have done or written. Christians just have a lttle extra insurance concerning eternal life.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Jack

      **Apologies** getting tired here, sorry that I didn't 'delete' the rest of your original post from my response:

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 29, 2011 at 3:41 am |
  15. Nathan

    Marya, thank you for your article. I am so happy to hear you overcame your addiction to alcohol! And I too share your wonder at this universe we live in. I, for one, am a believer in God and His Son Jesus. But I also believe that through the wonder of studying this natural world we learn so much about God. I love studying evolution and the universe and I am in wonder and awe of this magnificent universe we live in. In the end, while I think many things manifest in the physical world, we cannot explain all things only through the laboratory and there is something deeper in us, through us and around us that is going on that our souls respond to. I am not posting to try to get you to change your mind, I am posting to say that I am happy to see you have overcome and I hope that we all can be humble and supportive of each other no matter where we are at with our relationship with God. I believe all people of all times had the chance to respond to God based on what they knew and experienced. Romans says it is through creation that we can understand God's invisible qualities. In many religions and religious circles, it is apparent to me that God is not the one being honored and Jesus Christ himself had the harshest words for the regligious elite. Let's all start supporting each other more, honoring both our spiritual and natural heritages and help each other get through this life. Fear is the opposite of faith. And the more fear we have and the more we all blame each other for life's problems (whether it's athiests vs. Christians, or Christians vs. Jews, or baptists vs Catholics), the more we all fall farther from the image of God inside us. No matter what belief we ascribe to, ultimately the soul's identification and acceptance of God and His reality happens deep within us and there are many Christians who don't follow Christ and I dare say many who have lived at various times who followed Christ almost without even knowing it. I guess what I'm getting at is God is much bigger than our little relgious boxes we draw and humble, peace loving people are usually closer to God than scared, judgmental people. Again, great work getting sober, and may we all keep searching for God wherever He leads us! The search for the eternal is personal and we each have our journey and no one can judge someone else for their journey. Let's all love more and forgive more and help each other and be open to more interpretations of this great journey that is life. Thanks!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  16. Thank you for this article

    I am grateful for the fellowship of Al-Anon, where I have met the most wonderful people I know. But the Steps, with their constant emphasis on giving up your will to God, drive me up a wall and conflict with my spiritual beliefs. I believe that one's true will, informed by the collective unconscious and a higher self, is sacred, and that individuation is of primary spiritual importance. When the program literature states that the steps are for everyone, regardless of "creed," I feel offended, because the steps are not for me. No one philosophy is universal. People who grew up with religion (I did not) do not seem to realize that "Thy will not my will" is not necessarily a universal spiritual truth, and is quite strange to some of us. I've learned to "take what I like and leave the rest," but it pains me to see the occasional newcomer express discomfort with the amount of religion in the meeting and then never come back.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Massive Attack

      Have you visited http://www.stinkin-thinkin.com? I finally left AA after many years being in it I feel AA stope years of my young life.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:13 am |
    • Peace2All

      Yeah... that has always been one of my big complaints about the AA model is that you are 1)Powerless and 2) You will 'always' be an 'addict

      I understand in the beginning for some, that they may need to acknowledge at that moment that they are at that time powerless, but I think the whole idea is to make you 'independent' and 'empowered.'

      And the whole... You will 'always' and forever be an addict... it's just you keeping the disease in remission metaphor has never worked for me either. I would want and encourage people to change, in time those disempowering metaphors, to more empowering and self-controlled world-views.

      Just IMHO... I'm sure that the way that it's done works for some.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 29, 2011 at 3:48 am |
  17. John

    we're human... we're irrational to the core... nothing you can do about it unless you want to become inhuman... don't like irrational beliefs? Tell a child he can't dream impossible dreams for himself, go ahead, I dare you..... atheist?, fine, but I guarantee you that you have other irrational beliefs.... embrace your humanity (unless, unlike me, you don't fear the INhumanity).... I personally think it's just presumptuous of us to think that some fairy tale about a God and his prophet explains EVERYTHING... look up chaos theory, quantum theory, relativity,... there are SO many FUNDAMENTAL things we DON'T know (any physicist worth anything will agree with you!), that it's SILLY to even think you or others have the answers, much less ARGUE over them.... there was a time when humans did not exist (we ALL agree on that).. there will come a time when humans don't exist again.. what do you think will become of us?

    August 29, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • Peace2All

      I don't know... what do 'you' think will become of us...?

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 29, 2011 at 3:50 am |
    • Free

      John
      I don't know any atheists who believe in ghosts, leprechauns, Nostradamus, faith healings, astrology, or any other irrational beliefs, but I do know plenty of Christians who do believe in such things, so I can't say that we're as prone to irrational belief as you claim. Sure, science hasn't figured out everything...yet, but with each passing day the holes in our knowledge get smaller and smaller. One day we may find the scientific cause for people believing in God, and we might just be proven wrong in his not existing, but until that day comes we have every reason to be at least extremely skeptical.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  18. Jonathan Waits

    I'm an active AA member, and though I don't struggle with this issue, am grateful that when someone honestly/earnestly seeks this way of life, through the 12 steps, it's possible to recover; whatever you may/may not believe in.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  19. Wendon

    Like DUH!!! CNN must be hard up for news to post something as insignificant as this. Who ever said that atheist can't function??? Oh, and by the way, most of us normal people don't need you to tell us what to think!

    August 28, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Massive Attack

      Ditto!

      August 29, 2011 at 3:14 am |
    • X39

      It's a blog post, Wendon, it's not pretending to be news. There's plenty of news on the main page. Did you read all of the news?

      August 29, 2011 at 3:20 am |
  20. me

    thank you thank you thank you! I was dealing with this problem and you have convinced me to muscle through...

    August 28, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • Xenia

      Summary: Atheists have nothing original. They always hack the good things Christianity invented and corrupt them. Atheists, especially the American ones, always get all the helps from Christians all the time everywhere yet mock them like insane people. Even sa-va-ge pagans were angels comparing to American atheists. Atheists are evil. To realize how evil the self is will be the only salvation to atheists.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • tallulah13

      Good luck to you, "me".

      August 29, 2011 at 2:43 am |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.