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My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA
Six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power, or He.
August 28th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA

Editor's note: Marya Hornbacher's latest book, "Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power," explores what spirituality can mean to the recovering person who does not believe in God.

By Marya Hornbacher, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Kicked back with his boots on the table at the head of the smoke-dense room, the meeting's leader banged his fist and bellowed, “By the grace of this program and the blood of Jesus Christ, I’m sober today!”

I blinked.

This was not an auspicious beginning for the project of getting my vaguely atheistic, very alcoholic self off the sauce.

I wondered if perhaps I’d wandered into the wrong room. I thought maybe I’d wound up in Alcoholics Anonymous for crown-of-thorn Christians, and in the next room might find AA for lapsed Catholics, and downstairs a group for AA Hare Krishnas and one for AA Ukrainian Jews.

But a decade later, I’ve become aware that 12-step programs are home to people from every religion, denomination, sect, cult, political tilt, gender identity, sexual preference, economic strata, racial and ethnic background, believers in gun rights and abortion rights and the right to home schooling, drinkers of coffee and tea, whiskey and mouthwash, people who sleep on their sides or their stomachs or sidewalks.

Anyone who cares to sober up, in other words, can give it a shot the 12-step way.  The official preamble Alcoholics Anonymous states: "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

And millions of people want that and find a way to do it in this program. I’m one of them. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a raging drunk. Now I’m not.

It wasn’t magic; it was brutally hard work to get from point A to B. I do believe I’d be dead without the help of the people and the structure of the steps in AA.

But I don’t believe in God.

And this can be something of a sticking point when you’re sitting in a meeting room, desperate for almost any route out of hell, and someone cites “the blood of Jesus” as the only way to go. Or when you realize that six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power or He.

But this shouldn't be a dealbreaker. I’m going to make a lot of old-style AA’s cranky with this, but it’s perfectly possible to sober up sans belief in God.

At first that wasn’t clear to me. It’s unclear to most people because AA has a reputation as a cult, a religion unto itself, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings or morons, and it isn’t those things, either. It’s a pretty straightforward series of steps, based on spiritual principles, that helps people clean up their lives in a whole lot of ways.

But if you are of an atheistic or strongly agnostic mindset, chances are you’ll walk into a meeting, see the steps hanging on the wall and want to scream, laugh or walk back out.

I tried another tack: I made a valiant attempt to believe. I figured a) these people were funny, kind, and not plastered; b) they believed that some kind of higher power had helped them get sober; c) they knew something I did not.

So I did research. I read every word of AA literature I could find. I read up on the history of half a dozen important religions and a wide variety of frou-frou nonsense. I earnestly discussed my lack of belief with priests, rabbis, fanatics and my father.

People told me their stories — of God, the divine, the power of love, an intelligent creator. Something that made all this. Some origin, some end.

I told them I believed in math. Chaos, I said. Infinity. That sort of thing.

They looked at me in despair.

And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”

On the contrary. I think I am among the smallest. Cosmically speaking, I barely exist.

Like anything else, I came into being by the chance, consist mostly of water, am composed of cells that can be reduced and reduced, down to the quarks and leptons and so forth, that make up matter and force. If you broke down all matter, the atom or my body, you’d arrive at the same thing: what scientists call one strange quark, with its half-integer spin.

And I find that not only fascinating but wondrous, awe-inspiring and humbling.

I believe that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility. The recognition that we are flawed, that we can and must change and that our purpose not only in sobriety but in life is to be of service to others.

I believe that I exist at random, but I do not exist alone; and that as long as my quarks cohere, my entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things.

That keeps me sober. Amen.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marya Hornbacher.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief

soundoff (3,939 Responses)
  1. S

    While I would like to lay claim to this, it goes to another: A person's "Higher Power" is simply THAT WHICH KEEPS HIM OR HER SOBER.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Joe

      So is my higher power naked women living with me?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • SCAtheist

      That's the talking points. The you actually read the book and go to a meeting and find out the real story.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  2. urownexperience

    AT some point you may realize that what you think is merely a theory. That theory is Annihilism. Christians believe in Eternalism. Buddhists believe in neither. Actually Buddhist don't believe, they experience. I am talking about Buddhists who practice meditation as taught by the Buddha, not the designer Buddhism that you see all over the world. Buddhists say that there is no soul that continues after the death of all the chemicals, but karma does. Past life glimpses are not a fantasy.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Answer

      You are quite right on those definitions.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  3. curt

    Unless your a bum on the streets already your goal is survival and paying your bills every month...

    August 28, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • curt

      I hardly believe your self idolizing comment.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Ian

      schizo?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  4. Hesalive

    Every human being knows deep down that God is. People who deny Him are afraid to own up to their sins. The Good News,though, is that Jesus took your rap. He bore the punishment for your sins. So, come to Him. His yoke is easy and His burden light. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is lord. Don't wait until Judgment Day to admit it.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Colin

      I thought we all knew that Adam and Eve/original sin is a myth? No?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • urownexperience

      Both God and Jesus are myths. If you would have beenbnorn in Iran, you would be praising Allah now,

      August 28, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • SCAtheist

      That's one of the dumber aruments I have heard for the existence of a god.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • ThinkingAtheist

      SCAtheist, any chance you could change your name to "SCTheist." Your posts are giving atheists a bad name.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Gordon

      Sorry, but I spent much time when I was younger trying to figure out if god was real. I came to the conclusion that there is most likely no such being. If I find some strong evidence that there is really a god (and not because we can't explain how things came about), I'm open to changing my mind.

      August 28, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Jeff

      Ok so Jesus took my rap. I'm saved. I can sin all I want and I get into heaven anyway. Don't know why you guys mess around with Church if that's the case.

      I'm going to go fornicate in an unnatural manner. Thanks in advance for taking the rap JC!

      August 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Non-Religious

      @Hesalive – Every human being knows deep down that God is???
      what a very very wrong, pretentious statement – how do YOU claim to KNOW what "Every human being knows" ??

      I KNOW that YOU are WRONG! – I also KNOW that you have swallowed the fairytale myth hook, line and sinker.

      try to USE YOUR BRAIN – before making such overblown incorrect generalizations, do some research.
      that means use MULTIPLE sources – not just your collection of ancient fairytales

      September 10, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  5. SCAtheist

    "spirituality" is not consistent with atheism. You might want to find a real atheist if you think you can make this point.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • IGL

      I concur. An atheist is a materialist

      August 28, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Non-Religious

      SCAtheist – you claim "spirituality" is not consistent with atheism. – try to know what you're talking about before making such claims – it is not diffucult – google Atheist Spirituality - here are just a few opposing opinions:

      http://www.squidoo.com/Atheist_Spirituality

      http://www.atheistrev.com/2008/01/atheist-spirituality.html

      Alan Watts – Atheist Spirituality – YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BE5M8743a1s

      http://www.freethoughtopinions.blogspot.com/

      September 10, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  6. Justin

    When's the last time anyone read an article in the Faith section that actually had to do with people who have a faith?

    August 28, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  7. Tim

    Interesting article. You didn't have to break your anonymity to deliver this message. Unless, of course, you think what you have to say is more important than the program as a whole, which is based on anonymity of its members in public settings. If that's the case, it's ironic that your subject is humility.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  8. Terry

    I find this theme a lot in AA. I want to stay sober but I just don't believe in a Higher Power. Then don't. The Big Book "Alcoholics Anonymous", states "if there is someone who finds another way to stay sober, our hats are off to them". Our way, the AA way is simply a spiritual awakening as the result of the twelve steps. The author, and apparently HaroldG want to have a different way to do it. Then go ahead. AA does not say, this is the only way you can get sober. We say it is the way we got sober, maybe you can to. Just do me a favor, don't try to reform my program, I think it works fine the way it is.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Michael

      Just remember one of the slogans most used by A.A. members: "You work your program, I'll work mine." Nothing was said about reforming your beloved program. She simply found a way to make AA work for her. It's too bad so many people replace the addiction to alcohol with an addiction to AA and become AA Nazis.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Answer

      The author in the most simplest of ideals spoke of her own program to success. The author is quite within her rights to voice her life, her name, and her own success. For those that think she was enforcing her regime upon you - get a clue and realize that you lack confidence in just assuming she is attacking you.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  9. Nothing

    I'm agnostic and my wife is atheist, but somehow last night we got through our differences with some whiskey and made sweet love afterwards. Today we're going hiking in the mountains. Tonight we'll probably have another drink or three.

    Oh, and don't forget to help God out with His duties...don't forget to Judge us!

    August 28, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • keylargo

      Nice work Nothing, you all got it going your way!

      August 28, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • RezMed

      Whose doing the judging now? Do you feel like all those who have a belief in a higher power automatically judging others -especially atheists?

      There are judges on both sides here. I don't like having assumptions made about me by atheists, agnostics, deists or any other christian. Go ahead and drink and hike. It is a free country – and not everyone else, – including christians, is not trying to take away your rights to live and think freely.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  10. StretchMama

    Tradition Eleven....just a reminder. However, I am always grateful that someone found the 12 steps of AA and became a favorable statistic – congrats on your sobriety.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  11. Todd Detar

    Marya,
    I agree.
    It took, a lot of third steps, several 4th steps, a good 5th Step, six and finally 7. Where I found "it". Emmett Fox, was correct.
    I am not God. and that for me is huge.
    It is all in the Book!

    August 28, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  12. keylargo

    Really good article, thanks to the author.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  13. JayPee

    In all humblness: TG ther are people like you Marya.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  14. SCAtheist

    There needs to be programs based on scientific findings about what really works. Science is a concept rejected by AA.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • Daniel O

      And where is that stated?

      August 28, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Non-Religious

      SCAtheist – please do your research before making claims.

      Science based recovery:
      SMART Recovery® is the leading self-empowering addiction recovery support group. Our participants learn tools for recovery based on the latest scientific research and participate in a world-wide community which includes free, self-empowering, science-based mutual help groups. http://www.smartrecovery.org/

      September 10, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  15. StuckOnStepOne

    I love these comments. Thumper's gotta thump!

    August 28, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • Casey

      and the evil ones have to speak also LOL

      August 28, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  16. Lord Lovaduck

    Sorry, but "The Onion" had pioneered on this subject... this article is not the first to outline this concept. And of course the article from "The Onion" is a lot funnier.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  17. Brian

    I'll drink to that!

    August 28, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  18. Jamez

    In AA all are welcome to practice the program, just like the author said the only requirement is the desire to stop drinking.
    I enjoyed the article, thanks.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • SCAtheist

      Until a real atheist stops in and expresses an opinion. Then all the threatened beliervers jump on him/her.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • SCAtheist

      Oh and also the derogatory chapter about agnostics that says "don't worry, you'll be converted in the end"

      August 28, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Atheist

      SCAtheist has little or no actual experience with AA.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  19. SCAtheist

    This person isn't even an atheist, so what a dumb article. "spirituality" isn't exactly a secular concept.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • Travlchik

      How can you even make that statement? She wrote, "I do not believe in God." Um, that's what an atheist is.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Atheist

      SCAtheist doesn't realize that spirituality does not imply anything supernatural.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Non-Religious

      SCAtheist – you claim "spirituality" is not consistent with atheism. – try to know what you're talking about before making such claims – it is not diffucult – google Atheist Spirituality – here are just a few opposing opinions:

      http://www.squidoo.com/Atheist_Spirituality

      http://www.atheistrev.com/2008/01/atheist-spirituality.html

      Alan Watts – Atheist Spirituality – YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BE5M8743a1s

      http://www.freethoughtopinions.blogspot.com/

      September 10, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  20. Colin

    Ten indications you are an atheist.

    1. You were likely brought up a theist (probably a Christian if you live in the USA) and had to do your own thinking to rise above the beliefs that still occupy the mind of the believer. This usually involved being smart and working hard at school and college so as to get a good, accurate view of the natural Universe and overcoming significant social pressure to dumb yourself down and conform. In short, you had the guts to ask the hard questions and the brains to spot the weak answers. The more you came to understand the Universe, the less reason there was to believe in a god and the more you came to appreciate human nature, the more you understood why billions of us still do.

    2. While rejecting the supernatural elements of the Bible, you nevertheless retain a large amount of the morality taught today by mainstream Christianity. To the extent you reject Christian morality, it is where it is mean spirited – such as in the way it seeks to curtail freedoms or oppose the rights of $exual minorities. In most other respects, your basic moral outlook is indistinguishable from that of the liberal Christian – you just don’t need the mother of all carrots and sticks hanging over your head in order to act in a manner that you consider moral.

    3. You know a great deal more about the Bible than most believers. This is because you took the time to read it yourself and did not rely on the primary-color simple stories you learned in Sunday school. You have also probably done some research into the historical Jesus and have a good handle on where he REALLY fit in to the broader picture of the Middle East at the time. Needless to say, his miracles and other magic powers soon started to look pretty unlikely.

    4. Your knowledge of basic science and history is much stronger than that of your average believer. You likely have a basic working knowledge of physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology and cosmology and a good idea of the history of life on this planet. This acc.umulated knowledge puts you in a position to judge the claims of the Bible in a critical light and they are almost always found wanting. To the theist, this makes you “elitist” and ‘arrogant”.

    5. You relish your role as a religious minority in the USA, as this gives you an impetus to fight and you understand how others with unpopular, but doubtlessly correct views have felt throughout history. There is something altogether satisfying to you about having a deep conviction you are right and being viewed with disdain for your views by the errant majority. You feel a quiet confidence that future generations will look back on you as a member of a class of trailblazers, as religious supersti.tions go into inevitable decline in popularity.

    6. You are likely more environmentally aware than your theist friends and colleagues and unlikely to fall for claims of industry and wind-bag politicians concerning the impact of man’s activities on the environment. You could no more act in an environmentally irresponsible manner because “god will keep us safe” than you could jump of a ship, believing King Neptune will keep you safe.

    7. You generally have a live and let live atti.tude, but will fiercely defend any attempts by theists to thrust their views on you or your children, directly or through control of school boards, the legislature or the executive. While you are prepared to debate and argue passionately with the theist on an intellectual level, you would never wish them harm or ill will. You know you are likely to be smugly told you will “burn in hell for all eternity” for your healthy skepticism. This highlights what you despise about religion, as you would not wish a bad sunburn on another, simply because they have a different religious view to you. You have never heard of an evolutionary biologist strapping a bomb to himself and running into a church yelling “Darwin-u akbar”.

    8. You likely know more about other religions than your average theist. This makes you less fearful of them and enables you to see parallels. You realize that, if you were born in India, you would have been brought up with a totally different religion. You realize that every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. They cannot all exist and you see the error all faiths make of thinking only theirs exist(s). This “rising above” the regional nature of all religions was probably instrumental in your achieving atheism.

    9. You likely have a deep, genuine appreciation of the fathomless beauty and unbelievable complexity of our Universe, from the 4 nucleotides that orchestrate every aspect of you, through to the distant quasars, without having to think it was all made for you. You likely get more out of being the irrelevant ant staring up at the cosmos than you do in having to pretend that it was all made to turn in majestic black-and-white pirouette about you.

    10. While you have a survival instinct, you cannot fear death in the way the theist does. You know that the whole final judgment story, where you may be sent to hell if you fail, is Dark Ages nonsense meant to keep the Church’s authority. You also know that you were dead for 13,700,000,000 years before you were born. It is impossible for you to fear death, for the simple reason that you know the capacity to fear (or to feel pain or discomfort) itself dies. You will not even know you are dead. Fear of death is as meaningless to you as is the fear of a vacuum, the fear of not being born. You feel a lot more secure, and indeed a deep comfort, in this knowledge, than you would in trying to yoke yourself to some quasi-hope that every part of your intellect tells you is untenable.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • SCAtheist

      We need your god for morality. I guess you missed the old estament. It's the lack of morality that helped us leave. As far as the rest of the hogwash reasoning you made up, it just doesn't apply.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • JJ

      Morality has nothing to do with any imaginary deity. Simple proof - there were plenty of moral people way before anyone even thought of the concept of an imaginary deity.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • keylargo

      Great post Colin, incidently I think SCAteist is either drunk or full of it up to his/her eyeballs.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Colin

      Thanks Keylargo. I don't think SCAtheist regards reading a post as a prerequisite for commenting on it. He seems to think I am a theist!!

      August 28, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • knels

      The basic problem is that any monotheistic religion is necessarily divisive. Polytheistic religions can accept alternative gods, ideas, values, etc. by simply incorporating them into their pantheon of gods. Monotheistic religions cannot accept other ideas and must, by definition, consider them not only wrong, but evil (after all, god has told them what's right, so any other idea must be "antigod".)

      Taken to extremes (and it always is) every wacko can define their own definition of god and find everyone else to be evil. Hence the number of "church of god and all his saints as defined by me at the storefront redemption center of full gospel preaching".

      August 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.