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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. Jake

    About halfway through you seem to lose the narrative and just give a case for why you are an atheist. AA is a Christian program. Obviously anyone can quit drinking with some self-control.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • tl123

      AA is not a Christian organization. The Oxford group is. Bill W, Dr Bob and the first 100 decided to remove the "Christian" element so that non-Christians, e.g. Jews, Muslims and atheists, would be able to incorporate the 12-Steps into their lives without compromising their own beliefs. That is why we say "The God of Our Understanding", many oldtimers won't use the term God, they will use the term "Higher Power".

      August 29, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • LaRae Meadows

      AA is a religious organization built on a cult structure. That isn't an insult, it is just the way it is and it is why it works for some people. It gets stuck in the mind for the same reason religion does. Unfortunately, that makes it extremely unattractive to the non-religious. Its extremely high failure rate makes it unattractive to the rational.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • LaRae Meadows

      PS. Atheists know the words "higher power' means god.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  2. Tom

    My HP doesn 't have to be god, JC or any other identifyable religious icon, or meet with the approval of AA or its members. I don't judge the beliefs of others in the program and will do whatever I can to help them be successfull.

    I came to AA to stop drinking. I continue to be a part of AA to maintian a life of sobriety by remembering the way things were and to do what I can to help others with the same affliction. I recognize that I couldn't "go it alone" and have developed a more spiritual life with the help and guidance of my HP, the pricipals of the program and the support of its members and its fellowship.

    My HP is a collective spirits of good people in my life; people I have or had relationships with and those I have studied and never had the privilidge to meet. All either live or lived spiritual lives and most have lived religious lives. They contribute to and represent my conscience effort to do the next right thing. And in this discussion, the next right thing is not to judge or dismiss anyone for having a different opinion than I...Live and let live.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  3. David Lockhart

    Ah well, everyone has an opinion. I happen to believe in God and Jesus. But I applaud your fight back to sobriety. I have always felt that our sobriety was due to our own strength, our ability to cope with what the addiction does to us. We are insignifgicant. We should be humble. Believing in God or any other "higher power" doesn't really enter the equation. We believed we were addicted and that we were powerless over our addiction. Came to believe a higher power could save us. Became willing, willing to let that higher power do just that. It doesn't matter what you call that higher power. it doesn't matter how you believe in or serve that higher power. It only matters that you are willing to be humble and to serve. You are willing to allow yourself to heal and to throw off the addiction. Thank you for giving an atheist's point of view. I salute your recovery. Hello, my name is Dave, and I'm an alcoholic. AA has kept me clean and sober for 23+ years.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Dan

      How does being humble and being willing to SERVE make you break your addiction? Serve who? Please. People need help to quit drinking and stay sober...but this humble and serve junk sounds like religion anyway. People need to learn coping techniques for their stress. Many drink to relieve stress and forget their problems. Of course they should never drink ever again because of the power of alcohol. HUMBLE and SERVE? Please.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:40 am |
  4. Meredith D

    This blog from the non-believer in God hits to the heart of AA – humility! I loved how she put it. It's all about self-acceptance and in order to do that there must be a willingness to be honest and open. Self-aware and willing to learn and grow continually each day. What is known is that alcohol is but a symptom. Recovery is about changing the "causes" – the behaviors and messages that made it necessary for us to "run" and "hide" and "escape" and encourage our allergy of the body and obsession of the mind in alcoholism. Recovery is for people who want to be better human beings. Unfortunately, not everyone "wants" it, and some few are simply incapable of being honest. Thank you Mary for your courage and honesty and, yes, the Humility!

    August 29, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  5. Perry

    Wonderfully written little piece by Marya Hornbacher! Humerous, 'quarky,' and succinctly elegant in her description of the cultural microcosm that is AA.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  6. Steve

    Your goal should be to drink less, not stop drinking all together. Alcohol in moderation is good for you, and if your life revolves around AVOIDING alcohol, then it still controls your life.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • David Lockhart

      You are right. After 23+ years of sobriety, the avoidance of alcohol very much controls my life. You say some alcohol is good for you. But that only applies to you, not to me. Any alcohol and I could very easily die. Think of it as an allergy. If you are allergic to shellfish, any amount could be fatal, regardless of how good it is for other people. Don't close your mind to other realities.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Godless

      Hahaha.... perspective.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • tl123

      A little story:

      Man is driving down the street, he slows down but does not stop at a stop sign. A police officer sees this and pulls him over. The officer tells the driver that he did not stop at the stop sign. The driver states that he did, however, slow down for the stop sign. The police officer pulls the driver out of the car and begins hitting him with his baton. After several whacks, the police officer asks the driver if he wanted "him to slow down or to stop"!!

      I am a person who suffers from the disease of addiction. The FIRST step in my recovery is to ABSTAIN / STOP using mood and mind altering chemicals.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • tl123

      After 25 years of active addiction and 10 years of sobriety, drugs and alcohol still control my life. That is the definition of being an addict. However, the "control" that drugs and alcohol have over my life today are much different than 10 years ago. Today I have a choice, 10 years ago, I didn't.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  7. Henry Chinaski

    For those that say its just a lack of character and discipline, do yourself a favor and google "famous alcoholics"... throughout history there have been hundreds of alcoholics who have had more discipline and character than any of us will ever have. It just so happens that they did not have control over this one aspect of their life. I don't like the disease concept, but it does go further than discipline and character.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • LaRae Meadows

      Henry. Just because you are disciplined in other aspects of your life, does not mean you are disciplined in all your life or therefore cannot have a personality disorder or weakness.

      It may be true that the substance in question (alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc) are handled differently in the brain than other non-addicts but so what? After you realize you have a problem – it is your responsibility to stop doing it. When it all boils down to it, there is no treatment other people provide. Addicts choose to not to use. That is a matter of character and discipline. It isn't a disease – it is a choice.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  8. Imbecile

    Trading drugs or alcohol for god is nothing more than transference. Sure, believing in god may not cause one to lose one's job or kill someone in a car wreck, but from a social standpoint, the god-obsessed can be even more obnoxious than a drunk.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • VB

      Yes b/c being an alcholic is a lot like believe in God. Great logic.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Heh...

      Good point, VB.
      Alcoholism deals with something that is real, not imaginary.
      So the two aren't alike at all.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Godless

      You obviously experienced that much in life eh?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  9. chris

    wow CNN... you got a trigger happy censor there. Timing how long this comment takes to be removed... 1....

    August 29, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Pattycat

      It is not CNN...it is reader's who push the Report abuse button....you must have written something vulgar...I have no problem reporting that type of post.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  10. Jonathan

    Thank you for writing this article, it's something I struggle with as well.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  11. Linda

    I can see a lot of people don't like what she's saying, but her point about humility is right on. Humility is where the belief in God gets you to. It sounds to me like she is aware/respectful of a higher universal power, and that's what gets you out of the egotism that feeds the addictive personality. She thinks her life is about service to others, something most militant atheists rarely say. Sounds like it works for her.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  12. Sober in NJ

    Thanks Marya, I'm a 12 year sober atheist. In AA I've always seen "god" as "group of drunks" (i.e fellow recovering alcoholics which support each other) or "good orderly direction" (a plan to take on the day and remain sober). I'm not a 12 -stepper, I'm a 2-stepper (accept I'm an alcoholic and my life is unmanageable/ spread the word about AA). works for me and the program save peoples lives.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  13. VB

    Author should have remained ANONYMOUS. I'm an AA member and I'm certainly not offended or shocked by an atheist member.

    For those people claiming AA has a 10% success rate are misguided... AA is available for those WHO WANT TO STAY SOBER. It's not a systematic way of converting drunks into sober people, nobody has the power to do that. Grow up haters.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  14. Nixxter

    Thank you Marya for getting your message out to people who need to hear it (a different group than the idiots above who have no practical experience what it is like to have long term sobriety, which is obviously of value in anybody's life). The people who need to hear it are those who face desperate consequences from their drinking, and it's invaluable to know you can get sober in AA without a belief in god (as an atheist). Sure, people can say you violate your anonymity, or our traditions about publicity, etc. but I also know there may be some who need to hear your message where it will give them the courage to try this (hard, as you said) way of getting sober.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  15. Dr. Van Nostrom

    Nothing worse than drunks and addicts. Regardless of what anyone or any book says....addiction is NOT a disease. It is a lack of character, personal control and selfishness. Nothing more. Nothing less. These people deserve help but should not be treated like they are 'special'. They must want to change. If the desire is not there then nothing will help.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Jim

      Chemical addiction has been shown to change the physical nature of the brain. Therefore it is no less a disease than some forms of cancer.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • realist

      Thanks for your 2 cents doc.......it wasn't worth a plugged nickle................

      August 29, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Jay

      Sure...

      Take a whole box of ex lax and then use your character and self control not to use the bathroom. That will give you an idea of how it feels to be an addict.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      Well, Doc, your response proves your thesis in a nutshell. Can we now extend that to arrogance and pomposity, since you dramatically demonstrated your own just now, and we know that was a choice?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Dr. Van Nostrom

      What a slap in the face of ANYONE who has ever had or who currently has cancer. You should be ashamed. No one ever game themselves cancer, which is a horrible disease. Every single drunk or addict did it to themselves. No one held a gun to their head and forced them to drink and take drugs. They have no one to blame except for themselves for their 'disease'. Unlike cancer patients alcoholism and drug addiction can be easity avoided.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Stephen Daedalus

      I don't know if you have a doctorate, but it surely isn't in medicine or psychology. Still, the "von Nostrum" bit is amusing, so I assume the "Dr." is equally in jest. As the previous respondant mentioned, the physical mechanism of addictions is fairly well established. The persistant neurological changes are also well established, if not well understood. The clear genetic link, while not absolute, also flies in the face of your statement.

      Whether you call it a disease, or a genetic predisposition... the wording is not important at this level of understanding, but your statements about character are absurd. I don't know if Addiction is a disease in the classical sense, but it's clear that it is far more than what you've described.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Stephen Daedalus

      For those babies born addited to opiates, the number of which is on the rise... tell me how they would avoid that?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Jim

      There is no condition of self infliction for something to be disease. If someone chooses to live in a house made of asbestos and they get lung cancer it doesn't not make it a disease.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • jkshaz

      I suppose it depends on how you want to specifically define 'disease' but I think there is a pretty well established basis for considering it as such. Although I suppose even what you consider character flaws have a genetic basis.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Sameer

      You are a retarded doctor.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Dr. Van Nostrom

      Have the mother DECIDE not to be a loser and drink and take drugs while pregnant. Problem solved. Alcoholism can be cured easily via the Dr. Van Nostrum method. This is comprised of providing the drunk/druggie with as much alcohol and/or drugs that they desire. One of two things will happen. Either they will kill themselves or they will figure out how ridiculous their addiction is and stop. Now...each of you please send me $99.99.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • jkshaz

      Are you not aware of what the primary cause of lung cancer is? It is certainly self-inflicted. So is it not a disease in your mind in the instance where the cancer is self-inflicted.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Henry

      Your confusing the act of drinking (a choice) with alcoholism (a disease).

      August 29, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Lauren D

      I don't in any way believe that being in alcoholic is the same as having a terminal disease such as cancer. Many people in my family have died of cancer, so comparing the two is just offensive, because they are not the same, so I agree with you on that. Though I do think that many alcoholics don't have direct control over their situation because of a chemical dependancy that is produced due to an individuals genetics, personality, and levels of dependency (which is not a negative thing per say, it's just that certain people do have genetic predispositions to addiction). That said; being an alcoholic is not something a person should be blamed for, but they do have an obligation to get help for themselves, especially if they have a family/children. And being an alcoholic is not the same as a person that has a terminal disease.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Jim

      You are mistaken. What you are talking about is whether or not there is an ethical imperative to treat the disease not whether or not it is a disease. I can chose to sleep with someone with HIV. It may be a stupid choice but if I catch HIV as a result it is still a disease. Whether or not you think I should be treated is a different issue.

      An alcoholic can have achieved sobriety, making the ethical choice that you would support to stop drinking, but still suffer from the effects of the disease alcoholism even if they remain sober.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Jim

      and BTW I have had two friends of mine die of cancer and it doesn't change the fact that both cancer and alcoholism are diseases. For the most part they are both degenerative diseases caused outside agents that are non-biological in nature. One just happens to be caused by a outside agents that are taken willingly the other is most often caused by exposure (sometimes willing sometimes not) to agents that one does not know causes the disease.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  16. Ryan

    I had a girlfriend whos' mother used to be an alcoholic. She then found god and has become so infatuated with it...that she scares people. EVERY sentence that she talked about SOMEHOW was related to her god. She spoke about excercisms, raggae as Devil's music, "pray the gay away". My point is......She went from one extreme to another. Both equelly unhealthy. Don't trade one extreme for another. You can get yourself through this! And if you are lucky to have people in your life that you can lean on...then do so.....and make sure when you get through it all...that you give THEM credit for it. Not a magical made up being. Good luck!!

    August 29, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Scbydru

      Trading one addiction for another. A lot of people do that. I once worked at a women's halfway house for women with drug issues. One woman took vitamins excessively. And she wouldn't take just one multivitamin pill, she had to take one of each vitamin, one at a time from A to Z. Another woman started taking Ibuprofen nonstop. They are still feeding their addiction in a healthier way. (Except the Ibuprofen lady, we had to restrict her)

      August 29, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  17. Cuso

    It's called a lack discipline. I have a bunch of people in my family in AA and NA. They don't need Jesus they need discipline. They all have the common thread im going to what I want when I want. No you can't you have to learn to discipline yourself. Hey I would love to drink beer all day and eat pizza but i don't. Because I have discipline.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Nik

      You obviously don't have a problem with an addiction. I have. When you spend an entire day planning, consuming, and recovering from the consumption of your addiction on a daily basis, then you have a problem. I used to do exactly that. Now, I do not. I accomplished this through AA and the help of God. Believe what you want. It is people like you that make those of us feel the need to remain anonymous.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Henry Chinaski

      For those that say its just a lack of character and discipline, do yourself a favor and google "famous alcoholics"... throughout history there have been hundreds of alcoholics who have had more discipline and character than any of us will ever have. It just so happens that they did not have control over this one aspect of their life. I don't like the disease concept, but it does go further than discipline and character.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Jay

      NO doubt that your family is filled with lazy people with no discipline...not arguing that. But your argument about discipline doesn't hold water. My AA group is filled with Wall Street workers, cops, college professors, marathon runners, teachers (you get the idea) people with more discipline than the average joe. They just have a physical and mental craving for alcohol that cannot be controlled without the help of the 12 steps and a higher power. Oh and it is a disease and detoxing from it can be fatal unlike herioin or cocaine.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Booyah

      Hey Jay – how about a nice greasy pork sandwhich served in a dirty ashtray.......and to wash it down you can have a nice tall cold Budweiser dude. Oh yeah...yummy. After that we can do some shots and then head to the next bar. What do you say?

      August 29, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Jay

      Was that a Weird Science reference?

      August 29, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  18. Henry Chinaski

    I have been to many meetings for 15 years in LA, Boston, San Francisco and thousands in NYC and I have found that there is actually quite a bit of contempt for God. It is surely a big city thing, but agnostics and atheists are anything but persecuted in AA. In fact at the meetings in NYC it is more common to question faith or have no faith at all than to be a believer. Having absolute faith is frowned upon and I think I've heard Jesus mentioned in a loving way less than 10 times in ten years.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  19. David

    Seems like AA was created simply to push religion on people. Take advantage of the weak seems to be religions true mantra. And yes I do see people who can't control themselves as weak. And no alcoholism is NOT a disease.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Cuso

      Exactly these people lack discipline. Just like my aunt uncle their son and my brother in laws. Rather drink all day then work.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • aj

      Actually, It is a disease. Whether you choose to not believe it, thats your choice. But technically, it is.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Jay

      Nice contempt before investigation. I'm not allergic to peanuts so other people shouldn't be either....duh...they are weker than I....duh.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • john

      Tell your penis to stop calling me bro. What the hell.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Emily S.

      Actually the founders of AA tried to sober up just using the Christian God and they could not. It was only when they talked to another alcoholic and shared their story were they able to maintain soberity.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  20. Code

    What a disgusting self-pompous article of no importance whatsoever.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Peter Harrison

      Yep, and she claims humility too!

      There are much,much better ways than brainwashing yourself with AA bathwater. Replacing one dependancy with another is very weak.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Jay

      totally

      August 29, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Heh...

      "Self-pompous"?
      Your command of the English language is staggering.
      (That's sarcasm.)

      August 29, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Watchmen

      Agreed.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:51 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.