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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. Susan Slattery

    I quit drinking 2 and half years ago. I don't even consider myself a Christian anymore. I read a book called Rational Recovery and some things in that book really resonated with me. I simply quit. My husband is a moderate drinker. There is still beer, wine and hard liquor in our home. In fact, he recently rediscovered how tasty peach schnapps is, and the bottle is sitting on the kitchen counter right where I chop vegetables and prepare dinner. It does not call to me at all. I simply do not drink anymore. There is no white knuckling going on, no bargaining, no lamenting, no self-pity... and most of all, NO CRAVING. I don't attend any meetings where I would glamorize and continue to pay homage to any memory of being drunk through confessional storytelling. As with much of life, what you don't do is often more meaningful than what you do.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  2. Smelly Drunken Hobo

    I'm drunk right now. I don't care. Want a drink?

    August 29, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Susan Slattery

      If you don't care if you are drunk or not, and feel no guilt about it once you're sober, then you are not addicted. Addiction exists only in the mind of the individual. No one else can call you an addict. Only YOU know if you are addicted to alcohol. RR

      August 29, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  3. Ric

    AA is not a cult. AA is not a Christian program. AA is not a religious program. AA only requires that you have a desire to stop drinking. Nobody in AA cares what or whom or whether you worship. AA doesn't care what you think or believe. AA is not a progam of thought; it is a program of action. The action of the program is the 12 steps. You DO the 12 steps, you don't sit and ponder them. If you DO the action required, regardless of what you do or don't believe, you can stay sober. You don't even have to believe that it will work; if you take the action, you can stay sober. It's that simple.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Not so Fast

      Nobody in AA cares whether you believe in God? Nobody? Not so. I've been to AA meetings that felt like a prayer revival. I tried various meetings I'd heard were less religious than others – dozens of them. And not one could manage to leave religion out of it. You're blindly defending AA because you've bought into it. And that's great – it obviously works for many many people. But don't say no one cares whether other people there are religious. Part of Christianity, latent in AA or not, is an even passive desire to save other souls. So, yes – obviously – may people in AA care.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  4. Linda Shinn

    I went years ago to Co-Dependent Meetings, as I had that personality problem, which is closely related to alcoholism.
    I learned a lot at meetings, read a lot of books, etc. and learned that most of my family, all through my families, and extended family's history had had problems with all kinds of addictive/compulsive behaviors, as I also always have had.
    Things like this, are a physically inherited brain abnormalacy, that I don't see as a "desease", but it does predispose the family members to become addicted to all kinds of things. Work, eating, obcessive compulsive behaviors.
    The brain abnormacy is physical and inherited, but learning as much as you can about what it is, and having a support group of people to talk to and to see as other peopl dealing with these same things, who overcame them, can "save your life", as it did mine. I honestly don't think that I would be alive today, if not for the help and support of the 12 step Co-Dependent Group that I joined. And, I am, and have always been a "non-believer". I simply followed one of the bits of advice of the group, which was, "Take what you need, and leave the rest."
    Just because some is religious, and may believe the "God" helped them to recover, doesn't mean, that they still don't have a lot of good ideas and help to offer to someone who is not religous. I will always be grateful to the religious people in the 12 Step Program that I joined for all of the help that they gave me.
    We all need to learn to respect each other more, and see that believers and non-believers both have much to give to each other.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  5. Patrick E

    When you said, "my entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things," you echoed one of the major teachings of Christianity – that love is the very purpose and goal of our existence. Now if you could just struggle a bit more to understand where this purpose you've identified for yourself comes from....

    August 29, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Like she hasn't struggled enough? She overcame an addiction, she sought truth. She found an amazing ability to give of herself.

      Without any god. I doubt your saying "just try a little harder" is going to suddenly make her believe in one.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Kevin

      It doesn't come from Christianity, if that's what you mean. It's an innate part of our social-pack nature. We take care of others as they have taken care of us so we all thrive and perpetuate the species. Same as other social animals. Think of it this way – if every person on earth suddenly forgot everything they knew and had to learn it over again from scratch, what would happen? We would learn how things worked – what we could eat, how to keep warm, etc, and eventually we'd learn about healing diseases, and gravity, and the earth orbiting the sun, and chemistry, and particle physics, etc. These are real phenomena to be discovered and explored. We would NOT learn about Jesus because religion exists only in our minds, not in reality. We might invent other new religions out of fear of death and fear of our own insignifigance, but Jesus (apart from being a real guy who got killed 2000 years ago for saying we should be nice to each other) exists only in our minds.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  6. ReasonOverFaith

    The reason why the belief in something great is so key to recovering from substance abuse is that it is the 1st step in acknowleging that you are not in control of your life - if you were, you would not be an addict, would you? Regardless of whether or not there is a higher power, the mind steps down from its high horse and then considers that it might not really be running the show. After that, the other 11 steps can be applied. Maybe God had no control over your life, but alcohol did! So psychologically, the "higher power" tenet is a practical and effective belief to acquire - whether or not it is actually true in a spiritual sense.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Danny Michael

      Just the willingness to explore AA to achieve sobriety is completing the first step. People that attend looking for sobriety already realize that they are not in control. This is why the "first step" is largely non-sequitur and already done in action when someone looks to AA to begin with. People believing they're in control don't even go.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  7. wetbrain

    I supplemented God for Good Orderly Direction. AA waqs helpful for me the first couple years and then I stopped the meetings and have stayed sober since 98. Lots of sick people in those rooms with "ism's" more severe than alcohol.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  8. Danny Michael

    Having a higher power is one thing. Jesus, Krishna, the galaxy... whatever it may be is inherently different from what the AA plan actually is, and this is why one can have a "higher power as we understand him"; such is completely compatible with the program.
    The problem however is believing that this higher power is intervening in your life to change you is not by definition atheistic. It's not even deist. Contrarily, it is purely theistic in nature; the complete opposite of atheism. It is impossible to believe that a supernatural being is having influence over you and still call yourself an atheist. By definition atheism is not that. Atheism means that one has no belief in any gods. Yet if you feel that a supernatural being is involved in your life, you are certainly not atheist regardless of what that supernatural being is.
    Even if one were to rebut that the higher power is not supernatural in nature (i.e. their higher power is the planet Earth), this "conscious contact" with and "having had a spiritual awakening" due to the higher power is supernatural in nature, and again therefore not atheist by definition.
    Furthermore, being that many different conflicting faiths claim success in sobriety we see that it is faith itself, not the validity of those beliefs, that seem to work for people.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • tl123

      If you read the many posts by atheists and agnostics in this forum you will see "group of drunks", "group of druggies", and "good orderly direction". None of these are theistic beliefs. Humility is not a theistic belief.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Danny Michael

      @tl123; what, in any way, does that have to do with what I was talking about? A "group of drunks" that atheists talk about has nothing to do with the concept of a supernatural being intervening in your life being regarded as something other than atheism.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  9. VivalaRedSox

    I'm not an alcoholic but I've had to live through it growing up with other family members. I grew up having Christianity shoved down my throat. I can honestly say that the day I decided to throw it all away was the best day of my life. I feel so free. I believe anything is possible. Rather believing in invisible deities, I choose to believe in myself because in the end that's all we have right?

    August 29, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  10. Mike

    Cheers for running this CNN.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  11. wetbrain

    There is an entire chapter in the "Big Book" for Agnostics.

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

      Anything for atheists?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Kevin

      Agnosticism does not exist.
      It's saying that the truth about whether there is a higher power cannot be known.
      It doesn't answer the questions of "Do you believe?".
      If you are agnostic, then you do NOT believe.
      If you say "I don't know, so I'm agnostic", then you must admit that you don't believe, because if you did believe, then you know it to be true. Belief is a true/false thing. You either do, or you don't.
      Agnosticism is merely unwillingness to accept that you don't believe.
      There is nothing wrong with saying "I don't believe because I have no compelling evidence to make me believe, but if you present some, I will evaluate it and I may start to believe."
      But to say this means you don't believe, the same as I don't believe that there is a $1million briefcase waiting on my front step for when I get home. There may be, but I don't believe there is. I'll gladly change my belief if 'm proven wrong, and I'll even buy you lunch with my new-found wealth.
      That's my brand of atheism.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Agnostic

      Actually, the argument that agnosticism does not exist and that all agnostics are truly atheist is untrue. I am agnostic because I do not know what is out there. I, however, choose to believe in afterlife, supreme being, etc., even without that proof. I don't like people pushing religion or atheism on me as "fact," when they have no way to prove one or the other is or is not true. I would call myself an agnostic theist... I believe in God, I just am aware of the fact there is no way to prove it definitively.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  12. Bearin Down

    Why is this article on the front page of CNN.com? Great, you were an alcoholic. Great, AA has some religious undertones (I've confused myself with the popular saying: is it overtones, undertones? I've thought too much about it and confused myself. Sorry if I got it wrong). Great, you made it through AA despite those religious undertones. It must have been tough... This article is pointless. Someone either wants to quit drinking or they don't. Those that do, will be able to ignore religious undertones and quit drinking. Those who seem to think their religious belief, or lack there of, is more important to their personal life than quitting drinking, despite likely hitting rock bottom, probably aren't ready to quit drinking. So, really, this article is total crap. It does nothing to help atheist AA members. So, again, why is this on the front page of CNN?

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

      If you find it so insignificant, why post a book in relation to the article? D-o-u-c-h-e.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Bearin Down

      Because I took the time to read the article hoping for something interesting. Instead, it was a nothing piece. So, I felt the need to respond. Nice that you can call names though. My guess is that your people skills suck.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Simon

      In the case of AA, it's 'overtones'.

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

      Agree. If the author is an atheist and can't comprehend the design, that's her problem. How's that working for her? She quit drinking. Congratulations! But......why is this on the front page? Why is this "headline news?"

      August 29, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Sandra

      It's actually in the Belief Blog, not on the front page of CNN, regardless, I think this was a great article. Sharing information of this kind, alcoholism treatment in AA for people who don't believe in God, such as myself, was something I hadn't considered. Now I think it's something I can look into. It opened my eyes to the possibilities. Thank you, Mrs. Hornbacher!

      August 29, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Sunil

      It's clear from your posting that you know almost nothing about alcoholism, and likely have never cared or attempted to understand someone who is an alcoholic. You can't revolutionarily change your life unless you believe in the process to get you there. For many atheists (and I'm not saying agnostics, because I know there is a chapter in the book about agnostics) committing to steps that are dependent on something you believe doesn't exist is nearly impossible. People can't just turn on and off certain beliefs when the situation requires it. The truth is many people don't believe in god and therefore think AA can't help them. The point of this article was to inform people in just such a situation that even if you don't believe in "god" you can still use AA to get better. The fact that you were so annoyed and bored with the article is indicative of your apathy towards whether suffering people get better. Maybe next time before you read an article ask yourself, "Do I really care about this?" And save the rest of us your worthless comments.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  13. Andy

    Of the hundreds of AA meetings I ever attended, I never met one person who declared the Christian God was the only way out.

    Are you sure not making up this part just to make your story? If it is true, did you cross check your research to see if this kind of fundamentalism was going on widespread?

    I think you don't have to answer the second question, but if your answer to the second is 'no;' then you are merely one of millions of recovering alcoholics. Not special - except from your own perspective, and that you've been successful (so far) in your recovery.

    Finally, I also notice how you referred to Catholics and Jews by their preferred names. However, Christians were referred to, insultingly, as "Crown of Thorn Christians." This displays where you're real perspective (anger) comes from.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Jay

      Incredible stuff Andy

      August 29, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Amanda

      Well written- unfortunately people with this much hostility never hear the logic.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Smelly Drunken Hobo

      Admit it. You're just a quitter. I have a drink in my hand right now.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • American

      I noticed this too. I don't understand why CNN publishes this kind of hate speech.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Gary

      ["Finally, I also notice how you referred to Catholics and Jews by their preferred names. However, Christians were referred to, insultingly, as "Crown of Thorn Christians." This displays where you're real perspective (anger) comes from."]

      This, more than anything else, is worthy of a response from the author. Bravo for pointing this out. The more truth there is in this point, the more hostile the responses will be.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  14. Greg s

    AA 12 step program is not about God, thats a misconception you can believe in the power of a paper clip as log as you believe, You have to hang your faith you will get thru this one something.

    Since Atheists are Little Gods unto themselves Its probably hard to find that something to believe in.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Atheist

      Atheists don't believe in god, so how would we consider ourselves god's? Your comment shows an irrational thought process without logic.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  15. Bill

    AA members are supposed to remain anonymous at the level of press, radio and film. A tradition overlooked by someone trying to sell books.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  16. Mrs. B

    I've been to AA, and it is nothing short of a cult. I left and stayed sober on my own. Oh, and I also believe in God.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  17. Lauren D

    I also really appreciate this article. America can be too focused on religion, and not focused enough on reality when it comes to personal healing.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  18. Texasboy

    Still struggling with the God thing myself, but as far as AA goes, I'm a believer. Thanks, Ms. Hornbacher, for your inspirational words.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  19. booboobear

    I'm a 2-stepper too. I realized I was drinking too much. And I quit the very same day I realize it. That was 18 years ago. Since then I had a sip of wine at a friend's wedding, and a glass of champagne. It's all about whether you want to or not, and JUST DO IT. And it doesn't matter what your religion, political views, s3xual orientation etc. What matters is YOU.

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

      I heard a stat one time....that approx. 1 in 4000 to 5000 alcoholics are able to stop drinking on their own. So, booboobear, you are a rare bird indeed! I've also seen people quit on their own, but still have crazy alcoholic thinking and behavior. But of course there was nothing wrong with them so they refused AA or any other help. And their lives didn't change too much except they weren't drunk most of the time.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  20. Happy

    This article has seemed to have attracted quite a few people that mistake their opinion for fact. That is not a trait of healthy thinking, so when I see it, I tend to skip over it. It is true that no matter much you believe in something, there will be someone there telling you how stupid you are for doing so. Here's the way I see it......

    I don't concern myself with what people think, I concern myself with what I know . I know that AA worked for me. I quit going to meetings because the nuts drove me away, but I still incorperate the principals in my every day life. Call me weak. Call me stupid. Call me a sheep. Call me what ever you want. But this I know.....I've been happy and free of alcohol for over 8 years and not a single person can take that away from me. Peace. :)

    August 29, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Happy Too

      Amen (tongue in cheek!) AA can be exactly what you need and you can take what you want and leave the rest. I ignored the religion thing and simply found people like me that found a way to stop drinking with the help of this program. It is not a cult. Meetings are generally an hour and if you never want to go again, there is no one there calling you to find out where you have gone or asking you for anything. I have been happy and free from alcohol for 4 years after failing to find that solace via rehabs multiple times.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Larry

      I agree with you: something worked. We just disagree over what that something is. Social support makes the world turn for most people (different people are "inspired" (motivated to live) by all of the different thoughts and emotions related to their social interactions – anger, love, revenge, trust, hatred, friendship, fear, joy, envy, compassion, confusion, sorrow, etc).
      The principles that you imagine came from AA were already widespread when people lived in caves – apologize when I hurt someone's feelings, take periodic inventory: have I been naughty and nice (how many nuts do I have left), share my innermost thoughts with other people, pause for meditation/reflection, listen to those who open up to me, value friends, appreciate the intricacies of life on planet earth.
      All the other "principles" of the "program" are so much nonsense. Most people know that religious beliefs (surrender, powerlessness, higher powers) aren't literally true, but they think the beliefs add value to their lives. I disagree. Religious beliefs are harmful because they breed ignorance.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:09 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.