Editor's note: Marya Hornbacher's latest book, "Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power," explores what spirituality can mean to the recovering person who does not believe in God.
By Marya Hornbacher, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Kicked back with his boots on the table at the head of the smoke-dense room, the meeting's leader banged his fist and bellowed, “By the grace of this program and the blood of Jesus Christ, I’m sober today!”
This was not an auspicious beginning for the project of getting my vaguely atheistic, very alcoholic self off the sauce.
I wondered if perhaps I’d wandered into the wrong room. I thought maybe I’d wound up in Alcoholics Anonymous for crown-of-thorn Christians, and in the next room might find AA for lapsed Catholics, and downstairs a group for AA Hare Krishnas and one for AA Ukrainian Jews.
But a decade later, I’ve become aware that 12-step programs are home to people from every religion, denomination, sect, cult, political tilt, gender identity, sexual preference, economic strata, racial and ethnic background, believers in gun rights and abortion rights and the right to home schooling, drinkers of coffee and tea, whiskey and mouthwash, people who sleep on their sides or their stomachs or sidewalks.
Anyone who cares to sober up, in other words, can give it a shot the 12-step way. The official preamble Alcoholics Anonymous states: "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
And millions of people want that and find a way to do it in this program. I’m one of them. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a raging drunk. Now I’m not.
It wasn’t magic; it was brutally hard work to get from point A to B. I do believe I’d be dead without the help of the people and the structure of the steps in AA.
But I don’t believe in God.
And this can be something of a sticking point when you’re sitting in a meeting room, desperate for almost any route out of hell, and someone cites “the blood of Jesus” as the only way to go. Or when you realize that six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power or He.
But this shouldn't be a dealbreaker. I’m going to make a lot of old-style AA’s cranky with this, but it’s perfectly possible to sober up sans belief in God.
At first that wasn’t clear to me. It’s unclear to most people because AA has a reputation as a cult, a religion unto itself, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings or morons, and it isn’t those things, either. It’s a pretty straightforward series of steps, based on spiritual principles, that helps people clean up their lives in a whole lot of ways.
But if you are of an atheistic or strongly agnostic mindset, chances are you’ll walk into a meeting, see the steps hanging on the wall and want to scream, laugh or walk back out.
I tried another tack: I made a valiant attempt to believe. I figured a) these people were funny, kind, and not plastered; b) they believed that some kind of higher power had helped them get sober; c) they knew something I did not.
So I did research. I read every word of AA literature I could find. I read up on the history of half a dozen important religions and a wide variety of frou-frou nonsense. I earnestly discussed my lack of belief with priests, rabbis, fanatics and my father.
People told me their stories — of God, the divine, the power of love, an intelligent creator. Something that made all this. Some origin, some end.
I told them I believed in math. Chaos, I said. Infinity. That sort of thing.
They looked at me in despair.
And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”
On the contrary. I think I am among the smallest. Cosmically speaking, I barely exist.
Like anything else, I came into being by the chance, consist mostly of water, am composed of cells that can be reduced and reduced, down to the quarks and leptons and so forth, that make up matter and force. If you broke down all matter, the atom or my body, you’d arrive at the same thing: what scientists call one strange quark, with its half-integer spin.
And I find that not only fascinating but wondrous, awe-inspiring and humbling.
I believe that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility. The recognition that we are flawed, that we can and must change and that our purpose not only in sobriety but in life is to be of service to others.
I believe that I exist at random, but I do not exist alone; and that as long as my quarks cohere, my entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things.
That keeps me sober. Amen.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marya Hornbacher.
"God Doesn't Throw Dice" – Albert Eintsein
But the GM does ....
Because there is no God and yes nature is random.
Sorry, Tempestf, Einstein clearly stated that he didn't believe in any personal god.
your explanation of the universe would drive me to abuse some mind altering substance to the point of addiction. it's great that you've convinced yourself that the purpose of your life is to "give what I can to the other extant things" and that conviction has given you the strength to beat the addiction. my problem is that I could never convince myself that what I do during my life matters at all. so you live a stellar life, giving yourself away to the other life forms around you, so that they can take, take, take for their own gain and advancement, so we can all live and then . . . die. what's the point. Why not drink yourself to oblivion, none of it matters.
Religion is discipline to an idea a person that has your "views" of why it doesn't matter has no discipline.
i should have said "If I was an atheist" I could never convince myself that anything i did or didn't do mattered.
You religious nuts are so intolerant it's insane. You preach love, acceptance, and respect, yet you give NONE of that unless someone shares your views. You are all nothing but hypocrites because the minute someone questions your religion you run to insults and name calling. This woman found a way to get sober without the use of religion or belief in a higher power. Yet, at the same time she did it while respecting and even trying to understand the other points the religious members had. And all you can do is imply she is selfish and has no meaning to her life.....and even worse, you suggest she just go back to drinking. People like you prove there is no god and you should be disposed of. You are a waste of skin. PLEASE DEVELOP AN UNHEALTHY ADDICTION!!!!!
Nice to see that the author as well as quite a few commenters actually use their brains. There IS hope! No more spaghetti monster in the sky... ;-)
Did you even read the bible? ;)
Just don't drink and be a pig ?
Just because we all don't share your OPINION doesn't mean it's the fall of mankind. Little stuck on yourself, aren't you? ;)
There are two types of atheists: one has read the bible all the way through gone through the teachings and knows that it's not for them. And the ones that follow don't figure anything out for themselves ie don't read the bible and don't believe because it's the easy thing to do and they have no desire. The latter is the majority of atheists out there. Don't mock something that has to deal with your eternal soul unless you truly understand it.
You are human-
The bible will not teach of science. Science is all you need to make the rational decisions to be an Atheist. You read your bible....we will read the data.
I'm like the opposite of this person. I have will power. What's the point of this story? Woot! I can quit drinking without god. Many people have done that. There is no story here it's just atheist propaganda. They don't run stories on successful exalcoholics that use the bible to quit. So why tell this one? CNN is the biggest troll and I'm hacking at it's heels.
Your post doesn't really make any sense either, all you seem to be saying is you're better than the author. Congratulations though
I got sober through AA, and fought and fought with people in the beginning. But it wasn't until I had a personal, spiritual epiphany, did I let go. Some people say in AA they brainwash you. But I needed brainwashing. And soul washing. I was not (and still am not) religious. I gravitated to the 'spiritual' part of AA – not Jesus or any other religious icon. God intervened in my life in a way that shook me to my core and I had no other choice than to believe there was a power greater than myself out there. At the time, I believed in nothing. But afterward, I immediately felt small. Humble. And that idea of humility is what keeps me sober. So while I agree with you in that regard, I disagree that people don't need spirituality to get there. Nice piece.
There is nothing more humble than being an atheist or agnostic. We preach the gospel of doubt and "I don't know". There isn't anything more humble than that. Religious people like to believe they have all the answers and lack that humble quality of doubt. This is a well written article and I give credit to her for being able to overcome her problem in a rational way. Regardless, each person has to do what works for them and , if they need spirituality to get through it, then great. All that matters is that they overcome their problem and improve their lives.
Spriituality worked for you so naturally, you assume it must be that way for everyone?
From one addiction – alcohol – to another – religion. At least religion is typically not self-destructive. And with education the dogma and ignorance of religion can be replaced with the light of truth and reality. So the 12-step program is really 13-steps.
Religion is not an addiction it's a discipline something you don't have.
Religion is TOTALLY an addiction. Wow ... I've never seen it described as such, but it fits the more you think about it.
Ha! you're right, it really does fit as a discipline the more you think about it
as I also said on here earlier. Yes...it can be an addiction too. Depends how far you take it....but many take it FAR. From one extreme to another. (Alcoholic to religious nut)
No....the 13th step is very different....Obviously you haven't been to an AA meeting. LOL
What bugs me is the people who say alcoholism is a disease. It is not, it is a symptom. If I have an infection, my runny nose is not the disease, it is a symptom of a much deeper and more complicated problem. Alcohol abuse is a symptom of a much deeper dysfunction. If you fix the dysfunction at the source, or at least train yourself to confront the dysfunction with new choices other than drinking, the symptoms can clear up on their own. The "higher power" is simply a way to dethrone alcohol as the tool of choice for dealing with the dysfunctions.
I agree to a point ...
Alcoholism is a symptom of underlying problems .... but it CAN lead to actual disease. Once addiction sets in, your brain is forever altered. It may START as a symptom, but I wouldn't say it's ONLY a symptom.
The "disease" consists of three things according to the book Alcoholics anonymous: A physical allergy [described by Dr. Silkworth who treated over 50,000 alcoholics in his lifetime], a mental obsession and a spiritual malady. On page 64 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous it states, "When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically."
Spiritual Malady? lol.
Are you kidding me? It's just another way to try to win more converts and take advantage of people with serious problems.
It is a disease.
You always have the choice to drink but alcoholism is the point when the the body starts reacting in ways that you do not have any control over, often even if you have topped drinking. This can happen in many ways,. For example some individuals that have drank a lot have liver failure, memory issues, paranoia, and/or hallucinations. These can continue regardless of whether or not they have become sober. That is a disease not the a choice. These also differ from a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, which is an increased likelihood, based on genetic make up,that these issues will arise out of drinking.
Insightful. As an AA I agree with what you said. The booze is the symptom not the cause.
"The American Medical Association (AMA) had declared that alcoholism was an illness in 1956. In 1991, The AMA further endorsed the dual classification of alcoholism by the International Classification of Diseases under both psychiatric and medical sections."
Sober 17 years now and I definitely believe in God, Jesus, the tenants of the bible, Creation and other (Faith only) based things. I did not always believe or have faith, but it is wonderful.
I truly appreciate your honesty and your drive to find a way to get and stay sober. Very few REAL Alcoholics can get sober and stay sober without the (Cult) of Alcoholics anonymous. The rediculous program just works.
Good work, thanks for putting it out there and stirring the pot!
I wonder what principle in Science supports her very good idea of 'being in service to others.' Maybe she is spiritual and believes in something afterall.
I am not spiritual and I believe in doing that. Actually behavioral science suggests that helping others is a survival trait regardless of ethics (see literature on social capital, social networks, and reciprocity).
We and our cousins, chimps, are social animals and if some aspects of our social nature are not fulfilled, it can have detrimental effects.
Although, admittedly that doesn't necessarily mean "in service to others" or that that is a purpose, let alone a primary purpose.
Our purpose on earth is to serve others? Really? Wow, and so it goes, when seeking an answer, more riddles.
Uhhhh.....she doesn't sound like an atheist to me.... Most atheist believe in some higher power they just want to intellectualize everything in life..... Spiritualness is seeking higher power.... She seems to have a problem with loud mouthed Christians.... I agree with her on the aspect. As a member of AA and as a Christian.
Since we are intellectualizing everything.....Since the quarks allow atoms to adhere and not the body....is she saying she is going to be giving whatever she can to all extant things until the quarks that make up her body stop to cohere? If so she needs to read up on lifetime of quarks... Also, saying that "I believe that I exist at random" is incorrect. We "come into existence" at random but existing is not random, it is the "gift", it is the "miracle, it is what connects us to a "higher power" that is the fact of the "matter".
Atheist, in the end, simply can not humble themeselves to a deity but try and make trivial a very powerful force.... They talk around God with Science. I love science, I make my living as a scientist but atheist are like creationist. They both try and use one discipline to confuse themselves and others about the truth of the other discipline.
You start off well enough ... but then digress.
"We "come into existence" at random but existing is not random, it is the "gift", it is the "miracle, it is what connects us to a "higher power" that is the fact of the "matter"." - Really? The FACT of the matter? Sorry. You're wrong. Nice condescending tone there too.
"Atheist, in the end, simply can not humble themeselves to a deity but try and make trivial a very powerful force" - No. It has nothing to do with individual. It has nothing to do with humility or lack thereof. There is no proof of any diety. There is no proof of a diety's "very powerful force". You say these words, but then provide nothing to back yourself up.
You must not know many Atheists. I myself being one do not believe in a higher power at all. I always say, to each his own. Just do what you think is right in life and don't worry so much about other people's beliefs.
@Donovan....I speak only for my experience and not to convert anyone.....I study biochemistry, I work on a membrane protein that requires proof, it requires pictures of gels and actual empirical data....I have no problem with this fact based way of seeing life....
I also do not have a problem with atheist and their souls. I don't think this woman is going to hell. Or anyone else for that matter.
Spirituality, religions, and mythologies do not deal with factual based systems of thought. Nor do dreams. But they do exist. And they have influenced humans individually and collectively since we evolved from apes. And this author is benefiting from it whether she can accept it or not. She is a part of the group conscience in AA meetings. In fact. by default, she is engageing in the "god delusion" by interacting in an AA meeting. Spirituality is based on a different way of thinking than science....
I do not see science and religion in a battle for intellectual supremecy as the author of this blog does.... She claims no higher power except quarks holding her together....I am tired of that simplistic view of the universe. This idea that science and religion are mutually exlusive ways of thinking is counter productive.
For me I consider the book Alcoholics Anonymous on page 52. I know that both while I was drinking and in periods of sobriety I have trouble in personal relationships, I can't control my emotional nature [not to be confused with my emotions], I was a prey to misery and depression, I couldn't make a living [a life worth living], I had a feeling of uselessness, I was full of fear, I was unhappy and I couldn't seem to be of real help to other people. I drank again repeatedly after 4 year periods of sobriety in AA with no God. I was a staunch atheist before and during my latest journey with the 12 steps. What changed for me, is that I had to ask myself what I had to lose in trying an extended period of praying and meditating whether I believed in something or not? What would it mean for me if I went through my entire life as a human being never experiencing the energies that are biochemically and electromagnetically produced during periods of prayer and meditation? Oh and I am not talking about a couple of days of trying this for short periods. I did it daily for my first year in recovery, and I can say that I now live in recovery from alcoholism. I think that is the distinguishing factor. I have known scores of AA's that are sober, but the real difference is seen and felt in someone who has recovered. I don't think Bill and Bob were trying to get sober one day at a time when they started AA. They were looking for a solution that was for good and for all, and my experience has been that AA's 12 steps have given me that. It doesn't really matter to me what ideals they are rooted in or came from. The effect produced by them in my life has far replaced the effect produced by alcohol- I regularly have a profound sense of ease, comfort and peace of mind with a purposeful and meaningful way of living that is less self-centered. I don't matter as much to myself anymore, at least enough so that I can actually take notice, interest and care for and about my brothers and sisters that are also spiritual beings having a physical experience. The steps are designed to produce a spiritual awakening, and if someone takes the steps and is still sleeping, I would look at why? Was something missed? Did I learn things in my 4th step that I didn't already know about myself, like that self-reliance fails me where my own fear is concerned? Do I see that unless I turn to a Power greater than me in all areas of my life, not just drinking, that I will continue to have what I have always had- the same life I got here with. Did I make all my amends? Am I living in the disciplines of steps 10, 11 and 12? Once someone has really and whole heartedly done these things I don't see how a person wouldn't wake up to the truth of who and what they are. Oh, and that is my favorite definition of humility- a clear recognition of who and what I am. Thanks for the thought-provoking article and flurry of comments and feedback.
I tried teh AA tack once. The God stuff was a deal breaker for me. The pushed it and shoved it down my throat. I am sober now, without all the AA bs. I did it on my own and did not get sucked into their cult of meetings all teh time and viewing the alcoholism and this huge monkey which will never be off my back. It IS off my back. 13 years sober. I can sit in a bar and drink soda because I did not buy into the AA mantra of "always an alcoholic, you will always need it blah blah blah" – AA sobers you up, but then shoves another addiction down your throat: Them.
Too bad you still have a spelling problem...lol
Not a spelling problem, a typing problem. My fingers are dyslexic. haha
I'm a gambling man, and the FACT that the mathematical probability of us having this conversation at this point in time is pretty much impossible, unless, wait for it........wait for it.........................it's not an accident (stacked deck). I'm not saying there is a huge old white guy behind some clouds somewhere, but everything that came before us was a step in a plan/design to get to where we are now. To think we are the end of that design is proof positive that the hubris of mankind knows no bounds.
BVN, what mathmatical probability? Who are you to assign possibility? We are here and talking so it is not impossible. Just because it is hard for you to comprehend means you get to invent an answer that makes it easier for you to comprehend. You'd be among those claiming Zeus is angry during a lightning storm had you existed 3000 years ago. When you're intellectually lazy, just say "I dont know". Not sure why you feel the need to invent answers in order to sound profound.
I thought it was a skinney young black dude.....wait a minute....Are we talking about NBAA...Ithought you guys just type-o'd the NB out...oops.
Thank you for reporting on a successful rationalist's spin on this self help group. I'm glad you found a way to maneuver through the prayer minefield. Stay healthy and free!
Do you believe that there has to be 'something' that always existed, does exist and will always exist in order for this planet, universe, life and everything that goes with it to have originate?
I think it is very sad that you don't believe in a higher power – to think that is how you live your life is messed up to say the least – I hope you find Jesus
I hope you find Jesus is pure imagination nothing to do with reality.
"I think it is very sad that you believe it is acceptable to pretend to know things that you cannot know – to think that is how you live your life is messed up to say the least – I hope you realize that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil."
I think it's very sad that you do. Belief in unalterable dogma without critical analysis and self-reflection? You, not the author, is failing at being human.
i think its sad that your self-worth is dependent upon be condesending to others including ones you've never met or could even know anything about. I'd say use your brain but I know your beliefs are to fragile to stand up to any actual thought.
I believe in Jesus Christ. I know he died on the cross for my sins. I know I don't deserve his forgiveness. I know I will go to Heaven when I die. I USED to be an alcoholic. I was once. I am no more. I quit drinking with God's help. I didn't go to meetings. I didn't take anti-booze medicine. I asked for God's help. I didn't ask to be cured of my alcoholism. I promised God I would not drink and acknowledged that I could only do that with His help. For some reason, God took the desire for alcohol from me. I understand that AA has helped coutless people over the years but from what I understand, the best they can hope for is that "they will not drink today." I will never drink again–ever–and it is NOT a struggle. God has taken care of that for me. My name is Marcus Moore and I have been sober for 15 years and it has not been a struggle at all! Thank God!
@d74.... I dont believe in god, I live my life quite well and within the moral standards of life. My life isnt messed up, I am not an alcoholic, I do not do drugs..... How can you make a judgement like that? Maybe you should reconsider finding Jesus for yourself......
How dare you look down on others for actually believing in FACTS!!!!! That kind of behavior is disgusting. It's one of the primary reasons I can't stand ANY organized religion.
I think it is much sadder and has proven much more harmful that you and others do believe in a higher power.
I found Jesus hiding behind the couch~
I hope you find reality; yes 90% (I think it's actually less) suffer from a MASS DELUSION! Jesus, Zeus, Ra, et al are MYTHOLOGY.
Really you believe these stories that describe how the earth was made? They described science before the study of science existed? Then why are these biblical explanations WRONG? Simple, man invented religion to explain nature... what else would you do back then? You didn't have an ipad and a TV. You sat by the fire, tried not to get eaten and made up STORIES. That's it people, stories.
Humans need to stop killing each other over beliefs and realize we are all the same and stop letting these myths destroy our future on this planet. There isn't going to be a rapture so stop raping the planet and save something for your offspring.
You cannot read and you are a bigot.
Don't be sad, d74. Marya has found her higher power.
I don't drink alcohol. I don't smoke anything. I don't eat candy or fast food. Am I better than everyone here? Am I more intelligent, better looking and just all around a finer human being? Of course, that goes without saying. Why else would I go to the trouble of conveying this message to you lesser peasants. You may respond now.
Finally, an equal!!
Hah, I just got into a discussion about this a couple of weeks ago with some sadsack AAer who tried to explain to me over and over that we are powerless and have to give up to God. Weak-minded idiots. They go from one addiction to another (religion) because they've convinced themselves they have no power in their lives.
That's not exactly accurate. I suspect you were not truly listening, or your sadsack AAer was unable to explain in a way that made sense to you. If you've never been an addict, it is extremely difficult to understand powerlessness over the addiction; that's not your fault. Please go about your business and try not to voice your opinion about this subject again until you have some true insight.
I rather be an "idiot" than idolize YOU, you're disgusting in judging others with your comments, you're god is YOU, your need to make other people feel bad makes you feel better. So much hatred, I feel sorry for you.
I went to an Atheist meeting in NYC once. It wasn't any different than any other meeting. They cared more about me staying sober than what I believed or didn't believe in. Humility. I love it. We all just wanted to be sober and free.
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.