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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. umapregunta

    I just have one question for all atheists out there. If there is no God, who is to account for the idea of love...the love you have for your spouse/children/loved ones? Is it really something that "poofed" out of nowhere? I believe in evolution, but I can't wrap my head around where the supernal love of power stems from, if not from a supreme Creator.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • AA? Get real..

      That was the most rediculous statement ever make, where love comes from... We learn it from our mothers.. called identifying with self. Not god, self..

      August 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • In-Between

      I can understand it did come out of nowhere. If it didn't we'd probably be dead right now. Emotions like compassion and love are required for social animals like us. This is not arguing that a creator doesn't exist, maybe he does in the fourth dimension..

      August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Chemical/hormonal/neurological response in the brain.
      And... that does not make it any less wonderfully tragic.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Manchu Infantry

      Why do you only give credit to a deity for the idea of "love" and nothing else? If there was a god, and we have to give him/her the credit for love, then we have to give credit for hate, jealousy, happiness, sadness, etc. Because according to the Bible, that deity made us in his own image. And he seemed a pretty vengeful god.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Ryan

      I'm not going to spend time answering this. This is basic biology why we feel this way towards our off spring. Every animal feels love for their off spring. PLEASE GO BACK TO SCHOOL!!!

      August 29, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  2. Chuck

    I agree that self-control is a matter of determination that is often in conflict with a host of enticing pleasures, be that alcohol, food, cigarettes, candy, etc. For some people a strong belief in God and that He/She will help them control themselves is works for them. Personally, I can't talk myself into believing what in reality I don't believe. I'm amazed that many people can do that. I can't say that I admire them, but it's really none of my business. Personally, I don't like the word atheist, since for many people it has strong anti-religious overtones. I don't care what anyone else believes, so long as they don't harm others because of of tenents of that believ.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  3. William W.

    Whatever happened to 'anonymity at the level of press...'?

    Perhaps the author should spend a little more time contemplating *that* and a little less on what dieties others may or may not believe in.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Ron

      Agreed! Now for those of us that are sick of the "There is no God" loser and his equally LOST counterpart "There is a God" bag of air...go fly a kite!
      Phony people such as these need affirmation through an argument. Give me the"true" Atheist that rolls his eyes at the conversation of there being a God and equally the "believer" that merely believes and requires no justification from others.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  4. D Frost

    I've been "without drink" for 17 years thanks to AA. In my experience, anyone who came into a meeting espousing the "blood of Jesus" would be shut down and reminded of the "Higher Power" principle. I know many atheists that have been successful in the AA program. Whatever works, whatever is that which is "greater than you" works. Of course, my first impression of the author's dissertation is that she – as is typical – is "overthinking" the process. It's much simpler than that. Difficult, but simple. In fact, some of the best thinkers I've met have ended up "dead from drink," those who are "too smart" for the program. In any case, AA has worked well for me and I am extremely grateful.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  5. Michael500ca

    The christians will get people any place they are weak. They wait in hiding in hospitals, schools, and yes AA. Very sad when a religion stoops that low. I'm very happy though that Atheism is on the rise in the western world, including the US. Science and reason, that is all you'll ever need.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • U.S.Army-OverLord

      Let me know how that works out for you at the point of death. King Solomon once said something about people who say there is no God.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  6. AA? Get real..

    I understand many will turn to some belief. My question, is why play games with it. Can you prove with absolute truth there is a god? Demonstrate to me a god exists? Nope, and no one has ever been able to. What are people doing believing? The answer is, fooling themselves. This is a form of escape.

    Now why do most alcoholics become alcoholics? Answer, as an escape from a childhood trauma they aren't cognizant of.

    Nothing like layering escapes, more complication. I know one thing for sure, those I know that went to AA are those we seldom hang around with anymore. They seemed to have changed, as if they lost some party of them. No I don’t drink.

    However, the ones I know who sought out medical professionals, are a pleasure to hang around with, don't crave alcohol and don't go to meetings. WOW, no meetings.

    You figure it out. I say once you start to layer escapes in life, there is little life left in you.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • D Frost

      Maybe it is they who have rejected you. You sound bitter, over-opinionated, and miserable.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • David

      People become alcoholics because of a childhood trauma they can't remember? Wow, do you really believe what your saying here? This is just nonsense.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • In-Between

      SO????? Even though what you say is sorta correct, an escape that provides people with the will to live and the strength to do well is better then some guy giving up and doing something bad. I am not saying believers are better then aethists, I am saying some people can't take the bare scientific truth yet and it is better if they stay religious. When you try to dissect religion, too many people dissect it into a bunch of fairy tales. The correct way is to dissect it into a book that uses stories/historical events to teach virtues. Religion isn't bad, but it isn't the bare truth either.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Manchu Infantry

      Alcoholism can be from many things, a "childhood trauma" may be one but it is not why every alcoholic drinks. Educate yourself before you type ignorance.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • AA? Get real..

      You should look up trauma and its effects. Trauma in children will many times cause a physical change in the brain. Children who cope alone are at the greatest risk for chaos in adulthood. Go here, lots of great work.. http://www.childrescuebill.org

      And no, why would I or anyone else be jealous of zombies? I state it that crudely to wake people up. The reason AA doesn't want articles as this publicized is so that people won't hear the truth. AA is no different than religion. They use alcohol as the sin.. They need followers.. Yes, the leaders need followers..

      Those with difficulties should seek out medical professionals, or never stop being an alcoholic.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  7. Joe Mama

    I can certainly understand why the AA message appeals to the typical American. Don't take responsibility for yourself. It's not your fault. It's impossible to accomplish something yourself. You simply need to sit back and let a higher power do it for you. Help me, Jebus!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • D Frost

      Shows how little understanding you have on the subject. It's actually just the opposite. Total personal responsibility with the aid of a "Higher Power."

      August 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • David

      You know that's not how it works, yet you committed to typing that..interesting.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • In-Between

      @ D frost Yes that is absolutely correct. Even though I believe the higher power really is your extreme desire to succeed, religion helps many people tap that.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  8. Kenne

    11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we
    need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and
    films.
    Way to go Smart one. at what cost do you plan to cash in I could see if you genuinly wanted to help but you wrote a book that people will have to pay for,its a shame that take this to the greedy public eye! keep coming back !

    August 29, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • AA? Get real..

      ???

      August 29, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • David

      I don't think this is for a book that she is selling. I do understand that she isn't following the tradition, but I don't think its causing any harm, relax.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • David

      Okay, I guess she did write a book. Yeah, If she still is working the program, she should probably respect the way it's supposed to operate. Surely she knows the traditions/principles, I wonder why she decided to ignore them.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  9. drh1214

    Stop making this all about "I am an Atheist in a Christian world. Pity me." No one cares. You are nothing special. God made you just like everyone else. xD

    August 29, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Dan

      Jesus, a creator? That's laughable. Allah made you and everyone else. How do you like others imposing their religion on you?

      August 29, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  10. teamroper

    Definitely going to hell.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Atheist

      Well, go then!

      August 30, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  11. Nonimus

    I don't consider myself an alcoholic, but that picture at the top looks awfully tempting.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Nonimus

      p.s. not sure that's the best pic for an AA article...

      August 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  12. hahaha

    There will always be small minded, scared little people..... therefore there will always be a need for religion

    August 29, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  13. Miles B Sober

    It's called Alcoholics ANONYMOUS. You obviously think the world needs to know who you are!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  14. Reader...

    She clearly does not attend AA. Smoke-filled rooms and talk of religon....sounds like an old movie. AA of today is a place of acceptance and inclusivity. To be totally honest, nobody cares what you believe in...you are free to make your own choices. It truly is a place of love!!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Brian

      @reader

      You wrote "AA of today is a place of acceptance and inclusivity. " If you read the article, you would know that she joined AA a decade ago, maybe it was not as accepting then.

      You also claim that there is little talk of religion.

      However, as the article noted, God/a higher power is mentioned numerous times in the 12 steps. I took the following from the AA site. Steps 2,3,5,6,7 and 11 all refer to this, so it would be hard to pretend that a religious component was not there.

      THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
      1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become
      unmanageable.
      2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to
      sanity.
      3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we
      understood Him.
      4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
      5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature
      of our wrongs.
      6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
      7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
      8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make
      amends to them all.
      9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do
      so would injure them or others.
      10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly
      admitted it.
      11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with
      God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us
      and the power to carry that out.
      12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to
      carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our
      affairs.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • FredG

      In regards to smoke filled rooms, If you'd read the article, you'd realize she was referring to 10 years ago...

      August 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Reader...

      Spirituality is there....religon not.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Denman

      First, I'm not sure what the purpose of the article was. The author clearly has a lack of awareness in regard to the AA Traditions. Brian, there's a HUGE difference between religion & spirituality. I've been sober thanks to AA for 19 years, and no one has EVER TOLD ME WHAT TO BELIEVE IN. And to all the naysayers and people who feel compelled to criticize prioor to investigation...AA will be there for you if and when you need it.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  15. Cathy C.

    Thanks for running this article. I have no problem with He-Higher Power-God concept, but my sponcee does. I've shared my experience, strength, and hope–my spiritual awakening. I've asked her to be willing to explore spirituality. Still she struggles. It's not because she's stubborn. She's not mad at God. She just doesn't...know. But she's sober. Today, one day at a time, she and I accept that she's right where she's supposed to be in her search, and that more will be revealed. As long as she's happy, joyous, and free, what do I care who or what her HP is or isn't? I didn't join AA to convert folks. I came to get my life back and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • SM

      Cathy, it is comments like "She's not mad at god, she just doesn't.... know" that come across extremely condescending to someone who does not believe in your god nor have any interest in believing in your god, and is likely the reason why you have such difficulty communicating with and getting through to people like that. Your role is to help her get sober, not convert her to your religion nor put her down and make her seem inferior to you (as if she just hasn't 'seen the light'.... yet!) simply because she chooses not to subscribe to the man-made religion that you do. Although you come across as being helpful, you are nothing but offensive in your approach.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  16. m@d

    marya's dreamy.will you be my sponsor?liked bobc@t's post.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  17. Truitt

    Regardless of your faith or lack there of in God, there is a God, his name is Jesus Christ, and his only desire is for you to be free. Free from pain, bitterness, and bondage. Please don't let us as human beings, the sorry examples that we are of Jesus and what He is truly about, make you think anything but the truth. He loves you and would do, and did, anything to make sure you know his unconditional love that he has for you! Programs are great, they have a place is certain people's lives, but true freedom can only come from a truly free heart, mind and soul. Please forgive us "Christians" for all the wrong things we have done in the name of Jesus Christ.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      Regardless of your faith or lack of faith, there is no God. His name is not Jesus Christ. No one named Jesus Christ loves you. It's all a big fairytale. Sorry. That's the truth.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  18. Nick

    It's unfortunate you didn't find your faith along the way, but good job breaking your addiction. That's an incredibly hard thing to do, and must have taken a lot of self discipline.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Some Guy

      Unfortunate for who? You?

      August 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • I Am That I Am

      She did find her faith along the way; it just wasn't a faith in your particular religion or its mythology.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Steimi

      That is what life's challenges take, is a lot of self discipline. If you have Self Discipline then you can handle anything that is thrown your way.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • SM

      You demean others behind a mask of condescending pride. I feel sorry for you, Nick. To each their own, let people live how THEY want. Not everyone needs to believe in the same fairytales that you do to live a happy, healthy, rich and fulfilled life.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  19. hahaha

    By the blood of jesus christ (whose BAC is a constant 12%) hahahahahahahaha

    August 29, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  20. Big Red

    So much for ANONIMITY AT THE LEVEL OF PRESS RADIO AND FILM!!!!!!!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:13 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.