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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. Gordon Febillitary

    If you're interested in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous, I highly recommend Jared Lobdell's book "This Strange Illness: Alcoholism and Bill W." You can get it on Amazon.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  2. Gina Hartmeier

    quarks rule!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Atheist

      No it's the gluons, Gina!

      August 29, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  3. Commentor

    "I'm sick, Stan, I have a disesase!"
    "no, dad, you just need to not drink so much"

    –South Park

    August 29, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Sue

      more brilliant SouthPark commentary. Thanks for that.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  4. petey

    I got sober 27 years ago with the help of AA, and I too, am an atheist. My "higher power" was simply the collective sobriety of the members of AA. At the end of every AA meeting, when everyone joined hands and recited the Our Father, I would remain silent, or sometimes just mumble the words, depending upon how militantly atheistic I was feeling that day. Do not let the Jesus believers scare you away. Your own higher power is as valid as theirs. And when its your turn to speak, you can freely state you are godless heathen whose own notion of a higher power is keeping you sober one day at a time. No one will blink an eye.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Atheist

      I have a atheist girlfriend who likes saying the Lord's Prayer at AA meetings without attributing anything supernatural.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  5. admat97

    I too was put off by the "God" references but desperately wanted/needed help. I had a wise man calmly explain to me the concept of a power greater than myself. I had spent some time studying astronomy so the concept of powers greater than myself was not so difficult to wrap my head around. That all started for me in March of 1985. Just for today I remain in recovery and have not picked up since that initial decision to seek help. 26 plus years I still recall the people, steps and principles that helped me turn my life around and I am forever grateful for them.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Sue

      One suspects that you have difficulty "wrapping your head around" even fairly obvious logical conclusions.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • skiptic

      Unfortunately, despite many similar stories, there still is not one one single storie about an atheist getting sober in AA in any of the official, Conference Approved Literature published by AA World Services. The people who come to AA for help and are put off by all the god stuuf have no place to turn when it come to the literature. Many leave and die. And they don't write stories for CNN.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Atheist

      Well, Sue, I don't think it's so important that head wrapping might prove difficult. It seems like this approach is working for admat97.

      As for skeptiic, you've just not looked for the literature. There's a lot on AA and atheism. And your statement that many leave and die is irrelevant. I know many atheists who are surviving with AA's help. You too will die!

      August 29, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  6. Conky2012

    Twelve step programs are retarded. Addiction is extremely overhyped. When I was a teenager I had to attend inpatient rehab three times, and each time the notion that I had an disease that could never be cured was pounded into my brain. Only by maintaining a program can you stop drinking and using drugs! So after many failed attempts I stopped believing that I had a "disease" and then quit drinking and doing drugs. Quitting is as easy as this, quit hanging with people who drink and do drugs, and find something else to do. Wow that was really hard. Stay out of the bar and the liquor store and you won't be drunk. After physical withdrawal there is no excuse, the rest is just you failing as a responsible person, you being the "addict".

    August 29, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • PaulMcCaffrey1978

      Yes, because everyone else has the exact some upbringing, experiences, and psychological make-up that you do...

      August 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • yup

      My guess is you are some early 20 something moron who thinks he/she has it all figured out. Do yourself a favor and take your opinion to a site that appeals to people of your equally low intellect.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Qian

      Conky, you seem to ignore the science behind addiction when you talk of JUST staying away from using friends and staying out of bars. An addict's brain chemistry chances to create cravings and drug seeking behavior. Just stay out of bars is like telling someone who went a day without water...just don't drink the water. It becomes as an innate drive.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  7. Relic-gion

    AA and religion go well together ... weak minds think alike!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Sue

      Good one.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Atheist

      Actually not such a good one! The most intelligent person I've met nearly died of alcoholism and attributes rescue to AA.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  8. QS

    "The Word is taught humility and that we are nothing without God, Jesus and The Holy Spirit."

    So religion teaches young children, who had no choice in what they will eventually want to believe, that they are nothing...unless you believe what we tell you.

    No wonder religious people seem so insecure when even the slightest rebuttal of their beliefs is brought up...they are taught they are nothing without "god", so to them if they were to stop believing they honestly buy into that line of garbage and believe they will actually be nothing.

    The only nation religious people can truly claim as their own is indoctrination!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. PaulMcCaffrey1978

    I'm impressed with the humility expressed by this woman. The problem arises when atheists think they are necessarily superior to people who believe in God. Just because they are spiritually impoverished, that does not give them the right to attack the faith of others. If you really look into the foundations of mathematics, logic, and science, you will find that there are some startling theorems PROVING how formal knowledge is necessarily "incomplete"; this in itself does not "prove" the existence of a God, but it does prove (mathematically) that there are limits to formal and scientific knowledge. Google "Godel."

    August 29, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Sue

      To paraphrase Godel, when reason works within its domain, it is correct and valid. Reason correctly brings us to the conclusion that the "personal, loving" Christian god is a pile of man-invented horse manure.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • QS

      "The problem arises when atheists think they are necessarily superior to people who believe in God."

      LOL!! No, the problem (which arose centuries ago) is that religion instills within its followers a specific type of arrogance that allows them to somehow claim they are humble, while at the same time telling anybody else who believes differently that they must believe as they do in order to be as humble as they are.

      It's quite laughable when you really stand back and remove yourself from the religious entanglements that cloud peoples' thoughts on this subject.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Sue

      Actually, it is generally true that atheists "are necessarily superior to people who believe in God."; for the most part, atheists are demonstrably better than believers at reasoning and drawing conclusions based on the available evidence.

      It's not our fault that you are stupid.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Ann

      So...you are impressed with her humility and that she respects your faith, but then within a few words you call her "spiritually impoverished." I am NOT impressed with your humility, and you show no respect for her views. So you can't stand atheists who look down on you for faith in god? I'm not certain, but isn't there something in the bible about "he who casts the first stone..."?

      August 29, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Pope Scott

      Your statment is spiritually inept. Athiests don't believe they're smarter or better than Christians. Like many on here who believe that people with drinking problems should just quit, Athiests believe Christians should do the same. I, for one, believe that some people are too weak-minded and require the belief in God in order to not do stupid things. I have no fear of God, because I simply cannot worship something that a) isn't there, and b) is determined to make people "love" them through a fear of what they might be put through if they don't. God is not real. We, however, are. Love one another without fear of retribution.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • PaulMcCaffrey1978

      Ann, if you read my post closely, you would see that I make a distinction between the author of this piece and atheists who attack the faith of others...

      August 29, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • NSIndiana

      I am an agnostic (atheist-leaning), and have no problem with people of faith. I do however, have a problem when people of faith feel that they can push their beliefs on me through laws and other regulations. I also have a problem when religious people disregard science and fact for blind faith and the so-called "inspired word of god."

      August 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • PaulMcCaffrey1978

      But we digress...proof for the "incompleteness" of math and science is there, if you're only willing to look.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Pope Scott

      Proof of the false god of Christianity is also all around us. See how they coexist?

      August 29, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • QS

      "proof for the "incompleteness" of math and science is there, if you're only willing to look."

      The lack of proof for the "completeness" of religion and spirtuality is there...if you're only willing to look.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Atheist

      A major distinction of science is the acknowledgement of incompleteness. When something goes wrong, a fresh direction is taken and something is found out-entirely different from imprisoning Galileo (and keeping him there into the 20th Century!). Math need never be complete, but has so far proven to be the infallible language for science.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Atheist

      Sue, I think your operative word is "generally". I know several successful faithful scientists. Don't forget Priest Lemaitre, who discovered the Big Bang theory! Einstein agreed with his math, was appalled at Lemaitre's physics, but being the scientist, came around to his physics as the evidence came in.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Atheist

      Sue, since you referred to Goedel, I should have mentioned that Goedel was a theist believing in a personal god or gods. Also, you'd have to explain your paraphrase in more detail to make sense.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  10. Howie

    "AA has a reputation as a cult, a religion unto itself, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings or morons" – this was the best part of the article. Atheist should know better. No such thing as addiction for the strong willed. Religion being just another addiction.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "No such thing as addiction for the strong willed."
      What a bunch of BS, physical addictions are verifiable by science. If that addiction is "curable," for lack of a better term, by disuse and whether or not someone has the will power to overcome it does not remove the fact that there is/was and addiction to a particular substance.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  11. john

    as a former alcoholic, i will say this. I tried the AA thing and ill be dmned if im gonna struggle as hard as i have to break this addiction, then stand up for the rest of the my life still proclaiming to be an alcoholic. If i ever drink again (god forbid) i will then be an alcoholic-again. If im sober i will stand before the day and proclaim my sobriety with a smile and hope in my heart. For the time being i am free and I REFUSE to stand up to face the day and proclaim "Im an alcoholic".. I know AA is good and has helped millions but not for me. And why an athiest would seek refuge in an organization based on "higher power" is beyond me. If you dont believe in the concept of god, you cannot have a higher power. period. very strange

    August 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  12. up1652

    Never understood the inclusion of atheists in the beliefs blog, Isn't ther an atheists blog somewhere.

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

      I'm a Realist.. Not an atheist. Realist see arguments of god and such the same as kids talking Santa. Understand? Not just talking Santa, but kids talking santa.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Relic-gion

      this is a belief blog!! we believe in SCIENCE.... you believe in fantasy!!

      August 29, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • QS

      Leave it to a religious person to think that a "Belief" blog is meant to represent only THEIR beliefs!

      August 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  13. Urbano

    Lovely article, Marya. Good luck!

    August 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  14. D Frost

    As a stanch advocate of the Traditions, this dialogue is, indeed, anonymous. The author, on the other hand, has violated the Traditions. As I have learned however, if there are consequences, they will be wholely owned by her.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Nonimus

      How did she violate the Traditions? She is just telling her story.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Nonimus

      p.s. Anonymity is in respect to other people and she didn't reveal any names or groups. Just her own.
      If I'm in AA, am I supposed to keep that a secret?

      August 29, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Loss4words

      Sure, blackball the recovering drunk from the 12 step program just for talking about it in a public forum! AA, NA, and the like are acting like they are some elitist "social club" and many who traipse through their doors are only there because there is a court order that lists attendance in the program as a requirement. Now if you will excuse me, I'm off to have a sangria and kick some defenseless puppies or something of the sort.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • John Null

      It does not protect a man or woman from being contacted personally by the Holy Spirit no matter if you attempt to transfer your authority over to an ash tray, an empty bottle of wine or even attempting to use education, career or family leadership. Every human being who as ever lived was made by a person who never leaves after a fight, after being fired or even after a jail sentance is necessary. There is no discharge for people. No one can change their mind and decide not to believe and run away as though we can be faster, smarter, more clever than the one who made us.

      A twelve step program works when you work it. Ever heard that before? Of course you have. Millions, maybe billions of people have been regenerated by claiming to an ash tray, or any other dumb idol, " I recognise my flaw. I am a hopeless case. My life is in ruins! My family is broken, divided and scattered to places they keep from me. Oh ash tray, I am a wreck! but I believe that if I will myself over to you so that you are responsible for me, and never attempt to take it back, I believe that you will make me whole again. I am a drunk, a drug addict, I am a thief, a liar, I am a gambler who has lost everything every day of my life. I am yours! Lock! Stock! and Barrel! You now own me, and I belive that by your faith in me, I might become whole and serve you. It is done. I give up trying to be a hero, attempting to do everything myself. Amen"

      What most people don't realize is that, the God of the Old Testament ordered faithful men to tell strangers about His Law, His blessings, His benefits, His redemption, all for the sake that they be converted from their lifestyle and join Him, us and His promises. No matter what object, an ash tray? the wind, the sea, no matter because our maker is willing to be our remaker. Once we meet Him in this life, the crying is over. The hate gone! Willful sin gone.

      The point is that AA, NA, GA, MA, no matter which you are, HE WANTS YOU MORE THAN YOU WANT HIM for help. He sits waiting for you to come home and He is ready to do more than you ask for. He is looking for sons, daughters and witnesses. I could tell you His name but, that would be cheating, huh.

      Get right, get left. It's up to you...

      ... God put selfishness in its place when He lived as a man, was sentanced to death as a man, was beated ruthlessly by horror loving men as a man, all to make sure that they put Him on the cross, as a man, by which He died there as a man.

      Some believe that He was an ordinary man and His death meant nothing. Ignorance is everywhere.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • So

      "Ignorance is everywhere." Yours certainly is showing since it was men that wrote the books in the bible and you believe their babble. Instead of shouting from the roof tops with your insane nonsense, just prove your god exists that would make this crowd believe.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  15. Ralph W

    thanks for sharing. I have the same issue at times.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  16. Torsk

    The Program itself was my higher power...still working after six years by the grace of the Program.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  17. D Frost

    The ultimate proof is that AA has helped thousands enjoy useful, productive lives. I'm one of them. If it isn't for you, then fine. Find another way if you need to. Opinions of others, afflicted and non-afflicted, don't matter.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  18. JDJ

    IA person can certainly do good things apart from being a Christian. God has given all of us a free will to choose good or evil. The only problem is that we cannot do enough good to make it to Heaven. The only way there is through the One who never thought or did anything wrong. I can only hope and pray that the author's journey has not stopped and that she will come to a point of belief.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Pope Scott

      Insert holier than thou smarmy comment here, __________________. I only hope that you haven't wasted all of the talent and promise that your random birth enabled. It makes my heart hurt to see you struggle against the reality of life. I will not pray for you. That is how I will respect you as a person. I simply won't feed into your ignorance like a parent talking in a baby voice to a baby not yet able to speak correctly.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  19. Ron G

    Thanks Marya for such an incredible testimony for the incredulous that are still walking blindly. without a set path in their lives, As far as anonimity that is something that is very personal you keep it or you proclaim it at your will. I applaud your valor in disseminating the word,; my life was touched more than a decade ago thanks to a Higher Power (as I conceive it), and I am clean,sober and serene. Blessings

    August 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  20. D23

    Doesn't matter anyway. This whole world is going to h*ll in a hand basket. The things people say, and do. The unfortunate way we treat eachother. Humanity has gone to the dogs. Whether or not you believe in God really isn't the issue at this point.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Neeneko

      Gone?
      Have you looked at history? Today is probably the best time to be alive so far. People tend to forget that the 'past' they compare against is mostly fiction pulled from popular accounts of the upper class, with all the bad stuff left out.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Atheist

      Dogs represent the better parts of the universe!

      August 29, 2011 at 2:45 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.