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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. nightTrain

    @urownexperience Exactly. It just depends on what you've been exposed to and chose to believe or not.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous member

    Marya, you just blasted the traditions. We are supposed to stay ANONYMOUS at the level of press, radio, and films – that means CNN's webpage too! I think you owe AA an amends. As far as the atheist thing, everyone who has spent time in AA knows people like you. This isn't news to anyone in the program – so it leads me to believe you are just trying to sell your book.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Michael

      Seriously? I've seen much worse written by AA members. I think AA will survive...

      August 28, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • hiigaran

      I think this article, while probably self-serving, is actually really awesome. I once looked into an Anonymous program for something and was turned off by the religious angle. I eventually found help through counseling and self-improvement on my own. However, knowing people have done it and how they go about doing it from an atheist perspective is incredibly enlightening and may help others accept the program in spite of their hesitance due to the religious aspect. If it convinces anyone to give it a shot to help themselves, then it doesn't matter if the article was self-serving.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Atheist

      AA Member, I recommend you read Marya's book and then decide if what you've said makes sense.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  3. IGL

    Religion is a mildly contagious, mostly benign, mental disorder.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • bookwench

      I disagree with benign.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  4. Cory

    I asked God one time why people don't believe in Him in the program, when He is clearly the only higher power able to save and deliver people (He is doing the work). He revealed to me that He needs to get people sober first and then they may have a chance at believing in Jesus.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • les

      You had God on the phone and that is all you could think of to ask?

      August 28, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  5. gadlaw

    "I told them I believe in Math" – great response. I find it fascinating and saddening that the people who supposedly believe in an invisible man in the sky who supposedly teaches them 'christian values' are the most vicious and hateful when it comes to dealing with other people who don't share their delusions. It's as if their shared fantasies are more important than the values they claim to believe in. So how completely do they believe in those values? I would say not very much. As a human being I am happy that the author Ms. Hornbacher found her way to sobriety. I'm happy for the person who believes in god and who gets well too. The important thing is that people can overcome their addictions and have happier lives – with our without the help of mythological beliefs.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Cory

      YOU: I find it fascinating and saddening that the people who supposedly believe in an invisible man in the sky who supposedly teaches them 'christian values' are the most vicious and hateful when it comes to dealing with other people who don't share their delusions.

      ME: I will say that I personally find it bizarre and shocking that people can't see and know that there is a creator. When you know, you know. And so you look around at others, and you see people that just don't know yet. It is mind-blowing. I wish everybody got over the part of at least knowing. There is so much to learn after the knowing part. Catch up!

      August 28, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Answer

      No Cory.. the fact is you believe that God exists. You don't know.

      Words are words, understand that point. Whatever your fervent believe is, it isn't factual. Factual is providing proof.
      The fact is you are just a believer who likes to speak about your faith. Your life is about just believing. Get it straight.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Answer

      If I were to simply add one line into your bible and call it bible #2, and say unto you that my bible is the truth what do you have in defense?

      Nothing.

      You see this is just a token of the logic of your words. I can simply put into your bible "In my name you shall only call me BOB".

      You see my God is then BOB. Retaining all the virtues that I can twist the rhetoric off as bad and have my own interpretations. Then through my own glasses I can paint BOB off as not an old fragile (appearance) man, but a youth instead. I could do as I would like just like what religion has done.

      How do you view your God? Does he sit on a throne up in heaven? Does he talk with words? What language?
      Oh it must be English right? No.. probably Latin – or old Latin. You set the premise for your illusion.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  6. BJ

    Marya and everyone else is not here by chance or a random existence but you have a creator who formed you and knows you better than you know yourself. Knows your thoughts before you think them, each move you make is known before you know it. All the days of your life have been known and written out before you even existed on this planet. You have a creator who loves you but gives you the choice to love him or not. We are all flawed but when our souls are flooded with light and truth and life we can accept each others flaws because of the grace we have been given. Life is all about knowing this creator, not following a religious order. Knowing you were thought of and planned before this world came into being, knowing that you are loved and accepted as perfection makes you untouchable to what this world throws at you. As long as we are alive on this planet we will screw things up, there is no getting away from that. There will never be enough AA / 12-step like programs can solve every issue in this life. This creator accepts you with all your flaws and sees you as though you never screwed up when you believe in the one who made it possible for you to be accepted. Believing in Jesus Christ is the only way to have this peace that fills you to the center of your being. He died for you, taking your place, making you acceptable and loved, forgiving you for all the foolish nonsense of not believing, all the stupid arrogance thinking you can save yourself. How can we think we can bring peace to this world when we are so messed up...who are we kidding?? This news is foolishness to those who refuse to believe but for those who receive it, it is wonderful refreshing to your soul, takes all the pressure off to perform. Believe in Jesus Christ and become a new person from the inside out. You will truly have peace for your soul the rest of your life and a wonderful future ahead.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • SCAtheist

      and you know all this BS how? From a book that contradicts itself on most pages, your preacher, the Fake News Channel?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • BJ

      @SCAtheist...if you really sought to discount what I've said you would become a believer. Every person who has set out to destroy it has been faced with the truth and met Jesus. What seems like contradictions to you are your lack of understanding. If you really want to know truth you will be lead to him. At least you can never say no one ever told you, for it is all about what you do with Jesus that matters at the end. You are even loved now in this hate you profess.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Matt

      If the creator is omnipotent and knows your actions and thoughts before you do, then it serves to reason he knows the choices you will make. Therefore, he knows whether or not you will "choose" to love him. If that's the case we're all pre-destined, are we not? The interesting thing is that if the creator doesnt know if you will choose to love him, then he is not omnipotent, and therefore not god. How do you reconcile this?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Sherif

      Everyone can make their own choice: true
      God knows what is everybody going to do because He is omnipotent: true
      I see no contradiction.
      Evidence? You can choose right now to do a thing or its opposite, completely your choice.
      Why then live this life? Imagine otherwise, you would have said 'If I was given a life I would have not done so and so..'

      August 28, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • BJ

      @Matt,
      You can choose and God knows your choice, nothing really to reconcile with that. We are not all knowing so we cannot have the answers to what goes on in the depths of men's hearts. If God is not all-knowing then he's not worth the worship. If he is all-knowing he does know what happens at the end. He does see and know every thing, nothing is hidden or a surprise to him. What may be unbelief now turns into belief later, belief now is unbelief later. God knows the real motives and intentions of the heart, he sees today and fifty, 100, a 1000 years from now. We do not. But there's more to it than that. God is all about relationship. We are relationship beings. We could discuss and debate all day but when you make it personal it gets real. You are a free moral agent when you come into the truth and every moment you are faced with choices to make. If you realize you're an open book and everything about is known how are you going to live? You can't hide a single act or thought. That is either a comfort or a problem. If you love darkness it will be a problem. If you are living in the light then you walk in peace in your soul. You know how it turns out in the end. If you choose darkness then you can know too. It's those that have no firm belief that are in torment, they are not sure of what meets them at the end, but it doesn't have to be that way.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Answer

      BJ change your name to BS please.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Sally

      If ALL the days of my life were written out before I was born, then I do NOT have a choice as to whether or not I will accept God- plain and simple, he already decided for me before I took my first breath.

      Please DO explain this to me rationally. How can both things be true?

      September 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  7. GreenDru

    Finally, a post about AA I can agree with! Thank you so much Marya!

    August 28, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  8. JPF

    Addiction is not about alcohol or any other specific object of addiction, but instead about the lack of real human relationships in life. Giving up alcohol is only a small part of the process, the real work is catching up developmentally so you can engage in life in a meaningful way. Check out my site: http://www.addictionmanagement.org for more.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  9. Colin

    I wonder how long it will take us as a society to give up on our Iron Age deities once and for all. Surely at some point, future school children will be told how "even as late as 2011, many people still believed in the sky-gods of the Iron Age Middle East". It really is quite incredible if you think about it.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  10. Cyphonix

    Fortunately, no atheist will ever contribute anything good on this earth. On the contrary, they feed of the crumbs that fall of the banquet table that us believers dine. They are self-seeking like dogs. So sure, take our left over bones and scraps and feed your families as well.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • LaPlut

      ...and you're very ignorant; there are a lot of things in this world that you use or see that has been created or contributed by atheists.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • checi

      I wouldn't want anything from a group as selfish and hateful as you. The rational compassionate humans do just fine without your pretend fantasy world.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Michael

      How about you just go on eating the flesh and drinking the blood of your beloved savior and leave the judging to him?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Cyphonix

      I said, "anything GOOD". And certainly, nothing as powerful or important in our 21st century society as the program of AA.
      Furthermore, as a Gnostic Christian, ignorance does not apply to me.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • hiigaran

      Paul Dirac, Thomas Edison, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, Albert Camus, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C Clarke, Stephen Fry, Jodie Foster, Ricky Gervais, Bruce Lee, Ian McKellen...

      They would all say otherwise. If you're just trolling then I must congratulate you on getting me to bite.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Cyphonix

      @hiigaran, really? That party has a lame guest list. Is that the best you can come up with... really? I've read most of their famous quotes and I'm familiar with their body of work. Sure they can work hard and do things, but can anything everlasting or profound come out of their mouth? Nope. Not even Jody Foster, whose character on Silence of the Lambs was mauled by a believer's performance of Hannibal Lecter.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • hiigaran

      So you cherry-pick an actress you don't like from a brief list of world-class scientists, engineers, philosophers and artists that is only a small handful of the famous and productive atheists in world history? Paul Dirac and Thomas Edison contributed nothing to the world? Actors contribute nothing? Authors contribute nothing of value? I wonder what your definition of "good" is, because it clearly is too narrow to be of any utility to the rest of us.

      August 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • les

      Yes, that Albert Einstein was a real hack. So was Thomas Edison.

      August 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Atheist

      Hilgaran; Cyphonix IS troll. Who would write about believers dining a banquet table? Who exactly are "your families" surviving on bones and scraps? Who would denigrate dogs as "self-seeking"???

      August 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  11. Notislam

    All religion is stupid, but islam is uniquely vile. islam doesn't even pass the religion test. moslems must be shamed for islam just as Germans were and continue to be shamed for nazism. moslems should leave islam. If moslems need religion, they should get a dog.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Sherif

      I hate to be the one bringing it to you, but they are very proud and will always be. When it comes to the specific group of people with beards who are getting all the media attention that's a different thing. Your lack of 'respect' does not make me wonder much if you know anything about any religion or ethics.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  12. LaPlut

    Anyone can be spiritual, but religion separates people.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  13. Me

    Wouldn't it be awesome if one day CNN actually had someone write an article in their religion and belief column who wasn't hostile towards religion and belief?

    August 28, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • les

      Where was the hostility in her article?

      August 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  14. Albert

    I have always found it interesting how "unhinged" atheists become with other people's professions of faith. Is it that your confidence in your own beliefs is so tenuous that you alway need to attempt other people's beliefs down?

    August 28, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • checi

      Why shouldn't they? An atheist never tortured anyone not to believe, never burned anyone at the stake, never went to war for the nonsense in some ancient book. But they have been the victims of the religious who do exactly those things right up to today. So get over yourself bigot.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Hesalive

      Everybody knows He is. We humans like to avoid Him, though, like Adam hiding in the garden.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  15. Hesalive

    I'm an alcoholic, by the way. When I met Christ I was delivered from even the urge to drink. He vastly overshadows anything you think you can get from sin. I attended a few AA meetings but they bored me to tears. Jesus is alive. Follow Him and He'll deliver you, too.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • checi

      Where is he? Can I make an appointment to air my list of grievances about why he allows humans to be cruel and hateful in his name?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Daniel O

      you've met "christ" you mean "Jesus Christ" right? And where did you meet him? in a subway in NY or what?

      August 28, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  16. TRH

    It's about time someone had the courage to say this...I can relate in nearly every way to the writer's experience.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • TRH

      ...and I should add that I will buy her book.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  17. abletoth

    cnns entire "belief" blog sectiont holds up everything in brilliant white light unless if God/Jesus Christ. I honestly dont know why I still use this propaganda machine for any news.. take care. AND GOD BLESS :)

    August 28, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  18. DD

    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.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Alan

      Our primary purpose...

      August 28, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  19. BillW

    Sprituality is about an individuals relationship with a higher power and is an essential part of sobriety. Religion is about an individual's submission to other mortals on political and economic levels and not beneficial in any setting that I can imagine.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  20. JP

    Awesome article. No God required. :)

    August 28, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Xenia

      Atheists always hack the good things religions started. They don't exist on themselves. They become parasites and corrupt the whole. We know what atheists would do ultimately by watching North Korea. If atheists have any ounce of honesty, they'd admit they've been wrong and say sorry to the Creator God instead of saying any more weird things. They don't because they value humans over all things. Humanists conducted the worst atrocities throughout the world with WW1 and WW2 last century. Europe returned to the Christian sanity briefly after those, but the cancer of humanism/atheism returned far worse forms to the immoral secular West this century.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • hiigaran

      "Humanists conducted the worst atrocities throughout the world with WW1 and WW2 last century."

      Yeah, we'll need a citation for that bit of bullcrap.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • sheetiron

      "No God needed".

      The befief of the ignorant and uneducated.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      @ Xenia: Ah, you're back. What sort of criticisms are you levelling at a society you're not part of? Talk about hings you have experienced: ahve you experienced addiction, or not? If you have not, you have no business being here.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:38 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.