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.
Ms Hornbacher enjoys wearing her atheism on her sleeve. So what? I make family decisions and give parental advice largely without a religious reference. I oppose gay marriage, abortion, etc not on religious grounds. I just don't see the need to air it out like Ms Hornbacher. She needs attention obviously, as does CNN needs to publish supporting opinions.
You bcalb need to get a firm handle on your resentments...
What is the right way of wearing our atheism? As a little symbol on a necklace, as christians do?
"I oppose gay marriage, abortion, etc not on religious grounds"
On what grounds do you oppose those things then?
I was required to go to AA for 10 sessions. I only managed one. It isn't for the atheist minded individual. But, i successfully quit drinking for 12 years without AA. If you are weak or genetically prone to addiction then maybe AA and religion are for you. But if you are strong minded, you don't need either.
And to "John" and others who compare gays and the religious – gays are only seeking equality, they are not on the corner trying to convert you. Only the religious do that. So really, there is no comparison.
So either one is like minded as "you" or WEAK minded. Nice....
Either you're with us or against us.
I fear that you will drink again....you only have today and you clearly haven't dealt with your anger towards others.
It is easy to blame our problems on religion or God, but when it all boils down, it was not religion who committed the horrendous acts done by the Nazis or the Crusaders. It was humanity. We are responsible for our actions. When will we step up and take responsibility?
When we eliminate the need for religion to exist.
I grew up with an alcoholic father who was an atheist. He went into a 'dry house' for 30 days and then went to AA meetings for a very brief time. He is almost 30 years sober now. He doesn't believe in God and he stopped going to the AA meetings due to their constant Christian affiliation (although they will say that isn't the case). My point: all you really have to want is to be clean and sober and you can do it. Period. But you have to really want it and make that decision. YOU are the higher power; I'm not sure why people need to believe that there has to be someone or something else in control and only that person or thing can truly help them make life's decisions.
People don't like to admit their own failings and take ownership of their mistakes. It takes a much stronger person to do that than to submit to a higher power. It almost seems as though AA people are saying that a higher power controls their lives, so the higher power is also at least partly responsible for their problem. Yes? No?
Anyway, kudos to your dad!
Here, here Sandra! I am a recovering drunk, 23 years sober, and an atheist. At least six of my eight children are also athiests and at least four of those have never seen me drunk or take a drink. I suspect that there may be a corelation. I am, in fact, my own higher power!
"I'm not sure why people need to believe that there has to be someone or something else in control and only that person or thing can truly help them make life's decisions."
I posit that this is due to religious indoctrination being extraordinarily difficult to overcome. When it's ingrained in your mind from a very young age that one MUST believe there is someone/something in control of their life, that tends to carry over into adulthood and does influence the decisions made by said adult.
More proof that religion is more a hinderance to human progress than a boost.
The non-believers may not want to hear this, however I feel compelled to tell you that GOD does exist and loves you no matter what you think, how you feel or how often you reject him.
thank you for your time and concern, but we'll be alright.
pam, are you speaking of Allah?
We were already aware that other people believe in god and think that everyone else should too, but thanks anyway for the heads up.
Well now that you've told us all, now i believe. pfft. I dont know why you idiots think that you can just say this crap and make it so. Saying it to people who don't believe pushes them farther away from what you want them to believe. The more I hear you ramble on and on about how god luves us, the more I want away from it. I dont want to end up being like you, a drone who looks incredibly silly to rational thinking people speaking on and on about their invisible man even in situations where its simply not wanted or warranted.
"The non-believers may not want to hear this, however I feel compelled to tell you that GOD does exist and loves you no matter what you think, how you feel or how often you reject him."
The believers NEED to hear this – a higher power MAY exist, but if it does it is not your version of a "god", nor any other religions' version.
The simple fact that religious people cannot and will not admit that they simply don't know because their religion obligates them to say they do in fact know, shows that they have much growing as humans to do.
Yes Pam, Odin is very real, and all the non-believers will be damned to eternal torment after Ragnarok.
No God? No problem. Atheists and agnostics have always done just fine in AA:
Atheist or believer ... there's a third choice, be a deist. God kickstarted the Big Bang and has been absent ever since. The world is what it is because of Nature, physics and human activity.
As others have said, the important thing is staying sober. Belief or non-belief is not the issue.
Once you used the word god you assumed way too much.. It is OK just to not know and then try to find evidence for real answers
Sad commentary from a writer who obviously has contempt for "Crown of Thorn Christians."
What was sad about it?
Atheist just have such a huge ego that they can not believe in god. God is nothing more than what people want to believe in which usuall is bigger and more divine than humanity. Religion is a different story. An atheist believes in something there just to arrogant to admit it. As a recovering addict I believe in my god as I want to and no one else can change my mind. The twelve steps go way beyond the philosophies god, they are a guide tol live a better life, face your fears and being and acceptable person in society. Honesty, intergrity and open-mindeness is key for the recovering addict.
Yep, my ego is so huge that I believe man kind has only existed for a blip in the vast cosmos, just a result of the underlying laws of nature, and as of now are not important to anything beyond our tiny planet. And that is speaking of our species let alone the individual.
I am an atheist and I am in no way self-centered. In fact, quite the opposite. I believe that I am just a tiny speck in this great universe that is beautiful because of science, nature and a series of fortunate accidents. I'm self-centered because I don't believe in a god? That does not even make sense. Congrats on your sobriety; just because you traded in your booze for christ doesn't make him real. Organized religion is just another addiction for most people, a way to not have to think for yourself and to put your trust and hope into an imaginary being.
P.S. Learn some grammar.
As an atheist, I find it quite egocentric of you proclaiming that all atheists have an ego issue, and christians do not.
Wouldn't you agree that it's a bit more ego-centric to believe that an all-powerfull divine being created humans in his image,
rather then acknowledging that we're all unimportant continuous chemical reactions that coalesced by pure randomness?
Oh. And no, I'm not "too arrogant" to admit I believe in something. Once again, you make no sense. I went to church, I've read the Bible (perhaps even more than you have) yet I've still found that the only explanation for our existence is science. Plain and simple. Look at the history of the Catholic church and Christianity as a whole; it's full of contradictions, lies, murder and power. Not the kind of thing I'm into.
you believe the universe and everything in it was created entirely so YOU could prove you're worthy of a divine afterlife and I'M the one that's self-centered?
What i find egotistical is when someone asks, and someone always does, "So you think you're the greatest thing in the universe?" (or some variation of this; the OP of this article actually pointed this out). What this suggests, is that the theist asking the question finds themselves to be the greatest most important thing in the universe, just after the god they believe in.
As an atheist this question never even made any sense to me anyway.
The articule is about someone who quit drinking and not with religon. The religous are here to put their opinions down our throats. Like the Gay's that do much the same. I quit drinking 10 years ago because I wanted to. My higher power was and still is not religous in anyshape or form
Here,Here Finally a sobering thought...LOL
Gay people aren't trying to change your orientation. We just want the same (very non religious) civil rights straight people enjoy.
what does this have to do with gays? leave gays alone
Nice bigoty statement. Always bringing the gays into things that havent anything to do with them. Are you trying to come out of the closet here ?
I'm gay, and your comment confuses me. Are you using "opinion" as a euphemism here? Because then I get it. Otherwise, no.
As a recovering catholic and a born again PAGAN ,It is refreshing to finally have a sobering article to address the Fact, That your god could care less; if you drink, win a ball game, have kids, die, get in a car wreck, or anything else that timing, or nature, has to offer. Your life is what you + and YOU ALONE make of it. And you bible thumpers, should know that the bible; that you base your entire life on was written by MAN....GET OVER IT!!!!
God cares about everyone it is humans that do not care. Most believe in them selves and care about no one. Also paganism is the belief in satan so therefore you must believe in God. Both satan and God are christian beliefs. Not one without the other. Most atheist are christians just not saved christians.
Saved = small fearful mind..... paganism is someone who does NOT believe in christianity. For your small brain that must mean they believe in satan (because you fail to comprehend anything beyond yout christian reality bubble). The rest of what you said are just empty words.
@Saved. Paganism is not worshiping satan. Read a book, you damn moron
Saved I forgive your ignorance, Yours truly Pagan
God cares about all His creations including you. Just because we reject Him doesn't mean he doesn't exist. Why be a pagan when you can be a son of a king! Paganism may satisfy the flesh but it will destroy your soul. But true love is unconditional and that is why we are all free to choose Him or reject Him. But just because you reject Him doesn't mean he loves you any less. As a father of several children I can tell you that I participated in creating those children and I love them al very much. Some choose to love me back while others reject me and blame me for all the bad things in their life which is usually a result of their choices.
Paganism seems so easy to me because it requires nothing from you. Catholicism/Christianity seems to be more challenging for me because it requires work, discipline, forgiveness, change, humility, repentance, obedience and prayer.
As a scientist and Christian, who knows alcoholics, I choose to believe that conscious life is a sort of test of its ability to submit itself to something which can never in this Universe be proved exists with empirical evidence.
This type of statement, non-provable, encapsulates what belief is in the first place. I respectfully acknowledge that the atheists might be right – because I am a scientist. Yet, I posit that there is much beyond the veil of this reality that we do not understand.
Because I am also a Christian, I suggest that any self-proclaimed atheists should consider non-empirical evidence, and never fully dismiss it. Remember that the smartest person in the room is not one who thinks they are the smartest, but one who suspects they are.
If you wish to quit drinking – or do anytihing difficult – leave your mind open for ideas you have never considered possible. Discovery of the non-emperical evidence in the world that leads one to an understanding of God is individual and personal.
My "proof" indeed came only after I first believed. If you want to give it a try, then learn how to pray to God, asking for him to show you that proof in your life. And he will not let you down. While I find many self-proclaimed Christians to make the same closed-minded mistakes that atheists do, I can testify that with humility and love, faith can be born, and what follows is an understanding of God. For me, Yeshua (the actual name of Jesus) was God in flesh and came here to die in my place. Therefore, I will never have to. And every prayer I have offered in this vein has been answered, and supports my theory.
But until you believe and it is proved to you, than any change you wish will require efforts of only you - including quitting drinking. Not impossible, but certainly it is easier with the help of something with power over you. And that power over you begins with submitting yourself to it.
I enjoyed the article, Marya.
You do know that by your definition of proof, anyone can be convinced to believe in anything just cause it makes them feel good (you could now be worshiping LSD if that is what you tested and wanted to have faith in)
I questioned my atheism a while ago and went to see a priest that I spoke with in a hospital and enjoyed a conversation with him. He listened to me and I, in turn, opened my mind and listened to him. We discussed the whys and whens of my loss of faith in the first place (I was raised a devout Catholic, at one point considered holy orders as my life's work). I lost my faith mainly due to my acceptance of science and education.
Long story short, my priest friend suggested that I open my mind further and pray to God to come to me. Each morning when I awaken, I pray "God, if you exist, please come into my life." So far, nothing has happened, either physically or spiritually.
Also each morning when I awake, I look into the mirror and say "Richard, I don't think that you will drink today." I am sober. Which do you think I believe in? One day at a time has worked for me for 23 years.
You certainly do not sound like a scientist. You got your proof of god after you believed. How interesting. Also, not only do you believe in a deity and are a theist but you went that extra step of becoming a member of a religion. Oddly you became a Christian I assume because you live in the US and are exposed mostly to this 1 of 3 Abrahamic offshoots. Would you be willing to admit that you're deluding yourself? How can you, as a scientist, take such a leap into the supernatural for which there is no proof. If you must believe first then that's not proof.
As an atheist, yes, there could be a god or gods or fairies, leprachauns, invisible dragons....and the list goes on into infinity. The evidence is simply not there so I am unable to just "believe". Can you make youself believe that Mohammad is the true prophit to Allah?
To Christopher K, who wrote
"As a scientist and Christian, who knows alcoholics, I choose to believe that conscious life is a sort of test of its ability to submit itself to something which can never in this Universe be proved exists with empirical evidence."
Ok, so wait, leme get this straight. LIFE itself is a test of it's ability, (wait a minute, do you mean life's ability or your ability, ummm, ) OK, try again. Consciousness itself is the ability to,,,(oops,,,well, you said 'sort of' a test right? I mean science is full of sort of's i guess, wait.. that does not sound right) Take 2. – I cant prove it, but I think that life is really a test...oh did I mention I know alcoholics?(no wait, uuggghh).. because you know alcoholics and are a Christian/scientist you believe that life is a test of something you cannot prove to begin with but something is being submitted...you mean someone is still grading my homework!!?? Crap. Take 3.gimme a chance Christopher..conscious life is a test of life's ability (you said its) to submit life (itself again) to something that cannot be proven. WOW. Man that's deep. What do you mean submitted? As in 'turned in'. Uh, I still don't get it.
I got an idea,, turn off Star Trek, put down the bong, this isn't a "test" in fact it's the only life you have and THAT is what people are afraid of, the dark or 'the end'. The end of "your turn". The fact is that some people really never wake up in the life they are in. That should be sobering enough, it worked for me.
@ALL – I would never be so arrogant as to presume I know it all. I ask you to consider you do the same, even as you read my assertions and responses; try to keep an open mind. This reply is given out of love, not delusion.
@hahaha – I wasn't trying to define the word proof (note the quotes). The experience I have had is personal and unprovable to anyone else; so it is a form of personal validation, not actual proof. If you sat down and flipped a coin a thousand times and it always landed as heads, I think you would believe that there is something unaccounted for in the experiment – and you might even give that thing a name. Yet that outcome is not impossible, even if there really is nothing else going on. Belief is a personal conclusion. That's the type of personal validation I have experienced, over and over again. Prayer works for me. I will pray that God reveals Himself to you too before you die – and not only after. I would never say you or anyone else should believe in God. Some people just will not. And I will love them all the same.
@Richard – It appears you were not praying, but demanding and testing. "If you exist..." etc. That's not how prayer works. If you are able to quiet your skepticism long enough to learn more, you may see God in action all around you. Or, you may not. Perhaps something closed your mind, or misinformed you. Yet I am glad that you are sober, and I pray God answers your intended prayer nevertheless. Your life is not yet over.
@JT – See my @hahaha for my intended use of the word "proof". I can understand exactly where you are coming from, with how ridiculous it all sounds. Why, then would I still believe it? Because I can not deny what I have experienced as if it did not happen – and I do not believe I am mistaken that it has happened to me. You will have to experience it to get it. And I won't call you delusional if you do. I pray that you do not give up your search for the unknown unknowns in your life. In terms of Allah – I can not speak to the authenticity of others' experiences. That is for them alone. Mine seems to me to have been authentic. Cheers!
@Oh Jesus – That was an interesting dissection of my language. I see where I have confused you. It is not a true expression of my faith, but is one I thought atheists might get. Allow me to say my "theory" another way. Here goes another try... The Universe is a chaotic mixture of matter (sub-atomic particles) and energy (motion and, light) in space time, where matter, through evolution, recombines to raise up consciousness, such as yourself. I haven't mentioned God yet. Are you with me so far? That consciousness is real to you isn't it?. Even if you were a "brain in a jar" with your senses being fed to you by a computer, your self awareness would be real to you, I would presume. My belief – which is not provable other than through personal experience – is that one's consciousness can transcend the destruction of the brain, if that consciousness can humble itself to the Universe's creator – also a consciousness, but uncreated and never fully comprehended by us. This is probably not quite the Word of Jesus Christ, but rather is just an idea I posit for you, personally, "Oh Jesus", that I thought you might use to see where I am coming from better. And, while I still love Star Trek, I have indeed put down the bong. I love that you were passionate about your belief enough to challenge me on mine. I pray that my reply inspires you to explore your own consciousness, and find belief that you have a chance to exist forever surrounded by love that is greater than yourself – and you still have a chance to change your mind.
TO OTHERS who would later agree or disagree with me, and post after 12:05 am 8/30/2011. I thank you for taking the time to reply. I think it is interesting how much activity this subject gathers. I am impressed by the passion that atheists show in attempting to persuade believers in God not to believe. Yet, I have met far more theists who were once atheists, than I have atheists who were once theists. I find it amazing that this discussion stems from Marya's article about AA. Peace be to all men and women, from my Lord Jesus Christ, God as man, man as God, and deliverer of the unprovable information that I believe God wishes us to have.
There is no god. Period. End of story.
There is no man made god, what is bigger than this universe we do not know (we atheists need to start making this distinction because it leaves a gap to hide in). Your are correct in that there is no god to worship/pray to.
prove it AL.
The worst enemy Christianity has, are Christians...
One religious nut job will do more damage to Christianity by trying to jam their beliefs down other people's throats, than 100 athiests trying to convert people not to believe.
I dream of a day when we Christians stop destroying ourselves...
very, very well said!
What do you call someone who continues to believe in something even when they are given proof that something doesn't exist. (No, not an idiot) -Theist.
Delusions can be fun and helpful. Delusions of dragons, demons, deities, leprechauns, etc have entertained thru the ages. But it's the 21st century now, time to leave the ancient myths behind.
Religion is brainwashing. There is no dude up in the sky controlling our lives or breaths! The power is in the religious leaders who have made you succomb to their twisted, sick and destructive beliefs. I pity the ignorant who believe otherwise. It's embarrassing.
I had no use for organized religon before getting sober, and less so after being sober for 28 years. What I did find in AA was that I was free to believe or not believe in anything that I wanted to. If I wanted to believe in a Higher Power, so be it, if I wanted to think that Math was my guiiding principle, that was OK too. The point is that I was not force fed any type of religon or spirituality. There are hard core AA members that would have you believe that you will drink if you don't find a higher power. That is just BS! The beauty of AA is that there is no right or wrong way to work the program – whatever works to keep you sober is just fine. I believe that it is the power of the group and our common issues that help most. People make suggestions, you can take them or leave them. The important thing is to keep going to meetings and not pickup that first drink...
I seem to recall some pesky tradition of AA mentioning anonymity as being the spiritual foundation of all our traditions and another saying something about remaining anonymous in press radio and films. Perhaps the author of this article has an old timer sponsor who doesn't believe anonymity in internet articles and on TV counts. As you know, at most meetings we end by reading: "Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little." Of course, the quotation then goes on to invoke God, as you understand God, as a source for greater knowledge and ends with the Lord's Prayer or the Serenity prayer. One of my meetings has an athiest who has been sober for more than 35 years. I do have a problem with someone making money out of professing to be be in AA.
If you athiest don't believe in God, why does it make you mad when people mention him. God put in a desire for you to know him, you can deny that it is there but inside you know what i am talking about.
God is myth. If you "feel" him, it's delusion.
Some are just more prone to delusion and mental illness because they are mentally to weak to handle the reality of life on earth is all you got, nothing more. No heaven in the sky, no hell, nada, zilch.
This is a terrible misconcepstion among theists.
No, we DON'T know that your god exists.
Think about the Lord Shiva. Many Hindus believe it exists. Do you?
If you don't believe in Shiva, is it right for a Hindu to tell you, "Yes you do. You just reject Shiva."
we're not mad that you mention him, we're mad at the ignorance you are showing and your contentment in maintaining in that ignorance
Because, Joshua, you and others mention him continuously despite the fact you know some other people don't care or want to hear about it. And because Christian and religious garbage is posted everywhere and interferes with everyone's life, not just the people who choose to believe. Thats why we're having to fight for equal rights currently.
@gary see like I said you can deny it if you want the feeling and want to know God is there. What facts do you have to say that I am delusional.
Have you got sin, in your life. I know you don't want there to be a God so you don't have to answer to him. Hiding your head in the sand doesn't change the facts.
You're not alone, brother. God loves you and so do I.
Regardless of what you believe or do not believe, I've got only one question for you – are you sober today? End of story.
Xyzzy, you nailed it.
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