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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. 14 years

    I have to smile. AA was founded by god and was lead by god...if you would look in the book of James in any Bible there you will find the Big Book. In fact when you visit the house where it all started you will find the bible. Ok everyone that wants to not give him a name or believe in anything but themselves. AA would not be what it is today with out GOD's power and the founders knew that. So even though you want to say there is no God or no power and you are still sober you can thank God because he was the one that came as an angel to the Good Doctor and told him what to do. If you think this power came from anything else or that you are doing it on your own than i just smile more because he created you he wanted to save you and he is winning if you are still sober and I know before your last breath you will see and hear him and he will ask if you believe. Just say yes because you wouldn't be sober with out him

    August 29, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      If god didn't want us to drink he wouldn't have turned water into wine. Bottoms up!

      August 29, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  2. jim

    sometimes you have to ask the engineer how to fix what's broken, our chooser has been broken when our parents sinned and we inherited the spiritual brokeness. when you come to the end of your research you'll discover llike many of us this engineer has a name. no matter how much we try to deny it – the Bible is the only truth that reveals this person who gives those hope who finally acknowledged and ask for mercy and grace.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      The bible was written by humans.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • h23

      your brain is broken! we don't share your belief in fairy tales dude!!

      August 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • QS

      One person's sin is another person's progress! I for one am grateful to my parents for not forcing religious indoctrination on me and allowing me to make that discovery for myself.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  3. Jeannie

    When I first saw this story I thought, "Oh another atheist! After reading the story I am very impressed with you Marya. You found a way to stay sober by seeing that you (all of us) are flawed, that we can and must change and our purpose in life is to be of service to others. That is it in a nutshell! I do believe in God, and what I see is God working in your life sort of behind your back. What matters is that you are sober, and you serve others. That's it!

    August 29, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • ak2k

      Did you think that all atheists were self-serving heathens?! Pretty judgemental if you ask me....

      August 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  4. ron

    gee there really is a personel god but with all the evil in the world who would want you?

    August 29, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  5. @JohnDo

    Same here. It was vapid garbage. They asked us what our biggest fears where and people were like spiders. It was depressing. Not quite as depressing as being homeless because your dad is a drug addict....but I never went back either.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  6. USmellLikePee

    Bartender! Get me another God, please. *hic*

    August 29, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  7. ObammaAlabamaSlamma

    God tells me to drink, so I do. God is an enabler.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  8. JustMi

    Yet another hop onto the "Anonymity is for the Plebes" bandwagon.

    Tradition 13: We decided to bugger humility for a lark, and make some serious dosh on our membership.

    Thanks a bunch.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  9. Susan

    As an atheist myself, it troubles me to see other atheists mocking those that believe in a god or gods. They show themselves to be just as fanatical and close-minded as the right wing "religious nuts" they so detest. Why would you care so fervently what someone else believes in that you spew hate and malice towards them?

    How about a little acceptance or at least some tolerance for others.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      You're right, next time we'll just lie to them so we can avoid being scolded by some upity snob.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • John Do

      Very nicely stated. Good job.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Just me

      It's probably more accurate to ask theists to be more tolerant of non-theists. Not to say that there aren't militant atheists. Why do people like Sam Harris need to have security guards around them and their families? Oh I know, It must be because of all those tolerant theists threatening him, his wife and their children.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • John Do

      USmellLikePee–Kind of like what you've been doing?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Cubana

      I could care less what someone else believes. Like most agnostic or atheist types. But god worshipers refuse to not try to impose there beliefs on every facet of everyone else's lives. Its their biblical mission. They have to spread the imaginary word if they are to be good Christians. This isn't a requirement for non-believers.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • QS

      Thanks for that Cubana! People who make this argument, even those claiming to be Atheists, dismiss or simply aren't aware of the fact that religion is nothing but another corporation that markets a product called faith.

      If religion ever does evolve enough to the point that it finally removes itself from the lives of others who don't want it there, then we might have something to talk about.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  10. Just me

    How about some discussion about Intelligent Design, or anyone not believe in evolution? Might as well get to the point of all this.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  11. CrownRoyal

    Marya Hornbacher...... She writes books about bollemia and anorexia. Now. She panders to a new naive audience to sell her sorry literature, the ignorant leftists. Her catch this time? An atheist alcoholic. So silly.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  12. John Do

    I went to a meeting of AA for kids because my parent was an alcoholic. There was never any reference to God or church. It was the most depressing meeting I've ever been to. Never went back.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  13. What!

    Sure, you accept gays, but you try to change alcoholics. Don't like our lifestyle? Some of us were born that way. You all and AA discriminate.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  14. David

    After reading all of those posts I need a meeting. LOL

    August 29, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  15. sg

    Addicts replace one addition with another. in this case, alcohol for jesus. its all the same.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      It's more fun to mix the two...

      August 29, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • What!

      I prefer a hot chick over jesus, you guys gay or something?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • John Do

      @what
      Until you find out that hot chick is a guy in disguise, then you'll scream "Oh, Jesus".

      August 29, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • What!

      well john dooooodoo

      I make sure they are hoties and female too. Guess I don't need a gay jesus, huh?

      August 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  16. USmellLikePee

    Man cannot stand to not know all the answers to burning questions like 'why are we here' so he invented a God as a coping mechanism. Some people need crutches, others don't.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • ak2k

      I'm more than comfortable living with uncertainty. I'd rather not know the answer, than believe in a fairy tale.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  17. TERRI

    I am sorry that you have "No Invisible Means of Support". My God is my support.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • sg

      Athiets don't want your pity. you don't need to be sorry, you just need to comprehend and accept that your faith is not ours.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • John Do

      SG
      Too bad atheists don't do the same. Atheists are no better.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Flippy

      @sg – EXCELLENT POST!

      August 29, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • John Do

      @sg
      Since when is atheism a "faith". That's contradictory since you have no faith.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Craig

      @JohnDo
      Learn to read, that's not what she said

      August 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  18. Just me

    I love it when people get on stage to accept an award. They don't thank their coach, teacher, parents, trainer or anyone else that actually had anything to do with assisting in this person reaching their goal. Instead, they thank god. For example someone might say, "If it were not for my lord and savior jesus christ, I would not have been able to throw that touchdown pass." There might be a few individuals other than JC to thank. Why don't they mention anything about god when they throw an interception!?

    August 29, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • John Do

      They do "G8d dam8 it".

      August 29, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • What!

      I agree.. Guess a god feels it's more important to see a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass before taking care of small children hungry and abused. Those religionist are freaks. I like how the catholic church orchestarted cover ups for abused children. They denied the child and threatened them. The religious catholics response, 'Others did it too.." Good example set.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  19. Ted B

    Keep coming back, it works if you work it and you're worth it

    August 29, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  20. Ed

    All the fighting about what we believe or do not believe aside, there's no denying that this is a beautiful article. Good luck, Marya.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Red

      Thank you Ed and Marya. AA is not about "God" in any sense of the imagination. It is about believing in something better than ourselves helping us in our lives, knowing spirituality (totally different than religion), being humble (after experiencing humiliation) and daily addressing our character defects and the wrong we have done upon others. The majority of you posting need to take your own inventory and be honest before you start judging.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:11 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.