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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. Richard

    I am sober for 23 years, proud of that accomplishment, and I believe in myself!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • John 3:59 PM

      Way to go Richard!

      August 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  2. Bill

    Amen, Marya. No pun intended.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  3. I used to know Bill W.

    I swear to God, Nameless Face's post wasn't there when I typed that bit about it being a matter of time before you fail under my system, but that attotidue is exactly what I'm talking about. Why is it that rationalists with chemical dependency issues are given this either or thing with AA. I used to think AA was, at most, a harmless crutch, but I'm not so sure. I am almost certina that people are driven away by the false equivalence. Twelve tradtions notwithstanding, a lot of money is made at recovery centers (some with patients there by court order) that push AA

    August 29, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • SurRy

      Courts in some jurisdictions (should be all jurisdictions) not permitted to order AA due to government endorsement of religion.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  4. Renee McIntyre

    Interesting opinions by the author–a member of AA is governed not only by the steps but also by the traditions and she is in violation of at least two: Tradtion #6 An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any
    related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and
    prestige divert us from our primary purpose.Tradition #11 Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we
    need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and
    films.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Steve Vogel

      This is not a violation of the 6th tradition. AA did not endorse, finance or lend it's name to the author, CNN or this article. The 11th tradition is debatable. Anonymity serves its purpose for those fearful of public reprisal;however, for those that can take the harm that comes with being open. The main reason for anonymity is to protect AA as a whole from the humiliation that would come from a public advocate that relapsed. Seeing one failure, or even a few, there are those that would condemn AA in its entirety.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  5. Bryan

    Anonymity is only the 'spiritual' foundation...no big deal. Oh, wait. You don't have to follow those rules because you're an atheist. I see. Well, then it means you're not really a member of AA, right? I mean..you are because you have a "desire to stop drinking"....but you don't have to respect the program as a whole. So, why AA then? If you don't want to do the AA program, why are you in it? There are other groups. Ahhh....I see. You're different. You can change AA to suit YOU, rather than change yourself to fit into AA. Cool. The thing about not following the traditions, especially the one that states it is the "spiritual foundation", is that you're really not in AA at that point. Right? You know what I mean if you've been around 'the rooms' at all. Oh, you can say you're a member...tons do. But an AA is one who takes the steps and follows the traditions. Please discontinue making profit off what AA has given you. It's sick behavior. Breaking your anonymity will only bring guilt, shame, and remorse...eventually. Which will lead to other things. Remember, after the part about "anonymity is the spiritual foundation".....is the part about "principles before personalities."

    August 29, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  6. Glades2

    I started the ACOA 12-step program twice, and know from experience that a person cannot overcome those problems without God's constant help...

    August 29, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • John 3:59 PM

      Yet the article is about someone who was able to do it without. It can be done!

      Good without God

      August 29, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Mark

      I guess after reading today's article your experience is broadened and you now know that it is possible.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  7. BostonBeebs81

    Hmmm... you do have a higher power. That higher power is right there in the conclusion of your essay. You believe in the biology of life. That very science which is so perfectly harmonized that it created 'you. and in which makes you realize and understand how small and fragile and lucky you are. That is EASILY a 'higher power'. I've never once been told I had to believe in Jesus Christ or God as a catholic lays it out. You might be going to the wrong meetings. Congratulations on being and staying sober!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  8. tradition

    no one else sees this as breaking several traditions?

    August 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Greg Lore

      Thank you.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Renee McIntyre

      yes, at least two!

      August 29, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Renee McIntyre

      and this is a screen name

      August 29, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  9. Greg Lore

    Let me get this right.Marya somebody is claiming to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous,and then put her name on the cover of a book.Her name,picture are all over the news.Yeah,she`s real anonymous.She has one up Jane Valez-Mitchell.It`s going to give A.A. a black eye when she gets drunk.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  10. Just me

    I like cheese

    August 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  11. Kit Kat

    Nameless Face

    You are wrong, that is not what AA is about and her higher power is within. Get off your bias bike & respect all beliefs

    August 29, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  12. I used to know Bill W.

    In additon to the six steps that mention God, a higher power, or he (steps 2,3,5,6,7, and 11), another refers to a spritual awakening (12) and the second of twleve traditions says the "only authority" is a "loving God." This raises the obvious question, if you can't cozy up with six (or seven) out of twleve steps, are you really "doing" AA? I am not asking whether you're sober; rather, are you sober because of "AA"? I'm guessing you've found something helpful in the meetings, the comraderie, the support, or perhaps the introspection that often, but not always, comes from "doing the steps," but is this, quote capital A capital A endquote? If so, how many steps can you set aside before it's no longer AA?

    What if I told you I had a cure for alcohol dependency. First, dry out. Second, don't drink anymore. Third, try to evlaluate why you drink and address those issues. Fourth, if you're feeling tempted to drink, talk to a friend who's been where you are. Fifth, bury a penny in your yard every day. Here's the catch, if you do all of these things and succeed, it's because you faithfully followed the plan–it really works, see. If you skip some steps and succeed, well then it's only a matter of time till you fail. Finally, if you fail, it's necessarilry because you didn't do all of the steps–see Step 2. This is what AA sounds like, not just to the atheist, but to anyone who doesn't believe in a micromanaging, hands-on, providential God.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  13. Kit Kat

    Marya, I found your thoughts very interesting, and I am still agnostic, but I'm sure after I finish all my Dawkins books I may be Athiest. Well written and I admire your take on the AA – by the way whatever nbr of yrs on the wagon, Happy Anniversary

    August 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • SurRy

      "I'm agnostic not because I don't know if there is a God but because I don't care." John Fugelsang.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  14. Tyler Durden

    The first rule of AA is you do not talk about AA.

    The second rule of AA.....

    August 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  15. Nameless Face

    Marya,

    I'm glad you're sober (for now). Unfortunately, chances are pretty good that you will fail in your endeavor to remain sober. I'm not being mean, just stating a cold, hard fact.

    Fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter whether or not you don't believe in a higher power. One exists. If you are a using addict, then your higher power is the object to which you are addicted. I'm sure you know it will have you on your knees like any other god is worshipped.

    Until you recognize the need to surrender your addiction, you'll never begin to heal.

    That's what the higher power in the 12-step program is all about.

    Good luck.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Underestimated_One

      Well said...... I'm not a recovering addict, but point well taken

      August 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  16. EnergyBeing3

    Self Empowerment is a difficult process. The teachings of Carolyn Myss about the Archetypal Patterns all humans share (The Wounded Child, the Victim, the Saboteur... there are many) can greatly open a persons eyes to the behaviors that lead to unbalance and chemical use. Carl Jung also is a great resource for learning about the Acrchetypes we share. Carolyn Myss presents it in a much more understandable way with a touch of the spiritual aspect, but not pushing Christianity.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  17. Steve B

    The thing about AA is this: If you work the steps a different way than someone else does(but you are actually WORKING THE STEPS)and it works out for you, then great. That's experience you can share with the next suffering alcoholic. But working the steps your own special way and claiming that it's still AA can be problematic. I'm still struggling with God stuff in AA here and there, but if I can't find some spiritual connection at certain times I do what was suggested to me early on: work with another alcoholic. On my most godless or atheistic days I still rely on those around me who are fighting the same fight to help keep me sane. Any conception of God I've found today (and it is often changing) has developed directly as a result of working with others in the program. "Each day, somewhere in the world, recovery begins when one alcoholic talks with another alcoholic, sharing experience, strength, and hope."

    August 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  18. Lucky

    Is THAT the problem–that believers think that we think we're the biggest thing in the universe??

    Oh, my–I can think of few more-mistaken ideas. Yes, I'm special to my mom but, aside from that, I'm nothing, and I'm OK with that.

    It's also not true that atheists have "no invisible means of support". Most of us believe in something–hope, family, basic humanity, that good things come to people who work hard and behave ethically–even if it's not a supernatural being.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  19. thefungus

    Religion has inexplicably twisted and tangled itself into every aspect of our human lives. And that has made all the difference.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • MikeDierickx

      Yeah, Protestantism pretty much 'inexplicably' 'tangled' itself up in AA. The same way Catholicism 'inexplicably' 'tangled' itself into hospitals.

      Come on man, I'm an Atheist too, but let's get the facts. AA was STARTED by PROTESTANTS. Gosh!

      August 29, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  20. Just me

    Oh, I also love it when a christian uses the bible to prove the existence of god. It's kind of like using the superman comic to prove the existence of Jor-El.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • JT

      It's like, if you believe fairies cause rain then everytime it rains is proof of fairies.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • John 3:59 PM

      I've studied the Bible with David 3:14 AM. There are plenty of flaws in the bible such as the value of Pi – Additionally Ezekiel is totally flawed.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Lex Luthor

      Just me, you are awesome! well said.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:31 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.