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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. John R

    To the Christians; Is Gandhi in hell?

    The comments on this board from the religious right are overwhelming. They remind me of all the folks who have great health care complaining about Obama-care. Why "Do-you-care"? Has your healthcare changed since it was passed? No, it hasn't. The only thing that has changed is that millions of folks now do have health care coverage, so they don't need to go to the emergency room for a nice, costly visit.
    If you are a Christian and in AA, and it's all working for you, then you should be happy. If someone else is an atheist and in AA – sober and happy.......you should be happy for them, too. If you think they need to believe in Jesus Christ to have eternal life....then pray for them. But, pray silently...the way your God intended. Don't bring it to the meeting. Just be glad that folks are getting healthy.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Will Duffield

      John, I will not be silent about my god, his holiness the flying spaghetti monster, who can be worshiped at http://www.venganza.org/, only be can help to heal addiction.

      You only need be touched by his Noodly Appendage!!

      August 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • John R

      Will, how is their health insurance???

      Looks like they are all STARCH Raving Mad.....love it!!!

      August 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      What does a gross overreach of federal authority into personal economic liberty have to do with joining a cult? Is there no room for a self-sober, libertarian ,atheist in your utopian fantasyland?

      August 29, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  2. Former AA

    As a former member of AA and a Christian, it is my opinion that AA is not the key to sobriety for many, if not most people. The premise of AA is that all alcoholics (there's the basic problem, a one-size-fits-all approach) drink because of some restlessness deep within which can only be remedied by a "higher power." Yes, SOME alcoholics drink for that reason, but not ALL alcoholics do. After months of doing my "inventory" and "making amends" and the other steps, my desire to drink was as strong as ever. Turns out I apparently drank for no more complicated a reason than that I simply loved the way it made me feel. So, what finally got me sober? A drug called naltrexone, which blocks the receptors in your brain that make alcohol "work." It is outrageous that many doctors don't even know this drug exists and most of the rest know very little or nothing about it. That's because it is not a brand drug being pushed by drug reps. Anyway, back to AA, it can become quite frustrating, and can do more harm than good, when AA tells you that something deep within – some bad relationship, unforgiveness, guilt, etc. – is the root cause of your drinking, when in fact it is not. You start searching for something that doesn't exist, and eventually you may even make up problems that don't exist just to convince yourself that you're "working the steps." And the problem is exacerbated when AA tells you that it is really the only effective way to lasting sobriety (a completely unproven assertion).

    August 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Mark Siegel

      The great insight about alchoholism is that it is a chronic, incurable disease with a very high rate of relapse. It is not a moral failing or the result of a lack of willpower. There are many other chronic, incurable diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, many forms of cancer, obesity, glaucoma and a host of others. Yet alcoholism is the only disease whose management requires, according to AA, the surrender of oneself to a higher power and, for many, daily attendance at meetings. Please don't misunderstand. AA does great work for millions of people. But I think it is long past time to consider the value of other approaches, including the targeted use of drug therapies.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      Mark- Alcoholism is NOT comparable to diabetes or any other physical disease. It is a psychological disorder that manifests physical symptoms. It can effectively controlled with nothing more than changing your mind. Name one physical disease that can be thought away. It is not a physical disease by definition. It was classified that way mainly so it could be treated medically. By their definition I was an "alcoholic" for years. It took me a good deal of study and contemplation to realize that I was making myself sick. I'm not in recovery now, I'm simply recovered. I don't drink, and have no desire to. I don't struggle with it, I don't fight temptation, I just don't drink. AA keeps you in a constant state of dependence. According to their dogma, you will always be an alcoholic, and you have no control over it. There is absolutely NO scientific, medical, psychological, or any other type of evidence to support that assertion. It is just accepted blindly, and must be accepted blindly for AA to work. That is the problem with AA. The results are false, and they will tell you that any results that come from any other means are false. That is the definition of a dogmatic cult.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  3. Womanowner

    why stop drinking if you are gonna burn in hell?

    August 29, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • W2M

      I'm not sure why, but you comment has made me giggle for nigh onto an hour now.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  4. Jim

    Great article.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  5. AJ

    Finally, thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was the only weird one that was defining a "higher power" emphasis small H, but I came to grips with it with my unique definitions. Still it is very uncomfortable to be in a meeting with those who swear the only way is through jesus. I guess jesus stole drunks as well as the Republicans or vice versa. Haven't figured out which yet.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  6. Gil Vil

    It all boils down to this...You are just another one of those in an attempt at recovery who complicates things because that is what we do. We try to out think AA and it's principles. We forget that our way of thinking brought us to the doors of AA or recovery. The solution?...KEEP IT SIMPLE.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      You're right, it is simple minded to disregard evidence, or believe in a set of tenets simply because you are told that they are unquestionable. The evidence says that AA is no more effective than no treatment at all, but why bother with facts when you have dogma. Keep it simple. And keep spouting the AA rhetoric. Everytime one of you speaks it sound like a bumper sticker came to life.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  7. Lena

    Lady, you are a sick puppy

    August 29, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • humbug

      alcoholism being an illness, ok.
      other than that, to each their own.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Anthony

      To me, sick puppies are the ones who believe in magic and love reading books espousing slavery, and violence.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Michael M

      Why Lena because she refuses to conform to the falacy you follow when you have no proof? I know I know, faith right? You worship something you cant prove beyond any REASONABLE doubt! Sorry I used the big R word to a christian, but who is really the crazy one?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Michael M

      you keep on truckin paying for your preachers house car and utilities while he laughs and your inability to think for yourself (that logic your god gave you).

      Funny how that works though, god gave us logic, requires us to believe in him yet provides no proof he exists. If we don't believe we will be condemned to hell for eternity... But god loves us, right?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Sherril

      I believe all alcoholics are "sick puppies." I've been sober 23 years, in AA for 30. I could not put together 90 days in a row until I became aware that there were many sober people in AA who do not believe in god or who have no idea if god exists or not. If someone had not belched quiet loudly during the Lord's Prayer at my very first meeting, I'd be dead. That burp kept me going for 7 years of hell. The only thing I know for sure is that it does not matter what you believe, so long as you keep close to other sober alcoholics.
      .

      August 29, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  8. not god

    How important is it, whatever works for ourselves is all that matters. Hope Martin T. finally got some sleep, seems like he was speeding out of control.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  9. istj04@yahoo.com

    This alcoholiic author did NOT do any "objective" research! If she had, she would have found NON-DEItY self-help groups like: SMART Recovery, or Secular Organizations for Sobriety! She also would have found the "detractors" and critics of AA (consisting of a LOT of EX-AA members, in the form of: Orange-papers.org. AA is a myopic, self-centered CULT that cannot handle people knowing that they DO HAVE CHOICES in recovering from an addiction, be it to alcohol, or something else!

    DO SOME REAL RESEARCH NEXT TIME, Ms. Hornbacher. Maybe if you sober up first, you will be able to actually BE a competent journalist!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Al

      Wow! The key board courage you see online is fascinating.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      There are countless resources online that can help a person through the process of quitting without resorting to compromising your reason and subverting your will. AA is a business with profits in the millions (extrapolated from book sales and other known revenues because they refuse to disclose how much they actually bring in). It is in their best interest to keep you in "recovery". There is no medical evidence to support that alcoholism is a "chronic and persistent physical disease." It is a psycholigical disorder with physical manifestations, and that is all. I challenge anyone to name a physical disease that can be managed by deciding you didn't want to be sick anymore. "Alcoholism" has been treated just as effectively by deciding not to drink, as by any other means short of pharmaceutical treatment.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  10. Will Duffield

    His holiness the flying spaghetti monster, who can be worshiped at http://www.venganza.org/, can help to heal you're addiction.

    You only need be touched by his Noodly Appendage.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Michael M

      you sir, made my day. Thank you!!

      All praise the Flying Spaghetti Monster!!!

      August 29, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Will Duffield

      My Pleasure!!

      August 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  11. SuzyQ

    These harsh judgments are not of AA nor are they godly. The writer is free to believe however she wishes. The ONLY requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. The spirituality of being meaningfully connected to other people is what belief in a higher power is about. If the writer does not see this as "God" nor wish to entertain it as "God", it is not really important and nobody's business. What is important is that she participates in this connectedness and stays sober as a result. As a sober member for 24 years, I celebrate her success in staying sober and being a useful and participating member of the human race.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  12. LEW

    Maybe the real success is that someone can cultivate the strength and willpower to accomplish such a task , without having to having to resort to religion as a means. My belief is my foundation of character, not the means to an end. Maybe that is why "He works in mysterious ways" . As method to reduce dependacy and believe because we want to vice believe because we're told to?

    August 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  13. Ben

    I was hoping for a little more insight in this blog but did not find it. As a Christian believer (but not an alcoholic) I am very intrigued with how the AA program uses God, or a higher power, to help people through an unbelievably hard addiction. Basically, I was interested in how you, an atheist, perceived the "higher power" idea for yourself in going through AA successfully. What was your higher power that you gave in to? I was hoping for info like that, but there's probably no chance of an update or maybe it is too personal.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • LauraJT

      I think the author gave you your answer in the article if you were to read it all the way through. She believes in the miracle of science and the absolute wonder of the universe. I agree with her. It's miraculous that we even exist at all and no one needs a belief in a higher power than that. Religion works for some people; I'm not one of them. Science works for all . . . it makes logical sense out of existence and without that we'd all still be living in caves; God, or a belief in it, or prayer, never got anyone out of that cave. Science did and does.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • bob

      The first step is to admit you have a problem ben.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • MAP

      Thanks, Ben. You're right. Science alone never enlightened anyone. The many priest-scientists of the Renaissance, as well as Fr. Georges LeMaitre (a priest who proposed the Big Bang theory), are enough to prove this. Rather, without God, we have no innate human dignity or value, which is more than humbling: It's destructive. That there's no intrinsic difference between killing a plant, an animal, and a human being is a horribly destructive proposition to humanity. I fail to see how that is somehow liberating...

      August 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      MAP- Atheists don't propose that human life and plant life are morally the same. You made that supposition based on your own interpretation (which is flawed) of morality. You also made a huge supposition saying that nobody has ever been "enlightened" by science alone. In fact I have been. It was critical thinking and objective reasoning that led me to a moral discipline. I place great value on human life, and believe the desire to be good and just is inherent in all men, not handed down by a god. If your morality comes from fear of reprisal or promise of reward, it is false. Morality is doing what's right, simply because it's right. In my case my sobriety is a part of my morality, and neither of them came from god.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Spiffy doesn't exist

      g.c kells- you said and I quote "Atheists don't propose that human life and plant life are morally the same."

      I read the entire post of PAM, and I see nothing and nowhere in his post that he said that, nor making a supposition of it. Apparently, you are the one making presumptions.

      Don't you know that being too much defensive makes guiltiness becomes obvious?

      September 5, 2011 at 4:14 am |
  14. Daniel

    So much for "anonymity at the level of press, radio and film"! The reason why this Tradition is in place is because of people like you.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Jon W.

      I agree! Was this article approved for press? I know it's in reference of her book, but what about the AA meeting she went to. How do you think they are feeling right now.?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • istj04@yahoo.com

      Then WHY does AAWS have a DVD called "Hope" that it has produced and distributed? Is this how AA maintains its "attraction, not PROMOTION" tradition? Just because it uses "anonymous" actors means its not PROMOTING ITSELF THROUGH FILM??

      AA lies so bad, it makes government look HONEST BY COMPARISON!

      August 29, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Jeff

      No one from the meeting was identified, let alone when or where the meeting actually took place. Further, as no one was quoted, it's impossible to know if the single reference to the meeting is nothing more than an aggregate of the author's handful of experiences at the beginning. Give it a rest. This is AA that's being talked about, not fight club.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  15. Agnostic

    I am happy for you that you are sober. To all the Christians out there who can't see the forest for the trees. I really feel bad for you. You are incapable of being happy for people unless they see everything your way. Like the missionaries. Are you hungry? we will feed you if you pray to our god, yeah, somehow that is right.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Joseph Mzrnski

      i agree! the atheist murders of 100s of millions who disagreed with them, or of the school killers (atheists of course) who asked the little girl "do you believe in God" – she said yes – then the atheist pulled the trigger....all sick killers

      atheists have killed billions in modern times – SICK PHILOSPHY OF DEATH that needs to be wiped out

      August 29, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  16. Chelsea771

    You all have it WAY wrong – its not "christianity" people it is a RELATIONSHIP with a person
    that person being Jesus (who is by the way GOD) his one and ONLY son. you need to get it right !

    August 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • austin

      Chelsea, i agree with you 100 % of the way. Christianity isnt another world religion, on the contrary its a personal relatonship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal God.

      God bless,

      1 Peter 3:15 Jude 3

      August 29, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      No, you're getting it wrong. That's what you believe to be true. It has nothing to do with you being right.

      *Looks around* Yep, still in America.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      Some of us have trouble having a "personal relationship" with someone you can't see, hear, touch or in any other sense verify. But if you want to have "personal relationships" with invisible people who only speak through your own thoughts, knock yourself out.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Jeff

      Most of us stopped having "relationships" with invisible friends before the age of 10. That some continue to do so should be considered clinically insane. You and austin are both correct, though. Christianity isn't a religion. It's a cult.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      It doesn't bother you that Muslims feel just as strong about their relationship with Allah? To an objective observer the only substantial difference between your faith and anyone else's is the name you use for it.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  17. g.c.kells

    The most interesting thing about AA is there success rate (or rather lack of it). According to their own reports, only 10% of people who seek help through AA remain in the program for an entire year. Of those 10%, only 50% remain sober for a year. Interestingly the success rate of recovery without AA or any program is roughly 5%, the exact same as with it. If you beleive your sobriety comes from AA and not your own desire to be sober, then by all means stay, but don't try to fool others into following your foolish path. I'm an atheist, and a former drunk, that decided for the sake of my family to quit. I simply quit. I stopped listening to the voice that said "just one drink won't hurt", because I knew it would. That's all, anything more is superfluous.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Willy

      actually you are wrong, it is a 100 % recovery rate as long as people follow the 12 steps, the ones that don't would be consdiered in your percentages. You may be sober but not recovering.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Nameless Face

      It would be interesting to see what those statistics would be if you could discount all of the people who are ordered by court to enroll in addiction support. Many times, the people who are ordered to partake in such an endeavor will start attending AA meetings because that's the familiar one. And many times, unfortunately, these are the folks who have no intention of taking any sort of sobriety program seriously.

      I'm sure you're well aware, you can't be forced to sober up for anyone. The only way sobriety "will stick" is if you do it for yourself. Good luck.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • istj04@yahoo.com

      Since 12 Step groups have NO RECORDS, it is IMPOSSIBLE for them to OBJECTIVELY prove they have helped ANY "per centage" of ANY addicted people. They can claim all the "per cents" they want, but have ZERO OBJECTIVE PROOF to back it up! Addiionally, the last time they DID attempt to get some kind of proof (in the form of a 1989 "Triennial Survey"!), the best that they could come up with was a FIVE PER CENT "success" rate (i.e. of the AA attendee actually staying sober after 1 year!).
      5 PER CENT? NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE was noted between that and. . . QUITTING ON ONE'S OWN!

      August 29, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      Willy- that dogmatic "sober but not recovering" statement is exactly what I found disturbing about AA. I knew my comment would draw AA followers out to detract it, and I knew they would spout the rhetoric they are indoctrinated with. If the goal is sobriety, any course of action that leads to it is valid. I will even give credit to your cult. Some people need that sense of belonging and structure. I just think it should be recognized for what it is. It is an offspring of the Oxford Group, a fundamentalist Christian movement. It kept the dogma and added a whole new set of tenets. If you follow AA you believe that sobriety without it is invalid, and not true recovery. I disagree wholeheartedly. I am a better father, a better husband, and a better person for my decision to quit drinking. The best part is I didn't have to sacrifice my will or my reason to accomplish that. My sobriety is MINE, I earned it, and I am responsible for it. If you think there is a flaw in that, it's your own reasoning that is flawed.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • g.c.kells

      Nameless Face- The statistics may be biased by the court orders, but they are generally considered to be fairly accurate. There is no evidence to support that AA has any effect on sobriety. I think it may help some people, but that is supposition, and not enough to base a legal or medical opinion on. Mandatory AA meetings are being challenged in courts all over the country right now, and in every case they are deemed religious and the mandate is removed. There are alternative organizations that you can request like SMART or Rational Recovery, that actually show an improved rate of success, and don't include religious dogma. Google "the orange papers" or watch Penn and Teller's BS episode on the subject. I promise it'll be more enlightening than this article.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  18. Zach

    Its working for me. I go to the meetings and I pray because it inspires me to be a better person and stay sober. Never been to a NA meeting but I'm sure thats why they go. I guess you can call it a cult if you want. but I'm happy. Hope the same for all of you.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  19. THOMAS!!

    Being involved with AA and sober for 2 and a half years and of christian faith my higher power was easily found!!! We do encourage for new comers to believe in SOME POWER greather than themselves!!! It could be the AA group itself or (GOD) good orderly direction just blieve that somethig or someone can restore us to sanity!!!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  20. DT

    Well written. I too struggled with going to a meeting where I would have to ask the lord for a boost in will power. Is there no other way to reach your own inner strength? I wish everybody health and prosperity!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:47 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.