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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. Anthony

    First of all, I'm glad you accomplished your goal of sobering up. That's great.

    But I have to ask where this compulsion towards morality originates from... if indeed you are just a random assortment of atoms? If the atoms in your brain are so intrinsically random and pointless, why would you give those chemicals so much credibility? You seem to have acted on these randomized atoms with a great deal of commitment.

    Granted, you'd probably say the threat of "death" is reason enough, free from the implications of morality. But your article then describes your compulsion to "help" other people. This seems a rather unnecessary progression of logic if indeed other people are just random collections of atoms themselves with no purpose or inherent value.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • bob

      It actually is very logical. Humans evolved by being social animals. The groups that worked together the best were more likely to survive. The urge to help is coded in the genome.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • saopaco

      "But I have to ask where this compulsion towards morality originates from... if indeed you are just a random assortment of atoms? If the atoms in your brain are so intrinsically random and pointless"

      Where did the author say that she was random and pointless? She states, "And I find that not only fascinating but wondrous, awe-inspiring and humbling." Seems to me that she does not consider herself to be pointless, just that she was humbled by her insignificance to the cosmic scheme.

      Morality is not tied to the concept of a higher power, morality can be reasoned.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Steve

      I agree with Bob. Many animals survive by working together. We're no different. People who work together survive together.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  2. ODA155

    Is that a shot glass?

    August 29, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      Maybe?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  3. kevin

    Never once have i heard meeting chair person open with jedud christ. If they did they eould be politely told to get off it or leave.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  4. Matthew McSheehy

    "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." Amen!!! ;)

    August 29, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Anthony

      Ironically enough, that second sentence is almost word-for-word what a Christian is supposed to do in life.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  5. Steve

    I go to meetings, and there are some there who like to "preach". I don't like to be preached at. The meetings I attend though are filled with people who reference their Higher Power. For some, that Power is AA itself. I've never attended a meeting in which I've felt "shunned" for not being a Theist. I have a Higher Power; it just isn't a "traditional" one. I've made that clear, and nobody's tried to shut me out or perform an exorcism on me. If I went to a meeting where everyone was praising Jesus – I'd find another meeting. They're welcome to what works for them.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  6. Richard Head

    I believe in getting Fcuked up !!!!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  7. Jack

    The 12 step program is an analogy for bending over and taking it from the behind. You have to submit to god that your powerless when it comes to drinking/drugs. This isn't true at all and it's really just to brainwash you into thinking you're a wimp. It's as simple as this: drinking too much means you're an immature child. show some class and don't drink to every negative feedback from a situation. Pause, wait for another response and go into the next conversation before your next sip. That way you drink twice as slow.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • saopaco

      Wow, Jack. You really have this alcoholism thing figured out! Thank you for sharing your POV with those of us who lack faith in ourselves as infallible. I sure must be nice to know all about alcoholism and how it affects each of us, and that no matter the reasons why we drink, we could just all "have some class" or "drink slowly" to be cured.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Steve

      I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  8. lazurite

    Same thing for Al-Anon. Went to one of those meetings and felt like I was in church. Never went back.

    When people are looking for practical advice on how to cope with the situation at hand, asking them to rely on a higher power is not what they are looking for. Had that been the case, they would have visited their clergy of choice instead.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  9. osro

    Could have used a lot more substance in this article.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  10. JJDLS

    You may not believe in God but he believes in you.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      How do you know what an invisible, ominipotent being thnks or believes anyway? Oh, that's right. It's written in the Bible – a book written by humans dead over thousands of years now.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • saopaco

      Your imaginary friend might be real for you, but do not presume that I share your delusion.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Atheist

      It's more than that, JJDLS. You actually believe your god NEEDS you to love Him.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Azariah

      Atheist

      It's more than that, JJDLS. You actually believe your god NEEDS you to love Him.

      ^where did you come up with that? That's just... why did you even bother saying that? Whether or not JJDLS loves God, God will be God, the Most High, that's really all. Same for you. It's your loss if you don't submit to God, not His.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  11. AL HERTER

    I'm sober since 1964 when I was 21 years old. Bill Wilson gave me the Big Book just before I spoke at his 34th Anniversary Meeting here in Manhattan in 1968.
    I sat next to him at a small dinner party in Sept. 1969 and asked : " We both know that movements, organizations, fellowships come and go. Nothing guarantees they will last forever. What in your opinion could be of such power & import that it might challenge A.A. and lead to it not being around for years to come?"

    In in New York minute he said: 'THE GOD BUSINESS!' I asked him to explain further how that might come about. "The true believers are zealots, hardliners, our way or the highway. Non-belivers wont be allowed to be group officers, wont be asked to speak, wont be called on at meetings to share, they will be bad-mouthed to one and all as not really working The Program.'

    That was 42 years ago and here we are! In 47 years I've seen A. A. become more rigid, more doctrinaire , more religious and less tolerant of those not spouting the party line.

    I've never read the Big Book. Too many really well written books that I've not read to waste my time. And those who can recite it line for line are not the type of folks that appeal to me in any way really. And I want to be able to state that one does not have to read the Big Book in order to stay sober, to counter those who stand at podiums and say the opposite.

    I go to fewer and fewer meetings the last few years . I fell better if I don't go to meetings than if I do. Attendance at meetings is no guarantee at all that one will not drink. Nonsense to think or say otherwise.

    Only thing I have to know about the Higher Power? That I'm not it.
    And my Program is based on one simple truth: I don't drink no matter what, and ALL the rest is conversation.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Nichole

      Wow, you sound really happy, I want what you have~eye roll~

      August 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      Good luck to you, sir.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Azariah

      By Big Book do you mean the Bible? If you're interested in reading well written books you might as well give it a shot. Besides, it's referenced in ... basically everything. So give yourself an excuse, and read it for its 'literary and cultural value'. Don't be so afraid that you're gonna like it lol.

      "Only thing I have to know about the Higher Power? That I'm not it."

      You've actually got most of the hard work out of the way by coming to that realization.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  12. Somebody

    I only drink because the doctor told me to. People looked at me funny when I said that. Just to prove that I had no personal need for alcohol, I stopped. It was literally medicinal. It was easy.

    And I'm atheist. There is no God. There is no "higher power." I hold myself responsible for everything.

    And I just stopped. How hard is that? Not at all.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Randy Fromm

      Agree. If you want to do something, you have the power on your own. Why let a fairy tale have an impact on your real world?

      August 29, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  13. USmellLikePee

    Buy a keg of O'Douls and tell the drunk it's Miller Lite. By the time he's polished it off he should be fairly weened off of real booze.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  14. Nichole

    Makes no mention of the traditions. Maybe had she read up on tradition 12 she would have thought twice about writing this article.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  15. mouse

    So what are you saying Joe.......people can't use proven steps w/o eliminating what doesn't work for them personally???? I mean just cuz you need that god crutch does not mean everyone else does. It is no more pointless than me saying I like burgers but I don't like them with cheese. Doesn't make it not a burger just makes it a burger w/o cheese but to me that is the way I like it. See, I can make pointless comparisons that work in my favor too!

    August 29, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Azariah

      "the god crutch"

      This idea that people who believe in God only use it as a crutch is a foolish reason to be an atheist. That is like criticizing someone for sleeping... they have to rely on that whole 'well rested' crutch. It's not just a crutch lol

      August 31, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  16. John in Texas

    So long as you realize your human quarks do not need the quarks that make up alcohol, then you should be ok. There is no need for a belief in the quarks of the divine to come to that conclusion.

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

      quirks are human idiosyncrasies, oddities of behavior, QUARKS are subatomic particles of which there six.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  17. Dan

    Different methods work for different people. SMART Recovery is an excellent alternative.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  18. Freddie

    You don't need AA either to stop drinking. If you want to stop, really want to stop, you can do it on your own. More alcoholics stop this way than with AA or any other crutch type organization.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Atheist

      Don't make posts like this. You have absolutely no idea about what your are talking!

      August 29, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  19. humbug

    More partying. Less religion. We'd actually get along.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • humbug

      ....and she's a pretty darn attractive gal without my beer goggles!

      August 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Allan

      I'll drink to that.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  20. Joe Chicago

    For those who do not believe in a god or believe god left them and they need to do this on their own, what can I say other then wow, that was a pointless story! Explaining how you re-worded/re-worked the steps so you could follow them or how they helped get you through, sans god...now that would have been helpful. This article is like saying I can buy real estate with no money down. You and the late night infomercial tell me I can but neither of you tell me how.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Randy Fromm

      I believe that it is far from being a pointless story. There are many of us who are enlightened and do not believe in God (I'll throw you a bone and capitalize the word as required by English, although I do not believe that the word deserves it, to be honest). Surely some are alcoholic. Surely some have considered AA. Surely some have rejected AA due to the "God" factor. She simply points out that it is possible to glean useful, helpful information from the AA program, without having to subscribe to the belief in God. It's not "news" but it wasn't presented as a news item.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:45 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.