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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. Reality

    From p. 34:

    WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, during pregnancy can cause mental retardation and other birth defects.

    WARNING: Drinking this product, which contains alcohol, impairs your ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.

    WARNING: This product contains alcohol and is particularly hazardous in combination with some drugs.

    WARNING: The consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, can increase the risk of developing hypertension, liver disease, and cancer

    WARNING: Alcohol is a drug which may be addictive. "

    August 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  2. DeAnnR

    I had the misfortune of dating a Compulsive Gambler for 4 years before I found out he had a problem. Unlike alcohol and drugs, there is no smell or glazed over eyes. He went to Gamblers Anonymous, I went to Gam-Anon and the very first meeting turned me off with the first step in their creed that says I am powerless. I was not and am not powerless. I had a CHOICE to remain with a gambler or not. After 5 weeks I chose not to. For those that like to Bible thump, the second greatest gift God bestowed upon man was Free Will. That alone means that I am not powerless.

    I find AA and other 12Step Groups to be pseudo-religous even when they say, as an organization, they are not. Their 'Cred" mentions, Power, God, Him in steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11

    August 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • joe

      What's interesting about the people who use God to pretend it's not them fixing themselves is that they do not see that it would be Jesus who took them right up to the brink in the first place.

      They always want to give their Jesus all the credit while as assigning him none of the responsibility.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Alan

      If you find you have dated other similar types or in the past present or future maybe you are an enabler. If it only happens to you once then you are not and are not powerless. Compulsive behaivor is just that, and that person needs help. Either spend lots of money on another cure or try another cheaper way. There are many ways to beat the "demon".

      August 29, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  3. Steve

    Does chemical dependency have anything to do with disease?

    August 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Yes.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Atheist

      Yeah!

      August 29, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  4. Man

    Obviously this woman is angry at God. She can't stand the fact that He stands above her in judgement. She was a drunken sinful fool most of her life. Rather than owning up to her actions she simply dismisses God. If she doesn't believe in God why is she making such a big deal about getting sober without Him? She is already admitting He exists.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • vanbt7

      you trolling? It's so hard to tell with these religious comments....

      August 29, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Douglas

      @Man... look up the term "Sophist argument". It describes your line of reasoning just perfectly.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • victim of democrat hypocrisy

      Obviously, there are no gods or goddesses, demons or devils, ghosts or goblins. Religion was invented by man to control the masses.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Dale Wilson

      Atheist here, alcoholic as well. I haven't attended an AA meeting for years but I'm still sober. I've been to church from time to time for hatches, matches and dispatches but I'm still an atheist. God bless you all.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • johnlev

      Yea. She MUST be mad because she doesn't beleive. Get a life.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  5. Alan

    The bottom line is I get drunk >WE get sober. An alcoholic in AA uses the power of the groups experience, strength, and hope in getting sober and staying sober. Their premise is if an individual had the power within themself to quit drinking they would have. Once the fog clears the individual can then work on their defects that brought them to their problem. Whatever the power is, does it really matter as long as the 12 steps works? Call the power God, the group whatever..it's just not the individual alcoholic by themself..

    August 29, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  6. Bill

    God isnt "out there". He resides in you as evident of your desire to help others. The power to change is not a human power. Whether or not we can be reduced to a 'quark" or not idoesnt matter! God resides there too. Its not about religion, its about spirituality. There is a big difference.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  7. meme

    There is no such thing as an atheist. An atheist is really just temporarily denying God, and after the appropriate life crisis, they all find their way back.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • John Do

      My wife has known atheists that search for God near death because they feared there was nothing after death.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • mike

      What a ridiculous statement.

      If that's true, though, I guess you Bible thumpers can stop ramming your beliefs down everyone's throat? After all, if you're correct, we'll all come around anyway.

      So which is it?

      (You're wrong)

      August 29, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Douglas

      And then discover, once and for all, the futility of believing in imaginary friends. Sheesh, get your head out of the sand and stop thinking like a child.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • BornWithaBrain

      Ridiculous, Meme. I'm a lifelong atheist. My parents are atheists. My stepfather – who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army and had been awarded three Purple Hearts – was an atheist who never found God in a foxhole. God doesn't exist. There's nothing for those of us who possess critical thinking abilities to find our way back to.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • cm

      Ahh Douglas – there is more and guess what you are not the 'more' just a part of it. You and your godless friends can go on being disconnected – life for you I would imagine be harder than someone who can believe. You are and will always be in the minority of the human race. In the end you will say with chagrin – I was wrong. Its alright if you don't want to believe – you miss out this time around. I would bet you will come back to earth school.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • cm

      PS: my dad is an atheist.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Noah

      An Atheist is a person of sound mind. Religious people and those that "try to find god when they're dying" are irrational and weak and lack common reasoning skills.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • QS

      There is no such thing as a Christian – a Christian is just somebody who pretends to believe in something that they don't just so they can fit in among a very judgmental and hypocritical group of people for fear that if they don't fit in with that group, that group will add them to the long list of "those who should be persecuted by our faith".

      August 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • Atheist

      I've personally witnessed two close friends who died atheists.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  8. Heidi AM

    I have been sober 29 years, most of that in AA. Your article is fantastic!! I agree and relate to every word! Thank you for being of service!!! It does work if you work it!! :)

    August 29, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  9. newhopebo

    ..Marya..Who are you, and who gives a flying phaque what you THINK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    August 29, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • JulioBob

      I do, as many others. You might disagree but that does not mean there are no other who think like her.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  10. USmellLikePee

    Quitters never win.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  11. patty

    two things – sorry you broke your anonimity at the level of "press, radio and films" but your thoughts are honest. With more than 40 years of recovery under my belt, I've tried it all and had my biggest chanllenge at 15 years when I became a Buddhist – we don't believe in God and not even in a Higher Power, so it took awhile for me to reconcile the two. But i have and have urged fellow Buddhists (SGI-USA) to go to AA with an open mind, and a burning desire for recovery.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  12. doug s.

    Great article. I agree with Marya Hornbacher that humility is the key. I find that humility is thread or theme that runs through the 12-steps. Perhaps it is not necessary to believe in a God to experience recovery, but I think it is necessary to accept that I am not it.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  13. Dickford Cohn

    What utterly senseless ramblings! To be charitable: A "dry drunk"! AA has nothing to offer anybody, in reality...nothing that they're incapable of supplying themselves.

    Supposedly, this writer believes in science...in logic. It would be nice to see some of that exhibited in her writings.

    August 29, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

      Dickford Cohn wrote, "What utterly senseless ramblings! To be charitable: A "dry drunk"! AA has nothing to offer anybody, in reality...nothing that they're incapable of supplying themselves."

      AA offers one friendship and a social setting in which the aloneness of Life becomes and easier burden. Yes we are as "dry drunks" with a need to be sociable without the bottle to suckle on. People who have had years of drinking in social circles only to have their lives turned upside down by certain melancholy adversities that many binge drinkers fall into an eventual bottomless pit of dispair. The 'cunningness' of an ongoing alcoholic is their denying themselves and others that they live an unmanagable extistence of drinking that is leading them nowhere with no end in sight on having anything worthy of showing for. There are nowadays many people who imbibe the bottle and some do outwardly proclaim themselves a drunkard to ease their alcoholic life-pangs with others of the sameness.

      My soon to be 2 years of being a "dry drunk", an alcoholic is yes, due my belief in a higher power, perhaps GOD or God or even another human being who has lived thier life alikened my path in life. The way of AA is in storytelling to others their past dealings with the "sauce" of life's very cunning juices that one tries in vain to be an overcomer of such a drug whose only comfort is an ever decaying sense of socal immorality and individualized unrighteousness. I am a believer in GOD, and the Gods of higher powers beyond my mere mortal being.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Steve

      AA has nothing to offer anybody? What a grand, sweeping know-it-all statement. Ignorance masquerading as absolute knowledge is frightening – whether it comes from you, a bible-thumper or a party-pandering politician. It's the same crap under a different flag.

      August 29, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  14. @Joseph Mzrnski

    Joseph, your ignorant reference to the "school killers" is just more proof of the ignorance of your mindset. The killers, and this is clearly a reference to the Columbine school tragedy, did NOT ask the girl in question if she believed in god and them kill her. The girl in question, Cassie Bernall, was not shot after the exchange that is so often quoted. The question was posed to another student who was NOT killed. When the student heard the story circulating about Cassie and went to speak the Cassie's parents and their preacher the decision was made to stick to the story and publish their book anyway. Just like religion, no use letting the truth get in the way of a good martyr/miracle/saint story. Please stop blindly referencing untruths.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  15. Ryan Lane

    This article was amazingly well-written and cogent. I admire your resolve Marya.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  16. kait

    Somewhat unrelated, but it's been bothering me for a while:

    Next time you see a commercial for a charity event, such as a food drive..... take a gander on who is sponsoring it.

    9 times out of 10 (at least here in the south) it's a church.

    Now don't get me wrong; I think it's awesome folks are stepping up to help folks in need..... But you open the door for the little old lady because it's the right thing to do...not because some "higher power" tells you to. So why can't people help people just because?

    Just wondering–this isn't a statement on whether or not you should go to church.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  17. curt

    That was the worst group of comments I think I have ever seen. Spoken from the lower quark pool no doubt. Great article! Marya, that is great service to all of us who struggle with the God thing; thank you! Could you write a book about alcohol and how it stunts the brains of people who write on blogs?

    August 29, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      *burps the alaphabet*

      August 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  18. vtrweasel

    Straight from the Mayo Clinic's web page...

    "Alcoholism is a chronic disease in which your body becomes dependent on alcohol. When you have alcoholism, you lose control over your drinking. You may not be able to control when you drink, how much you drink, or how long you drink on each occasion. If you have alcoholism, you continue to drink even though you know it's causing problems with your relationships, health, work or finances."

    "Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a self-help group of people recovering from alcoholism. AA offers a sober peer group as an effective model for achieving total abstinence. The AA program is built around 12 steps, which are straightforward suggestions for people who choose to lead sober lives. As guides to recovery, the 12 steps help those with alcoholism to accept their powerlessness over alcohol. They stress the necessity for honesty about the past and present.

    Recovery in AA is based on accepting the unique experience of each person. Through listening and sharing stories, people who abuse or are dependent on alcohol learn they aren't alone. There are no fees for membership or requirements for following the 12 steps — only a willingness to try to remain sober."

    Hmmm, no mention of religion. Congrats to all that are getting help regardless of where it comes from.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • kait

      I think the religion is brought in by the folks attending. ;)

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

      Exactly what does the Mayo Clinic website have to do with anything?

      August 29, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Opinion from an unbiased scientific source. Regardless of what you believe Alcoholism is a chronic disease and will kill you if left untreated.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  19. NLB

    I am not in AA, but a friend who is says his motto is "whatever works." If religion/service/whatever gets the attention off of yourself and gets you off the booze/drugs/self-absorbtion, and it doesn't hurt anybody else or break the law, go for it.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  20. Vova

    "I believe that I exist at random"
    This isn't true. Science tells us that given a certain set of conditions life is inevitable. This is the kind of talk that gets creationists saying "well if god didn't create you then your existence is entirely random." It would be like saying objects fall to the earth at random, not that there was some force involved.

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

      Unless you can prove that atoms in an excited state release photons without some element of chance you would prove your point. Unfortunately for you it has never been done. Therefore, the statement "I believe that I exist at random" is true.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Ryan Lane

      Simply, no. Existence and gravity are not analogous.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:01 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.