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!”
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.
Why must there be so many damn trolls on these sites – does the atheist v theist debate never evolve past name calling and straw-man arguments....?
Seriously people...try a google search and rsearch a bit before you make your arguments – all of us (myself included) could stand to do a bit more reading and a bit less talking.
A good site dealing with much of this crap – http://www.tektonics.org/
Hey! You shouldn't be posting here. I should be posting here.
I love how people use science to justify their disbelief in God. I am a quantum physicist, and have been for years. I was drafted into the Church as a child by my parents, but mind you, I didn't confirm my faith until my last year in graduate school. People always say science makes more sense, that believing what you can't see makes no sense. If most of you Atheists actually did your research, you would know that the foundation of evolution is based on assumptions, and that there's no proof of the 'start' of the process. Even Einstein hated it when atheists of his time called him one of them. During my graduate studies, I did a research one summer of dark matter, I have never doubted the existence of a Supreme Being since. I can't force you to believe in what you don't see, but please quit using science as your reason. Most of us actual scientists hate that, and some of us believe that God is the ultimate scientist.
Man created god from his own imagination
I would say that most appeals to science are in response to oft asked questions by Theists in the form of, 'well, if you don't believe in God how do you explain X?'
Atheism doesn't require much science, but does require logic. Science just helps weed out the pseudo-science woo woo stuff that gets thrown into the mix, such as the whole telepathy by quantum entanglement bs. It also helps weed out false premises.
In logic though, the claim must be supported by evidence. If you have no way to tell if a premise is true you can't tell if the conclusion is true either.
You and your kind still need to provide some evidence or proof. You have still not done this.
I believe that's called Argument From Authority. You're a physicist and you believe in God so we should also. Besides, you studied Dark Matter for a whole summer! So there must be a God because you say so.
1. Faith is believing in the unseen, so I am sorry but I can't prove this to you by science or any other way.
2. If you read my comment, I did say I can't force you to believe in God, and studying dark matter for a summer doesn't mean it ended there, my faith is renewed every time I read an astrophysics journal. Also, Darwin coined the theory of evolution and didn't prove it like most scientists I know prove their thought theories, just saying. He was a man like you and I.
You are not a scientist. You're a fake. You don't even understand scientific principles enough to do it well. Go play a doctor on TV you silly person.
Oh, by the way pretend scientist, the story you lamely hijacked was really more about the misery of alcohol dependence. But, I suppose a fanatic gets easily distracted on their favorite subject, no? A little compassion perhaps next time? See if you can do it. God just might be watching ....
It's fine if you believe, you can be a good person whether you believe or not. You may even be a physicist. But the more you talk about 'evolution', the more obvious it becomes that you don't know the first thing about it. Evolution is a well-settled theory (and if you truly are a scientist then you will understand the meaning of the term) developed to explain how the evolution we see (in genetics, fossil record, geodistribution, etc.) occurred. The problem you may have is that you're conflating evolution with abiogenesis, which is a much more speculative field (necessarily, because there is no direct evidence to test any theory about the beginning of life, whether natural or supernatural).
Ok "physicist", you are either a liar, got your degree from a bible college or you should get your tuition money back. A simple read through a 3rd grade Biology text book educates one about evolution than the trash you just spewed. You're ignorance is embarrassing.
The excuses keep coming. A believer presents faith, the atheist says 'science proves there is no God'. A believer presents faith and extensive scientific knowledge, the atheist says 'logic proves there is no God!'. Even if you read Descartes, you would know that logic can be used to prove God's existence. "I think therefore I am" – in the same piece that he puts that forward, he says it is logically impossible for there to be no God. And he was schooled by Jesuits, which is sketchy still.
Then we have Sue come along and outright accuse the man of not being a scientist. Scared? and the next man goes on about fancy words in the theory of evolution, still not touching the fact that evolution is a shaky theory at best. Even if animals evolved and transitional fossils exist, it doesn't disprove God's existence. Evolution is a rough series of explanations that don't contradict each other, but it's no way to explain the history of creation.
The truth is you can go on and on about science and logic all you want but it doesn't address the fundamental questions of our existence, which is where faith comes in. For a believer, science and logic strengthen faith in God. For an unbeliever, science and logic uhh... wow what a big coincidence everything is eh??? Cool!
I didn't mind the higher power part of AA – I just couldn't get over the AA part of AA.
You can do it without having to rewire your philosophy. Just make up your mind that you want to quit and challenge yourself. Use the power of your subconscious mind to direct your body and mind to break the destructive patterns. Focus on visualizing success. Don\'t forget to seek medical advice before you make drastic changes in your diet or alcohol consumption. If you have been drinking hard for a long time, you may need to follow a special diet and take vitamins like niacin and folic acid. You may need to ease off rather than attempting to stop cold turkey. You can do it and you know it, with or without faith in God.
Shut up before you kill someone. Sudden withdrawal from alcohol can cause extreme responses like seizures, heart palpitations and vomiting, as well as create uncomfortable symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and tremors.
There are some drugs that can be stopped "cold turkey." If alcohol consumption was high enough for long enough, alcohol is not one of them. Sudden cessation of alcohol consumption after months or years of heavy drinking can be hazardous, even fatal.
Sorry, you did say "seek medical advice before you make drastic changes in your diet or alcohol consumption" but you're pretty much wrong in everything else you said.
This entire article seems to violate the 12 tranditions, course that's just my interpretation.
Now Reed, you know drunks love and cherish that self-endowed right to an opinion.
I've benn in AA for 27 years and at every opportunity I have defied a meeti ng or a Group obbsessed with 'defining' itself in a way contrary to AA's 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. To hell with Gay,straighht,agnostic,Republican,policemen or doctors meetings. The 3rd tradition tells me the only requirment for memberships is a desire to stop drinking. Maybe not tomorrow,either. How about today? I don't give a damn for womens or Sistah meetings either. There's another Tradition which states that we don't have any damned ruls but paradoxically a Group can do as it likes BUT as it affects AA as a whole. As for the fool who stated " by the grace of this program and the blood of Jesus Christ " he was sober I can take some pleasure in noting that alcoholic insanity,the lack of emotional sobriety has yet escaped hi. Keep coming back, brother, but leave Jesus on the dash board.
A splendid article and an excellent comment Uncle David. I've a whole 19 months. I've been fortunate in the article of sponsors and this is not my first run at sobriety. I think a source of frustration is the dearth of a good vocabulary for things spiritual. I'm convinced that when someone says "God" to someone else, they each have very different ideas about what's been said.
Sorry, but he was not a fool. He has found his higher power and who are you to say it isn't so. I personally believe that Jesus Christ is the true power behind AA, go back a little in the history of AA and see how it was founded, not the watered down version that is AA today.
Hmmm ... have always tried to apply "... my understanding of the AA Recovery Program ..." and regardless of my sided interpretations and/or in spite of my very own self, it continues to work; and to think, MY FIRST TWO STEPS IN BOTH BELIEVING AND RECOVERY WERE "... SKEPTICISM & PESSIMISM ..." and now I'm convinced that he, she, they or it knows and obviously, I don't ... to each their own ! Congratulations on your 'recovery' and just give thanks that your interpretive pathway is none of my business !
Well...said McCrave! To the author: Go For More...miracles never cease! To God: I believe, help my unbelief!
You don't have to go to a 12 step program – there are secular organizations for sobriety. http://www.sossobriety.org/
...and none of them work as well as AA. That is if the numbers mean anything to you. Me? I just didn't want to die. I'd have picked up a Number 4 at McDonald's every day if someone had given me some hope that I wouldn't bleed to death or have another bowl of Special K followed by a glass or two of gin a few minutes later on the way to work. It takes work to be an alcoholic.
Uncle David: If there are more God-believers in the population, and more of them are attracted to AA because of their belief in the higher power in the first place...it does not necessarily follow that AA's approach is more successful than any other program because of sheer numbers. If you took those AA members and put them all in, say, group therapy sessions headed by a psychiatrist, psychologist, etc., if AA didn't exist at all, it's quite possible that many of them would still recover from their alcoholism with similar statistical levels of success.
Question: If God did not create this Universe and Man, Why is there NO proof of any other " Beings" in the Universe?
Why is there no proof of the judeo-christian "god"?
So because we haven't found simultaneous existence of another civilization, you can jump to the conclusion that a being not only created the universe, but also created one species of sentient life destined to fulfill the higher purpose of existing to believe in him?
There is proof ,it's all around you but you choose not to see it
That would be very hard for you to understand.
I didn't ask a question to be answered with a question. Thats the cowardly reply
Because there are no omnipotent beings, period.
@ jparks...no, there is precisely none. Just like there is precisely no evidence to support the existence of your other figments, "allah", "satan", etc. You're engaging in intellectual dishonesty.
When you ask a question that's blatantly dishonest, why would you expect a rational answer? If the reply is cowardly, so is your question. More to the point, how brave are you, if you cannot face life without a metaphysical security blankie?
Hey jparks. If you take a basic astronomy class you can get the answer to that question. (Hint: The universe is a really big place with lots of planets spread very far apart with very few of them able to support life.) I'm not really sure what that has to do with God's existence. I always thought that was a matter of faith. If you are opening it up to the scrutiny of requiring proof I would say you are going to be at a disadvantage. Google Russell's teapot and you will see what I mean.
Because it's just a stupid question. Like, "If Superman didn't come from Krypton, why is there no proof of Spiderman?"
There are thousands of religions on this planet, each with their own "proof" or "holy scripture" about their gods.
I'd post this question to you – let's say you're born into a mormon family, or a jewish family, or a muslim family, or any other of the hundreds of religions on this planet, and you believe what your parents are taught. Now that you're an adult, what would you objectively look at as evidence that the christian religion is the right one, instead of what you grew up with?
because they're very far away?..................
The answer to a question is not a question. Further more if all the space exploration and searching cannot find or validate any other life source, how did we come to be? Did we Magically appear out of dust?
Actually there has been life found on other planets; bacteria from Mars was discovered in an ancient meteorite that smashed into the Antarctic over 13,000 years ago. Yes, bacteria is life in case you were wondering, jparks. Explain that to me. There ARE beings on other plants. The Universe is never ending, as well as the possibility for life on other planets outside of the Milky Way.
Cannot see my last reply to MGN, oh well it's probably best that he doesn't see it. Anyway may the Lord God be with you all
No, jparks...magic is YOUR explanation of existence. Science freely admits it doesn't know, but is looking for an honest answer, not some hackneyed, often-copied fairy tale.
I did the fake it till you make it, as a atheist I still don't believe, but I will have 29 years sober in about a month.
The success rate of 12-step programs is 5%. The success rate of quitting on your own... 5%.
Where do you find these data? BTW, AA is about survival, rather than recidivism rate.
This is a phony statistic, and is probably based on the statistic that AA only reaches about 5% of those suffering from alcoholism. For more realistic recovery stats, see McLellan's article in the Journal of AMA around 200, or any of Rudolf Moos' research. There's plenty of evidence that attending AA enhances recovery. Maybe not for everyone, but as they say, "It works if you work it".
Thank you so much for writing this. My husband is in rehab right now and these wise words will help him through his recovery. Thanks a million times over!
I have been sober and in the program for 21 years and don't really believe in any god. It used to bug me but now I just let it roll in one ear and out the other. Whatever works for you. Its a free country.
This article implies that you cannot believe in atoms and the wonder of evolution without being atheist or non-Christian, which is simply not true (I feel more theistic in a biochem class than I do talking to close-minded "Christian" creationist idiots, interestingly enough for the same reasons the author does). But I do sympathize with the lack of an AA community for atheists.
You're right, Amy! You CAN prove that theistic scientists and mathematicians exist, beyond any of us atheists posting here: e.g., Priest Lemaitre and Kurt Friedrich Goedel.
Studying evolutionary biology and communing with animals both wild and domestic have made me what I am today: An agnostically tinged neo-animist! OK, it lacks a certain panache, but it is what it is and all the discussion on this board over the months I've been here hasn't nudged me off my position. I don't believe in gods that mimic neolithic city-state despots or their bronze and iron-age analogues. Indeed, I feel that the flight from nature to settled communities is what warped spirituality into religion as we know and hate it (or ought to). But once you behold just how deeply connected we truly are with nature and its myriad organism, whammo, instant neo-animist! Ok, maybe not for everyone ...
She needs to be in a foxhole to find her belief in God!
I was in a foxhole and I didn't and still don't believe in a god...
That's a ridiculous statement. I'm military and won't believe something as skewed and pathetic as religion. Your statement only exists because when put into a stressed, scared, or belittled situation, people try to find something to fall back on. A sense of security or luck. That's all religion is.
Your remark is offensive to the many atheists that serve in the military. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers maintains a large list, in case there is any doubt. And these of course are only people who have asked to be on the list. http://www.militaryatheists.org/expaif.html
I've personally witnessed the continued convictions of two atheists who died in the foxhole.
Been there...still don't need your weak crutch to deal with reality. Maybe you should check out the MAAF...Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. We've been nicknamed "Atheists In Foxholes".
Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. Sounds legit.
explain to me OH smart one Evolution. If man evolved from Ape's,Why didnt Apes evolve?
Reply to jparks:
:Sigh: First, we didn't evolve from apes. Second, apes evolved just like we did.
Humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. The evidence can be found in our chromosomes. If it wasn't true, why would God place it there? And before you try to say it was to test man, you are effectively calling God a deceiver.
Apes did evolve, they became fundamental christians
jparks: You have it wrong. Apes and Man evolved from the same thing(s). In gact, every living thing on this planet evolved from the same thing(s). They evolved in different directions; such is the way of the natural selection experiments. We are still evolving. So are apes.
@JParks: ROFLMAO! Get a high school biology text and read about how evolution works and you can answer your own silly question. Don't ask smart folks to chew your food for you.
"Don't ask smart folks to chew your food for you."
Evangelical atheism.. it's not enough to just not believe in God, but you have to go trample on the beliefs of others. What you said does nothing to challenge the beliefs of a Christian. I wonder why you did it... to be congratulated by those who think just like you?
Do you have a strong belief independent belief system, or do you just choose to rebel against the norm just because it is the norm? Unfortunately although "Christianity" is the norm in the USA, true religion is a rarity, so you only succeed in taking down a strawman. Luckily for you jparks came along and played the part of the strawman very well.
Unfortunately this is another apparent member who has completely forgotten about our true responsibility and that is anonymity as well noty dragging the A.A. name into the paper to remind folks of her new book, like we need another book about being sober and another opinion on the A.A. program........
Thanks, Glen......I have to do a 4th step on my resentment towards people that violate our tradition of anonymity at the level of press radio and films.! She may have 10 years, but there's always the yets and the buts. I feel sorry for her, and will keep her in my PRAYERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! May the FORCE be with you!
Not trying to step on the the 11th tradition here (pun intended) but is the only place I can talk about my experience in AA either in an AA meeting or face to face with another alcoholic?
If I have a blog that follows my recovery in AA while not mentioning any other AA members or telling people that "AA works and you should go" am I breaking the 11th?
Doesn't make sense when I trying to do what ever it takes to help other alcoholics. Shouldn't our experience, strength & hope be passed on?
Great article and it's clearly evoked many responses.
As a recovering alcoholic I chose the options that work for me and remember that different approaches work for different people. They common “enemy” is the addiction not someone else who may have a different way of dealing with it.
Trollin trolls be trollin.
It will always boggle my mind how people somehow think the advancement of the human species or even the universe is the same as morality.
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.