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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 • My Take

soundoff (3,939 Responses)
  1. hahvahd

    I think this article does a better job explaining it:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-somehow-overcomes-alcoholism-without-jesus,21146/

    August 28, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • thebarnster

      Brilliant! Thanks for sharing!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  2. luis

    spirituality for a atheist is the feeling that there is a natural connection between us.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • SCAtheist

      I don't need a religious word for that. It is what it is,

      August 28, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  3. Matt C

    I'm alive now because of AA. I am also a strong agnostic. However the 1st step was surrender. So I surrendered and did what they told me. I turned myself over to a higher power whatever that is. I didn't fight it, I was just done. My life sucked and I felt terrible. The party was definitely over.
    I can't explain what it is but when I am at an AA convention and over a thousand of us are all linked through holding hands I do feel something akin to electricity, spirituality, whatever you want to call it flowing through me. Some people call it God. I'm not smart enough to know what it is.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • gman222

      Exactly. Thier is a higher power that we cannot define, i find it by working the steps and and working on my character defects. I learned that trying to figure it all out is what got me into the rooms in the first place. I have seen on this post that people have been killing the in the name of religion for years... this is true. PEOPLE have been killing.... god is just a world that helps me define the right thing to do. I have learned that self will rears its head in many forms now i am seeing it on cnn.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  4. Killer

    So does this idiot lady just think DNA fell out of the sky? Does she know anything about the human body? The human body's WAY TO COMPLEX in its design and how the systems work together to have just fallen out of a tree. SOMETHING put a great deal of planning into our design.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • SCAtheist

      That's the oldest fallacy around. Reason backwards from anything that actually exists, and it looks like a long shot. Stupid nonsense.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • thebarnster

      Thou art a moron. Amen.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Ruderalis

      It's impossible to comprehend billions of years of evolution, because we humans have such a short lifespan. We started off as simple celled organisms and evolved into many different sophisticated organisms. Again, it seems like some sort of divine act, when it's really BILLIONS of years in the making. What do you think your family would look like if they kept reproducing for billions of years? Do you really think they would look the same? Don't you think they would evolve to tolerate different weather and other Earthy struggles?

      August 28, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • wayne

      Life is only a chemical reation all the way to the core. I don't believe and one reason is because the structure of life is so complex. If there was a god there would be no need to make life so complex.

      August 29, 2011 at 6:32 am |
  5. Wowzer

    Give the woman a congrats and get over yourselves. It's her right to be a nonbeliever, makes more room in church for you. ;-)

    August 28, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Eric

      She has, in my opinion, broken several traditions of A.A.

      10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

      11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.

      12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

      She is going directly against the anonymity of tradition 11 by promoting herself through A.A.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  6. Guy Rainville

    God must be very pleased by your opinion and book. He awaits you with great joy around the corner.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Long John Silver

      What's god going to do genius, burn her in everlasting hellfire? Only the human brain could come up with something so silly. Grow up and quit sucking up to an imaginary invisible super daddy in the sky. If he's there he doesn't like suck ups.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Atheist

      Long John Silver, according to Jesus (John 15:6) : "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." Sounds like an egomaniacal rant, but maybe it's a misquote.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
  7. Karen

    Since you are in AA, might want to start asking women that have a lot of sobriety about Tradition 11.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  8. Jeff Bertram

    AA, salvation army, boy scouts etc.... all infiltrated by the church and therefore should be boycotted. Keep your religion in your church!

    August 28, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • SCAtheist

      How come they always resist scientific inquiry? Not because of anonymity – you could handle that problem – because it's a threat to their belief system.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Atheist

      SCAtheist, Please! You're ignoring the fact that you are uninformed about AA. I can understand your imagination, but reality differs. Try to find out SOMETHING about AA before making such statements.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • Hendronicus

      The Salvation Army is a church. It always was. At least they don't kid themselves about it like AA.

      September 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  9. Xenia

    Americans never study history of any kind. The reason they are repeating the follies of older nations this century.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • RPR

      This is not an American failing but a failing (perhaps) of humans in general.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  10. John

    August 28, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  11. Sean

    I got a somewhat different reaction from the people in AA when I made it clear that I did not believe in god, atleast how they seemed to. Some gave me that look of "oh well, cant help him"... but most started telling me all about how they were just like me in their beliefs when they started in the program, giving me a knowing look, before then going on to tell me how that had all changed, and that they now did not just believe, but also all about how they became such good church goers and all that fun stuff. I'm not sure what freaked me out worse, the people who thought I was hopeless, or the people who kept looking at me as a prospect to convert. I stuck it out for about 3 or 4 months, but after turning down about the 20th invitation to go to church with someone I bailed and have not been back since. I know what the literature says, and have heard it all... and I know that not all groups are like the one I went to. But its really hit or miss with AA, each group is different (and in rural areas that might be the only group around), and some of them just take the God stuff too far and are the ones that give it the cult reputation it has.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Jon P

      Sean there are literally thousands of meetings everyday. I am sure you could find one that suited your needs. Alcohol brought into the rooms, alcohol will bring you back. Your not serious about changing your life.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • SCAtheist

      That's the real AA. It's a quasi-religion, and they expect you to convert. It's like that all over the place. The New York Court of Appeals agrees with that assumption.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • bill

      You are right that some groups overdo the "God stuff". In my group that's what we call it – the "God Stuff". Rural areas have the biggest problem with it but in most cases you can find another group that stands by the principle that AA is not affiliated with any religious group.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  12. Hesalive

    Christianity in two words: He's alive (Luke 24:5).. Why we know and others don't is a mystery, but we definitely know. You do, too, but you're too proud to admit it. Coming to Christ is the worst thing and the best thing at the same time. He utterly shatters the self-serving illusions you harbor about yourself, but, in so doing, grants you eternal life.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • craig

      You need to see the holy healing light of the FSM, and become touched by his noodly appendage. Stop worshiping your false god. You know the FSM is the one true god. Why we know is a mystery, but we do know. Accept it. I have it written down somewhere that it's true.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Troy

      I find it very interesting that you assume that all people who aren't Christian are self-serving, prideful jerks. I'm pretty sure that if you bothered to check, the percentages of money donated to charity are about the same between Christians and non-Christians, that just as many non-Christians as Christians help people as much as they can, and that non-Christians are just as likely to be jerks as Christians. We just don't feel the need to cram our spirituality down the throats of others or try to force them to live by our ideals.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Answer

      Time and time again – all christians love to spread their disease.

      Why do they always presume that "everybody" knows? Is that a fact?
      Hesalive: in your opinion, how many people is in your definition of everybody? Have you talked with everybody?
      Let's see you've talked to like everybody right? All the people, in all the world. You've been everywhere? Visited every place?

      I bet you that answer is a no. You speak for nobody. You do know what this syndrome is called right?

      >> You are speaking out of your ass. <<

      August 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  13. SlightlyOff

    Women, if you're struggling and AA isn't helping.....try http://www.womenforsobriety.org
    It's a program for women, with no religious over or undertones. It's based on behavioral therapy and changing thinking patterns. It is saving my life along with many other women!

    August 28, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  14. deadmanwalking47

    to each,his or her own.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  15. Colin

    "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."

    This captures a common misconception about atheists very well. Theists often accuse us of being self-centered.

    Theists believe they will survive their own physical deaths and live for ever, atheists understand we will not; theists think the entire Universe was made for them, atheists accept our position in the universe as irrelevant ants; theists think the creator of the Universe has a personal interest in their day to day lives, atheists accept the indifference of reality to us.

    It seems to me that any criticism about being self-centered may be more accurate flowing in the opposite direction.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Jeff Bertram

      Agreed. Well said!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Jon P

      Self-centeredness and self-pity are two hallmarks of the alcoholic. We use these steps to break that. Not sure what you are getting at we already know when we come in we are these.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  16. ropeheels7

    I,m glad you have found your way our of hell. But I have to agree with one of the other posters. We have 12 traditions. One of them is complete Anonymity at the level of press radio and films. I strongly doubt you are an a active member who has a sponsor, a service commitment, and understands the program. Im not upset that your an atheist and that I am not. We really dont care who your higher power is. We do however care that you break our traditions. Someone could be reading this who is dying from alcoholism. If they read something in your post they strongly disagree with and never show up and give it a chance, this is on you. Call your sponsor.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Jon P

      I am in agreement. If you are hung up on God then you can start your own meetings just for Atheists and Agnostics. I am sure you will have people who will attend. Like ropeheels7 says, we do not care if you believe in God. You do not have to say the prayers. I see many people that step off to the side or leave. We do not care. We tolerate you, so why do you not tolerate us?

      August 28, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • SCAtheist

      Thanks for showing us the "real" AA, so we know how open you really are to people who don't share your beliefs.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • RPR

      And if your "traditions" keeps many atheist people out of AA that will eventually die because of your overtly religious traditions! That is on your head... But the religious have rarely showed much compassion to the non-believers.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • charlie7910

      I am glad that you made it . Like Marya, I to was an atheist. Now I am just an agnostic, don't know one way or the other and could care less. The "GOD" issue and close minded people that exclaimed,"you will never make it until you believe what we believe," drove me away from AA for years. Fortunately for me, I was able to believe what I needed to make it . I went to meetings and" took what I needed and left the rest." That was almost 16 years ago and I still attend AA. I think that if I continue to do what I've been doing that my chances of staying clean,sober and relatively content will continue.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • ds

      I realize everyone has their own opinion about our fellowship. Everything is suggested, and only says a desire. If I were told I have to do this or that, I would NOT have stuck around. People were given a brain, after that they are up to their own actions. I still do not believe in religon the bible, etc. Keeping it simple, having a desire, a willingness, are the suggestions. I knew nothing until I came in the doors and for a long time just listened.

      In a previous post, I agree, to each his or her own. I found what works for me. AA is for people who want it, not those who need it. I came in because of the drinking and the destruction I caused. I stay to keep my thinking on the sane and straight. Some people do both, power to them

      August 28, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • gman222

      I couldn't agree more, opinions about how aa should be run and its opinions by people who clearly have a missconception of the purpose of the steps should not be discussed here. If someone is quoting Jesus, which I rarely hear in meetings, that thier belief. We learn throught the steps that are resentments as far as human concerns go are unhealthy and should be discussed with a sponser. Clealy the writer has an Idea of a higher power. "Math and chaos" to each thier own. God and religion are human based Ideas that have been driven by faith, and have been succesfull in helping others find not only sobriety but positive influences on lives and society in general. God is but a word that describes a feeling for a higher power that is entirely up to the persons own understanding.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • rabbit

      From the way it was taught to me the anonymous aspect was to keep famous people from being hounded and/or ostracized, either for being an alcoholic or protection from those who would idolize them as a 'saviour'. While some of this rings true to this day the need for some sort of quasi-religious 'anonymity' is unneccessary.All you people screaming about breaking anonymity and accusing others of not really being a member of AA(even though the Big Book states that you are one if you say you are one, and the only REQUIREMENT is the desire to stop drinking)... well... one could consider you to be in even more error that those you accuse. After all, who are you to tell someone they're doing it wrong? Is their plan working? Are they sober?

      August 28, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  17. us1776

    Hurrah for speaking out against all these "Invisible Being" cults.

    Really tired of having any version of the "Invisible Being" shoved in my face.

    .

    August 28, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • AAdan

      I have been going to 10 meets a week for several months and I often state my atheism, and I have always felt just as accepted as any one else. Live and let live. Its not that you need to believe in God, you just need to believe that you are NOT God. Keep coming.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Ruderalis

      @AAdan: You're ok with six of the twelve steps being religious, even though you aren't yourself? What do you do the other half of the time you're there? Nod your head?

      August 28, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Hello?

      Who's shoving it in your face?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  18. Xenia

    Summary: Atheists always hack the good things religions started. They don't exist on themselves. They become parasites and corrupt the whole. We know what atheists would do ultimately by watching North Korea. If atheists have any ounce of honesty, they'd admit they've been wrong and say sorry to the Creator God instead of saying any more weird things. They don't because they value humans over all things. Humanists conducted the worst atrocities throughout the world with WW1 and WW2 last century. The Western Europe returned to the Christian sanity briefly after those, but the cancer of humanism/atheism returned in far worse forms to the immoral secular West this century.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • wayne

      You know nothing of what non belief is. Your statement is total BS.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • DPLJLB

      Ah pipe down and shut your pie hole. Anyone who thinks different from you threatens you.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • DPLJLB

      Anyone who thinks different from you threatens you.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Sean

      How charmingly offensive! So Christianity is THE way to go for the milk of human kindness, is it? Let me ask you this: How many wars have been fought over a belief that there is no god? Not "my god is better than your god," or "you worship the wrong god, so convert or die," but "we don't believe in god." I defy you to find one. More men, women and children have been slaughtered in this world over belief in god than for any other reason. Additionally, it may be argued that atheists are actually better people than "the faithful". Why? Because we don't need a Big Man In The Sky constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure we're being good. We just "be good," all on our own. One final thought to stun your tiny mind with. I can't recall whose quote this is, so apologies on that front, but here it is: "If god is willing to prevent evil, but unable, then he is incompetent. If god is unwilling to prevent evil, but able, then he is malevolent."

      August 28, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • craig

      Obvious religion troll is Obvious.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • LaPlut

      The cross is the Roman sign of murder!

      August 28, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Jeff Bertram

      Xenia
      You are absolutely wrong. Religious zealots have killed millions over the centuries all in the name of god. Humanists do good because its the human thing to do. Religious zealots commit their atrocities because of fear of retribution. So which is the more righteous philosophy?

      August 28, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • JD

      Yeah, NOTHING horrible has ever been done in the name of religion. Especially this century.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Colin

      So religion played no part in the inquisition, manifest destiny, holocaust, Islamic jihad or genocide in Darfur? I think the recorded facts of history countermand your argument. Fanaticism is born in those who adhere to tradition and who feel that the tenets of their tradition are being attacked. This bears itself out over and over again and the modern worlds greatest atrocities have been carried out under the guise of unshakable faith.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Xenia, thank you for telling it like it is because atheists are too arrogant and selfish to see the whole picture on anything in life because it’s all about them, them, them. It will be interesting to see what those atheist HACKS at Trinity College do with their ATHEIST manifesto. They’ll rip off Jesus’ truth (as does everyone else) change His wording from the Bible, and call it their own. Same as surrender to humility. Originated with Jesus telling us to be humble, aka meek.

      Amen.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  19. kynyth

    Most people who recover from "alcoholism" or drug abuse do so on their own. AA is dangerous to persons who come to "the program" seeking help, in that these very vulnerable and desperate persons are told that that they are diseased and that there is no way other than theirs to remain clean/sober. "The program" teaches hopelessness,guilt,shame, and dependance on a group of people/"sponsor" whose only qualification is that they are mindless "recovering" persons.Take responsibility for your actions.You want to not live as you are,slave to substance, then take a look- an honest look, at what needs to be changed in your life.Contrary to AA teaching, YOU ARE NOT HELPLESS.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Jon P

      Kynyth, you are sadly mistaken. Just will it away. Take a hard look at yourself. Silly words from a silly person. I am in AA and no one teaches shame or dependence. Hell no one cares if people in the program even work it. Sponsors are just others who have recovered and pass it along. You views are a reflection of the sadness within yourself.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • bill

      Nonsense! AA taught me to take responsibility and stop blaming people, places and things for my problem. "I am responsible" is the central theme.....not shame and guilt. That is why people share their experiences at meetings, They know they will not be judged. I was also told to make amends to people I hurt. That is taking responsibility.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Cutie

      If AA has a strict policy (tradition) to not promote itself thru publication or tv or any media then why did she just not get that priniciple and go write a book about it. Self promotion using AA knowing they won't get into the mix no matter what. Plus she's hoping to make money off their name – er- initials for herself. Also she did a cram session like preparing for a tounament debate in a few faiths and some folllowers she could come up with names – according to the article. Faith is something lived and she didn't garner from them anything becasue she doesn't want to ask the real questions and hear what they know. They are way down the road after accepting God through Faith – she's still at the door.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Jeff

      You guys are pretty much confirming that AA is a dangerous, theistic cult.

      AA is everything and nothing. Anything can be AA. There is no recovery without AA. Join AA and you'll find god sooner or later. Don't talk about AA in public (otherwise people might get the lowdown on our cult). Etc etc.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  20. bill

    I don't know where she lives but that is not the experience with my association with AA. Some are very religious, some are atheist, some are agnostics. The group I belong to is very sensitive to a the beliefs or non beliefs of others. Anyone offended with the "Jesus" stuff should find another group.

    August 28, 2011 at 9:37 am |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.