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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. kevin

    So many opinions on the process, yet the majority of the participants here seem to have achieved the main purpose.....to remain sober. Isn't that the point afterall? Who cares how you get there?

    August 31, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • SeanNJ

      We can reduce the human contribution of CO2 to our atmosphere in one of two ways:

      1) Reduce our usage of fossil fuels and find better, cleaner alternatives.
      2) Kill all the extra humans.

      We reduce our carbon footprint. Isn't that the point? Who cares how we got there?

      August 31, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Martin T

      Sean, if we look at what is happening in Africa these days, I'm to believe that killing off all the "extra" humans seems to be the plan of some.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • SeanNJ

      @Martin T: "Lastday, Capricorn 29's. Year of the City: 2274. Carousel begins."

      August 31, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

      To remain "sober" can be said one is a "Dry Drunkard" ripe with the Holy Spirit to contend with. The feelings that a dried up drunkard has is sometimes just as bad as still drinking perhaps more so.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  2. Vincent

    I have been a member of the fellowship of AA for a while. Having attended many hundreds of meetings I am trying to think of even one where some even mentioned "Jesus Christ". To work the AA program properly you have to believe in a Higher Power, something greater than yourself. For most people this is God but there are many people who have difficulty believing in God. This issue is an extremely common topic at meetings and it is always stressed that believe in a Higher Power can be anything of your choosing and many AAs simply believe in the power of the group as a whole as their Higher Power (I have also know many people who started with this belief and later found faith in God). The founders of AA way back in the 1930s realized that many people have difficulities with the concept of God, so they had the foresight to use the term Higher Power and also the original Big Book of AA has a whole chapter on athiests and agnostics. I have not read the book she is trying to sell but her article would lead the reader to believe being an athiest is an obstacle to being part of AA when it is simply not. AA is however very much a spiritual program. I believe the most important element of spirituality is humility (You are not God). Once you get your ego out of the way the rest will come.

    August 31, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • SeanNJ

      You do realize that a lot of atheists, dare I say most, have no more respect for "spirituality" than they do theism, yes?

      Cranking up the ambiguity by calling it a "higher power" doesn't make the idea any more palatable. Humility doesn't require belief in the supernatural. Vacating your personal responsibility for your well-being, and leaning on a new, presumably less physically destructive crutch doesn't really make you any healthier. You just stop being an active drunk.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Martin T

      I don't know, Sean, I am an atheist and I have a GREAT deal of respect for both spirituality and for theism, insomuch as it is practiced in a way that does not assume that, as and atheist, I am condemned to eternal damnation or that I have no morals or sense of right or wrong. See, that is the case here, at least for me, how do Christians practice their faith, is it as a true belief in a Christ, or as a sword to condemn and chop away at those who do not believe as they do?

      August 31, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • SeanNJ

      @Martin T: I've been on your side of it in the past, until I realized I was being intellectually dishonest with myself.

      I was playing my own "god of the gaps" game where I found myself rejecting large swathes of religious belief, but still excusing those pleasures of comfort that come from being spiritual or "Christian-like."

      I'm of the firm opinion that acceptance of spirtuality or a higher power, with no more evidence for it than organized religion has for its dogma, is merely subst.ituting one fantasy for another whilst shedding the guilty baggage on the way. The story isn't any less silly; we just don't feel as bad allowing ourselves or other people to believe it.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  3. Jim

    Martin T, while that may have been the case in the past, I believe that the religious vitriol has become the territory of the intellectual progressives

    August 31, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Martin T

      Jim, Want to tell that to my family, friends, and colleagues who upon finding out that I am an atheist, simply abandoned me as a family member, friend, and colleague.... I believe that we should all have tolerance for each other's faith or faithlessness; the ONLY time I have a real problem with faith is when it interferes with the operation of government and social programs, including women's reproduction rights and gay rights issues.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  4. Steve

    If you hold the belief that our existance is in fact random through astronomically chance odds, then what difference would sobreity make? What is the motivation to become sober? In this infinite perspective, life is essentially meaningless! If your excuse is getting clean for the sake of those closest to you, well then that really makes no difference either as their existance is meaningless as well! It seems to stand to reason that living a destructive lifestyle then makes all the sense in the world.

    So my question is what motivates one with an atheistic/agnostic midset to give up that lifestyle?

    August 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Laughing

      Why does existance have to be meaningless just because we came about at those astronomically high odds? I value my life and time on earth, I would argue, even more than yourself because I know I don't get a second chance at redemption or to make amends late or to live on after my body dies. Life has as much meaning as you give it and just because we might be a punch of pink monkeys comprised of random molecules and chemicals doesn't mean that I still can't have a meaningful life.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Martin T

      @Steve, you are showing the general ignorance, and I don't use that term as a derogartory term, of theists. Christians tend to think of all Atheists as people without moral character, when in fact most of us are quite happy to be moral individuals. We believe in family values, we follow the laws, and we want to be happy, comfortable, loved, and safe. The fact is, if you met me in public and we talked, you would NEVER even know I was an atheist and if you came to my office seeking assistance, you wouldn't care if I were an atheist or not, so long as I was able to provide you with the care and assistance you needed.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Martin T

      Also, by the "logic" most Christians use, it would seem more logical for Christians to want to die an early death in order to obtain their heavenly body. Think about it, why suffer through illnesses, old age, and such, if you are going to be reborn into a heaven? My wife and I recently had this discussion, if I had some assurance that I would be given a new body, as this one ages, it would make sense to allow nature to take it's course and NOT attempt to prolong my life with medicine and modern science....

      August 31, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Civiloutside

      Meaning is subjective. Nothing means anything, unless it means something *to someone.* Even for the believer your life has no inherent meaning, you just believe that it means something *to god.* It's essentially arguing that meaning is greater if the being to whom it means something is greater. It's a matter of opinion whether that's true, or whether it is more comforting/motivating to any given person.

      My life means something *to me.* The lives of the people around me mean something *to me.* That's all the motivation I need to justify *my* behavior. Whether or not my life means anything at all on a universal scale is actually pretty irrelevant. It'd be nice for my ego to think that my life means anything to anyone else, especially someone big and powerful and important, but I can live quite happily without it.

      I find it interesting that it's only believers who ever argue that being an atheist means having a life of meaninglessness and despair. Actual atheists don't feel that way.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Steve

      @Civiloutside, It meant something to Hitler and thousands of Nazis in that society to live in a world without Jews – is the action they took then permissible?

      August 31, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Civiloutside

      Steve – that's an entirely different question than whether it's necessary to have some objective meaning in order to motivate "good" behavior. But I'm happy to address the digression.

      Of course, clearly you know (or at least hope) that I don't approve of the holocaust, since otherwise there's no real point to bringing it up as an example. But again, my personal revulsion for it has nothing to do with the existence of any objective meaning to it. If I believe (and I do) that the extermination of 6 million human lives means nothing at all to anything beyond this planet, that doesn't change one iota my feeling if repugnance toward the act. The two are not entwined in any way.

      You aak if that makes their acts permissible. Permissible to whom? In their case, clearly not to the people who put a stop to it and have spent a lot of effort over the intervening years trying to make sure it never happens again. But that's just my point: it was *people* who put a stop to it. People to whom, for whatever reason, it meant something. I consider it very fortunate that those people had to power to end it, because nothing else but people would have done so.

      Just because I think there's nothing giving some objective meaning to any human activity does not mean I think that all human activities are equally defensible. Don't confuse the two ideas.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Steve

      @Civiloutside, does this mean then that objective moral values do not exist?

      August 31, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Civiloutside

      Yes, that's what it means.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Steve

      So then everything IS permissible, just not necessarily agreeable nor fashionable to others. In which case, the influence of the largest and/or most powerful group wins?

      August 31, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Civiloutside

      @Steve – first, my apologies for taking so long to respond. It's a long drive home :P But... on to my answer.

      See, that depends again on what you mean by "permissible." Or, more to the point, permissible *by whom.* The only actions that are objectively impermissible are those that are impossible to perform because doing so would require violating an actual natural law. Morals (at least as we formulate them) simply do not represent objective natural laws, because every one of them are physically capable of being violated. In that sense, the universe "permits" every act a human is capable of performing.

      Ultimately, which acts are considered permissible and which aren't is decided by people. And it changes over time, and place, and which group of people is most influential at that time and place. It is an ongoing conversation between each individual and the society in which he lives, and between each society and those around it. It is often imperfectly adhered to in any case because humans and societies are complicated things. Some things are almost universal (murder, theft, etc.) because we are all human beings and hold a lot of our psychology and development in common across the globe. Others are culturally specific (polyamory/monogamy, presence or lack of nudity taboos, etc.).

      Incidentally, even if god exists then his does not represent objective morality either. It's just the ultimate expression of "most powerful rules," in that the reason to conform to his morality is that he's the most powerful being in the room, not because he's objectively "right."

      But the only ones every seen to actually enforce moral codes are people. Nobody has ever actually seen anyone get sent to hell because of violating a "moral law." Even many of god's laws include a human-agency enforcement clause, almost a tacit acknowledgment that the ones who ultimately permit or don't permit are, in fact, people.

      August 31, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Steve

      @Civiloutside, glad you made it back :-)
      I'm whole-heartedly on board with your natural law logic. And I do agree with you, acts such as stealing and murder are almost universally offensive. But how did these feeling come to pass? Why does the brain function that way? If a lion kills a zebra we don't call it "murder," and if a great white forcibly copulates with a female, we don't call it "rap.e" If everything is objective to people, moral code being up for grabs, it seems quite feasible to live in a world where these things labeled as crimes are all just as ok as in the animal world! As it is there are those (quite prominent) atheists who literally refer to humans as "apes."

      And what is my motivation to carry out any moral obligations I may have to my society? Surely I must sacrifice any self-gratification to adhere to these rules. In looking again at the eternal picture, why give up any satisfaction to help out a person or persons that are all doomed to die no matter how much I do?

      August 31, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Civiloutside

      @Steve – There are actually pretty good reasons we have some of those "universal" rules. See, humans are relatively weak and fragile. Put a human in a cage match with pretty much any animal of comparable size and mass (and even many that are smaller), and the result will usually be a dead human.

      But humans don't survive alone. They survive in bands, in tribes, in communities. To be accepted by a community, you have to not be a threat to their survival, or better yet actively contribute. If you go around stealing from them, or killing them, they're gonna drive you out (or just kill you themselves), which drastically reduces your chances of surviving and reproducing. Emotions like guilt, empathy, compassion, and simply taking joy in helping other members of the community bind you more tightly to the group and encourage behaviors that make you more acceptable to the community. That increases your ability to survive and reproduce. Therefore, members of the species that possess those qualities are selected for – they produce more offspring than more antisocial members, and those offsrping are more likely to survive.

      If human-level intelligence arose in a solitary hunter like, say, a species descended from Bengal tigers, it would have an entirely different moral compass. Such a species might find human notions about protecting weak members of the community just as gut-level repugnant as we find the notion of murdering them.

      You ask why, if none of it ultimately means anything beyond us, do we even want to contribute to our survival or that of our descendants. Well, because that's the nature of life. Life that doesn't want to go on living, that refuses to behave in ways that contribute to its own survival, dies out. It's as simple as that. We are the descendants of billions of years of wanting to live, and it just plain feels wonderful to embrace that legacy.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • Steve

      @Civiloutside, Makes all the sense in the world, regarding human tribal survival. But it still seems all for naught, in the scheme of things.
      Humans clearly are set apart the rest of the animal kingdom if for nothing else due to the complexity of the human brain. Why were we made to enjoy & appreciate beautiful things? Surely that is a trait completely unecessary to our survival. And what about the fact that we are even able to conceive of/imagine a higher being than ourselves? Animals will respond to a pack leader, but certainly don't attribute greater things to a higher authority. But humans, in the observation of the world around us, with their unique and complex brains have attributed their surroundings to something greater than they. Granted not everyone has done this, but that doesn't take away from the fact that all humans have the ability to be awestruck or sublimed by something, a triat unique to humans. And again, not a bare necessity for survival, so why does it exist?

      September 1, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Civiloutside

      Sigh. I'm having trouble finding which word in my response is triggering the stupid filter. Hopefully I'll have a reply in the near future.

      September 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Helpful Henry

      Civiloutside: I lost my list in a computer crash... but here is one of LinCA's that I found:

      When writing your posts keep an eye out for the following words (or word fragments). They will get your post censored:
      a.rse
      ba.stard
      bit.ch
      co.ck
      co.on
      c.um
      c.unt
      do.uche
      ef.fing
      fa.g
      ft.w
      fu.ck
      ho.mo
      ho.rny
      jacka.ss
      ja.p
      jis.m
      ko.och
      nip.ple
      or.gy
      pi.s
      po.rn
      po.o
      pr.ick
      ra.pe
      se.x
      s.hit
      s.lut
      s.natch
      s.pic
      t.it
      t.wat
      v.ag
      w.hore
      w.tf

      To prevent that you can break up the word by putting an extra character in, like consti.tution (breaking the oh so naughty "t.it").

      September 1, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Steve

      Thanks Henry, that helps me out, too! Explains one of my lost replies (apologies to "Laughing")

      September 1, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Laughing

      Ugh! Steve I was wondering why you just decided to up and leave without finishing our little debate. I was wondering if I offended you by accident. I know religion can be an incredibly tricky subject when it comes to feelings.

      September 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Steve

      @Laughing, if I can remember any semblance of what I had said, I will conjure it back and respond, if you're still willing to continue! And no offense taken, you've been nothing but civil and respectful, and I appreciate that a great deal.

      September 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Laughing

      Absolutely, without some form of real debate I usually get distracted making jokes at other peoples expense....

      September 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Civiloutside

      Thanks, Henry. The culprit appears to be the word “spooked.”

      @Steve – Apparently, there hasn’t been a great deal of research into the area of animal aesthetics, but there is evidence that many animals have an aesthetic sense. We’re unique only in the degree to which we’ve decoupled that aesthetic sense from the sex drive. In animals, the primary reason for a sense of beauty is attracting/selecting a mate. In most cases, it’s a female selecting a male based on the beauty of his body (e.g. peacocks). However, there are examples of otherwise plain males winning a mate by producing beautiful objects (e.g. bower birds). This is probably where human art for the sake of beauty has its origins – like all primates we’re pretty dull looking. But we can produce works of art to make up for it. And once a male starts producing objects for that purpose, he has to have a capacity to appreciate beauty in order to judge what will work.

      Come to think of it... perhaps part of the reason artists are famous for their promiscuous lifestyles is that we haven’t decoupled appreciation for beauty from sex as much as we like to think...

      As for gods... well, ever noticed how animals (and people for that matter) are fairly easily spooked by things that aren’t there? Ever notice how you can stare at clouds, or leaves in a tree, or random tile patterns and make pictures out of them? That’s because we’re wired to perceive shapes and patterns from incomplete data. It’s fairly simple why. That blotch of orange in the grass may be nothing important... or it may be a tiger. If you perceive it as a tiger, you’re going to act to protect yourself. Whether it was a tiger or not, you’ll probably live. If you don’t act to protect yourself, and it is a tiger, you’re probably going to die. So, nature selects for people who perceive even random occurrences as something they have to protect themselves from. You’re not even always consciously aware of how your brain is doing this, of what pieces of information it put together to conclude there was a threat present. Most animals would simply run away, survive, and not dwell on it. Humans, though, are likely to think back on it later and try to figure out what happened. If they can’t think of anything they saw, heard, or smelled, and don’t know all that much about how perceptual bias works, they might just conclude that some invisible threat was actually present. It’s not much of a stretch to go from “there are invisible beings around us,” to “...and they must be responsible for those events for which we don’t see any cause.” Of course, many natural events are well outside the ability of humans to perform and have no obvious visible cause (e.g. thunderstorms, earthquakes, tides, etc.), so if you accept that invisible beings are responsible for them you also have to assume those invisible beings are immensely powerful. Voila! Gods.

      September 1, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Steve

      I'm with you on the promiscuous artist thing...
      All these effects you described, by natural logic have causes, with effects leading to cause other things, and so on. Which inevitably will bring us back to the universe and it's creation (this should be fun :-) )!
      So this is where I go back to the original article and my original point- if we are merely a random function of the universe, made for no real purpose in a universe which is destined to burn out and effectively die, why bother?? Nothing we do, no amount of good we do society is going to prevent us from this destiny, so why work so hard to "follow the rules" (because let's admit it, it's far easier to take what we want when we want it)? Why not just live fast and die young, do what pleases you every moment of everyday? I love my job and all, but I could surely get *more* gratification & pleasure by giving in to my most primitive desires, right? If my community doesn't like it, who cares? They're all going to die just the same, thus rendering their feelings and actions toward me futile.
      As grim and awful as it sounds, I could try my best to create a better world for my kid to live in, but I cannot do anything about the fact that he, just as I, will die someday. Nothing that happens on this planet will change that.
      Can atheism or agnosticism offer me any hope?

      September 1, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Civiloutside

      Darnit! Another post eaten by the filter, and this time it had vanished altogether when I backed up to try and copy it for editing. I'll have to try and reconstruct it tomorrow – too tired tonight. Sorry!

      September 1, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
    • Maybe

      Civiloutside,

      Aarrgh! What a shame about your post's disappearance. I have had only short ones go poof, so no great burden; but to have lost one of your well-thought-out gems is a crime!

      I know it's clunky, but maybe you could type them into a Word doc. first and copy/paste here. I think that Word even has a feature where you can enter all of those t.its and c.ums into a custom dictionary and it will search for them for you.

      September 1, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  5. Ted

    God gave us free-will, and we can decide what we want to believe and do.

    August 31, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Martin T

      Within the belief system of a christian god, there is NO such thing as "free will" it is an illusion, IF the Christian god is real.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  6. imominous

    I've noticed that 12 programs are keen to blame the person for their substance abuse problem, but absolutely denies them any credit for getting out of it.

    You are powerless. You can't do it without a Higher Power. Well, yes, you can. And if you do it without AA, you get all the credit for quitting.

    August 31, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Jeff

      I didn't care about getting any 'credit' for getting sober...I just wanted to get sober. And I was not able to do that until I worked the 12 steps of AA

      August 31, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  7. Tom

    After 22 years in recovery it`s still the same take the cotton out of ears and put it in your mouth.GO TO MEETINGS GET A SPONSOR SHUT UP AND LISTEN DON`T ANALYZE.If you want to stay on the bar stool and not believe in anything then recovery is far away somewhere else.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  8. notxorc

    II'm always curious regarding people of faith in particular those who overcome great obstacles. Blessed is often used as reasoning behind such successes as if ones own efforts to overcome said obstacle weren't enough. People can change, people can overcome through force of their own will and determination. Triumph isn't super natural it's just hard work.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  9. kevin

    Wow, what a discourse. The tenet of AA is to make one realize that they are not the center of the universe and need something outside of themselves to help them. A frequent personality trait in alcoholics/addicts is narcissism. That needs to be broken. I personally do not believe in God, but I got sober with the help of AA. I am not a Blue Book thumper, and when a meeting grates on me for one reason or another, I just find another that suits me.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • See McSee

      "A frequent personality trait in alcoholics/addicts is narcissism." Where on earth did you come up with that? I presume since you're stating a "many" that you have statistics? Studies to prove this?

      Addicts don't center their world around themselves, they center it around the substance. If anything, they lose the self to that. I would argue that there is a chemical or metabolic basis for the addiction in most cases that once fed, grows. Alcoholism is a common problem in my extended family, and in my ex-husband - who chose to divorce because he loved to drink more than he loved me, something he directly said to me. He didn't love HIMSELF more than he loved me. He loved that drink more than he loved me. And I'm not sure I'd call it love. It's that the drink becomes part of your being. You're trying to break the bond with the alcohol to return to some sense of self and life without it. Some people find the belief in a higher power to assist in drawing the focus away from the substance; others, unbelievers, may find it more helpful to learn other tools to break that focus. The body is not happy when that bond is broken, which to me says that narcissism, psychological causality is the least of it.

      August 31, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  10. Claire

    "But I don’t believe in God." We don't care what you believe in. Apparently, not 'anonymity'... notoreity, perhaps... I couldn't read the whole piece. Are you a 30 day wonder?

    August 31, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  11. Nicholas

    God as you undestand him.......thats the only reference to God in AA, it also refers to it as a Higher Power, she calls herself an Atheist but believes in the higher power of chaos and infinity. She is more comfortable not using the word god. What is more disturbing is that she is choosing not to adhere to the traditions of alcoholics anonymous by keeping her anonymity.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  12. Allan

    I am an alcoholic with 32 years of sobriety, Lets look at what this woman does for a living, She writes books and I see this as nothing more than a effort to promote her product. A lot of what she says in this article is pure BS.

    AA meetings are basically a sharing of the story of whomever chairs the meeting and how he/she got or is getting sober and the difficuties and pitfalls in doing so.

    Where this woman got this "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." is beyond me.

    As far as a higher power-that is a personal preference. It has ofter been stated in the meetings I attended, that you can use the door knob for your higher power if that is your preference.

    We say the lord's prayer after the meeting and we (OMG) hold hands. As far as being

    I am not perticularly religious but I do believe in GOD and comitted my life and will to him when getting sober. Guess what? It is working.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Allan

      Looks like my editing skills are lacking! Sorry.

      August 31, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • tom vason

      you need a drink and a realty pill

      September 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  13. Jim

    you exist at random.
    that brings so much comfort and joy, very warm thought.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • Doug Anderson

      You really put your finger on it, Jim. Everything Christians believe is about comforting themselves and immersing themselves in "warm thoughts." When you get right down to it, the Universe isn't a very comforting place, but many choose to hide from that fact rather than deal with it.

      August 31, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Martin T

      I, for one, having just reached fifty, am thrilled with the fact that I am a random accident of nature. I find NO Need nor evidence of the existence of a god or anything supernatural in nature. The very fact that my parents, fifty years ago, were together and produced the needed elements for my existence, is miracle enough for me.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  14. Poerba

    The strict anonymity interpretation incidentally would prevent the majority of attendees from saying "AA didn't work for me."

    August 31, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • coalhalo

      Actually, AA, NA, etc... "strict anonymity interpretation" does not mean that members cannot talk about themselves and their experiences to whomever and whenever. What is does mean is that I cannot talk about anyone else I saw there or what they might have said.

      August 31, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Poerba

      You need to look at previous comments to understand. Many AA members have claimed that the writer of this article has violated the anonymity clause.

      August 31, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  15. Jeff

    There is way too much hate in this chatroom. If you don't believe in god, fine. But you shouldn't criticize someone that does. I've always admired people with strong faith; I view it as a gift that I have yet to receive. And if you don't understand addiction than you shouldn't criticize AA which has helped millions of people, including me. AA is a spiritual program...not religious. No one ever told me I needed to believe in Jesus to get sober.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Jim

      good word

      August 31, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Ted Bocanegra

      I agree that the help (12 steps) is spiritual, and that we are spiritual beings made in the image of God and that He is merciful and will help any of His creatures that are seeking to return to a healthier way of life.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Martin T

      Jeff, while on the surface your comments make sense; however, IF you dig down, and look at the real issues at hand, it is much more often and with much more vehemence, that Christians condemn atheists as "idiots" "heathens" "unclean" and any number of other rather unpleasant names. Read ALL of the comments and make your own assessment.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Jim

      Well said Jeff,the chair I'm sitting in can work if that's what you can believe in. 15 years thanks to my higher power

      August 31, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  16. Carol

    Cut the lady a break. That's an honest summation of a tremendous effort to overcome a serious, life-threatening disease. Faith is the central core of being in many lives. I've heard so many people say, when faced with adversity, that their faith was all that kept them going. Think how much more difficult it must be to overcome alcoholism without faith in the divine.

    But you can't just 'believe' because you're in a foxhole, a prison or the AA. It has to come from within. If you don't feel it, somehow, you have to muster the strength to keep on doing what is right for your own reasons. I think I get what she's saying.

    And as for anonymity, I haven't met an AA member yet who made much of a secret of belonging. In fact, most are darned right proud to say they're sober because of AA.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • jg

      It is not a problem to own up to AA membership to people you know. It is a problem when you stop being anonymous at the press level.

      August 31, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • Nix

      Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. Ambrose Bierce

      September 2, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  17. jg

    I am not even an AA but I know that the 11th tradition is "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." No matter what your beliefs about a higher power, that is pretty clear.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  18. Lou

    I liked Hornbacher's artical.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • Poerba

      Three out of four ain't bad!

      August 31, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  19. Poerba

    For the fire-and-brimstone crowd, I find a good rejoinder in a Maupassant novel: a higher-status aristocrat tells the heroine they'll have to sever relations because the heroine's family is not attending church (they follow Rosseau instead, a kind of pantheism):

    "You believe in the God of one party, Madame. I believe in the God of decent human beings."

    August 31, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  20. Bill_n_miami

    So I guess what she means by " ... that our purpose not only in sobriety but in life is to be of service to others." is really that even though there is no God, she is meant to serve others as God ordains through thousands of years of revelations and teachings because her quarks will be in an uproar if she doesn't? Really? Seriously?

    I take it since she only has 10 years sober she has not yet had time to read the vitally important AA Traditions which specifically say one should not break one's anonymity at the level of press, radio, or TV.

    Amazing what CNN will print to get the progressive agenda in the mainstream isn't it?

    August 31, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • Poerba

      Philology is progressive in that it scientifically destroys "word of God" claims, and conservative in that it attempts to recapture the original meanings of ancient texts.

      August 31, 2011 at 8:27 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.