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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. dorothy

    Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of AA– this author, who claims "humility" has broken AA's tradition to aggrandize herself and her position. We always maintain personal anonymity a the level of press, radio, TV/films and internet. She could have published this without her last name and photo, but the way she (and CNN) did this shows how clueless both are about AA. Read the pamphlet on Anonymity and/or Tradition 12, honey. How do you go to meetings for 10 years without hearing about AA's fundamental principle which is in the name, Alchoholics ANONYMOUS?

    August 31, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Fred1

      Thank you AA Nazi

      September 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  2. Doc

    Thanks, Ms. Hornbacher, I needed this. I have stayed away from AA because I am an atheist. I am not an anti-theist, but going on and on about God and Jesus is of no help to me. But if AA can help an atheist without demanding that he or she become a believer in a god (they're all the same to me}, or spend hours going on about same, maybe it would be worth a try.

    August 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  3. Kish

    I know God is. And because of that fact you will find few who are angrier with or cuss him more than I. And because of this I can state for a fact that the Atheist’s are more realistic (extremely harsh and unforgiving) in assessing God and his actions than the believers. But because they, even more than believers yearn for justice on earth. They cannot or do not want to believe a God would allow all the terrible things that happen in the world. Because in there hearts they would not allow such things to happen. I have bad news for the believers and the atheists. The atheists are purer in heart but like angry children, are just in denial.

    C ya'll at the end.

    August 31, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Laughing

      What an interesting way to look at it.

      I appreciate the compliment..... I guess, but it's still insulting you believe that atheists are angry children.....

      Honestly I don't know if I should be offended or not. A little help?

      August 31, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Kish

      Insult and Anger are equal. You have repeated what I said.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Laughing

      So I guess I wonder your thoughts on the statement below:

      Christians are some of the most kind hearted people I meet on a consistant basis, a lot of them come from good homes and really choose to do good, but with their delusions and conviction in hallucination, they terrify me that they have real decision making power in the US.....

      compliment or insult?

      August 31, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Kish

      Truth

      August 31, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Esael

      Dear Kish, being an atheist I will always give you honesty... you are an idiot :)

      August 31, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Kish

      Ah Esael how I wish that were true. I would have lived a much happier life.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Laughing

      I don't think truth was an option.

      Do you find it insulting or complmentary, keep in mind Esael is on the verge of swaying me towards believing that you are an idiot.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Esael

      It is true. You are an idiot. Happiness has nothing to do with idiocy. You will continue to be an idiot until you stop fooling yourself with such religous nonsense. Its nothing I can help you with.

      I'm just trying to help you understand.

      According to Wikipedia: An idiot is someone who acts in a self-defeating or significantly counterproductive way.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Kish

      LOL, I didn't realize Truth had to be one or the other. Make no mistake I am not here to sway you in any way. Thankfully when God squared me away he did not task me with saving one of you shaved monkies. I don't care what you believe and never said I did. I said you Understood him in a more realistic way. As a being that could interceed at any point but refuses.

      As for what men do in the name of God or reliegion...what fool can defend it in the face of historic bloodshed and misery it has caused ? Not me.

      Heres something that will make you feel better. Muslim, Jew or Christian. God is not pleased with any of us.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • smartacus

      You don't "know" anything, you just "feel" it. And that is the worst reason to believe in something that you can't verify.

      Keep that head in the sand, it will keep you from needing to be honest with yourself about some of life's harsher truths.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Kish

      Esael, Do you mean like when someone sacfifices for a loved one ? Or perhaps the one that risks his life for a stranger ? Or did you mean the soldier that throws himself on a grendade for his brothers ? which kind did you mean ?

      August 31, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Kish

      smartacus you are assuming I am less intelligent than you. Or do not understand the use of words. I use know the very same way you have used it when other did not believe you.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Kish

      smartacus

      One last thing. There is nothing harsher than knowing he is there and does nothing.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Laughing

      Yep..... Easel, you've swayed me

      August 31, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Esael

      Quote "
      @Kish
      Esael, Do you mean like when someone sacfifices for a loved one ? Or perhaps the one that risks his life for a stranger ? Or did you mean the soldier that throws himself on a grendade for his brothers ? which kind did you mean ?

      August 31, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
      "
      If you have to ask you are still not understanding that the problem lies with you.

      You would think after a couple million years of idiots killing each other that we would eventually run out of them? That is not the case because idiots unfortunately create more idiot offspring.

      It comes down to an issue of control. People of power have devised a clever system of beliefs (religion) that takes advantage of the a part of the human psyche that is there to protect us from danger to enslave you from free thought. It is so cleverly devised that the mere act of being human makes you guilty and in search of meaning to your existance. You will never be free until you as a person are able to change the way you have been taught to think. The first step is accepting that you have a problem. That means accepting responsibility for your own actions.

      August 31, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Fred1

      If god was half as good and half as wise as the Christians say. He would never build people to be alcoholic. Alcoholism is a genetic curse, not a life style choice. The Christian god is either very evil or does not exist. I like to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he doesn’t exist

      September 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  4. fezzi

    Congrats on your sobriety. I am a nearly athiest sober person and I've left behind the idea that I must struggle with spirituality alongside my struggle with alcohol. Of course, I don't go to AA meetings, either. AA works. It does. Which is why people use it and give their lives to it. BUT, it's not the only thing that works. I chose not to do AA (even though it is free and readily available anywhere you go) because it seems to me that the energy we alcoholics put into drinking and thinking about drinking was replaced by the same energy and thought going into AA. Put simply, I didn't want AA to be my new addiction.

    The steps laid out are the same steps (with the exception of a belief in a higher power) that any good therapist will guide someone toward if they want to be and remain sober. AA is a tradition that draws on pragmatic ideas of what works. For most people, the belief in a higher power works. For some of us, it is not necessary. There are several other people out here somewhere along the same path as you. With out without a group system, there are ways to be sober if you work at it. It may be impossible to do it without support, but it's not impossible to do it without God– especially since God probably doesn't exist in a way we can understand it.

    August 31, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  5. Mike

    There are also 12 traditions in AA and those have been a couple of those were thrown out the window by the writer of this article.

    August 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Esael

      The faithfull are all idiots uncapable of accepting responsibility for themselves.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Fred1

      AA Nazi

      September 2, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  6. Una McCloud

    There is a wonderful program called Lifering for those of us who are recovering who have trouble for whatever reason mixing recovery and religion. Maya you would be most welcome at a meeting as would anyone else who would like an alternative to the 12 steps. Visit www unhooked dot com.

    August 31, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  7. Paul C

    Sounds alot like BB............I haven't a clue but it's not AA. Good luck Marya with making a buck.............

    August 31, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Mark

      Paul, I'm guessing that YOUR "spirituality" can only come from a book whose words have been, and ARE being rewritten to suit whoever is in charge. Told to you by men who "have a calling" or "serve the lord." I guess that mysteries cannot be based in things that beg for faith because they have not yet been discovered, as opposed to completely invented and reinvented when people realize that it's all a 2000 year old, or older, LIE. FABLE. FAIRY TALE.

      I believe that Marya actually has found a way to "take" AA successfully, as opposed to thsoe MILLIONS who "Ja-HEE-zus" could not, did not and never will, HELP.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  8. Sandy

    Hang in there Marya. I finally learned to stay away from the "righteous right" in AA. They used to tell me I was going to drink again because I did not believe in God. I'm sober 31 years today and some of them are not!

    August 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  9. CJ

    The world consists of the physical and the spiritual. The physical we experience with our senses and the spiritual with our souls. Those who don't believe in God are only living half a life and, unfortunately, not the better half for we are all fallen creatures with a propensity towards the harmful. It still takes faith to be an aethiest. You have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow. You have faith that when you get in a car that you won't get into a head on collision with a car in the next lane. You have faith that your job and desk and boss will still be there when you get to work, that electricity will be flowing, that the ground beneath your feet will remain stable, etc... It all comes down to faith. A life without God is a selfish life without purpose or meaning because God IS Love and the whole point of existence is to find God and cooperate with His grace in our lives. When we do so, we are transformed into new creatures. The author is right about one thing that is required besides faith and that is humility. She may not be as far from God as she thinks. In fact, perhaps something miraculous has or will happen in her life to open the eyes of her soul to spiritual realities. Perhaps life will have meaning and purpose then.

    August 31, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Chino31

      I think you have faith and expectation mixed up.
      It doesn't take faith to be an athiest. We just say we don't know answers to questions such as, How did the universe come to be? why is there something rather than nothing? Maybe at some point in time, we'll come to find out. Unlike other people who seem to know, and place there faith in whatever mythology they run with.
      Although this new religion I heard recently, Pastafarianism, make a good case for believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I'll look into it, maybe I can have true "faith" soon.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • goatroper

      There are so many fallacies in this post that it makes my head hurt. The sun coming up, getting into a car accident, whatever don't require belief in magic. I'm pretty sure that scientists a long time ago figured out how the sun comes up every day and it doesn't require a belief in magic. And don't tell me I'm not leading a full life because half of me is missing. I just checked and I'm all here and quite happy about the fact that I depend on facts, not magic, to manage my life. It's working out quite well.

      August 31, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • dyg

      Reminds me of the saying "God loves you and there's nothing you can do about it."

      September 1, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  10. VONNIE

    '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.'

    And where oh where does she think that idea originates from – HERSELF?! Where do we get our sense of purpose from – a quark? WAKE UP!

    August 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  11. BeGood2

    "my entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things." You are of God, you just said what every spiritual leader has said. I am going to assume the "amen" was a joke by you, or you just let something slip.

    August 31, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  12. steve

    Mam, you'll be a lot better drunk with God, than, well, cut the small talk and buy me a drink.

    August 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  13. oblio

    You have guts and a good sense of humor Marya. You might consider pantheism. The Pointed Man once said, "A point in every direction is the same thing as no point at all." Therefore, a religion is in every direction is the same thing as no religion at all. Somehow that notion, and a half integer spin comforts me, and confounds idiots.

    Bob Cobb is a presumptuous proselytizer.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  14. raaquel

    God is the Gpd of Justice and decides what is right or wrong. Who sets the standard??? Men or God. If men Who?? Saddam Hussein?? Osama??Obama? Pope??. All of these people are human and humans are corrust. Some have more than the others but nevertheless we are all corrupt.. and being corrupt, our moral understanding is corrupt so we have to rely on the only human who is not corrupt. We have rely on the one that is sinless to carry all of humanity sin from the beginning and end of time so when we face our Judge – God of Justice, we have clean and spotless.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Martin T

      @Raaquel – can you show me in the Christian bible where there is a list of MORAL LAWS that can not be found in the writings of other societies that NEVER knew of the Christian god? Nearly EVERY one of the Ten Commandments were written centuries before the Old Testament mentioned them. Morals have been around since mankind first started living together in a society, and MOST if not all, had nothing more to do with anything other than the common good and survival of the society. Not stealing and killing are NOT moral ideas, but practical ones.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  15. raaquel

    You fail to mention that God is Justice and judges all of us. YYou sound scientific and yet you only know math. Do you know DNA, RNA, protein. Scietist cannot make th You sound like Darwin and the 1900"s scientiest who believed life just exist when they put beef broth on soup and life evolves and int is on this understanding that they supported evolution. Back then, they have no concept of bacterias on air. They simply believe life spontaneously exist. How wrong are they and yet people's faith in evolution is based on imagination and not fact. I am a Physician and a biology major. There is no evidence linkiing 2 animall together amidst the 20 billion date we recovered(NOte: Darwin only have 20,000 date/collections when he postulated evolution. It take more faith in evolution that on creation. All you can see in evolution books is faith that a mitochondria of a fly is similar to the mitochondria on a horse and conclusion??? "they must be related. This is how they convince people like you. Sadly, you don't have a chance study evolution and never seriously investigated the fact. Yes, scientist has discoveries that amazes you but don't be amazed by their conclusion. Do the math.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • kyscout

      are you serious? and the earth is just 6,000 years old right? Hope I never get sick in what ever little back water town you are a "physician" in.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • stanisloski101

      So by your rationale, since we finite, weak beings with such limited intelligence are so complicated as to need a desginer, then clearly an all-knowing, all powerful and everywhere present being must clearly need a designer also.

      Do the math.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  16. John

    There's no such thing as joining AA, but one can join an AA group, and by doing so I have found over the last thirty years enough support to not be chased out of AA for my atheistic views. However, I do indeed find it difficult to express my views in other groups where I am just visiting. The whole door knob thing is insulting, and though I may not understand electricity many electricians know how to use it. I have found by studying systems (powers greater than me) my energy (decision making) is more effective and calming. The Big Book states the only way to stay sober is a willingness to believe in an underlying creative intelligence. This is the same language that was recently thrown out of the school books because it was simply a back door to religious teachings. I was willing, but it made no sense, and in fact, is an orientation towards noncritical thinking, which is bound to cause more day to day shocks, not less.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  17. Steve

    @Martin T, I apologize if my question implied atheists are not moral, I would agree with you that atheists can be (and at most times are) moral people. In fact, I know some who are more so than those that call themselves Christian!

    Rather the heart of my question is a moral compass issue: if not God, then what? The general well-being of the populous? Who decides what is best? How? Why should I care?

    I suppose you certainly could end your life early and "get right to the good part," as it were. But Christians are in no small part called to a life of service here on earth, and if you were to end your own life prematurely, I can't help but question in that instance whether you would in fact get to the good part at all, however it is not my place to judge.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Laughing

      There are 4 trains of thought on this issue. There's the reciprocity way, I give to you with the expectaion you'll give back to me. There's pure altruism for the good of society ie I want to be happy and to be that I need to make society a place I would want to live in. There's the reputation school of thought, ie I do good things because the best way for me to survive in this society is build my reputation and lastly the superiority way ie I do good things to show that I'm actually better than you. This last way usually manifests itself in ways like give to philanthropic funds, showing everyone else that you are so superior you can give money away and still live comfortably. For me specifically I think you and I can agree that sometimes regardless of motive if a good act is done and everyone benefits, does it matter if it was done for a selfish purpose?

      Since civilization began, society has always laid down what's best for the general populous, it's why slavery was condoned in the early ages and why it isn't now. We can change morality in its finer points and have been doing so since before Jesus and even earlier than that.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Steve

      @Laughing, I would have to disagree, motivation is everything! This sounds like we're heading down the road of the "ends justifying the means." Theoretically, would it be good for society to kill everyone who has cancer? A terrible disease would be erradicated and the suffereing of those with it would almost literally vanish. I would think as rational as I believe you to be, that of course we would not kill off our loved ones, but can the "greater good" be ignored?

      August 31, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Martin T

      Steve, I wasn't implying that about you at all, I was saying that many Christians feel that way. One answer to your original question is very much rooted in the good of the populus. As animals, and we are little more than advanced animals, there is a strong urge within us, not unlike what we find in any of the advanced species of animals, to support our species. With the intellectual capacity we have, that become even more complex, but it is still a survival of the species thing, none the less. There is also man's ability to have compassion for others. This can't be a "gift from god" because we see that there are many humans who seem to have been born without that sense of compassion. Also, we find many societies throughout history who had NO knowledge of the Christian god who were quite moral and compassionate. There are many questions about the Christian god that many people simply ignore, mainly because it makes sense to question, and when force to face the reality that there can be morals, goodness, peace, right and wrong, and so on, WITHOUT the Christian god.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Martin T

      @ steve, I could also get into some of the "higher brain functions" that lead scientists to better understand why we have compassion and such; however, I think that many people don't really give compassion or morals a lot of thought or care as to where they come from, they are simply a part of who we are as a species. One could look at the opposite of this argument and say that without God there could be no murder, or any other socially unacceptable behavior. So I ask, does god give us morals and at the same time allow immorality?

      August 31, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Laughing

      @Steve

      An interesting conundrum but there are a couple of flaws. Would it be good for society? In a way, but we've seen that cancer can manifest itself without being passed genetically, so even if we were to kill off everyone with cancer it still wouldn't completely erradicate the disease. A better option for everyone, people with and without cancer alike, would be to find a cure to the disease so that everyone in the future can be immunized against it. From a cold scientific perspective, it's better to have the cancer patients around so we can figure out how to cure it.

      But you bring up a different type of "good" then to the type I originally brought up. I was speaking on a more mircro level, good being done between two people, you bring up more of a macrolevel good, but if we look at the bigger societial picture, we've always been in complete control over what we deem as being good and being bad. Our motivation might have been to please a higher diety, but it also perfectly meshed with our own morals (that circuarly was also attributed to god) but if you take a look from a historical perspective, there are reasons why there are some laws in the OT. These laws might have been from "god" but they also help separate israelites from gentiles.

      There are some basic rules of thumb that societies live by across the world (don't kill, don't steal, ect...) because a society in anarachy doesn't work, or rather, it doesn't work as well as a civil lawful society.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Martin T

      Finally, Steve, I'll ask you the same question I ask many of my classes. Can you show me a list or make me a list of moral guidelines from the Old Testament or New Testament that give us guidelines that we can not find in ANY other society. I contend that ALL morals/laws that we find in the bible can be found in the writings of ancients in China, India, and other parts of the African continent. Most moral/social laws are nothing more than laws set forth to protect the common good of the society. To not kill or steal or lie are not MORAL commands as much as common sense commands.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Steve

      @Martin T, I guess I just feel the need to dig deeper: why does the brain include such a function? Why was it created that way? What purpose does it serve, to act on compassion if in the infinite scheme of things, it does no good whatsoever? Sort of like I could give a homeless man the coat off my back in the dead of winter, I assume no one would dispute my benevolence. Though the next day and every day after the same man is in the same spot, only a little warmer. What good have I really done?

      Contrary to popular belief, there is something God cannot do: He cannot contradict himself. He gave us the gift of freedom, including the right to choose to follow him or not. But by doing so, He must then allow for bad things to happen, otherwise we would not be truly free; we would be forced to follow him, and that would not be very loving of Him I don't think.

      In any case, thanks for the civil discourse. I am enjoying our little debate!

      August 31, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Laughing

      @ Steve

      I know this is between you and Martin but I feel compelled to add my two cents. You asked why the brain would include such a function as compassion and benevolence? Pretty simple, it's a way to propagate the species and make sure the gene pool stays active. If we only had the desire to kill one another, or at the very least, not help each other, we would have gone extinct a long time ago.

      For your "coat to a homeless person" case, What good have you done? Two fold, firstly, you've helped another person live for a little longer by protecting them from the cold, but for you personally that didn't get anything out of it you could look at it from another perspective, anyone could have seen you and acknowledged you benevolence either by saying something or just thinking how nice it was you did that and then maybe also passing along an act of kindness. It's what I said before in my initial post, you did it, possibly, for the altruistic reason of wanting to live in a good society by making society a little bit better.

      As for your last section, god is omnipotent right? So how is there anything that god can not do? You also still labor under the delusion that the "choice" god gives us to believe in him or not does not come with consequences. It's like me "giving" you the choice of touching a hot stove or not, only in this analogy if you choose to disagree, touch the stove, burn your hand, from then on you would clearly start choosing the option of not touching the stove, in this case we don't get the opportunity to burn our hand and change our choice. If I'm an unbeliever till my dying day and am punished (however you believe that punishment to be, whether its eternal hel.lfire or just barred access into heaven) I can't exactly go back and redo my life believing in god because I know the consequence.

      In terms of freedom, you have a lot more freedom as a non-believer than you do as a believer.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Steve

      @Laughing, please by all means contribute! You have many fine points that deserve attention.

      Back to the homeless man: Haven't I helped him live a little longer in what's likely perpetual poverty? Is that really good?? Any onlookers could also say a "better" thing to do would have been to invite the man to my home, feed him, clothe him, etc., would they be wrong? I can't help but come back to the macro level in all of this, because it was such a focus of the original article, and so important.

      I'm not sure I understood your last point, I operate under no such delusion, I will make no bones about the fact that if you choose to spend your life here without God, then you will do the very same in your eternity.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Steve

      If my motivations are then to perpetuate a "good" society, what purpose then does the society serve? No matter how hard we try, we are all still destined to die. If death is an eternal darkness, I've merely helped myself and others live comfortably.
      In helping others, logically I would have to sacrifice some aspect of personal pleasure to do so, be it time, money, etc. If you listened to Freud, I'd much rather be "propigating the species" than donating my time to a food bank. Why then ignore those most primitive animal feelings and contribute to a society doomed to eternal nothingness?

      August 31, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Laughing

      @Steve

      Sure, there could have been "better" options, but that's not what you were originally asking. Was it a good act you did? Yes, could you have done more, sure. Now to address the other half: This case is rife with what-ifs, for instance one option is he takes the act of kindness and maybe reform his life, he might sell the coat and use it to actually do something productive, he could also buy alcohol or crack. Heres the deal though, the consequence to your act of compassion isn't always necesarily good, you may have tried to better society and didn't. On a macro level however, if you can convince enough people to be more like you and do acts of compassion and good, doesn't that help society as a whole, even if those acts are returned in kind?

      Secondly, in your view you think that atheist "get their wish" so to speak and experience nothingness after death? Since we don't know what happens after death, any number of things could happen, but my main point is that the idea that god gave us free will to choose is an illusion. If god does exist and does bestow the act of freewill and is also bound to never, never interfere with that freewill (except for the exceptions in the bible, like basically forcing the pharoh to hold the jews as slaves even after a number of plagues), his omnipotent nature is underminded that he can't even have the power to force anyone to act the way he wants. The choice part, like I said above, isn't really a choice. How can it be? It's the touching the hot stove analogy, or saying people have the choice as to whether they want to jump off a cliff or not. Sure, I have the ability to jump if I want, no one can stop me, but how would I benefit from jumping off a cliff, presumably to my death? It doesn't really make sense to believe that if god does exist, he's "giving" you the choice to believe in him or not. If it were a true choice, there wouldn't be adverse consequences to the decision of unbelief.

      Now this is where you and I might agree, however it goes against the christian ethos. Some christians believe that whether you believe or not, if you live a good and moral life you'll still be accepted into gods good graces, this is their workaround for why, say Ghandi is still allowed into heaven and not in hel.l because he was a hindu. However, most christians believe that in order to be accepted into gods good graces, you HAVE to accept him, or Jesus (I guess both) as their lord and savior, no if ands or buts.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Laughing

      @Steve

      But you are propegating the species by creating a good society in which to live! Creating a society to live in, peaceably that allows you and your genepool to survive is the best way to propegate your genes AND the species'. The purpose of society is to protect the species, a divided we fall, together we stand strong mentality. If you create a strong society, that protects one another then the species has a greater chance of surviving.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Steve

      I apologize for making a general presumption about Atheistic beliefs regarding life after death, please forgive me.
      What then motivates me to work at perpetuating a good society, which eternally has no real merit, over not having to work at it and ending my life here and now? I would then have to sacrifice nothing, short of my own life- which is destined to end anyway!
      I guess I am one of those "fundamentalists" who believes the latter of accepting Jesus as savior. I don't think hell is the quaint notion the populous has of hell as fire, brimstone, and little devils poking at you with pitchforks. Hell to me is eternally without the fellowship of God- imagine being next to someone who constantly talks about themselves and does nothing except things that benefit themself (sort of like the person who does good to make himself feel better in your previous post), with no cognizance of my existance- I would hate to be next to that guy for eternity, that would be hell!

      August 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Laughing

      @Steve

      We all have our own idea of hel.l, which is why I find it funny that christianity has tried to standardize it, along with heaven. But you put your idea succinctly (and more inline with the jewish idea of heaven and hel.l). To your first part, Atheists do not believe in life after death. Dead is dead. I think my question came off a little mroe sarcastic than I meant it.

      My question for you is, do you work to do good acts with only hopes to get rewarded after death? I think you're confusing nihilism with atheism (which I would say most believers do, which is why they find atheism repugnant among other things). As an atheists, I do good, am good and try to propegate goodness because living is clearly something I like to do very much. If I'm correct and I only get one shot at life, I better make it count right? Just because there isn't the promise of life after death or eternal reward does not mean I can't find meaning here and now on earth.

      So if you believe in the jewish version of hel.l (for insenive purposes), then where is ghandi? In your view, does he not deserve a place in heaven more than say, the child rap.ist who repented before death?

      August 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Steve

      3 times denied!
      So where were we...
      I suppose I am mixing in nihilism with atheism, but frankly I see little difference insofar as we all get one s.hot at this life and we're d.ead, as you similarly put it.
      My motivations for doing good stem from the most very basic Christian precepts: my Creator loves me so much that he sent His only Son to d.ie for me so that I may enjoy eternal fellowship with Him in His perfect holiness, even though I so rightly do not deserve it, and out out sheer appreciation of that gift I desire to share that love with others, just as God loves us all. My guess is you've heard something like that a million times, and I apologize on my brother's & sister's behalf if you've ever been "brow-bea.ten" or "Bible-thumped."
      His love is proven to me by giving us this freedom to choose or not choose to be with Him in the end, and not forcing us to worship Him like a bunch of robots. If you decide not to follow Him, then we are called to respect that, as dissappointed as we may be, for God also repsects our choice. If Ghandi made the choice not to accept Christ as his Savior, then why should he be with Him in the end? That would be (eternally) awkward! On the other side, if the child ra.pist truly repents and accepts Christ, even at the end of his life (thief on the cross), then he will be with God in the end, though he would be held accountable for all his actions of his life, just as I will be.
      So in reference to the orginal article and my first point, I would only echo Pascal's Wager: if I live life accepting of God and "love my neighbor," but it turns out to be wrong because there is no God, I have no regrets; if I live life unaccepting of God and He does exist, well I guess Ghandi and I will be sharing a room...

      September 1, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Laughing

      @Steve

      Seems you and I have the same problem with the censor. If you don't see this I'm sure we'll continue this debate on another board most likely:

      There's actually a very big difference between atheism and nihlism. For one, Atheism is a lack of belief in something vs. nihlism which is a belief in nothing. I know it sounds the same, but I can as.sure you there's a big difference. Just because I believe there is no afterlife does not mean I have given up on all morality here on earth. Nihlism, for the most part, believes in nothing, no god, afterlife, insti.tution (THERE'S THE CULPRIT!), government, other people, etc... These things basically make a person devoid of humanity, which is a far cry from most atheists.

      I, of course, have heard this motivation for doing good, but to me it sounds like you're being taken advantage by the church using guilt. For instance, you've never met jesus, you can say you "know" him, but it's a "know" you feel, not because you have had a personal meeting with jesus in the flesh, and yet you believe that he died for you because a woman, over 5,000 years ago ate an apple that gave her knowledge. As I see it, I honestly don't understand why, firstly it was a gargantuan sin to be duped into eating an apple, to gain knowledge and have that held against you. Would you find it fair if all of my sins applied to you when you reached heaven? You led a good life and yet because somewhere else, someone you don't know and have no knowledge of did some bad things and because of that, you're punished, that seems CRAZY to me.

      To another of your points. You say it's so great to be able to choose to worship him and not just worship him like a bunch of robots. I fail to see the difference. How is being given the illusion of a choice make you less like a robot if you perform the same acts that a robot would perform if it worshipped god? Because you believe you "want" to?

      To your last point, answer me this then, who would you rather share a room with? The repentent child rapist or ghandi? I mean, from the way you described it, it makes more sense than "worship me or burn in hel.l" god, but there are literally billions of people who don't believe in god, either in favor of another god or in no gods, and of the christians who DO believe in god, there is a minority of those who I would actually want to spend eternity with. From the way you describe it, my hel.l is your heaven, so does that mean we're going to the same place afterall?

      September 2, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Steve

      Whichever "-ism" we as humans subscribe to, we must agree we are all subject to die. I would still have to reiterate my previous responses with only this: even in the face of not knowing what happens after death, the heaven the Bible describes is STILL the more alluring road!

      As for guilt, if we’re to believe morality is formed merely for socio-economic survival and a product of biological evolution, then sometime somewhere in the past, the “experiment” was carried out that stealing from someone, ra.ping someone, kil.ling someone, etc., hurts that person and/or others. So in essence, we are all operating under (or by fear of) guilt!

      Without God being the moral compass, when you say “I led a good life,” good can merely only be subjective. I could have always done “better” in someone else’s eyes, harkening back to my homeless man-coat illustration. You can bet your bottom dollar in a crowded street, people watching Bill Gates toss a poor street performer only a quarter, there will be people there that say “he could have certainly dug a lot deeper!” It may even be the majority of people saying that! If that was the case, by virtue of the disdain harbored by those that criticized him, he’s done no good at all upon an otherwise altruistic intention! So is a “herd morality” objectively binding?

      Sam Harris has said our moral duty is to “avoid the worst possible misery for everyone.” Is the person who has mur.dered one person better than he who has mur.dered two? I think a lot of us would not need to give it much thought to say their both equally offensive for mur.dering anyone at all! But quantifiably speaking, we can say for certain without any knowledge of friends & family that the man who mur.der one person is in fact “better” quantifiably than he who has mur.dered two. That leads us down the road of “mur.dering no one is better than one,” then maybe “helping two people is better than one.” If I’m not always striving for better, then I am not “avoiding”- if I’m not moving forward, I’m moving backward. Where then is our benchmark for the best, the perfect, as it were? The Bible tells us that benchmark is God, namely Jesus, who lived the perfect life and di.ed the perfect de.ath for the sake of *everyone.*- someone with the claim to have sacrificed all for the good of mankind, the ultimate good anyone can do. If you subscribe to the above, then I feel like if you’re a non-theist, that you are responsible for at least an honest, humble pursuit into theism and their arguments. I speak in generality, Laughing, I don’t presume to know you and your pursuit, in fact I will even operate under the assumption based on our discourse that you have done just so!

      God *could* make you worship Him, by definition of being God he holds that power. However by virtue of there being those who do not engage in worshipping God, the very nature of their existence tells me humans are able to act upon their own free will, even if it is contrary to the Almighty Creator’s desire for you, therefore to label this freedom as an illusion is clearly fallacious. That’s not to say there are not consequences, there are to every action, however the fact remains you are still *able* to make that choice and effectively be the master of your destiny in that extent.

      September 2, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Laughing

      @Steve

      Interesting response.

      Starting from the top:

      The way that the bible describes heaven is all.uring, I will grant you that. But, of course it's supposed to be al.luring, it's designed to make you want that. It really boils down to this. If I were to tell you that when you die, instead of just turning into worm.food, you, your personal self, is actually immortal and will go to a place where you are always happy, everyone you've ever known and loved will be there and it's a perfect place. It plays to the innermost vanity of man wanting to be immortal, that we receive a reward of the highest cal.iber. By describing this place as perfect, you're allowed to fill it with whatever you want as your idea of "perfection" because its impo.ssible for you to be "let down" by a heaven waiting for you that doesn't conform to perfection. Honestly, I would really love to believe that this sort of heaven DOES exist, but I've already tried this experiment enought to know that a) wanting something really really badly won't actually do anything and b) believing something doesn't make it true.

      The guilt I'm referring to has more to do with original sin than other commandments that you speak of, but with your example, of course these things were carried out in the past, quite a lot actually. You didn't need to experiment, you just needed to watch when one conq.uering group defeated another. Ra.pe, murder, stealing, all of that happened on a pretty cons.istant occurance and it proved to be detr.imental to society, it doesn't help at all. So do I not kill, ra.pe and steal because I feel guilt? No, I don't do those things because of the fear of punishment personally, but also agree with laws against those things because it hurts the society in which i belong, and would to not have those things happen to me. It's a survival instinct.

      I have a case study for you: There is a trolly heading down a track, its out of control and the only person who can stop it is daisy at a swtiching station. If she does, she'll save 5 people, however one person will be on the tracks, say a hiker, and he'll be killed. For all intents and purposes, this senario is unavoidable so the choice comes down, should Daisy switch the train to save five and only kill one, or let that person live and allow 5 to die? Does your choice change if lets say the only way to stop this train is if Daisy pushes an incredibly fat man in front of the trolly that would stop it?
      I'll let you decide for yourself, however this is actually a real experiment done, across the board of all religions and atheists alike, as a way to test morality and see if morality changes by religion or lack thereof.

      I put this case study out there because you are certain that jesus and god set the moral standard of "good", the furthest end of the spectrum that good can be. However you also willfully ignore the actions that god takes in the old testement that seem just absolutely crazy and at the very least, not good. My own though process is as followers. If we can imagine things like god, and the perfect paragon of good and its opposite, does it really matter if that paragon is real or not? We know that we should strive to be the best we can be because it feels good to be good. To add the reason that a person from a book (whether true or not) sacrificed himself for you doesn't make you want to be "more good". With your Bill Gates analogy, anyone can do better when they give, thats a fact. If I give a dollar to a homeless man, I could have given 2, but if I gave 2 dollars I could have given 3 and so on. When is it good enough? Is the only way you can acheive the "enough " mark is if you sacrifice yourself like jesus?

      To your last point, when I said choice is an illusion, I wasn't referring that it is impossible to make that choice, but rather that there is a "right" choice and a "wrong" choice, the "right" one being that you worship god, regardless of how weird some of the rituals might be, making you a little more than a robot, acting out a script your given, we're just slightly better because we can justify why we're acting out a command, but it takes years to understand that justification, in the beginning, you do these rituals because you're given a script and if you don't want to do it, tough.

      Your last part is actually a fascinating sentence. "however the fact remains you are still *able* to make that choice and effectively be the master of your destiny in that extent." Don't you see the inherent wrong here? To be the master of your own destiny you should be able to pick and choose what you want without another person being able to control it. In your view, it's impossible to be a master of your own destiny because regardless of what I choose to do I still have to face judgement and ultimately the choice of where I go after death, or for some people, what happens to me in life because of my choice. The "to and extent" part does clarify somewhat to my previous statement, however it invalidates the first part of that sentence. You can't be a master to an extent, you first part is an absolute.

      What I find interesting is that believers, specifically in christ, believe that morality, or at least absolute morality, derives from religion, without it would be anarchy. However, look at the statistics, believers have shown themselves to be no more or less moral than everyone else, regardless of faith, so why is that? I know that you believe no one can be as perfect as christ, but we should try yes? This shows that belief in christ, or anything else doesn't have a bearing on our morality, I think the only thing it does do is actually helps people rationalize and even excuse evil actions sometimes.

      September 2, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Steve

      In that same logic, believing does not make it untrue, either. If we knew with absolute, mathematical 100% certainty there is a God and heaven, then none of us would have faith, we’d have knowledge! Besides, I really can’t even be 100% absolute sure that this life is not all some fantastic dream, no one could possibly prove that to me. The Bible makes it clear that, yes, we cannot physically see, hear, nor touch God. However, in my own experience and research, Christianity has offered the most compelling evidence over any other belief system. No, I can’t be absolutely sure; I take it on faith based on the collective evidence, similar to just about everything in life!

      As for the trolley; cosmically, does it matter who is saved? I don’t see how. Daisy could save the five- she’s prevented the suf.fering of undoubtedly exponentially more than merely the one. She can feel good about making the best, albeit tough, decision. Daisy and the five go on to have their own respective kids, those kids have their own kids, and so on and so on, up to the moment where the sun burns out and the universe experiences heat de.ath to what remain are cold, cosmic cor.pses and eternal blackness for everything residing , de.ad or alive at the time. At this point we say: “Daisy who?”

      To say we ignore God’s actions in the Old Testament is an egregious affront. We simply can’t do it- it’s in our ca.nonical scripture! No one took out “the bad parts,” as it were. To borrow what you put forth, if we are to believe God is the perfect paragon of good, then by definition His actions are for our good, anything else would be contrary to His nature. For God to wipe out entire civilizations, we must then believe is for our own good, how can we prove that it is not? Because it just sounds bad on paper? God, in His omniscience, effectively tells us these were places that were incapable of doing good, e.vil through and through, and would not change their ways. I suppose He could force them to repent and be good, same as all of us, but then they/we might as well just be de.ad, no? Who are we as mere, limited people to question one whom holds the office of God (yet we still are *able* to! Freedom!)?

      Again, by no means do I claim that if you don’t believe in God, you are immoral, that’s simply not true. And to insti.tutionalize religion is also missing the message of the Bible: God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nu.ts! What I am saying is this: if God doesn’t exist, then *objective* moral values do not exist. So, because objective moral values do exist, I then know that God exists. There’s other reasons to believe in God, all supported by evidence, that affirm to me Christianity is in the fact the most compelling belief for me.

      September 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Laughing

      @Steve

      I fail to see how have 100% certifiable proof of gods existence would be a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. According to the bible at least, most people knew god intimately and saw his power through miraculous events that is impossible to explain through science. Sure you can say you aren't 100% sure that everything you experience now isn't a dream or that you aren't just a brain in a vat, but I can say the sun might not rise in the east tomorrow, gravity might stop working all of a sudden, etc... All of these things have a very small chance of actually happening, close to 0%, but if you want to get real technical then I can't ever discount the possibility of these things happening.

      For my trolly example, who sounds like the Nihlist now? If you were seriously posing the question of why this cosmically matters, then you still don't grasp the difference between an atheist and an atheist nihlist. If you believe as I do that at one point our sun is going to expand, engulfing our planet into nothing and then supernova, probably in a couple billion years, then sure, the idea of a person named daisy saving 5 people in favor of allowing one to do is a moot point, so is any action you or I take for our entire lives or anything the human race does. However, I think you and I both care a lot about what daisy does or doesn't do, especially if one of those people were ourselves or a family member, so lets try to stay on point, should daisy save the 5 and indirectly kill the one? What about if she knowingly pushed the fat man onto the tracks and directly killed him? Is it still admissible if it saves 5 people?

      As for ignoring gods action in the OT, I know its part of the canon so you can't totally dismiss it, but he does some pretty bad things that I have a hard time explaining how they could have possibly been for anyones benefit. Sure, you can use the line that he moves in mysterious ways, he has a plan and all that, but look at those actions for yourself for a moment, forget that its even god doing them, would you deem those as good or bad actions? The fact that it's perfectly fine to offer up his daughters so a crowd of sodomites will take their virginity instead of his angelic guests is fine? Really? Maybe during the time the story was written that was OK, I mean it's only an incredibly recent phenomenon that women have equal rights as men, and only in certain places. I'm sure when people read that at the council of Nicea or beforehand, that wasn't seen as anything noteworthy, but if there is an absolute standard and god was completely cool, even encouraging such behavior, should we go back to the days where it was cool to offer up a woman's vir.ginity? You mention about wiping out civilizations and even point out that it sounds bad, but we still have to trust this ever-loving god that he's doing the right thing, why?

      The god in the OT is a direct result of a desert warrior culture, when he did these great smitings at first, people in that culture admired power and warrior spirit so no one could care less about the atrocities that god committed because those were valued traits in those days. We don't value those traits anymore, war is now something more to be avoided rather than envied, and yet you still rationalize that even though you dislike war, that the god in the bible committing this war is justifiable just by the simple act that he's god? Sorry, I can't hop aboard that train.

      As to your last paragraph, how do you know exactly that there are such things as "objective morals" name one thing that you believe man couldn't have come up with for themselves if god wasn't around to hand it out. Also, what other supported evidence makes god exist? Did I miss this proof?

      One of the reasons why I specifically discounted christianity straight away was that it was one of the most inauthentic religions out there today. It's holidays, it's stories are all borrowed and tweaked from different stories in order to better incorporate other religions into it. In a way, it's brilliant. If you can create a religion that is inclusive to others, accepts everyone straight away AND they don't even have to really change that much in their worship, then it why not, however this marketing ploy is just it, a ploy.

      September 2, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  18. B Colv

    @Bob – I think I can speak for the majority of atheists in saying that we neither need nor want your prayers. God is a figment of your imagination.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Russ

      you are wrong, sir

      August 31, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Martin T

      @ B Colv, as an atheist, I do not feel the need nor the want for prayers; however, I do not condemn those who wish to pray for me. Quite the opposite, I thank them for their prayers, mainly because I look at it as if those who pray for me are showing a type of compassion. Unless, of course, they are praying that their god will smite me and send me straight to the netherworld, then maybe not so much.

      August 31, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  19. NickOO

    Excellent story and I couldn't agree with you more. I studied at a Catholic University and was raised in a Christian household... As an educated adult I can not understand how people so blindly believe in a fairytale as the answer to all of life's questions and push their beliefs to negatively affect others. Life exists only by chance and through a series of random events over the course of millions of years. People just can't come to terms with the fact that their existence is in fact quite meaningless in our infinite universe – Cosmologically speaking.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Steve

      Then why go on living? What is the purpose?

      August 31, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • VONNIE

      I like that STEVE...kill yourself then! Why won't you, b/c you value your life, you're think you're worth living...WHY? You stil have hope, because you were created on PURPOSE, with PURPOSE and for PURPOSE!

      August 31, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  20. Bob Cobb

    I'm saying a prayer for you, Marya Hornbacher, right now. God does not let any of his children out of his sight, and the wondering sheep is the one our higher power treasures the most. May you never stop seeking and serving and may God come close to you and reveal the holy spirit to you. God bless. Stay sober. :)

    August 31, 2011 at 10:50 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.