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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. VA_guy

    I'm a little disappointed in this article. You did not really explain your all of your journey that much, and MATH concepts helped you develop a spritual side?
    I don't mean this badly, but I think you and generally, most people in AA, have had their brains degraded so much by alcohol that logic and reasoning don't work. I get that 'out patient' care doesn't work for talkers who need the validation of another person actively listening to their cliche story of how they forced their bodies to become addicted to a toxic drink, but to say math concepts helped you develop and understand your spirtual side, the way other people use the idea of God, is ridiculous. Math is a theoretical concept made up by humans (although its basic concepts such as assigning numerical value to things and adding and subtracting are not theory), the same way religion is. BOTH were made up by people, and neither explains anything rationally about the universe (especially when you enter the territory of negative numbers and blackholes). All you is have are theories, hun and pretty weak ones at that.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Lee Anne

      Math is not a theory. It is our understanding of the rules that govern the universe. Religions are theories since they cannot be proven.

      September 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • David

      "Math is a theoretical concept made up by humans" is by far the most ignorant statement I have read or heard in a long time. Math was not made up. 1 dummy plus 1 dummy equals 2 dummies. It doesn't matter what you know, don't know, believe, don't believe, whether you are on Earth, Heaven or anywhere between; it doesn't matter if you call the number 1 flackinshack and the number 2 twittlebop; flackinshack plus flackinshack equals twittlebop. That is not made up or designed. It's fact no matter who is or isn't here to count it.

      Lee Anne – refreshing to run into others that believe this.

      Pucenavel – your last statement is all that matters. If dancing in a circle chanting while reading War and Peace backwards makes you sober, then get to it.

      SMB – agreed, your "higher power" can be ANYTHING that gives you the power to overcome.

      Judd – don't you wish everyone, especially bible believers would do their "own research instead of listening to someone else tell you how it was"?

      September 1, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Kix

      Genesis 1:27 – "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them..." If God created us in his own image, then he created us with "His" knowledge of everything. And this, also includes Math, Science, Arts, and all other concepts that "WE" have supposedly created. And this also includes our ability to freely think for ourselves. KUDOS for the author.

      September 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  2. amy

    What's funny is that atheist or not, everyone makes their way through AA without god, and to sobriety without god.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Sherry

      Maybe just maybe... God carried them to AA. maybe ... just maybe God gave them a con'science' to WAKE up and realize that they have a problem!

      September 1, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  3. starrbright

    AA is secular and not 'Christian'. No true Christian calls God 'a higher power' - He is in reality THE Power and "Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; (Phil 2:9,10). So, no, we do not call Him 'a higher power'.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Gabriel

      Jesus Woman... Relax!

      September 1, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  4. Finally

    You know, she is the first Atheist that was pleasant to listen to. Good article.

    -Theist

    September 1, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Craig

      How very narrow minded of you.

      September 1, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  5. ROBO

    The spiritual principles laid down in AA are not derived from any type of religion. They are actually hellenistic in origin from ancient philosopers and benevoulant fellowships devoid of any reference to dieties. 'Logos' is the devine principle of stoicism which means 'word'. It embraces mankind as the sources and uses of positve energy. This is my higher power and it is in keeping with AA writings.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Hendronicus

      Umm, no. I suggest you learn a bit of history before you make claims like this. AA started as a prayer meeting and it still mostly is, unfortunately. They like to redefine terms so that it doesn't appear to be religion, but it still is.

      September 1, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  6. Chetdude

    As luck would have it, I didn't have to pretend I was non-theist, "suck it up" or put up with the religion in order to get and remain clean and sober.

    I just worked the ONE step of Lifering Secular Recovery: Don't Drink or Use No Matter What. And in Lifering I found hundreds of people who were also working that one step and whose wisdom and work informed my personal path to sobriety.

    It was a TREMENDOUS relief to find a recovery path that was all about positive, proactive esteem building instead of a complicated set of "steps" in a strict hierarchy riddled with relentless "religious" elements that were anathema to me that had to be "overcome".

    August 31, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • Chetdude

      Darn – I meant I didn't have to pretend that I was NOT Non-Theist...

      August 31, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  7. kathleen gargan

    There are 4 other non-profit peer support organizations that also help people to get and stay clean and sober. They work just as well as 12 step groups and are secular in their orientation. LifeRing Secular Recovery has helped me to feel much more comfortable in my recovery without making it necessary to be derogatory toward A.A. The other organizations are SMART Recovery, SOS and Women For Sobriety.

    August 31, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  8. See McSee

    A point of view that might be of interest: http://www.rickross.com/reference/fundamentalists/fund80.html

    August 31, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  9. Sal

    I had the same issue with NA. How can I take someone seriously if they actually think some invisible sky fairy told an elderly man to build a boat to carry every species of animal on Earth without suffering any losses or without the carnivores eating anything at all presumably? I can't trust my recovery in the hands of someone that can't even use the logical part of their brain. 30 minutes of reading up on religions that pre-date Christianity will show that the entire Jesus myth was based on figures of other already established religions.

    August 31, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Judd

      "How can I take someone seriously if they actually think some invisible sky fairy told an elderly man to build a boat to carry every species of animal on Earth..."

      Actually, it was every KIND of animal, which is exponentially fewer than every SPECIES. This wouldn't come as a shock to you if you did your own research instead of listening to someone else tell you how it was.

      September 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  10. See McSee

    This discussion reminded me of a book a minister wrote years ago about religion, addiction, and addiction to religion. I could not find exactly what I was looking for when I Googled, but I did run across this: http://www.rickross.com/reference/fundamentalists/fund80.html

    August 31, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  11. jonnieboy

    Thing is, in AA, you don't HAVE to do anything. You really don't. As far as "they won't let you stay if you don't believe in god", there is no body which decides who can stay. The closest to that is some meetings limit themselves to only self-professed alcoholics (closed meetings), and some are expressly for groups such as women, or men, or gay persons. Even then, I know of cases where the only meeting a woman could get to was one for gay men, and you better believe no one told her she had to leave. It is a program which sees necessity in promoting and nurturing a spiritual life, whatever that may be. There are many atheist AA members, with a lot of sobriety. "The god thing" was a sticking point for many of them, sure, but isn't it a sticking point for many believers too, at one point or another? I know a woman whose first "higher power" was David Bowie. I know of a man whose "higher power" is the Pink Panther. It is what it is, and like they say "if you want what we have, there are some concrete suggestions for you to take".

    August 31, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  12. James Sevell

    MaryA,
    well put.

    August 31, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  13. Alan

    Well said Marya. I'm an atheist who sobered up in AA. A wise man (who was religious and clearly though I'd be be better off finding belief in God) told me that all I HAD to know about God for the purpose at hand (sobriety) was that I wasn't him. He was right.

    August 31, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  14. AFD

    I. too, am a recovering alcoholic who does not believe in a supreme being. In fact, the epiphany that came to me on the day over six years ago when I chose to quit drinking was that all my crying to God to help me quit wasn't going to work–because in that moment I was confronted by the awareness that I had to choose whether to quit or not, that there was no heavenly big daddy waiting in the wings to help me do so, that my choice to not drink would not change the fact that I have come from a family of alcoholics and other addictions that may have a genetic component. I lost my desire to drink then and there. I do have a brother who is also a recovering alcoholic and he does believe in God as his higher power, so to each his own and whatever works!

    August 31, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  15. Olga

    The group I attend has recovering Catholics, etc. What I've heard in the meetings for those who have a problem with God in the steps is that it is an acronym for group of drunks.

    August 31, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  16. Dale

    Believe in God or an athiest, you can learn how to get out of debt: http://www.bigdumbdebt.com

    August 31, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • ROBO

      Amen. We all need that.

      August 31, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  17. Laughing

    When are they going to do a "Your Take" on this article and quote me

    QUOTE ME CNN!!

    August 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Bits

      I can understand her discomfort having been strongly agnostic years ago . I've been to AA meetings where anyone's religion or prayers are not mentioned at all . I've been to a couple where they have been . It does seem the Higher Power has always been mentioned . But if you believe in science & math , as I who goes to Mass every Sunday do , does she think these wondrous things just formed from nothing ? Still , I can understand this is not the way a person would want to get to know your Higher Power. Seems like she's got a much better start on that than she thinks .It is awesome that she's stopped drinking !

      August 31, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Stephanie Lind

      Congratulations Marya, you've embraced the fact that you're just "another bozo on the bus" and you've become convinced that an organization that encourages you to view yourself as such has not only been instrumental, but crucial in overcoming your drinking problem. The genius of AA is not so much in its ability to help its members connect to some sense of a higher power that will help them succeed and overcome their problems, as it is in its ability to thoroughly convince each member of his or her own insignificance, thus rendering them vulnerable, helpless, and willing to "turn their lives over" to something...anything...other than their own power. Even if you can't believe in "God," you can believe that you are simply incapable of stopping your self-defeating behavior without the help of a group that tells you you are now and will always be "diseased," and in need of devoting your life to a "program" that will keep you from drinking or otherwise self-destructing.

      My own moment of clarity in AA came when, while earnestly trying to "work the program" and embrace its philosophies, it occurred to me that if I could somehow convince myself of something as preposterous as the idea that I needed to change my entire way of thinking and adapt to the 12-step program in order to stop drinking, I could probably convince myself of something a little better suited to my own needs (and much simpler) that would work just as well. So I decided to "change my entire way of thinking" and start believing that I was now a non-drinker...period. This more direct and philosophically sound route to sobriety worked far better for me than anything I found during my years in AA, and it has allowed me to move on to other things.

      Sometimes I wonder if perhaps the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous have, at some point in its 76 year history, contained individuals who possessed the ability to do great things – cure cancer, revolutionize politics, or contribute other great things to society – but whose minds became so polluted with AA propaganda that they shut off their own brilliance and chose to spend the rest of their lives "making their sobriety their number one priority" and believing humility to be more valuable than fulfilling their potential and allowing their greatness to shine.

      I suppose we'll never know. But I think we do have an obligation to reconsider our overwhelming trust in and unwillingness to question Alcoholics Anonymous as the best way to address alcoholism. I encourage anyone interested in exploring this further to simply google "alternatives to AA." You'll find a wealth of information and newer, more enlightened ideas about treating substance abuse problems than you can imagine – just because they're not as widely known and universally accepted as AA doesn't mean they don't contain better, more effective ideas.

      August 31, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  18. btnben

    On page 77 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (AA's Big Book) Bill Wilson wrote :-

    "Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us."

    If you don't believe in God (capital = Christian), you can't be a member of AA. They tell you you can to get you in then convert you. Bait-and-Switch

    August 31, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • SMB

      That's not how AA functions. There's no bait and switch. Give me a break. If you want to believe that your chair will hold you up that's fine. If you want to believe that the light bulb will turn on, that's fine too. I listened to a room full of drunks tell me about how they came to believe in a power greater than themselves, and these were among the suggestions. Your higher power can just be your belief that this group of people who desire sobriety might be able to share a few tips you can use. We're always told "Take what you like, and leave the rest."

      September 1, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • SMB

      And while Bill Wilson was among the founders of AA, his words are not scripture. Nobody's program is the same as that of anyone else. AA is its members and its meetings – today.

      September 1, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Fred1

      YES!, yes! yes! yes! When you call them on it to their faces, they say any higher power will do; but, day after day they keep hammering you with the Christian god

      September 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  19. bill

    Yes, it would have been nice to have some practical suggestions. I have found, in Al-Anon, I do not have to say "Let go and let god". It is enough to say "Let go".

    August 31, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  20. allison

    Hi Marya, fellow atheist here. I was hoping to hear some practical examples of how you found your way through AA without getting bogged down in the god question. I went through the 12 steps for emotional issues as a pantheist/pagan but have not been able to use them since becoming atheist. It seems very counter-productive to give up my power to something that does not exist. How do you deal with that? Maybe a follow up article? Congrats on your sobriety :)

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

      Allison: Drinking, or any other mind altering substance is taken to achieve something. In this sense you are using your power to do that which you want to do. Then at some point you discover that drinking is not getting you the thing you hoped to achieve by drinking and in some cases is actually destructive. To give up your power is not to give it to something that does not exist because the power you are giving up to is YOUR power, the power that makes much better choices. Just think of it as a higher level of yourself, one that you keep covered up with drunkenness. It is most often believed that this lower power is the ego and what Mayra has discovered is that to let go of the ego is to recognize that she and everybody else has a higher self above the ego and the only way to escape the prison of the ego is to serve others. By serving others, you serve yourself by moving from ego to your higher, and extremely more intelligent, Self.

      August 31, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Pucenavel

      The Little Atheist Guide to Spirituality – Andre Comte-Sponville is an excellent read.

      Also try Awareness by Anthony DiMello (a little bit of religion in it, but a wonderful look at how to view life)
      ...and maybe Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh (lots of 'god' in it, but if you can see past it, a mind-blowing read).

      And as far as rendering the steps into what an atheist can grasp, there are 6 steps that are coming to terms with what you are, an alcoholic, an addict, whatever, but you are not responsible for being what you are – you were born that way. The other 6 are taking accountability for it. Admit & Accept – Commit & Take Action. Every hardliner out there will tell you that you can't "rewrite" the steps. Bull-pucky. If you believe there is no god, you have to, otherwise half the steps have no power for you.

      Find out what will keep you sober and do it – lots of it – again and again, and find more things like it.

      August 31, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Lee Anne

      Hi Allison – Buddhist believe in a higher power that is not god. As did Einstein. No matter what you believe, we are all just energy and when you die that energy goes back to the Universe. The Universe (and however you think things happen in it) can be your higher power. I like to think of myself energy as a little piece of Mother Nature...

      September 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.