Editor's note: Marya Hornbacher's latest book, "Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power," explores what spirituality can mean to the recovering person who does not believe in God.
By Marya Hornbacher, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Kicked back with his boots on the table at the head of the smoke-dense room, the meeting's leader banged his fist and bellowed, “By the grace of this program and the blood of Jesus Christ, I’m sober today!”
This was not an auspicious beginning for the project of getting my vaguely atheistic, very alcoholic self off the sauce.
I wondered if perhaps I’d wandered into the wrong room. I thought maybe I’d wound up in Alcoholics Anonymous for crown-of-thorn Christians, and in the next room might find AA for lapsed Catholics, and downstairs a group for AA Hare Krishnas and one for AA Ukrainian Jews.
But a decade later, I’ve become aware that 12-step programs are home to people from every religion, denomination, sect, cult, political tilt, gender identity, sexual preference, economic strata, racial and ethnic background, believers in gun rights and abortion rights and the right to home schooling, drinkers of coffee and tea, whiskey and mouthwash, people who sleep on their sides or their stomachs or sidewalks.
Anyone who cares to sober up, in other words, can give it a shot the 12-step way. The official preamble Alcoholics Anonymous states: "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
And millions of people want that and find a way to do it in this program. I’m one of them. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a raging drunk. Now I’m not.
It wasn’t magic; it was brutally hard work to get from point A to B. I do believe I’d be dead without the help of the people and the structure of the steps in AA.
But I don’t believe in God.
And this can be something of a sticking point when you’re sitting in a meeting room, desperate for almost any route out of hell, and someone cites “the blood of Jesus” as the only way to go. Or when you realize that six of AA's 12 steps explicitly refer to God, a Higher Power or He.
But this shouldn't be a dealbreaker. I’m going to make a lot of old-style AA’s cranky with this, but it’s perfectly possible to sober up sans belief in God.
At first that wasn’t clear to me. It’s unclear to most people because AA has a reputation as a cult, a religion unto itself, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings or morons, and it isn’t those things, either. It’s a pretty straightforward series of steps, based on spiritual principles, that helps people clean up their lives in a whole lot of ways.
But if you are of an atheistic or strongly agnostic mindset, chances are you’ll walk into a meeting, see the steps hanging on the wall and want to scream, laugh or walk back out.
I tried another tack: I made a valiant attempt to believe. I figured a) these people were funny, kind, and not plastered; b) they believed that some kind of higher power had helped them get sober; c) they knew something I did not.
So I did research. I read every word of AA literature I could find. I read up on the history of half a dozen important religions and a wide variety of frou-frou nonsense. I earnestly discussed my lack of belief with priests, rabbis, fanatics and my father.
People told me their stories — of God, the divine, the power of love, an intelligent creator. Something that made all this. Some origin, some end.
I told them I believed in math. Chaos, I said. Infinity. That sort of thing.
They looked at me in despair.
And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”
On the contrary. I think I am among the smallest. Cosmically speaking, I barely exist.
Like anything else, I came into being by the chance, consist mostly of water, am composed of cells that can be reduced and reduced, down to the quarks and leptons and so forth, that make up matter and force. If you broke down all matter, the atom or my body, you’d arrive at the same thing: what scientists call one strange quark, with its half-integer spin.
And I find that not only fascinating but wondrous, awe-inspiring and humbling.
I believe that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility. The recognition that we are flawed, that we can and must change and that our purpose not only in sobriety but in life is to be of service to others.
I believe that I exist at random, but I do not exist alone; and that as long as my quarks cohere, my entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things.
That keeps me sober. Amen.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marya Hornbacher.
With a few small edits, the atheist author has perfectly explained what this believer has found and valued about faith: "I believe that the most important spiritual principle...is humility. The recognition that we are flawed, that we can and must change and that our purpose...in life is to be of service to others."
Mike wrote on Wednesday, September 7, 2011 at 10:45 am, stating, "With a few small edits, the atheist author has perfectly explained what this believer has found and valued about faith: "I believe that the most important spiritual principle...is humility. The recognition that we are flawed, that we can and must change and that our purpose...in life is to be of service to others."
Mike, Life's greatest treasures are found in the simplicity toward servicing others of the less fortunate. Giving to those in most need should be the forefronts of each social enclave's hierarched surmountives. Families should behold honesty toward
“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.”
F humility. You may be flawed but I’m not. I’m just what I want to be. My purpose in life is not to be of service to others. My purpose in life is to be the best me that I can. I could care less about service to others except for my wife and my kids.
I am not amused at your take on Atheists in this blog Marya Hornbacher.
You quite obviously do NOT understand that the 'belief' in religious fairytales is not just OLD fashioned but is ALSO bad for you and anyone you PUSH these beliefs onto.
I mean seriously did you really think that any of the above is what Atheists 'believe'?
An Atheists is NOT an Agnostic who would like to learn about becoming a religious freak.
Plus I don't like the way you portray an Atheist in your made up story as somehow needing help and support by religious people! What absolute rot.
Its people like you that make me despise religion so much.
Grow up and realize that there is NO god, and you must take care of yourself and others (if so which) out of kindness and love alone.
I haven't read any comments here yet, but I sure hope that others also saw the bad taste you showed to Atheists in your blog, it was NOT very christian at all. Shame on you.
I too struggled with the 12-steps as written. I searched & searched, then finally found this book: "The Alternative 12-Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery [Paperback]" (http://www.amazon.com/Alternative-12-Steps-Secular-Guide-Recovery/dp/1558741674/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1315355894&sr=8-1).
How the steps were re-written in a more secular fashion appealed to me deeply. I have since recommended this book to several people I've know who were working their 12 steps in various programs.
Apparently you don’t believe in the twelve traditions either—remember Tradition Eleven??
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.
Religion is a way to keep people from making wrong decisions and most try to use religion as there own personal brain wash technique. Religion is a paying legalized cult which most OR GREATLY NEEDED for ones who have no thought pattern.
When i hear religion i hear profit! When i hear 'i should go listen to the lord' i hear brainwash! When i hear a priest molested several boys at church im sick to my stomach.
Most people dont realize that 'there is no god' its just a way to make money and keep society in control. Im not here to brain wash anyone nor downgrade any religion BUT im also here for understanding to the people who go to church when they have sinned. Murders/rapists/prison convics only turn to church because they think 'the god' will come down and save them.
Where is god to feed africa people from starving?
Where is god to jail the childmolesters who are the gods kings( priests )?
Where is god to stop all wars?
Where is god to stop the weather that kill and hurt us all?
Where is god to stop our government from starting war?
Well i am god and i know that ww3 will be very soon JUST BECAUSE AMERICA IS SINKING AND THIS IS THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP OUR ECONOMY STRONG.
Im here to teach and i do hope our soldiers come back and only go to war if needed. They are being brainwashed and there losing lives daily. Time to be like libya and fight our own government for OUR RIGHTS.
People/Sheeple WE MAKE THE RULES if we stay strong.
Havent you heard? god doesnt control any of that. Humans are responsible for all of that stuff because Eve got Adam to bite the fruit of a tree that was forbidden, for whatever reason, because a snake talked her into it.
Makes sense to me. NOT!
@ auntie milly et all
!st off, THIS WORLD IS NOT THE KINGDOM OF GOD! If it were would not have Christ Jesus had His servants keep the Pharisees from handing Him over to face crucixion?
2ndly, THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS INSIDE YOU! Is it not written that our bodies are nothing more than Temples wherein resides the Families of the Godly? Does not GOD and His Divine Beings walk inside our temple-embodied beings?
3rdly, Knowing full well that this world is not of GOD's Kingdomly Domain and GOD's Kingdom(s) are of internal qualities beckons one to, SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD which is the composite natures of a Cosmos of utter smallness likened to that of a mustard seed.
Lastly, Science has now declared their "newfound" theory called "Fractal Cosmology" meaning that the smallest structures are what the greatest structural sizes are imitating towards. A Stellar Nebula of Outer Space is nothing more than a sub-atomic stellar nebula of INNER SPACE.
my father is an alcoholic who took me to a meeting once after i was arrested for...well its personal... anyway, i was disguisted how none of these fully grown adults took responibility for there actions, it was all god...well that made me sick. Here i was taking responibility for my actions getting arrested and all, being forced to go to this cult-like meeting in a basement... i expected some kind of punch in a gaint bowl and everyone wearing nike sneakers... this is all i got out of going, the 8 times.... people have no power to take responibility for anything! GOD IS A COP OUT, HAVING A GOD MAKES ALL THINGS EASY, IF YOU CAN'T DO IT THEN IT WAS GOD'S WILL...OR YOU JUST SUCK AT LIFE!
Step 4 "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."
Step 5 "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature
of our wrongs."
Step 8 "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make
amends to them all."
Step 9 "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do
so would injure them or others."
Step 10 "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly
How do you interpret these steps/actions as not taking responsibility for anything? I'm sorry but you are completely wrong about AA. I don't know how you could make such an obvious misjudgement. The program of AA is all about taking responsibility for your life and problems and taking action but realizing that without the help of a "power greater than yourself" you cannot get and/or stay sober. Its VERY clear.
@ hippypoet,,,,,,,, hp, My 2 years of sobriety was yesterday, September 5th 2,011. I've been a dry drunkard these past 2 years, drunk with the holy spirit's soulfilled emotions that were turned inside out by the bottle. I am just now coming to grips with my roller coastered past life and in my telling to others my past mistakes am I finding meaning to continue on in soberness with little to no will or want in ever picking up the bottle again.
I began my alcoholic escapade when I was but 12 years old. I became a drunkard during one visit to see my cousins who took me to Kennywood Park outside of Pittsburg Pa. Old Iron City Beer was being sold at the park's Buffalo Inn for a quarter a can. I was given $25.oo to use for rides and such by my parents. I spent the money buying Iron City beer for me and my cousins. 100 cans later, So drunk then, I still tom this day, cannot remember leaving the park, but the next day I awoke with the smelling of a beer that my mother was holding under my nose. I made a bee line to the bathroom where I threw up and made a committment to not ever again drink anothyer drop! Years past since that fateful day of 1st drunkardness when I attempted to drink again.
My Love affair with alcohol lasted on and off for 44 years of my 56 years being alive. I quit drinking many times but I was always drawn back to the bottle due my insaneness for loving the taste of many types of alcohol. My last affair was September 4th, 2,009 and 3 days later I found my way to AA. I go there now for social fellowship and a deep seeded need to express to others my missdeeds while under the influence of alcohol without being belittled or scorned as would be the case in a public setting.
Some folks in AA cannot live without holding onto the teachings and practices of AA's Big Book, 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. I, in a somber way, am slowly reading the 12 Steps and I am currently on Step 4 after 2 years of AA attendance. I find it energizing to my soulfullness' Being whenever I share openly my insane alcoholic endeavors. My desire to once keep such insaneness to myself and let it eat away at my soul has found a new freedom in telling my stories without being admonished or critically harrassed. The fellowships of AA come about slowly by the newcomers and even one like myself who has 2 years of being a dry drunk.
Henny Youngman said: 'An egotist is a self-made-man who loves his creator'. Five of the 12 steps (3,5,6,7,11) deal directly w/ "G-d as we understand Him". And #3 is to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore our sanity. Even if you believe that G-d is simply the power of sanity or health... something GREATER than yourself.... then this is sufficient. But with no such belief you have healed yourself but NOT the 12 steps.
I do not understand what the author means when she says that she "exists at random". From an atheist's perspective there is negligibly little randomness to the existence of such a highly evolved organism – a human being. Read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. And, if your "entire function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to the other extant things" I hope that by those extant things you mean the people that you value. Otherwise, it is a sad existence indeed.
Only an alcoholic can call himself or herself an alcoholic. Having faith in onesself is the basis. Or you can say "I have confidence in MYSELF to beat this disease /. The Serenity Prayer can start with "God grant me the serenity " OR just " I want serenity which is PEACE thats it in a nutshell. A recovering alcohlic faces and embraces sobriety on a daily sometimes hourly basis. IS IT easy hell NO!!! We are recovering alcoholics, the most normal thing for an alcoholic to do is drink and drink some more. I AM a recovering alcoholic and only I can say that!!!! AND please believe me I DONT WANT THE OLD DIESHARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I greatly appreciate such a melodious voice for this part of the AA continuum....the author expresses some of my very similar but less scientific thoughts very well....which is why I usually go for a personal experience, not a thought, when I confront Higher Power.
Tradition 10: "No A.A. group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate A.A., express any opinion on outside controversial issues particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such matters they can express no views whatever."
For all Athiests: Pray for help; There is a God. I hope you meet him in the right way!
For all Religious Fanatics: there is nothing after this. When you die, you decompose..
When you die there is no more you. One's dead body is just a dead body, which does decompose. It is not a person it was when it was alive and had consciousness.
Fortunately, someone said to me early on "The only thing you need to know about God is- you're not" Simple and effective. I still do not worship a deity but what I do believe is that some things happen- like recovery- that cannot be perfectly explained. If it is still in print, check out the book "The Zen of Recovery" by Mel Ash. a great book for non- theists and non- Buddhists.
"The only thing you need to know about God is- you're not"
"God is your secret name" –Mel Ash's web site http://www.melash.com/
That doesn't mean the book isn't good; I just found this funny.
Foo, is Dave Grohl your archnemesis?
No, I know better than to be a Foo Fighter Fighter.
This one kills me. Every one believes in God when there is no hope left (no atheists in foxholes). We choose to ask for his help when we are at the end of our rope when we should be asking for his help in the begining before the end occurs. I am a Christian who could not stop drinking on my own. God interviened in my life of disparity and hopelessness and he can and will in yours if you invite him in and believe. 6 years of his divine hand in my life and I give all the glory of my sobriety to God. Even God cannot save everyone, just the believers in him praise God.
how do you know there are no atheists in foxholes? what a stupid, smug, self satisfied thing to say. how dare you presume to speak for me or any other unbeliver. i have never believed, not for lack of trying, mind, and now that i find myself in a real foxhole with cancer, i am still unable to belive. i'm glad that you have found a way to cope with life, but please dont project that onto me me. oh, and please do not say that you are praying for me. thanks
Atheists need no GOD nor God or even godly people or so they portray and parlor towards. They eschew rather omnipotently their lack of faith and beliefs in powers beyond reconciliations. They make themselves up as being their own god-likeness. They salivate profusely against any gestation toward those who have simple faith upon a Being of Higher Powers. They are akin to themselves as their ownliness being, giving rise to calamitous fooleries to subdue and mislead many otherly folks of yet uncommitted natures.
To GOD, the Father of all the Gods and Goddesses will ever be the consoling natures of the faithfilled thru spirited soulfulness. My being a "dry drunk" for 2 years to this very date is nowadays heavily ladened with the Holy Spirit. As I struggle with the many aspects of my spirited nature's feelings, I shall never disregard or put on the back burner the Holy Spirits wants and desires for me to aspire toward. My heart leaps with joy as I do awake each morning for being given another day to walk and be a part and parcel of a world that GOD did fall in Love with. His Son Christ Jesus is the King of the Gods and Jesus redeems all souls no matter their beliefs or disbeliefs. Christ Jesus will ever be the redeemer of all lost souls.
With GOD; Creation became a Heavenly manifestation and thru His Sons was established Life in abundant measures established in many Heavenly places. AA is akin to being but one branch of the great "Tree of Life" that stands to this very day as being proof positive that All Life is very prescious to GOD, the Father of Creation and creations firmentations.
Well, she just said she didn't believe in God, and she is a recovering alcoholic like you (so she has been exactly where you have been, i.e. to a place where there is 'no hope left'), so your comment makes no sense.
Amen. AA got me sober, Jesus saved me and His Holy spirit gives me the power to stay sober 1 day at a time. Been working for 4 years now. Praise God!
Anonymous – that means you do not have a picture of yourself placed in the media with your personal story and your personal viewpoint of the program. Reporters have often been ethical and refused such stories in the past realizing they were being used to grandstand by some deluded individual that could not use the tools of the program and so sought to make new tools in the program and acquire a following for thier methods. I invite all who would read this and feel that the program does not need God ( or in my belief system the Creator ) to join this lady and become an outside issue by forming thier own program which could include being splattered all over the new media. My name was required by the posting board – it is not my name. After 26 yrs of sobriety I have at least learned to read.
Dear Minnie Mouse,
I applaud you in your 26 years of sobriety. In my traversings of AA for the last 2 years of my being sober, is but a 1st step in my Life Changes. Today marks my completion of 2 years in being a "Dry Drunkard" whose affixiation by the Holy Spirit's realms of emotionalized tenacities gives me much needed pleasantries. I was not perfect nor am I nor will I be a perfection yet I try.
As for your wants to "come out of the closet", I must decline your proposal at this present time Minnie. I am as a child recovering from an illness that I know as yet very little about and I find a sense of security in hiding among those who have had the smae illness as myself. It is true that AA is and does not take money from otherly sources but each group is self-supportive and takes no outwardly monetary means to stay afloat as a group.
My or for that matter anyone's body are the holy temples wherein godly beings do reside. Our temple-beings are many times visited by the GOD, the Father and His 1st Son; within the inner domains of each embodiment in which few people have come to rationalize or even consider. Sure, the Star Wars Anthologies declare rather submissively that the "Force" is made up of Beings who reside deeply within the body and they are called "midichlorians".
GOD and His Family Trees does not need mankind to survive and flourish, yet mankind's ongoing struggles needs for the masses a common denominator of sorts outside their Historical Trees of which have been born many ill branches that need to be cut off in order for the wholeness to be set free of its' branched maladies of unfortunate wrongings. We as a wholeness are wrought full of sickenning fulcrums of indebted individualisms cleaved to our Tree of Civilities. Our social desires to save the wholeness is but a moot ideology in today's cultures who mostly engage in Acts unbecoming the normalities the world is now in.
The 12th step says "having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps,". Maybe 1% of AAs have the awakening the big book talks about. But, many can tell you how to stop drinking one day at a time. Most attendees have been so beaten by religion or a lack of god in their lives, they will never comprehend the love of God which causes the awakening and the peace and the spirit of god living in you. But AA can help you get sober. For those few who become "reborn" as stated on page 63 of the AA book, they can have completely new lives in Christ.
a longtime member of AA, I have a problem with reporters who do such stories. AA is not a secret society, but it doesn't need publicity. As a real old timer told me in the 1980s, if you tell the worlld you are a member of AA and have a slip or two it doesn't help AA. Keep quiet, do the steps and by the way a higher power can be your dog or cat.
Bravo! I too am an alcoholic and an atheist. I recently started going to AA meetings and was repulsed at first by the praying. Hell, the meeting was in a damn church! But you hit the nail on the head when you described your journey as accepting a flaw that you have. My genetics do not allow me to be able to drink successfully, and that's due to chance. But what's also due to chance is my intellect (which brought me to atheism), and by working with my sponsor to focus on the adverse effects alcohol had in my life, I am on the road to recovery.
Remember to do the 12 steps Faramir for, spirituality is a part and parcel of a devoted "Dry Drunkard" which I still am even after 2 years of sobriety. I finally have a "sponsor" who seems to be more extroverted then I am. I am hopeful that my attendance to AA will bolster my desire to be more outspoken and overcome my shyness nature. :-)
For nonbelievers is can still be a good support group. Be careful who you listen to and hang out with there though, you might become saved and become one of those Bill Wilson Christians and have the Holly Spirit living in you. Then your old friends would ask "what happened to you?" " You aren't the same person." and you won't be able to explain it to them because because things of the Spirit are Spiritually discerned. Then you'll just have to settle for being happy and prosperous and at peace with God.
You won't be able to "explain it to them" because the whole god and spirituality thing is utter cr-ap and there's nothing there for you to explain.
There, fixed that for you, little princess.
Ben, I'm sorry AA isn't working for you. Keep going and listen.
The old saying "God helps those who help themselves" (not in the Bible, by the way) is a clever way for religions to hijack the accomplishments of individuals and give it to "God" – not a very nice thing to do.
Anyone who accomplishes anything while praying to "God" every day can accomplish the same thing without praying to "God" every day. You think greedy Wall Street rats get on their knees and pray every morning and night and ask "God" to make them richer? (Though I'll be many were on their knees when the market crashed in 2008 and were crying out to the heavens, "Why has thou forsaken me?!)
Just believe in yourself.
Agreed, I think she got converted, Amen!
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.