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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. rufus

    Heavensent is like the drunk at the bar who wants everyone else to drink with him and get drunk so he will feel safe and secure with his addiction.

    September 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  2. patrick

    Jesus did not write the Bible – humans did !
    AA works cult or not – like people with like problems working together to help each other – should be the creed of all human existance on Earth as it is in Heaven.

    Love your brothers and sisters – all of us are here together and no one has the right to judge becuase no one is God.

    loose envy and ego – loose self centeredness and self behavior – be of service to those around you and do the right thing
    you know what that is inherently.

    Hold on to your pants because we will see in this generation something all before have not – believe my friends or perish.

    God Bless you all

    September 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  3. DDM

    Atheists have 12 step programs. In Tampa, it's called SOS. Check the internet for more info, also check internet for 'meetup' groups for atheists and atheist sobriety programs in your area. Hope you can find something nearby.

    September 9, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  4. Alan in Missoula

    Thanks for the story. I am an alcoholic and AA member. What I tell people having trouble with the "higher power" concept is ask yourself if you are the greatest power in the universe. Most of course say no. I then say that it appears they believe there is a power greater than themselves. But that power can be nature, math, the collective wisdom of the group, etc. or even some concept of "God" if a drunk so chooses. But I say don't waste time trying to decide just what a higher power is to you. Spirituality is not about defining beliefs. It's not about what we proclaim our beliefs to be. It's all about action. Fortunately, maybe because I'm in a college town, our AA members here are very diverse in their beliefs or lack thereof. I learn by listening to fellow drunks tell their story of how they are working their program. I don't care what they believe. I don't believe that what I believe is relevant to the question. . We have plenty of members that will call down anyone who insists that their concept of a higher power is the only one. It's about what you do, not what you say.

    September 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  5. Su An

    Marya I am so appreciative and amazed at your strength as I read your book Madness and I am so looking forward to Sane. I know that humans did not make leptons or trees or gravity or cells. I was a math major and revere nature and creation. My mom died when I was 22 and I had noone else to save me, so I knew I had to save myself. This can put you in a more realistic space, in that you have noone to hear you, care about you or give you a place to write! You have to get these things somehow. I have been saved by the AA program. Higher Power

    September 9, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  6. buddget

    I will break anonimity and at one meeting I said was a Atheist and It just opened a can-o-worms. So I just learned to keep my mouth shut and I am still stuck at step 3, or maybe step 2.

    September 9, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • DDM

      Atheists have a 12 step program. In Tampa it's called SOS. Check the internet for more info, check internet for 'meetup' groups in your area. Hope you can find something in your area.

      September 9, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  7. Aaron L.

    I got treated like crap when i told them I would not say the lord's prayer because I am and will always be and Atheist. They didn't like that too much. So now I'm still out drinking being miserable. Thanks AA for being inclusive. Liars.

    September 9, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Don B

      I have been sober for 11 years-the same amount of time I have been going to AA. I could launch into a debate about God, but I won't. I have one question for the author--What gave you the right to repeat anything in an AA meeting? Surely you know the "anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all of our traditions". Wait here is another one: "we need always to maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film. The author is a charlatan seeking to make a fast buck off of AA. TO disclose what happened in a meeting in a publication is about as serious as it gets folks. These meetings work because we can trust each other not to disclose.

      September 9, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • rufus

      I guess maybe I am wrong but I thought the "non-disclosure" obligation related to names of people and other identifying information. To say that an AA member cannot reveal the general nature of certain discussions is kind of creepy. It is like a cult or secret club. I would rather be an alcoholic than "cured" through AA.

      September 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  8. The NetProphet

    I can find no where in the bible Where Jesus called his disciples to hate any one, He taught to forgive your those who hate you and to bless them that attack you. the exact words are in Matthew 5:44 " But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you." I am so sorry that the name of Jesus has been used by some Christians to further there own selfish desires. We who are followers of the teachings in the bible spend so much time not doing what the Lord clearly teaches. To the world I say stop hating each other and do good help those in need, feed people who are hungry, do good to all you meet, Jesus never spoke out against any one except to the religious people at that time and it is not any different now ! From Gods perspective we all are guilty of crimes against GOD and man. I pray that all people stop and think does hate, greed,selfishness solve any thing?
    And to the Christians ? can you really say that you are walking in the truth, when you lie cheat and steal or act like the world around you? we are called to be a light but yet we are no different that the rest of the world, is it any wonder the world see you as hypocrites Does not the Jesus warn about the "yeast of the Pharisees" in Luke 12:1 Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy!

    September 9, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  9. sonomamama

    Wow! So many "experts!" We are independent human beings with minds of our own. Whatever works for someone who wants and needs to stop drinking should be okay, shouldn't it? We all know what opinions are "just like." Sometimes it's better to keep them to ourselves rather than risk harm to someone just finding the way out. Walk a mile in my shoes, then dare to judge me. Sober for 27 years and it's my business how I got there. And you?

    September 8, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  10. Eric

    Well I have to say that all of the meetings that I have been to in the 6 years I have been sober, I have never went to a meeting where people are saying "I'd like to thank myself for being sober this long." They have never said "I'd like to than Mohammed, Buddha, Satan, etc." I always hear them say "I thank God!" AA is a GOD based program! The meetings that I have been to start and end with a prayer. Even Bill W. had a spiritual experience when he was going through withdrawals. "So this is the God of the preachers, this is the great Reality."-Bill W. Lastly, Marya Hornbacher where do you think that a thing like humility stems from?

    September 8, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  11. anne

    My previous post to Steve was meant for HeavenSent. Sorry Steve.

    September 8, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  12. anne

    Just think Steve, wht would Jesus need to turn water into wine if he didn't need a drink?

    September 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Zamoh

      We use Verizon's FIOS and love it! It's the cheapest high speed irtennet out there. For what it's worth .I like SEPTA, too. We're an easy 4 min walk from our regional rail station, and it's so nice to know that center city is so accessible.

      September 9, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  13. George

    A recovering alcoholics' "higher power" can be a sponsor, a chair, a table or a garden variety rock. The point is simple: in order to get sober, as I did 24 years ago, you have to believe in something other than yourself. There's not an alcoholic who doesn't believe he's/she's the greatest thing on earth.

    September 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • mickey1313

      People who state that AA and thiesm are seporate are lieing to the public. My stepmom has been in AA for like 12 years, and I have read her drivle (incidently, I deeply enjoy telling her about my drunken debachery). You must surender your power to an all powerful force. By admiting there is an all powerful force, you perminatly weaken your will. Only thru the realization that we are all devine beings incharge of our own lives, in all facets, that we can become stronger. Also from someone who has been drinking for 16 of my 31 years, ALCOHOL IS NOT ADICTIVE. AA is a christian sham.

      September 8, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • HP_chair

      make the chair or doorknob your HP? – that is just plain STUPID! – turn my will and lifo over to the chair? came to believe that the chair could restore me to sanity? – this IS insanity. pray to the chair asking only for the chair's will for me and the power to carry it out? -

      thankfully as a THINKING person I can discern BS when I hear it – there ARE AA alternatives if you feel you need help recovering from harmful behaviors – two of the best I've found online are SMART Recovery http://www.smartrecovery.org and LifeRing – http://lifering.org - there IS a solution to this IRRATIONAL belief in an external source for recovery – NOT Powerless – make a decision to discontinue harmful beliefs/behavoirs then DO IT!

      September 9, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • rufus

      In fact, I have found that alcoholics generally have a very low opinion of themselves, provided, of course, that you look behind the superficial veneer. Instead of getting them to believe in a "higher power" (translation: hook them on God, not booze) why not get them to truly believe in themselves and realize that they are capable of being responsible, decent people and not a drain or burden for those around them?

      September 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  14. Evolutiongrrl

    Wow there's a lot of comments. I am glad that I got to read this article. AA and religion are very different. I am currently working with the idea of spirituality. Even that is a stretch because I believe in evolution. But I think that it is so important for people to be able to sober up, no matter what terms. The book does talk about the difference between an alcoholic and someone who's not. However, that is not up to other people in AA who went further down than most, to decide. There are no religious obligations in AA. Mostly it's about people who have a drinking problem needing and wanting to get and stay sober. I really like what she said about helping other people and service work.

    September 8, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  15. jwl

    The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are a road map to recovery for most people who are willing to have even just a little bit of faith. Someone who has been a member of AA and sober for 30 plus years once told me, "just remeber, AA is not the hotbead of mental health." It takes all kinds, just like every other social group and life in general. The 12 steps are "how it works." The 12 traditions of AA are "why" it works. The 12th. traditions states that anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. The 11th. tradition says that 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. In the days of Jack Alexander, news organizations used to respect this and not publish member's names. Today it appears that this tradition is all but gone.

    September 8, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • mickey1313

      If you do the research and study the facts the conclusion is evidant. The precentage of people who quit cold turkey and sucseed is the EXACT same precentage as those who go thru AA and sucseed. AKA it is all in there head, just like the origonal "adiction"

      September 8, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  16. palatot

    What a refreshing comment. At last, a major media dares reporting the view of an atheist, like myself. I firmly believe that there are many many of us, but unfortunately, in this country being an atheist is still tantamount to being a demon. The US will truly be free of bigotry when one can contemplating becoming a president of the US while being an atheist.

    September 8, 2011 at 7:49 am |
  17. jenneandrews

    I now believe in synchronicity after reading this– check out my post just put up tonight at http://loquaciouslyyours.com . It's about these issues but I take a hard line; many years in program but now believe AA is a cult. And I'm sober. xj

    September 8, 2011 at 4:10 am |
  18. Bill Wilson

    Most people in AA are NOT alcoholic. AA 's first one hundred founders state on page 34: "IF you can get get sober on a non-spiritual basis-you are not an alcoholic" . The BB states the need to discern between a moderate drinker, a hard drinker and an alcoholic. An Alcoholic is hopeless-with NO WILL POWER over alcohol. An Alcoholic must experience YHWA-CHRIST-ALLAH to survive a fatal disease like alcoholism. The If you can execute will power, and choose not to drink-then you are not an alcoholic.

    September 8, 2011 at 3:44 am |
    • mickey1313

      Doubblespeak, just like the politicos. So let me get this strait, if you are strong enough to know there is no god, then you can not become an alcoholic? Just one more reason to ban thiesm. BTW, to be an adiction, it must change the brains chemistry like heron does, alcohol pot cigerettes DO NOT DO THAT< THUS THERE IS NO ADDICTION. People like how it makes them feel, and are too weak to use moderation, that is not an ilness. Everyone who saus that alcoholism in a diesease should be infected with AIDS so they can see how stupid there argument is.

      September 8, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  19. Steve

    The fact that you had to be belittled as "part of your cure" is absurd, and I can't believe you put up with it.

    We are not egotists because we refuse to submit to a wholly imaginary force. Besides, an alcoholic has already submitted themselves to a higher power – alcohol. The point is to find something more powerful than the drink. That should be YOURSELF, and your own desire for self-determination and self-preservation.

    Do you still attend meetings? Are you still recovering? Because if you consider yourself recovered – guess what: you didn't complete the program. You can't complete the program, because it doesn't end. You have to keep going back to meetings because you have an "incurable disease," and if you don't, you'll slip straight back into alcoholism and death.

    AA IS a cult, like it or not. And, like it or not, you are being a weak-willed shill for them. Those are the facts, take them or leave them.

    September 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Another lie you are believing Steve. EGO (for which you wrote egotist) means to Erase God Out. Believing yourself to be a mini god. You believe that you alone can handle anything. Tell your theory to Jesus on Judgement day. You non-believers already rip off His wisdom, call it something else and go on your way learning a fraction of anything He teaches. Pick up the letter He wrote all of us (the Bible) and learn His entire truth. Only when learning His truth will His wisdom set you free.

      Amen.

      September 7, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      My apologizes Steve, I didn't see who you were responding too because it was on the previous page. Therefore, my post is to whoever you wrote to.

      Amen.

      September 7, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • mickey1313

      HeavenSent, so acording to you and your fantisy (which I read cover to cover when I still carried the burden of my mother faith), I should be down to kill kids who are disrespectful or anyone who works on saturday. Also my wife is my property that I can do with as I wish. Christians are hypocrites, also your makeing ego an acronim, has nothing to do with the origens of the word, it conme from latin and is something like the self. But like republicans, all thiests are weak willed foolish childeren playing at being adults, like kidergardeners dressing up in there parents cloths, from a distance you might mistake them for adults but one word out of there mouths shows there true maturity.

      September 8, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  20. Doug

    I heard once that if you don't believe no proof is enough and if you do no proof is necessary. There are truly two types of people in this world. It is hard to explain to believers that you wish you could and that faith would make your life simpler. But, if you don't you don't. Having walked into AA meetings myself on occasion (when I believed I needed it) that higher power thing was always a sticking point. Glad the author was able to get sober through a program that has saved the lives of so many, including several of my own drunk ass relatives. Cheers!

    September 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Doug, without Jesus, you folks (including the author of this article) are still lost, still wells without water, dry bones, spiritually dead and, oh yes, in carnal language, dry drunks.

      Now, if you want to really enjoy life, pick up the letter Jesus' wrote all of us (the Bible) and feel great hearing, comprehending and abiding in His truth to live a righteous life in His light.

      Amen.

      September 7, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Corrinne

      heavensent- While I think you mean well hearing this kind of thing constantly can be damaging for addicts seeking help. I know because I have been there. I am a sober heroin/cocaine addict. I stuck through NA because I, thankfully, had an open minded group. I used my mother as my higher power after she had passed away, despite the fact that I don't believe she is watching over me. For an addict in despair, this will only serve to make them feel like more of a failure- that they don't "get" God or whatever. I do work with other addicts and study psychology and substance abuse counseling.

      Anyway. I know the Bible, backwards and forewards. I went to Catholic school for 9 years and had a Baptist mother. There are good lessons in the Bible but people do not need the Bible to be good people. I devote my life to rescuing animals and helping teenage boys from damaged homes and abusive pasts. And I don't believe in any one God. I think there may be something out there but no one religion has it right. I've spent years thinking and learning and this is my conclusion. Trying to force your beliefs down other people's throats only serves to make them push back harder. I don't try to talk people out of their beliefs, ever. But don't belittle mine either.

      September 8, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Epicurus

      The one true God is Zeus, and all who are without him are lost!

      Prove me wrong.

      September 9, 2011 at 1:43 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.