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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. bill

    Unlike religion, AA asks nothing from you. Show up if and when you want. Keep your money or donate a buck or two at meetings. That is why I don't understand the "cult" remarks here. Anyone know of a cult that doesn't want your money? Anyone know of a religion that doesn't want your money? It's about drunks talking honestly to drunks about their common problem. It works for me and I dont go to church.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Jon P

      Way too much fear in this room. Great job Bill.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Jon P

      Looks like Long John Silver finally got the message. Let's all make sure to welcome him back to the rooms when he gets here.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Long John Silver

      Hi jon – Why do you use the word "we"? Do you have a mouse in your pocket or are you speaking for everyone?

      August 28, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Long John Silver

      Hi jon: I can tell by your comments that you're no older than 12, so I'm going to stop commenting to you. Good luck.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Jon P

      Sorry Long John, I'll dumb it down for you some more if you need me too.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  2. David

    I think maybe what the author is saying is that she doesn't believe in the "Parent" God or One that is looking out for individual egos. Reduce everything down to its smallest bit and you have light & consciousness.....sounds like God to me!

    August 28, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  3. Long John Silver

    God just asked me to take messages for him for the next 30 minutes. Leave your messages and questions for god here and I'll pass them on to him at our meeting this afternoon. Also, he told me to take seed money for him for the rest of the day. I know that most of you have heard of seed money in order to reap harvests, right? God told me to tell you people that we accept credit cards and don't worry about giving everything you have because after all you are guaranteed results in that it will at least assure you a nice place in heaven instead of burning in everlasting hellfire. God also told me that humans need to quit being silly.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Jon P

      John you are a scared little boy. I would pray for you, but you can't pray away stupid. No matter how hard you try.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Jon P

      Why so fearful? I would pray for you, but you can't pray away stupid. No matter how hard you try.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Long John Silver

      Hi jon – I guarantee that you wouldn't be so brave in person. If we were alone for 5 minutes I could make you cry like the little baby boy that you show that you are by being such a little fool trying to act like a big boy with little boy comments, dumb a s s.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Jon P

      I see the fear in your words. You threats mean that you see something truthful in what I say. When you point the finger away from yourself you are really pointing it at yourself. You soul is empty, alcohol fills that hole. We are here when you are ready. If not I will come to your funeral.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • WilR

      Jon P appears to be a troll. Ignore him like ones does with all cowards.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Bill W

      Jon: I must agree that you started this. Why would you call names in your comment? That is childish and mean spirited. No one was insulting you before you started the insults. That is immature to say the least.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Jon P

      If Long John Sliver wants to make moronic comments I will call him out on it. If you don't like it then comment away. Your right to as it is mine to not care less. So get over yourself.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  4. John

    "When I stopped living in the problem and began living in the solution the problem went away" A lesson all people could live by addict or not.
    John

    August 28, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Jon P

      WTG Johnny! I am sure you are free from the prison your mind created for you. Best of luck! When you are ready we will be here for you.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Long John Silver

      Hi little jon – For a little boy you sure know a lot. How did you get to know everything? You're really a know it all. You're way above the rest of us. And by using the word "we" I see that you must go around with a mouse in your little pocket. You sound so sweet little jon.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Jon P

      Long John, I am sorry that the reference to your stupidity enraged you so much. Why do you keep proving my point? Call me names all you want. But stupid is stupid and you are at a loss to change it.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  5. Ken Gale

    the writer ends with a statement that to her "humility is the most important AA principle" - to me something like humility presupposes relationality to something/someone else - not consistent with her assumption that she was created by chance and barely exists in a chaotic universe. Everything in the universe/physical world is relational (the writer depends on air to breathe) - science and religion are far more similar than she thinks - there are "hypothesis" that science uses (things it cannot explain, measure, predict, define etc..). If she has people in her life she loves - how can she explain or prove on paper that she would do anything for them or try to save them in a life threatening situation – how can she explain that with scientific formula or proof....

    August 28, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  6. zoundsman

    I'm an atheist. I was overzealous about it at one time, then I realized there were too many religious nuts who
    if you took away the religion, you'd be left with fearful, paranoid, nuts who might be more dangerous.
    So, have at it, just don't bug me.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  7. normalice

    i don't think there is a flaw in our species, because that would imply that someone is responsible for the blunder and that there is some ideal person that we are supposed to resemble. All of these things imply a superior being. Everything we do is natural, because we are natural creatures, and nature is without flaw.Your alcoholism was natural, as was your decision to stop being an alcoholic and all of the effort to cease that followed.

    You could say this is a bit deterministic, but I disagree. I don't think it is possible to predict everything with the knowledge of all current variables, because I don't think it is possible to have knowledge of all current variables. What if we could know all current variables? That isn't a valid question. It's easy, in hindsight, to say "well, of course that happened – nothing else could have happened under those conditions.There is no other decision you were physically capable of making" But, in foresight the uncertainty is easily mistaken for mysticism.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  8. Long John Silver

    I am the foremost expert on everything to do with god. He is like a parrot on my shoulder. He told me that he hates people begging him and thinking they are closer to him than I am. He told me there is NO ONE any closer to god than me. He also told me not to take my children to a catholic church.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Jon P

      Silly boy, so fearful.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Jon P

      Not only can you not pray away stupid, you cannot fix it either. You just keep biting, you make this all too easy.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  9. publius

    John P, why are you eager to credit god with all the good things in the universe, but not blame him for the bad? For example you being a drunkard. If a higher power is omnipotent and all-seeing, surely he could have chosen to create a world in which sugars don't ferment, or they ferment but we are immune to the results, or the results kill us so we don't drink. But no. Yes, I realize you'll blame the devil for this, but that's a cop out, because god created the devil. Yes, I realize you'll say god works in mysterious ways, but that's also a cop out. Schizophrenics also work in mysterious ways, but we don't worship them for it, or use that to excuse their behavior. So either god made you a drunk for his amusement, or out of caprice, or because he was sloppy, and you should be extremely annoyed at him for it.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  10. N.S.

    "I believe that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility."

    It seems that you have not acquainted yourself with what Alcoholics ANONYMOUS thinks about spiritual principles:
    11. 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.

    12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us
    to place principles before personalities.

    I wish you had taken the time to value this aspect of the spiritual foundation of the program. You needn't have used your full name nor your picture. That you did shows a lack of understanding and...well, humility

    August 28, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Pitt Cairn

      Our particular group lets people choose how they want to work the program (within the program guidelines), including if they want to remain anonymous. The writer has put forth a thoughtful piece on AA in a media format, and has chosen to let it be known who she is. Given the poor examples of AA I have seen lately in programs like South Park and Family Guy (balanced somewhat by Rescue Me), this is fine with me. I have spoken about my membership in AA with others (although I don't brag about it), since I may be speaking to someone who needs the program and has the wrong impression due to the poor portrayal we get in some venues. I may be the only contact they will ever have with an actual AA member, and I may be able to help them, if they want it.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • J-Anon

      Thank you, N.S.. Perhaps if the author had enough experience working on herself in the program (aside from sitting in meetings and judging everyone for believing in God) she might have found out that helping others is key, and that anonymity allows us to do that. (PS, isn't anonymity is the grandparent principle of humility?..) The traditions are why AAs can recover.. I think in these situations when people are so sick they have to write an article with their name and photo attached, it forces those of us in recovery to stop and reaffirm the importance of the 12th tradition.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  11. Julian

    Some of these comments are extremely disturbing. I go to a meeting almost every day and, though I'm an agnostic, I may just pray that none of you ever grace my home group or ever – EVER – reach out to newcomers. You should all be ashamed for claiming atheists should start their own meetings. They have a different concept of how the universe, life and God fit into their lives. You can't handle their conceptions because you've surrounded yourselves with tribes of like-minded people, spitting bumper stickers back and forth over stale coffee in diners. Maybe you should consider being a little more inclusive of those with differing opinions, as it might provide you an opportunity to challenge the validity of your own. Or is the revelation about yourself, your drinking and your place in the universe so tenuous that the presence of those who think differently might ruin it if allowed to drink from the same coffee urn?

    August 28, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Bob Rock

      Religion is the equivalent of doing drugs. People are not stupid, they are just way too willing to enter the altered state of not having to face reality. Same as drug addiction, without the physical devastation and a lot cheaper!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Jon P

      Ruin what? My mention of starting new meetings was to address the fact that we do not have enough of them where people may feel more comfortable. We are loaded with all types of people. Funny thing is that none of us really cares who another has as a higher power, or no higher power.

      The mere writing of this article indicates that Atheists and Agnostics think they are special. They are not, I assure you. I only ever know they are there because when God is mentioned they moan or grunt. I find them the most intolerant. We have several atheist secretaries and no one who believes in God grunts and moans like a child when they do not say the Serenity Prayer or stand off to side side during the lords prayer.

      So I give a big Waaaaaaaaaaa to those that think they are special for what they do not believe in. I say that because Alcohol will kill you quicker than it will kill me. Just the plain truth.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Julian

      People don't suggest others go somewhere else so they can feel more comfortable. It is to make you feel more comfortable. If every agnostic left the meetings, they would be a mighty dull place indeed. The best meetings are those where someone expresses a frustration about God or getting sober, and others really think about what they believe and then try to express that in support. If everyone just sat around in a benevolent haze, babbling about God and his majesty and those who "serve as examples", I doubt that would sustain the super- faithful in meetings very long.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  12. Allen B

    Excellent article! Sober 27 years and all I need to know about a higher power is that there is something and it's not me.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Pitt Cairn

      Bingo and right on the money! Congrats on 27 years!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Louise

      Exactly !!!

      I don't care who is the higher power – I just care that it's not me :-)

      August 28, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  13. bill

    The AA group I belong to is mostly agnostic. Some are religious and some are atheists. All views are respected. The main principle is take responsibility. Stop blaming people, places and things for your problems. I have been sober for 5 years and some have been sober for 20+ years. I am in my sixties and have never been happier. I don't go to church and they don't ask for my money. Donate a buck or two if you want but it's free.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • ds

      Right on Bill !!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • mls

      Good for you Bill. And as far as the serenity prayer goes, for I am an atheist too, I'm not offended by the use of "God" in it. My feeling is that anytime people join together and create all that positive energy, it cannot be a bad thing!!! No matter how you say it.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  14. Bob Rock

    Think about religion as another drug addiction. Instead of "mind altering chemicals", people are getting "mind altering illusions". Same thing. People love their addictions, and are willing to trade down, but not give it up!

    August 28, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • mls

      Still better than killing yourself or anyone else (while driving, say) through alcohol or drugs, right?

      August 28, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  15. A clean one

    As someone that has been clean for over 10 years in the other fellowship (NA) and has found a life worth living, I dont believe in god. I believe in the program of recovery and science and have found beauty in others, myself and the world. God doesnt keep me clean but the steps do. I particularly like the 2nd step "We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity" or what I call the 'Figure it out for yourself" step. Personally, I could care less that many of us have divergent views and understandings of what we believe. What I do care about is that you stay sober/clean and find a life worth living as you are worth it. I respect your journey and I ask that you respect mine.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  16. David Charles

    My name is David and I will always be an alcoholic.

    When I came to realize I had a drinking and drugging issue and found myself in a traditional AA room, I was told to get sober I needed a higher power. A god, a tree, a door knob, anything...

    Really? Is that so?

    Which got me thinking. If praying to god is like praying to a door knob, what does that say about the efficacy of prayer?

    As with the author, I am here to tell you it is possible to get sober without getting god. As I have learned, the journey isn't about bad people getting good, it's about sick people getting healthy.

    For those folks who don't believe in god, but are struggling for an answer, google "aa agnostics". I belong to an AA group in South Florida that's for atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and humanists. If I did not find that group, I'd probably be dead by now.

    Our group preamble is "This group of A.A. attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in A.A. without having to accept anyone else's beliefs or having to deny their own. "

    If you are ever in Boca Raton, stop by on Friday night at 8:30pm. We gladly welcome all who want to get sober

    Best to everyone.

    David Charles

    August 28, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Jon P

      Thanks for sharing that bit of faith and hope. We are an inclusive bunch of people. We have no interest in who or what your higher power is or is not. Keep coming back!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • ds

      Thanks David

      August 28, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. Al

    Sounds to me like you do believe in a higher power. For many people that higher power is the "universe" or "physics." Some call it "god" instead. It's all the same thing. You're not special.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • mls

      "...I think I am among the smallest. Cosmically speaking, I barely exist." Those are the article writer's words. She doesn't think she's "special"

      August 28, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Bob Rock

      Nonsense! One is rational and logical, the other one plain irrational nonsense. It's like saying that gravity acts up! Or that a round earth and flat earth is the same thing!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • andrew

      Wrong.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  18. Particle

    You see that we distil down into particles..this is true..do you grasp that those particles create this reality through you? Ask yourself this – how by random chance is it possible that these particles came together to create life? Because if it was random why do we not see a greater variation on life..why is there only DNA? If you believe that DNA magically self-assembled and you believe in random mutations as the reason why you are here – again why haven't these random mutations produced more variation –
    This is where the stand is made by most people because past this they have no answers so they choose God or some divinity or they choose like you to believe in chance – that somehow all these particles came together to create order out of chaos (against the laws of thermodynamics) which is life. Both are ways to that allow one to escape further understanding or critical thinking.
    For those that are mathematically and chemically inclined – why would particles come together to create life when they could be a rock or a sun or dust on the wind.....why create this reality? From an energy standpoint it makes no sense.
    Alcohol – a compound when distilled down is made up of the particles that make up you...Why do you choose it? Escape to another reality where you surrender control – why? Maybe it is easier than accepting this reality. But hey you are just particles put together out of chance so why does it matter? Really, why does it matter? When you discover why it matters you will need to then ask yourself why does it matter – particles are just particles – or is there something else in the equation that is beyond our comprehension. Lastly, why would particles that have come together by random chance work so hard to discover that the reality of life is that they are the reality of everything?

    August 28, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Julian

      Go write this in a Richard Dawkins-trashing Youtube video and then call your sponsor.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  19. Jon P

    I always get a kick from the fear and self-loathing people have about the A.A. program. When people point their fingers at others the are really pointing at themselves. Your fears and hang ups come from within. When you get angry at me it is because of something you see in yourselves. From my experience people who do not want to stay in AA fail to maintain their spiritual condition. For me my higher power is nature. I do not believe there is some dude in the sky.

    If you have been to AA before ask yourself, how am I doing now? Has the insanity and unmanageably be removed from your life? Has the compulsion and need for a drink left you? From my experience it has not, and that is why you lash out at others. You want sobriety so bad, but you are still just terrified children inside. In the beginning you consumed the drink, now it consumed you.

    Remember, for those that tried AA and couldn't get honest, Alcohol drove to the rooms, alcohol will drive you back. Otherwise you have the consequences of Jail, Health issues, Loss of family and ultimately death. Just think of the damage your drinking has done to your families, your parents, your wives and husbands, our innocent children and your soul. I have been to dozens of funerals of people who were incapable of being honest. This disease wants you dead and it will win.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • mls

      Wow, Jon P. I personally know quite a fewl recovering alcoholics, one sober 7 years (after a relapse), another sober 30 years plus many others of varying lengths of sobriety. Of course I know other addicts who won't admit that they are. But to be so fatalistic, jon p! Why do you think one of AA's mantras is "One day at a time"? Its extremely difficult to accomplish, sobriety. But it can be done. One day at a time. And with the help of a group of like minded people, trying to become sober. Why is Weight Watchers so successful? Group dynamics plus more. Overeating is also an addiction. And yes, people "slip up". But it's possible.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Jon P

      This disease wants us dead. Period. Consequences are dyer and real. I am not here to play and if you are not ready then don't waste my time, there are too many others that want the help. Fatalistic? Definitely. Realistic? Absolutely. This is not a game we are playing. Serious sobriety for me means going out on the streets and helping drunks. It also gives me joy and hope. I can't get that from a bottle.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • David Charles

      Jon;

      It took me quite a bit to realize that "alcoholism wants me dead." For sometime, I struggled over the wording... Did I have a disease. An addiction. A moderation issue. Was I an alcoholic.

      And a wise old fellow told me "whatever is it, you have it". That was liberating in a sense.

      I also have struggled with the 12 steps. I've never done them. I've picked out a couple that I needed to do (#4 and 9). But mostly, I have concentrated on 4 – digging into myself to see what's there.

      And you are right. If you are not honest, or as Bill W say "rigorously self-honest", then you are likely to have more problems.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  20. Veronica

    All AA does is trade your alcohol addiction for a god addiction.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • tecjug

      Maybe that was your experience, but it certainly wasn't mine. Nobody in AA pushed me to be "addicted to God."

      August 28, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Roger

      I guess you didn't read the article.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Jon P

      Good one! But God never gave me a DUI, or took my family because of the bottle.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Jon P

      Good one! But God never gave me a DUI!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • ds

      So disagree

      August 28, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • David Charles

      Veronica.

      I am an alcoholic. I am in AA. I am a militant atheist.

      I am also sober.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:55 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.