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.
I really dont get into things like this, but, I just can't wait for all thoes non believers-non christians to die and go to Hell and realize, " OH S I was WRONG! " Hmm, Wonder what would happen after that, oh yea Burn for ever. God Exist! He is Awesome! EDGE!
I'm sure your god is thrilled to have sadistic immature dolts like yourself in his flock. if you're the type of person waiting in heaven, I'll take my chances in hell. I wonder though, are you arrogant enough to believe that only Christians go to heaven? If your god would take a tyrant like Ante Paveliç over Gandhi, I'm sorry bu you have a screwed up god.
Zaria, "I just can't wait for all thoes non believers-non christians to die and go to Hell and realize..."
To HELL with you, you horrid, sadistic moron. Oh wait, you ARE hell.
But Zaria, we can't wish unbelievers to go to hell, but that they will eventually see the light before it is everlastingly too late, only love will conquer
Zaria, you can laugh all you want about the fantasy world you believe in. Meanwhile I'm laughing at you for wasting what life you actually do have on being a simple minded fanatic. Btw, you're pretty twisted.
This rant is going to be about religion. I've got NO USE for it. I died once. Heaven didn't want me, and Hell threw me out. I've got no argument with Heaven, BUT, I was qualified for Hell. Then, a few years later some guy said something about a HOLY WAR. I SUSPECT (he's) going to disappointed in Hell, cause it's MINE NOW. satan has ALL READY lost CONTROL OF IT. WHEN I died the FIRST TIME I left a plug in the GATES OF HELL. It held until 9/13/2001. The N.Y.P.D. established CONTROL of the mob waiting to get in. THE PEOPLE OF N.Y.C. established A DEMOCRACY among EVERYBODY that was in line. IF you have a problem with THAT, I've only got one thing to say. GO TO HEAVEN.
AA only has a 3-5% success rate, so why bother. There is a secular alternative called SOS (Save Our Selves) which does not preach to people that they are powerless. Quite the opposite. It is about taking responsibility and not relying on a made up higher power. It is empowering, instead of preachy. AA's corporate headquarters are called a church, which should be a dead giveaway as to the real motivation of this organization. Just to bring people to church. Religions always prey upon the weak minded, and somebody who can't even control what they drink is a prime target. Better to be empowered than enslaved. Willpower trumps a higher power.
Unfortunatly, most states do not consider SOS a "rehabilitation" program. Its funny, get busted for Drinking & Driving, and my punishment is to "let Jesus drive"?... um... this is the guy that turned his blood into wine right?... not excatly a shinning example of sobriety.
It's amazing you remembered all these "facts" since you must have been hammered when you heard it in a bar somewhere.
Voip- Actually most states do recognize secular organizations like SOS and Rational Recovery. You just have to inform the judge that you are an atheist or an agnostic, and find the religious nature of AA offensive. Every court that has ruled on the question of AA being religious has determined that they are, you may get a judge that hasn't been confronted with the precedent yet, but it is there. The AA rhetoric "spiritual NOT religious" didn't hold up in court. It turns out a thesaurus is all that's necessary to debunk that statement.
Well said Donnie
She says she read the literature. Guess she missed the extensive discussions surrounding the very first agnostic member, who caused early AA's to rewrite steps into their current form. If she got paid for writing this article, she was violating the tradition that says we are anonymous at the level of press, radio, and film. There are atheists and agnostics all through AA, they are free to come and go as they please. Question: Did she see members of AA actively reaching out to the people in the community that no other group - including many churches - wants anything to do with? Namely, penniless, homeless drug addiicts? (Let's face it - local governments all over the United States rely, primarily, on AA members to help the homeless drug addicts that nobody else wants.) AA's could tell their communities, "Sorry, we only want to help people who have a problem with alcohol." BUT THEY NEVER DO THAT. AA members give their time, their money, their hearts and souls to people who "good" church members don't want inside their churches. So go ahead, make a big kerfluffle over the wording of the steps. Then ask yourself if you've given as much of your own life to help the dispossessed as they have.
The steps may have been re-written, but they are still derived from the Oxford Group Christian movement that Bill Wilson was a member of. They may be acceptable to an agnostic, but they are utterly offensive to a an atheist. Bill Wilson and Dr.Robert Smith were both members of the oxford Group, neither had a background in psychology or understood the psychological nature of addiction. They built a cult around a flawed premise, that addiction is beyond your control. AA has no better than a 5% success rate, which happens to be the same success rate as people who go it alone. Buying into the dogma of AA does not make you anymore sober than those of us who are able to do it alone. It just makes you dependent on something else.
I have attended AA in my town and watched the bars fill up when the meetings let out. These hypocrits must be visiting their higher power!
Why would an atheist have to worry about what is right or wrong? He enjoys drinking, so why should he stop?
..Its called the Judicial System.
If alcohol is consuming your life, you don't need a belief in God to reach a conclusion that something is wrong. It may be that you realize that you aren't around for your family anymore or that you can't focus on any sort of a task without alcohol. It could also be that you realize that all the money you would have had (possibly for luxuries, possibly just to pay bills) went to buy alcohol and that there is none left for other things. Alcohol also compromises the immune system when it is consumed in excess. Any of these could motivate an atheist to sober up. Medically, we know that the only real way to deal with alcoholism is to quit drinking for good, so while an atheist likely won't have any moral objections to social drinking, this does not mean that an atheist necessarily will see no problem with alcoholic behaviors.
Atheism doesn't mean an absence of morality, it means a disbelief in God. If you only do what's right because you're afraid of the Devil, you aren't really a good person. Morality is a universal human trait, it applies to all people regardless of religion or lack of it.
watch this...it will rock your world!!!
Been clean and sober for 15 yrs thanks to N.A, (narcotics anon.) and A.A. and have never believed in God. My higher power
I chose to be Mother Nature. It worked for me, that is all that counted. I went through 2 "rehab places" for thousands of dollars
neither of which worked. I was loaded the day after I got out of each. I do not know one person who has gone to recovery
"rehab" and stayed clean and sober to this day. Not one. But they all spent thousands of dollars, also. A.A. and N.A. are free and the only "requirement for membership is the DESIRE to stop using/drinking" as stated above. I hated those happy
smiling people in those meetings that first year. But they loved that miserable me. And I learned. Self knowledge is the most
powerful thing. You learn to share, cuz secrets will keep you drunk/loaded. Although I lost everything, family, husband,
children I do have my life, which without those programs I would not have my life or A life. Today I have a job, I support
myself and am involved in those programs and help others to get and stay clean and sober. Life is good, today.
Mother Nature is your god? The creation is greater than the Creator? Interesting!
@WackyJabber – In his eyes, Mother Nature IS the creator.
Thank you so much for your beliefs and experence. I have just recently realized I am a acoholic my life was spinning out of control and none of my friends and family were aware except my husband. As with most people with my problem I was really good at hiding my drinking. I had it in my mind that if I didnt drink and drive or break the law who was I hurting with my drinking I forgot how much I was hurting myself and my husband. Its hard for someone to watch me self destruct. He was ready to leave me. That is not why I stopped drinking. I had been lying to myself. I knew the truth. I am agnostic like many others and was reluctant to go to AA but I might give it a try now that I have read what you had to say. I have not joined any program and have been trying to do this on my own. I need to share with my friends but I dont want them to feel uncomfotable around me. Thank you for sharing so of your struggle
I love how, whenever a mention of religion is addressed in an article, all that people discuss in the comments are weather god exists vs. athiest beliefs. However, this article was about an athiest adapting to spiritual means of helping herself to find a way to stop drinking.
No one really seems to mention that...
Who cares if she's athiest or if she believes in a higher power or not, shes not a drunk anymore, right?
A toilet can be your higher power: Once you flush something down it you not getting it back. For atheists or agnostics what they don't realize is that their disbelief is their higher power
A minor factoid; Atheists – believe that there is no god. Agnostics – say there is not enough evidence to either support existance, or lack there of. So, by technical standards, Agnostics are the only ones who are currently correct. Everyone else is guessing.
I like what I heard and say keep searching. There are many new comers to the program who have come with no beliefs in a higher power, or who've experienced religion and rejected it but having come through the doors of AA have now found or renewed there relationship on the level of spirituality and have been set free. No matter what your beliefs are this is in fact a program full of faith hope and love and isn't that what God is all about anyways?
Well I'm glad she found a way to get sober, but not glad she hasn't met her Creator. She truly is a woman of faith, b/c to me it takes way more faith to believe we came into existence by chance than knowing that we have a grand designer and creator!! "In the beginning God created..." Genesis 1:1 it's as simple as that!! My heart goes out to all of you. "How loves us, oh how He loves us"
You are delusional. Genesis 1 contradicts Genesis 2.
Genesis 1:11-12 and 1:26-27 Trees came before Adam.
Genesis 2:4-9 Trees came after Adam.
Genesis 1:20-21 and 26-27 Birds were created before Adam.
Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 Birds were created after Adam.
Genesis 1:24-27 Animals were created before Adam.
Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 Animals were created after Adam.
Genesis 1:26-27 Adam and Eve were created at the same time.
Genesis 2:7 and 2:21-22 Adam was created first, woman sometime later.
"simple as that"? Really?
Yes, he loves us, so much that he set us up for failure in the garden of Eden, so he could punish us for the failure of our parents, so that he could punish us for eternity for the simple act of rejecting the lack of evidence to his existence... your God is a cruel, self serving, narcocistic megolomaniac.
There is as much credible evidence for your version of God, as there is for Vishnu, Baal, Zeus, Thor, Odin, Jupiter, Mars, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc... that is to say... NONE.
Genesis 1:11-12 and 1:26-27 Trees came before Adam.
yes, land and seas and vegetation was created on the third day, man and woman on the sixth day
Genesis 2:4-9 Trees came after Adam.
Genesis 2 is basically explaining the story of Adam and Eve and how He placed them in the Garden. "Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he placed man he had created. ANd the Lord God planted all sorts of trees in the garden..." it is not saying He created trees at that moment...they were already created...this is not the story of creation but the story of Adam and Eve who were created on the sixth day.
Birds were made on the fifth day, Adam was made on the sixth.
Gen. 2:7 and 2:19...is describing how God made every kind of animal and bird from the soil, how he formed them from the soil, later on He brought them to Adam so he could name them. It is not saying He made them at that moment, in fact birds were made on the fifth day, and animals on the sixth day...it was established in the story of creation in the first chapter.
animals were created on the sixth day before the creation of man. again Gen. 2:19 is not declaring God made animals in that moment...the whole point is that HE is bringing them to Adam so he can name them. It is already established when God made them in Genesis the 1st chapter.
"So God created people in his own image, God patterned them after himself; male and female he created them" Gen 1:27 This is not declaring who He made first, God is saying that He made them after His image, how He created them...He is their creator...that's what God wants us to understand...it is ending the story of creation. God has whole other chapter about those created according to His image...Gen. 2:21-22 explains who came first, obviously Adam first, woman second....
I am resisting saying...duh sorry I couldn't resist.
"the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility"
This simple point is the bedrock of all sobriety and all human improvement. Humility is strength. All else is pointless illusion.
Yes, an Atheist finds these simple steps works fine.
1. Realize you have a problem.
If only it was that easy...
well said. And it is that simple.
That's the basic idea that got me clean over a decade ago, unfortunately it didn't come from 12-step. They kept trying to get me to believe in some kind of higher power that was supposed to do all these miracles for me, so I was basically devoid of any responsibility while waiting for this supernatural thing to 'take over'. Thankfully I got out of that program and got clean almost instantly.
Clean and sober for several years on that basic premise. I actually went to AA for about a year, and drank after almost every meeting. I didn't really sober up until I quit hanging out with a bunch of drunks.
The author of the subject article uses the word ‘spirituality’. For a better understanding of the spiritual powers that control this world and learn what mankind must do to be able to understand the Word of God and what it means to be a Christian, we invite you to read the article ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You? listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca
Also, to give people a better understanding of the issues that divide your country and this world we have recently added the article ‘CNN Belief Blog ~ Sign of the Times’ to our listing of articles.
It is unfortunate but nevertheless the truth that man(kind) in his natural state is unable to understand the Word of God, in fact he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned: meaning to be able to discern between darkness and light (1 Cor. 2:14,15, Acts 26:18). On our website we explain what mankind must do to be reunited with God. The Bible is true and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
There is a natural body and a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44). The only element that separates the Natural body from the Spiritual body is the Baptism of Repentance (Mark 1:4). To repent means: to change spirits and to turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan, whose spirit mankind is of (Luke 9:55), unto God (Acts 26:18). This is not an interpretation.
We depict the natural body and the spiritual body on top of every page on our website. The spiritual side represents the Tree of Life. A Tree signifies a person and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil refers to a person that is able to discern (judge) between darkness and light (1 Cor. 2:15; Acts 26:18).
Many people search the Bible for in them they think they have eternal life, but when we bring them the Scriptures they don’t believe us (John 5:38,39). Confused? There is no need to be confused any longer. For a better understanding of the mystery of God we invite you to read all the pages and articles of our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca
All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how this whole world has been deceived as confirmed by the Word of God in Revelation 12:9. The Bible is true in all things and is the discerner of every thought and the intent of the heart (Hebrews 5:12).
So, before mankind will be able to understand the Word of God, mankind requires to be converted and transformed by God and only then mankind is able to understand the Bible, as it is God (John 1:1). Any kind of religion is a form of self-transformation and is like putting new wine into old bottles or like putting a new piece of old cloth into an old garment (Matthew 9:16,17; 2 Cor. 11:13-15).
This is exactly what AA is NOT about. No guilt and shame – just unconditional love.
This isn't an article about you and your belief in God, believe it or not - or what you think others must believe to get in right with your version of God. Nobody rang the God bell or called for your Sermon On The Mount, pally. It's Sunday and you can find ample opportunities to carry-on.
Giving a sermon here won't accomplish anything. Keep it simple and short or no one will read it. Also, it helps to have the comment actually pertain to the article...
you must be new here.
It's really amazing what consuming alcohol in moderation has done for my spirit and self confidence. There's a wonderful online mass at wickedimproper . com
Marya has broken the AA tradition of anonymity at the level of radio TV films and press. She does not speak for AA and is not accurate in her characterization of the AA program. The basic text of AA, the book Alcoholics Anonymous, has a chapter to the agnostic, which deals with the many who come to AA as atheists or agnostics. AA is not a religious program. She is not as terminally unique as her best selling books and special to CNN posts might suggest. AA is the only thing that has worked for countless drunks who would otherwise be dead. Diluting something that works, is not wise.
I agree. AA is characterized by "what you put into it". Helping another alcoholic to get sober is our primary purpose. It is not necessary to believe there is a god as described by religions. But I did find it was important for me to realize that I was not GOD.
Actually, Chapter 4 of the Big Book, tells the agnostic/atheist AA candidate to be open to the belief of god. Basically, this BS just tells them to ignore your own beliefs and just believe like we do in AA because we have all the answers. I tried AA and found that I will not denigrate my integrity. The plain fact is AA is not the only way to stop drinking.
If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you.
The Big Book, 3rd & 4th Editions, Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, Doctor Bob's Story, Page 181.
AA was founded on a flawed assumption that addiction is an incurable disease that can only be managed through faith. Times have changed and science has shown that addiction is a compulsive disorder that can be managed with reason. I feel bad for the people who are still relying on 1940s pop-psychology that was formulated by two drunks with no background in psychology. AA doesn't work. The statistics are clear. After one year they have a 10% attendance rate and of those 10% half have relapsed. That makes an effective rate of 5% by their own figures. 5% happens to be the same rate of success for no treatment at all. AA is at best a placebo, at worst a cult. The dogma that attendees are indoctrinated with is frightening to any reasonable observer. You are told that questioning the program is "arrogant" or "stinking thinking". There a semi-clever catchphrase for every occasion, and a convenient means of refuting any reasonable objections. They simply tell you that thinking for yourself is how you wound up there, so you better just trust them. It's not healthy, and it isn't why you're sober. Take credit for your own sobriety. If there is a higher power that is guiding you, keep in mind that it was there when you were at rock bottom and it did nothing to help you.
For some a lack of belief may actually be helpful. I suffered from severe OCD when I was a Christian. Now, I understand that my perfectionism ran contrary to the principle of grace through faith, but the understanding that I had to have faith to have grace only compounded my obsessions. It wasn't until I came to realize the endlessness of the universe, the irreducible complexity, and reducible meaningless of it all that I learned the 'grace' of an indifferent universe. As the author points to, there was a sense that none of it mattered, but in that, a sense that what we do have matters all the more. This is it. There is no escaping to Heaven for good behavior or for believing the right things. What we create here is what we get, what others get, and what our children will have waiting for them. That realization freed me from the obsession with moral hygiene and armed me with a sense of responsibility. A belief that what I do for others is good in its own right. In a way, I feel that in my disbelief I finally understood the spirit of Christ's message.
And this has what to do with recovery from alcoholism and sobriety, Near?
OCD is fairly similar to alcohol abuse in their basic natures. Both are addictive behaviors that stem from the mind's desire to relieve stress and reinforce behaviors that relieve stress.
"There is no escaping to Heaven for good behavior or for believing the right things"
So by this, a man who does good all his life, but rejects God, will go into heaven? If so, then the belief in your God is irrellevent. If not, your God only cares that he is worshiped and not that you lead a good life... therefore doesn't deserve to be worshiped.
I spent 8 months in a rehabilitation program operated by the "Salvation Army." I also spent 23 months at their beta program for transitional living. I've been an Agnostic for years, who use to pray to God, and I had to pretend to believe while in their programs for fear of being ejected. After 23 months of having religion shoved at me I remained Agnostic/Atheist, but was able to quit alcohol, (4 years now). So I would have to say that I attribute success to the time spent to change a habit, and the relapse prevention/education.
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.