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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. rompnstomp

    13 yrs. ago I stopped drinking. I used Rational Recovery. No meetings, no steps, no depending on a higher power, sponsor or any such thing. I don't have to keep going to meetings, ever. My life is very full and rewarding. I've met and married a great guy. I wouldn't have this great life if I'd continued drinking. Oh, by the way, I AM spiritual and do believe in God. I just don't believe in being a life-long meeting goer.

    December 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  2. ????

    Great article. Being a Deist, I would still have a problem with the religious zealot's, of any stripe. Congrats gal.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  3. Paul

    41 years ago, on Okinawa, I had a group that defined a higher power as God or the strength of the communal group joined to help me. Sobriety comes from self realization and turning your problem over to the process. Beliving in God is not a requirement. Spirtuality is and the understanding that a higher power resides in the gathering of like minded folks seeking a better life. One day at a time.

    November 28, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  4. Robert

    "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.' That sounds like a member to mw.

    November 22, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  5. Actor boy

    AA specifically states there are no dues or fees, You aren't required to sign anything or "join" AA. I have been helped by AA and have been sober for 14 mo. I drank vodka everyday then had a desire to stop drinking. The God part was easy for me as I grew up a christian, but that in itself didn't proclude me from becoming alcoholic. Thanks to AA for helping me realize all I needed to do was be rigoriously honest with my self.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  6. Duffy

    I know the four-generations of fervent atheists on both sides of my family would roll in their graves if they could see me on my knees communing with my higher power. Yet doing so has given me a happiness and peace I never had before.

    I don't believe in a paternalistic, punishing god who doles out approval and punishment but I do believe that there's a power that moves the sun, moon, wind and tides. I believe that that power is greater than myself. I believe that when I give up trying to control things I can't control, I have a lot more time for fun in my life – which generally involves serving others.

    November 15, 2011 at 6:58 am |
    • Erica

      @ Duffy that was awesome! Thanks for sharing. I agree 100 percent.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Hemlock

      So...you're worshiping Physics?

      December 6, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  7. Mrbluiis

    Shouldn't there be a time limit on these stories? This one has been on here since August. Don't you guys believe in hiring Belief writers?

    November 15, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • Mirosal

      Sure, they believe in belief writers. Their names are Matthew Mark Luke, John, and Mohammed. The greatest selling fiction writers in history!!!

      November 15, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • David in Cincinnati

      This is a great inspiring story, and there should be no time limit. You have no idea as to the numbers of people being helped via AA.

      November 20, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  8. beijaflor

    AA is very much a religious cult and many substance abuse programs have been created for those who can't stomach all the "god"/higher power nonsense one encounters at AA meetings. But perhaps the 12 step groups' biggest flaw is they treat the "itch" not the "scratch" and so create create a second problem in an addict's life- the pain of quitting that which was originally used to self medicate a psychological malady often caused by faulty brain chemistry. Medical science now knows that most addictions are simply a symptom of another, often treatable physical brain dysfunction.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Carl

      Sorry, I am a recovering Alcoholic, and a AA member and it is NOTHING like a cult. I could name a few main stream churches that are tho if you really want that discussion. :)

      And AA was not designed as a psychological treatment but more of an awakening to for self realization that the underlying 'excuse' exists. And the program is designed to show you that humility in life is important. But it also provides a support mechanism that you might be able to find someone who might share and understand the pain that some feel.

      And if there is ANYTHING, support groups, psychotherapy, cults, AA, or kissing a frog that can help someone to stop drinking and drugging, then it is a blessing.

      Medical science knows....dont make me laugh.

      November 14, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
    • KeithTexas

      Well, that is just BS, if you couldn't sober up it was because you couldn't listen. Getting clean or sober doesn't have anything to do with God. It does have to do with a higher power and if you couldn't find one then there is the problem. You still think you are it.

      November 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  9. Jill Brown

    There are several communities that have abuse programs sponsored by non-religious broups that are court approved.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  10. Ju

    I, for one, am happy not to be an Atheist, how lost one must feel in this great big world. Feeling that life here on Earth ends once you die. For Christians life does go on in a place full a love and happiness. Whereas a nonbeliever will burn in an eternal flame. How sad that must be.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Joma

      I am happy that you have something you can believe in. However, never assume that because those of us that call ourselves atheists feel lost and alone. On the contrary, I have never felt so much peace in my life since the day I was finally able to say to myself with full conviction – there is no God.

      November 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I could never content myself to believe in something so unproven as god or heaven. Even a pretty lie is a lie, and I try to be an honest person.

      November 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • SimonSayz

      how sad it is that you think you will be going into an imaginary place...that's called delusional
      who said atheists are lonely? i, in fact, am not lonely...quite the opposite.
      unlike believers who always have to watch what they do, go to church on sunday, praying to "god" on HIS DAY OF REST..shame on you believers to bother him

      November 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  11. VoipOfReason

    As a younger man I partied with the best of them, however, the older I got the less & less I actually drank. A few years ago I made the bad decision to drive home after a few drinks with a friend. While on my way home, I had the unfortunate pleasure of having a brief conversation and short streching routine with a local law enforcement officer, that ended me in some chrome bracelets. After everything was said & done, I was fined & sentanced to some astronomical amount of AA hours. I am not what one would consider a "religous person", and to my dismay, upon looking up my local AA meeting place, I discovered that 99% are held in Churches. Never in my life have I had the urge to drink, as much as I did after my first AA meeting. Before walking into that meeting I understood that drinking & driving were bad, after leaving that meeting I understood how seriouslly distrubed some religous people can be.

    November 8, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  12. CBSeattle

    AA talks out both sides of its mouth. Up front they say that it's not a religious program, but it is. Once you get in the door, you're pressured to "turn your life over" to God. At this point, if you say that you're an atheist, that's when things really get ridiculous. You'll hear "your Higher Power can be a tree!" That's great. Now I'm relying on the will of an inanimate object to guide my life. Do you begin to see why AA has the exact same 5% success rate as DIY/non-AA?
    If you're atheist/agnostic and you'd like to clean up, here's your step: Stop drinking.
    If you need some help with this step, I highly recommend the Rational Recovery books. They're non-faith-based, and give you useful strategies for dealing with the inner addict voice.
    Bottom line, AA tells you that you're broken and you can't fix yourself. This is dangerously false. You MUST be the one to do it, or it won't stick. In AA they say you can't trust yourself because your best thinking got you into that situation. This is a catchy phrase, but it's patently false. Your drunk/drugged/addicted thinking got you there. You CAN do better! (I mean, did you really think that you were talking to God, or a tree? It's always just you.) Stay with it. Quit.

    November 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • christie olis

      good day, ive been in A.A. 15 years now! even now i still wander about God.God means good orderly direction ! I drank for 25 years and almost died . Your opinion could kill some one.As my mother said , If you havent any thing good to say, bite your tounge, and dont say anything at all. Also what keeps me sober could get you drunk! AND if your program dont work , remember ,When anyone,anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that i am responsible.

      November 6, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Ogg Oggleby

      You got it right.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:33 am |
  13. tom Gerlach

    Great article......The jest of our founders toward the end of the Big Book was..We only know but a little the rest will be revealed when we're ready; or HOW...Honesty, open-mindness and Willingness......Direct Experience of one's understandings is proof that something has changed..Period.....Now serve others and leave the Dogma out...My suggestion.

    November 2, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  14. Taylor Nelson

    Praying makes me feel good so I do it, it works for me and alot of other people. Call it simply phycological, or divine intervention. I don't know what or where god is but I feel like I know where it isnt. God to me is the free flow of energy. What is more instant, punishing than the health of your human character. We don't need god to punish us. Most of us live in a constant state of longing, waiting for things to get better. There has been sometimes since Ive been sober when I have a burning in my stomach. That keeps me away from a woman (much like the clockwork orange experiment) God? obviously

    November 1, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  15. Paul Hunt

    you obviousley don't believe in anonymity either!

    October 31, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Kathy Walters

      she never said she was a member.

      November 1, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  16. mary

    God is more powerful than AA. Prayer is more powerful than you know. The right church, I suggest 7th Day Adventist, is a much better support group. I find it so sad that people are afraid of God and what He stands for. BIBLE >>>>basic instructions before leaving earth....Without the Bible we wouldn't know half of what we know. It's a map to our past and our future. I feel bad for atheists, they have no hope, without hope, you are indeed very random....GOD BLESS

    October 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Jesse

      I am an atheist. I am not afraid of god – there is not a god to be afraid of. I don't have to fear going to eternal damnation – it doesn't exist. When I die, that's it. I am experiencing this fragile life, taking it for what it is without a delusion.

      Your bible is preventing you from knowing what you could know. Stop reading the bible and find out what true hope is by realizing that the true beauty of life, humankind, love, the natural world and all that is and will be has grown from utter randomess.

      My hope is that we will one day have a world and a society based on love and science instead of fear and mythology.

      October 30, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Joshua

      Not believing in God does not mean we don't have "hope." We are hopeful about many things. But unlike those who believe in God, we know that our only hope for goodness and joy and success lies here, on Earth, in loving our world and our families and our friends, and not in hoping for paradise.

      November 2, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • CBSeattle

      Mindless parroting of catch phrases. Lack of appreciation for the value of THIS life. That's what religion offers? I'll pass. The Bible tells us almost nothing of value about our past, and makes no valuable predictions for the future. It's not even internally consistent about the major events in the life of its Protagonist. You get as much warm fuzzy feeling out of listening to Garrison Keillor on NPR. Humanity needs to leave adolescence and stop looking to Daddy for an answer.

      November 3, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Hemlock

      I'm an atheist also.

      It's much more lovely to think that after I die, particles of my body will be used to create new life in all it's forms, and that due to that, I will never really leave this planet, I will always be part of it.

      December 6, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  17. Rob

    It would be nice if the article about AA didn't display a giant picture of an alcoholic beverage right at the top. You know, for people who have a little problem with triggers and such.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • john swanson

      Well that is the type of person who needs more work done at AAA.If you can go to a bar/restaurant and not be bothered by liquor then you should feel good about ur self.You can not lock ur self up in the house and not be socialable.IT is hard i know,but it can be done and yes you do not have to pray all the time eather.It helps some people and others it does not.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • VoipOfReason

      Its actually a shot of water, with a lemon twist. Sounds like a fruedian slip to me... go pray about it (sarcasm).

      November 8, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • SillySally

      I think it is just ice water with a twist of lime. Surely, they would not display an alcoholic beverage!

      November 16, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  18. Jeff S

    Interesting article but in giving her full name Ms. Hornbacher violaes one of the key traditions of AA or any 12-step program for that matter. Tradition 11 states "Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, ratio, films, television and other public media of communication".

    October 24, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Kathy Walters

      again, she never said she was a member.

      November 1, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Robert

      "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."

      Sounds like a member to me.

      November 22, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
  19. Raymond Friedman

    Great article, terrific pionts and true this program does not affiliate to any religious organization, as stated the only requirement is the desire to stop drinking, the steps are suggestion that have pasted the test of time for alcoholics of the type described in the book, Thy are spiritually based upon principles of honesty , willingness , open mindedness, humility and the ability to recognize that there is a power of your understanding that is greater than yourself. This relationship based on the 12 steps will evovle to a more meaningful relationship with your concept of this greater power, for the fact is simple , mwe are powerless over this disease and n=many othe things in life and alone based oin self knowledge we can not find that daily reprieve fom this fatal disease.

    October 23, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • Kathy Walters

      so far, ray, your response is the most openminded, accepting, nonjudgemental, and spiritually principled.

      November 1, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  20. ramicio

    AA is a cult. People should not be forced by the courts to undergo AA treatment. If you need religion to quit something, instead of your own willpower, then you are weak, most likely count the days, and will relapse.

    October 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Da King

      Actually AA today is a support group. And that can and does work for millions. AA is Jesus and Bible based but 89% of attendees just ignore that real spiritual part just like in most of society. The spiritual part can really help and some do get saved. But they became willing and received guidance from a born again member who has The Holly Spirit and Jesus on the inside.
      Than the saved members life really changes and the blessings of God can be upon him/her. I have help save about 10.

      October 20, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • Steve

      Ramicio, your statement shows your ignorance of AA and how it works. AA never asked to be the destination of so many court-ordered problem drinkers and specifically states that there is no connection between organized religion and AA's suggestions on sobriety (called the Steps). Do it or don't, the choice is up to you.

      October 22, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Bryan Gainey

      i hate to break in here, but I have a good friend who works at AA and it is not a cult. I volunteer my time at three different AA groups here in the Florence/Darlington, SC area. Its a Christian foundation with the goal of helping people quit drinking and live better lives. You will not believe the number of people in these groups that are poor and/or homeless because they have just gotten out of jail or they can't go to their homes because their wife/ex-wife/girlfriends still live there and can't go around them :'( its a ministry, NOT A CULT!!!

      November 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I admit I am weak. I cannot run my own life. I seek and strive and try to do better and have a good life and treat others well. But time and time again, I fail. I need forgiveness. I need help. I need a loving, compassionate something to happen to me from other humans who understand as perhaps few others can. I suit up, show up shut up and grow up. I pass along what has happened to me to someone less fortunate. I do this because someone cared. Someone thought my life was more important than his. Someone gave himself to me out of love when I was unlovable. He did this because he wanted to. It was the only way.

      November 29, 2011 at 1:44 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.