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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 • My Take

soundoff (3,939 Responses)
  1. Anon Ymous

    Well so much for anonymity. This would be a great article if it was written in any AA newsletter. We are anonymous to "radio, press and film". We do no break our anonymity except amongst our members. She needed to not have her picture or name submitted with this article. Now if she gets drunk and says AA doesn't work for her all her "good" work is for naught. People who break their anonymity in public put AA at risk and get people drunk. When will these idiots learn, we have few rules in AA but the few we have protect the many. AND there will be people out there who will not hire you bc they believe "once an addict always an addict".. Good job sister. Why don't you sit down shut up and actually work the program for a change. LISTEN. Don't speak until you actually know something. and when you think you know something be silent anyway.

    February 11, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  2. Jon K.

    Ive been sober since August 03, 1992. God freaked me out too. My sponsor suggested this... knowing who God is aint as important as knowing who he isnt... and he aint you! That I heard. The sun does not shine through my rectum. If youd have asked me 20 years ago, Id have given you a sunset,

    February 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  3. pliskin

    very great article. i am in narcotics anonymous, also doing it the atheist way. it is very hard for most people in the program to comprehend, but luckily i have found a few good meetings where it is not such a controversy. earlier in my life, i often gave up on getting help, because people wouldn't let me work steps without finding a higher power. as well as i was young, and was not humble with myself, so if they didn't want me, i didn't want them, i've opened my eyes since then. anyways, it is nice to hear another success story of an atheist in AA

    January 16, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  4. government spy

    Interesting how many people have an opinion on AA and have never been to a meeting.

    If it works for you, fantastic.

    I'm somewhere between Agnostic and Pagan, and sitting in an Alanon meeting full of Christians can be difficult. You take away what works for you, leave the rest.

    January 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  5. gerald

    January 7, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  6. Truth

    Ravi Zacharias

    --------------------------–

    Some time ago I was speaking at a university in England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God.
    “There cannot possibly be a God,” he said, “with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!”
    I asked, “When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?”
    “Of course,” he retorted.
    “But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?”
    “I suppose so,” came the hesitant and much softer reply.
    “If, then, there is a moral law,” I said, “you must also posit a moral law giver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no transcendent moral law giver, there is no absolute moral law. If there is no moral law, there really is no good. If there is no good there is no evil. I am not sure what your question is!”
    There was silence and then he said, “What, then, am I asking you?”

    January 5, 2012 at 4:47 am |
    • edward

      Indeed there is "a moral law-giver" and he is us.

      January 13, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  7. truth

    “To sustain the belief that there is no God, atheism has to demonstrate infinite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying, “I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge”
    ― Ravi Zacharias

    January 5, 2012 at 4:41 am |
    • GeorgeH

      Your comments are so devoid of logic that it's dificult to know where to begin in refuting them. Suffice it to say that we need not concern ourselves with defending our choice not to believe in leprechauns or wood sprites, or gods of any sort.

      January 15, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • Bill

      No, no need to claim infinite knowledge or any knowledge whatsoever. The same process that created plankton created us. Plankton don't believe in god or anything else, but exist nonetheless – and do as well in their environmental niches as we do in ours. Belief in something is an affirmative act that is only rational where there is credible evidence for the belief. I don't have to claim infinite knowledge, I only have to recognize there is no evidence to support your position.

      January 19, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Mike Dywat

      Score one for Bill! And just because your name is "truth' doesn't make it so. Zealots like you are what make the world a bad place to live. Could there be a God? Of course? Might it be something OTHER than Jesus? Almost certainly. Could 'GOD' already be inside of you? Absolutely. The bible is a human invention, mistranslated over thousands of years and used only to control people in congregation, done by telling the congregation to control others in the name of some fake Deity. Seriously, do some investigation comparing the life story of christ with other fake Deities, like Zoroaster, Attis of Phrygia, and of course, where the whole christ BS got started, with Horus. All of these fakes were around prior to the story of Jesus. Jesus is just one more fraud in a long line of frauds imposed on the weak-minded fools that will believe such nonsense.

      January 26, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  8. Secular Sanity

    My stance condensed into 50 seconds:

    January 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  9. cc

    Logan5, Your comments are completely erroneous. Where did you get such an idea?

    December 30, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  10. Iqbal Khan

    December 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  11. logan5

    Interesting how AA is a good idea established with good intentions but it also has an agenda. It clearly seeks to exploits the vulnerability of others to further its cause by potentially scaring or brainwashing already weakened weak-minded people into adhering to the Christian belief system. The act of helping others should be selfless and unconditional, but not when it comes to AA. It is really sad that the founders of this organization could stoop to this level and take something that had good potential and pervert it into something so immoral.

    December 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • westy61

      no, it doesn't. no, it hasn't. the lady writing the article is correct. the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. religious faith is personal and not required; but a committment to honesty is needed. your higher power can be a tree – mine was for many years. keep coming back, fella. it works if you work it.

      December 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • cc

      There's not one bit of truth in what you wrote.

      December 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  12. Danb

    One of the most spiritual talks I ever heard was by an Agnostic. not about his lack of belief, but about his journey and search for God.

    Following their experience with the Oxford Group, a primary objective of the first 100 (founders of AA) was to write a book so the message of a way to recover would not be distracted from or discounted by the church or society. To be sure prominent clergy of the time were asked to read and advise on the manuscript.

    They dilligently edited the manuscript so that preconceived predjudices would not detract from the message. Like- if you are not ready at this point to get dowwn on your knees and turn your will and your lofe over to God then you should either reread this book or throw it in the trash became That God could, and would, if He were sought.

    The message? Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps. Alternatively, to have had a revolutionary change in our thinking, actions and outlook on the universe, world and our fellows.

    The book does not say we must believe in God but that we must believe a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. Sanity is defined in the book as not drinking, being relieved of the though that preceeds the first drink. Step 11 is to continue on a daily basis to improve our concious contact. There is no objective it is a lifetime effort. The spiritual experience is defined as of the William James variety which is a fundamental revolution in our thinking and outlook on the world and our fellows.

    AA is structured as was early Christianity, meeting in small cells sharing their experience, faith and hope of becoming a believer. In AA we share our experience faiht and hope of working the steps.

    I had the good fortune in my early years to spend time with one of the first 100. His sponsor was Dr. Bob. He held the first AA meeting and introduced the concept of sponsorship. He was a wealth of information about the founding and early days of AA. He told me the steps came from the Sermon on the Mount, 1st Chorinthians and the Book of James.

    Being agnostic I gave it little thought. I eventually 'evolved' to 'new thought' and during that phase I traced concepts to their origins to be free of the filters and variations over time. My hobby was reading myths and legends and going to their place of origin or where they were to have taken place. I went to some amazing places many times being uplifted.

    It was years before it occurred to me that I had gone ot the source for many concepts yet had not done so for the one thing that totally revolutionized my life, AA. I found what that member of the first 100 told me was true. The steps had been written for someone like me, one who would not look or could not see they were there in scripture all the time. They are a guide to strive to live His word on a daily basis with simple specific steps to live His word.

    Today I am a Christian and as the Good Book and Big Book tell me, I am on a journey to strive to live the principals every day, to strive to do better each day and to strive to be an example of them every day.

    The message of the Big Book is that life change benefitting your family, co-workers, community and yourself happens if you follow the specific, precise, clear cut directions. Regardless of your beliefs, or lack of, the change happens if you follow the directions.

    Jesus said not those who call him Lord but only those "who does the will of my Father" will enter heaven MT 7:21-23. He also said in response to the disciples saying they tried to stop non-believers who were casting out demons in His name,"Do not stop them. He who is not against you is for you" LK 9:50

    The steps are from scripture, a simple way to live scripture daily. That one can learn the way to live His word, whether they believe or not is consistent with scripture.

    As the founding of AA affirms and the Big Book says, no matter how much we know about God we know little. The steps take us on a liftime journey to know a little more each day yet we will never know all in this life.

    Athiest, agnostic, protestant, catholic, christian or jew the result of the steps is we live His Word. Love, helping others and most of all stiving to live His Word on a daily basis, hopefully a little better overtime.

    December 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • westy61

      And many people that have been 30 years sober haven't become Christion, or more religious in any way. Certainly more humble; hopefully more selfless, but religion is an.... Outside Issue, yes? Yes. The ONLY requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. Religious zealotry is optional

      December 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • GeorgeH

      Let's get real, shall we? The problem is, people interpret "his word" any way they want. That's why religion is such a disastrous choice for any human. It has produced little except tyranny, oppression and bloodshed. Invariably, if you tell a religious person this, anywhere in the world, that person is likely to respond, "Oh, those horrors were caused by those other religions, which aren't the true religion anyway." And so it goes, one century after another and one war after another. Humankind would be much better off if religious folks gave up their imaginary friends in the sky and started using their ability to reason - for a change.

      January 15, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  13. kaufen Sustanon

    Ich wollte wirklich ein kleines Wort zum Dank an euch für die tolle Punkte, die Sie auf religion.blogs.cnn.com schriftlich sagen, zu senden. Meine zeitraubende Internet lookup hat am Ende mit sehr guten Ideen ausgezeichnet worden, mit meinen Kumpels auszutauschen. I 'd ausdrücken, dass viele von uns Website-Besucher tatsächlich äußerst begabt zu existieren in einer bemerkenswerten Gemeinschaft mit so vielen schönen Menschen mit nützlichen Punkte. Ich fühle mich wirklich glücklich schätzen, verwendet Ihre Webseite haben und freuen uns auf so viele lustige Momente Lesen Sie hier weiter. Vielen Dank noch einmal für eine Menge Dinge.

    December 23, 2011 at 5:51 am |
  14. DSBsky

    AA the way to quit drinking and pull your spine out at the same time. Worst part about AA is they make you believe your some kind of victim and that your powerless. that's such BS. You know what you end up with? A defeated human being who from that moment on thinks he/she had no hand in their own recovery and are basically useless. ALmost all recovering addicts I meet are defeated people and it shows. They don't wantt o confront anyone or argue, they just want to apologise and remain spineless. I am all for people getting better. But let's help them keep their "POWER" and not make them feel like babies we had to recoddle and reintroduce to the world.

    December 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • LeeAnnetteJ

      Wow – you just don't get it, do you? The "drug of choice" is what kept us powerless. We get rid of the "drug of choice" and we have more power over our lives than we ever did. While I didn't get "in trouble" EVERY time I drank...every time I got in "trouble," I was drinking. AA has helped soooo many people, how could anyone ever discourage it? Try it before you knock it. It sure beats death!

      January 13, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  15. Hardryv

    There are secular alternatives to AA. I don't know their names as I'm not and never have been an alcoholic, but I follow a great deal of atheist media and have heard the organizations referenced frequently. I'm sure there are plenty of options that are a mere search-engine and phone call away from anyone in need.

    As I recall they have a similar number of steps, so seeing as how six of them will not be referring to an alleged deity it may even be a better program overall.

    Note that there are similar replacement structures for many sectarian groups. There's one for the Boy Scouts of America, for instance - if you try joining that as either a Muslim (or other non-Christian) or an atheist / agnostic, lets just say if you do join you're better off if you go in there fully prepared for a confrontation.

    December 21, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  16. TheMostWise

    There are no gods, hells or heavens save for the physical cosmos....but more importantly there is "no evidence whatsoever" to prove otherwise........

    December 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • holycow

      who cares?

      December 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • RRussel

      And unless you have been to the other side of the cosmos you cannot without a doubt say there isn't a God either. I'll bet you probably beleive in Aliens, and Ghosts to even though you've never seen one of them.

      January 5, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  17. TheMostWise

    There are no gods, hells or heavens save for the physical cosmos......but most importantly there is "no evidence' is prove otherwise.....whatsoever.

    December 20, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  18. Bill B.

    The date of my last drink is September 16, 1985. When I arrived at AA I knew that whatever this thing was I had it and had it but good! I wasn't too comfortable with the concept of a higher power or of God...I just chose to breathe in, don't drink, breathe out...repeat.. That worked long enough to get to the point of believing in what I needed to believe in to get and stay sober. Early on in my sobriety I worked with an "old timer" who was an ardent non-believer – and he was a sober as sober can get. Do whatever you have to do, believe in whatever you have to believe in...just don't drink. Remember, breathe in, don't drink, breathe out...repeat. Thank you, Bill B.

    December 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  19. Kaufen Anabolika

    Man könnte sicherlich sehen Ihre Begeisterung in die Arbeit, die Sie schreiben ON religion.blogs.cnn.com. Die Welt hofft auf noch mehr leidenschaftliche Schriftsteller wie Sie sich nicht scheuen zu sagen, wie sie glauben. Immer folge deinem Herzen.

    December 12, 2011 at 2:42 am |
  20. ruemorgue

    God help those that help themselves. How many times have you heard that statement? If true, then why do we need God or god ?

    December 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Danielle

      Actually the quote "God helps those that help themselves" is a quote attributed to the ancient greeks (and Benjamin Franklin), not the bible.

      December 19, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Ron Harman

      Am replying to ruemorgue who asked, "If God helps those who help themselves, then why do we need God?" The Bible verse that says, "God helps those who help themselves" is actually not found in the Bible! In fact it is just the exact opposite, we are all sinners and in need of a savior.

      December 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • holycow

      If God is love, then we need God.

      December 28, 2011 at 3:19 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.