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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. Nicole

    I just started the program and have read the book, the steps, traditions, etc. But I couldn't get past step 2. I want so badly to give the program an honest try, but I don't see why I have to be insincere in my beliefs to do so. I am so happy to have found your article. I feel now I can move forward with the program... Now to find a sponsor who shares my beliefs...or non – beliefs as they may be.

    December 9, 2013 at 12:52 am |
    • Been There, Dumped Them

      Check out SMART – you can do it online if no meetings in your area. Lifering may be in your area, or not. Both are a LOT more positive and do not label you a perpetual defective, and none of that "higher power" gibberish that really has no impact on sobriety at all.

      There are a lot of reasons AA ultimately does so incredibly poorly. If you stay with them, expect to either conform, pretend you are conforming, or be constantly criticized for not having a higher power, usually by people who will go back to using, god or not. You will be essentially forced to get a sponsor, though studies show they do no good (or more precisely, the ones who do help are equally offset by the ones who do some lousy stuff). And watch out for the gurus! They are the worst, and most people beyond a few years will go through that horrible stage.

      Oh, you will be told you cannot do it on your own, but that is actually the category that has the best results. Use something like SMART if you need support, but remember that AAers are people who broke their leg once and wear a cast the rest of their lives (metaphorically) in the dread fear that if you don't, it will injure again. And the muscles of self-sufficience, independance, and self-respect atrophe.

      December 9, 2013 at 2:00 am |
  2. jo

    I cannot express adequately the sense of relief, acceptance and hope that I found in AA after years of being in and mostly out, that I felt in a meeting for Atheists and Agnostics in AA. No condescension, no Lord's prayer at the end which is clearly and narrowly religious. Instead, att the end there was the reading: "If anyone anywhere reaches out, I want the hand of AA to be there, and for that I am responsible." I always related to that. It's unselfish and all inclusive and too many people don't realize you don't have to have religion to sincerely care, and neither does having religion mean you do care. I love the freedom and hope in these meetings..my sincerest thanks go out to those who are setting these meetings up in major cities or anywhere that groups are forming.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  3. Joe Stilmisk

    Marya is "heaven sent." I have never believed in the concept of God. This sort of dogma was used as an instrument of power and control over people worldwide. Why is it that the precepts of religion have always been written by human beings? Why is it that humanity has never once seen the appearance of such a real being? These questions cannot be answered by alive and real human beings because there is no answer. The Twelve Steps of AA are a spiritual path leading to well-being, contentment, and humility for those of us who became addicted to its insidious domination of our lives, and allow a return to a state of being that expresses a consciousness of our right place in the cosmos. I do hold hands during the closing of a meeting, but I silently say my "hopes" rather than repeat the christian prayers as I look around the room at my companions who also seek self-realization. "God" is not responsible for a person's sobriety - the recovering alcoholic is the person who must learn it is only one's self.

    September 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  4. not me

    thanks to you, marya. i enjoyed what you wrote, your honesty, your humility and willingness to tell your story-what's true for you and meaningful in your journey getting sober.

    congratulations on your hard work and achieving what may have seemed nearly impossible.

    when i first read bill wilson's story, it was like reading my own. i had never heard anyone in aa speak of having had a profound spiritual awakening like his. but i had and i still speak of it rarely and embarrassingly.

    so, i'm sort of on the other end of the wide range of experiences that fill out our fellowship. and, when my awakening came, it flowed gently through the loving, patient, humble support and prayers of christians. and when god as i understand him became real to me, i too felt the winds of heaven blowing through my soul. he put love in my heart i hadn't tasted since childhood and it poured out of me. i loved everybody black, white, male, female, big shots, little shots, old young good looking ugly mean kind it made no difference. he put love in my heart and i was so grateful and astonished. i never believed there was a god. i quit smoking, drinking, drugging, swearing, hating, using, fighting without trying. those things fell away. they simply dropped off. and i was free and serving others because my heart had been changed. no one told me to do anything.

    i haven't remained in that "state." but, i am more loving than i used to be and i'm sober again through the friends i've made in aa and the principles and the steps

    bless you marya

    August 25, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  5. Nicola Stefan

    Kidney stones typically leave the body by passage in the urine stream, and many stones are formed and passed without causing symptoms. If stones grow to sufficient size (usually at least 3 millimeters (0.12 in)) they can cause obstruction of the ureter. --

    http://healthmedicinelab.comKeep it up

    May 23, 2013 at 5:43 am |
  6. bigozyjohn

    Great topic , I find it hard still at 25 years clean and sober to feel the need to justify why I don't tow the party line in regard to the G word ...My own history with religion is DEEEEP ..and horrible , I care for the newcomer when I hear members say ' Youre either with God or against him ' ...grrrr... OR ' Ive never met a happy atheist yet ' , another grrr.. It chases so many people out and yet I know some people need to know God is there . I feel that I have been empowered in 12 step fellowships and not powerless [ I do know what I am powerless over ] Its great being assertive and challenging those who give off the above advise . Its naughty of me but I do ask people after [ in a nice kinda manner ] ' What do you mean ? ' A lot of them just ' D'OH '.....

    May 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  7. Not All Docs Play Golf

    I have attended AA meetings in more progressive cities than mine, meetings designated as "AAAA" or "Quad-A" This means Atheists, Agnostics And Anyone." I love these meetings, as they are in every way an AA meeting but simply religiously neutral, without all the God talk.Some subtle changes in wording, like instead of "God doing for me.." , it is "the program doing for me" what I could not do for myself.

    I grew up Catholic and I am repulsed by anything that reminds me of religion being pushed on me. It's a real turn-off. And in my community, there are no AAAA meetings, and the local meetings are, in actuality, pretty presumptuous that everyone in the room is a Christian, and the meetings always close with a circle doing "The Lord's Prayer," or what I grew up calling "The Our Father." I hate it closing the meetings, as I feel forced to join hands as everyone says the prayer aloud together. I try hard to have the serenity to accept that it is important to other people in the room, so what the heck, do it for THEM. But I don't feel like I should have to. In the BB, step 2 talks about inclusiveness, but then step 3 seems to take all of that back.

    I would like to start a "religiously neutral" meeting locally. Not sure how to go about it, but I know there would be some interest. In the meantime, I just try to remember what someone once advised me when I was in a more progressive setting. They said, "Don't let someone else's religion get in the way of your recovery." So I try to not let it eat at me or become a resentment. I try to tune it out. I just wish I wasn't forced to have to do that. I believe in the disease model of alcoholism. If I had a kidney stone, I would not be looking for a Biblical solution. So many people confuse an AA meeting with church, and I'm afraid it scares people off. And this is far too deadly a disease to be scaring people off from help.

    April 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  8. alcohol rehab centers

    Duff Mc – Kagan's first Gig was in 1985. Additionally, young people are exposed to more than 1,000 beer and wine commercials on television each year. – Drug paraphernalia in pockets or usually within close proximity to the person. Knowing the signs can help one decide if they are subject to the atrocities of alcohol addiction. Psychotherapy. This program will cost a total of $889. It is absolutely critical to understand that individuals with drug or alcohol addictions generally tend to have emotional instability, due to the substance altering their brain chemistry. An excessive amount of a drain on funds brought on by alcohol addiction treatment will probably be seen as a negative and never a good ample rationale to go on with the treatment.

    March 26, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  9. LAST DAY

    "I told them I believed in Math."
    ----------------–

    So you should certainly believe in this one and only GOD

    who created Universe and everything in it

    in the Language of "Math"

    from now on,

    and get real intelligent and sober, forever!

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    March 9, 2013 at 2:22 am |
  10. Astra Starr

    Reblogged this on Agnostic Recovery.

    March 8, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  11. Blair P.

    In my time in AA, I have met some wondeful men & women who were atheists and agnostics. Their kindness and caring were evident in their everyday life. Sometimes, men & women in AA get "caught up" in other peoples ideas and beliefs rather than what the steps actually mean. Our own concept of a higher power does not have to be a "spiritual or religous one". It can be one of a "good orderly direction". Nothing religous or spiritual about that, just an idea about good living. AA should be inclusive not exclusive. The steps are suggested and a guide. They were not written to be interpretted one way but anyway the reader decides – thats important and essential for AA and the new person and even the old timer.

    January 25, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • bethany

      The winds of heaven swept through him that desperate night in the hospital, completely shattered ans alone, in utter darkness, when he cried out for god to reveal himself, "if there is a god." He was transported to another world so filled with perfect love and peace, he questioned his sanity. He mused, "So, this is the god of the preachers!"

      March 9, 2013 at 2:02 am |
  12. Blair P.

    In my time in AA, I have met some wondeful men & women who were atheists and agnostics. Their kindness and caring were evident in their everyday life. Sometimes, men & women in AA get "got up" in other peoples ideas and beliefs rather than what the steps actually mean. Our own concept of a higher power does not have to be a "spiritual one". It can be one of a "good orderly direction". Nothing religous or spiritual about that, just an idea about good living. AA should be inclusive not exclusive. The steps are suggested and a guide. They were not written to be interpretted one way but anyway the reader decides – thats important and essential.

    January 25, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  13. Marty

    I attend AA meetings regularly and am a non-believer. AA works for me because there are people that suffer from the same problem, alcohol addiction. I do get annoyed when people say they can't do it alone and "turn it over to god." To me it is like anything else such as losing weight, quitting smoking, etc. Self control and sharing with others have been the key to my abstinence. My higher power is will.

    about it are my key to abstinence. My higher power is will.

    January 22, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  14. Buddha

    Recently I started exploring the philosphy of Buddhism and found comfort. One thing that attracted me to Buddhism is that they do not believe in God. I have been going to AA for 3 years and been sober now for 1 yr. For the first 2 yrs I kept on hearing that I must believe in a higher power and I kept on drinking. About a year ago I stopped listening to other AA membesr to the fact that I must believe in something other than myself and started believing in myself. I believe that the power within my self and my inner strength is what keeps me sober. I found the 12 septs very challenging as a result of this so I then looked at the steps from a first person point of view and they made sence to me. Instead of it saying in step 2 that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I read it as I have the power within myself to restore me to sanity. I found having this perspective made sence to me and it's believing in myself and not something other than myself keeps me from drinking.

    January 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  15. RP

    I've been sober in AA for 31 years. I don't know if I believe in God or not and I don't care either. Anything outside of myself is a higher power. I can learn from it or I can suffer trying to control it. I believe in love [being kind, nice, pleasant, etc] and try to practice love in all my endeavors. Sometimes I succeed but mostly I don't.

    November 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  16. Emaa

    Ah, I'm glad I'm not the only one. I'm glad you're all still out there. And I like the wave/undersea analogy, Dale.Jodi: Thanks! I've alawys been cautious about blogging the specifics of my work life not that my job is classified or anything, but I've heard too many warnings about publicizing even fairly innocuous details about one's coworkers and work environment. But I do have a few posts in my head about the joys of selecting, now that I think about it.

    September 9, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  17. Hector

    69oneear on August 9, 2011 In the World War [I] a mere handful garrened the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle?

    September 9, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  18. Jesus

    I'm still reading, Amanda! But it's uadsretandnble that momentum will flag in the face of other projects and ideas and work and life. Now that my course blog is just a personal blog, my energy has definitely diminished: I was writing long posts with lots of links before, perhaps because I thought I had a captive audience at the time (some of the students in the seminar), but now I'm barely able to post a link to some news story every couple weeks. So it goes. But as long as your blog lives, it lives happily among my bookmarks.

    September 7, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  19. Hma

    Definitely believe that that you stetad. Your favorite reason seemed to be on the net the easiest thing to keep in mind of. I say to you, I definitely get irked at the same time as people consider concerns that they plainly do not realize about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and also defined out the entire thing without having side-effects , other folks can take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks!

    September 7, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  20. Lost

    Atheists DO have faith.

    August 2, 2012 at 8:23 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.