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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. Emily

    This article bothered me. Like it is some revelation that someone who is an atheist can get sober through AA. The Big Book even has a chapter to the Agnostic. Having nonbelievers in AA meetings is nothing new and anyone who comes to their first meeting and focuses only on the spiritual aspect of the program and thus writes it off if their beliefs don't match, doesn't really want to get sober. Rejecting a program like AA, with proven success, based on an intial impression of Higher Power's role in recovery is just a continuation of this prideful disease.

    I have been sober for 2 years and am totally unsure what I believe when it comes to God and Jesus. AA is all about a suggested path of action that can be altered as the user sees fit. The author is not breaking any new ground in AA. The article felt like she was patting herself on the back because she got sober through AA and maintained her beliefs.

    I know that the author is maybe trying to help others who think that AA cannot be helpful unless you are a Christian, but it comes off as self-righteous which is one thing that will drive anyone away from seeking recovery in AA.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Rex Lutherin

      Comparing herself to be as random as "anything else" is what I disagree with. Perhaps she is random in the sense when the condom broke, but to state that anything is random is naive. Also, I expected the article to be longer, with some description of the various stages a recovering alcoholic has to go through in order to achieve success in getting the addiction under control.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Anafiel

      "proven success...", are you serious? AA has an abysmal success rate! The only successes that they can boast are those that would of recovered anyway. Those successes only hang around because of the recognition, and the chance to be someone's sponsor. It's a power play in an organisation that tells you you are powerless. That is NOT recovery to me.

      Recovery means re-entering society as a productive citizen, without the need of the self-defeating crutches offered up in the dogma of AA.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  2. Bob Rock

    It's funny how poorly educated people always come up with Communists to put atheism down. They got it all wrong! Communists were atheists because it suited their irrational dogma (a form of religion without god). That doesn't make atheists communists! The Nazis used Christianity to suit their dogma. That doesn't make Christians Nazis! Or does it??

    August 28, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Rex Lutherin

      You get nazis when you mix the church and state together. Some (if not most) organized dogma is preached in a way to instill fear in people, which is a method of controlling the masses, same method the nazis used.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  3. Bob Rock

    The first thing the Catholic church should do before anything else is to get rid of the effigy of a guy nailed to a couple of sticks. The courts will not allow a release of torture victim images for public use! Why should the church keep getting away with it? It's disturbing at best and disgusting in the least!

    August 28, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • thefurious

      People like you who assert their liberty and rights to barrage people who think differently than you and label them as intolerant are simply hypocrits. If anyone is a detriment to society, its people like you who truly cause the harmful discord that pulls apart our society that is based on freedom and individuals' rights.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  4. Bo

    ==============@Colin==================== You write as though you believe that aheists out number those who belive in a higher power, frankly I thought so too. Last week I picked up a small book that had a lot of stats about Christianty. One chapter was devoted to atheism. I was surprised that atheism in the U.S. was only 4% and that precentage has not changed since surveys were started. There have been many, including Sam Harris, who have predicted that Christianty was on it's way out. There are about 46% of Americans who say they attend church regulary, but the figure is more likely about 32%, Of the 4% atheists only about 1% of the 4% have doctorates and most of them teach science in colleges with a low rate of about .01% acceptablity of their doctrines. Like I said, I was surpised too.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • sober

      Who wrote the book where the stats came from? That may be telling for the low numbers of atheist.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Robbie

      This blog is an AA traditions violation, the author should know that

      August 28, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  5. Bob Rock

    Religion should not be tolerated at all, any more that we tolerate drunk drivers or drug addicts on the road. They should have nothing say at all about anything as they are not in touch with reality.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  6. Lee

    I have no problem with a higher power such as, "god," Mother Mary, the Universe, FSM, or even Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, etc etc. My complaint is with RELIGION. They are all entirely human inventions used for self-serving reasons.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  7. tony

    Good, I was looking for a friend of mine a few years ago (south Florida)
    And all AA I called was run by religious fanatics.

    She was atheist with a slight hint of devil worshiping (just for fun)
    you would see that dragging her to one of those Religious AA would be like oil and vinegar.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  8. Rex Lutherin

    I disagree with the author stating she is random "just like anything else". Anything else isn't just random.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • sober

      Philosophical. What if it was true? What if it isn't? A lot to consider here.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  9. Linda

    That is one of the great thing about AA. You are called upon to define a higher power in a way that makes sense for you. Not someone else' s concept. And if someone approaches you and insists that they have your answer, you can politely listen and/or find another meeting if it does not feel right.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  10. Bob Rock

    "Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own
    father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and
    telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove
    an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a
    rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
    Otherwise you'll be tortured forever by an invisible red guy with horns."

    August 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • GreenDru

      LOL! Best summary of Christianity I have ever read!

      August 28, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Rex Lutherin

      Very humorous generalization. While I respect your belief (or lack thereof), I see no harm in taking whatever wisdom I can understand out of any book, including the bible.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  11. No Beer

    I don't know where she is from – but in my home city AA is really not about Jesus – Jesus Christ is usually not a welcome name in secular places like AA. If you mention Jesus Christ you can feel the cringe and a pin drop. Usually has the same reception as in a synagogue. AA is not that perfect place either -a lot of cons and people trying to get over and criminals forced to go there. Some people just get sober and think that's it – they're perfect now and cause havoc especially in newcomers life. I dont need that – don't need more danger than what alcohol creates when it gets with me. So it's not necessarily what you call getting sober with Jesus, that's mockery. For every person who is sitting in a seat today right now – there are 1000 who sat there that it didn't help. They have an answer for that so cheesy – it works if you work it . Nothing to work – you see yourself. And you put it down and put it away.( And if you want God's help – He really has a heart for the broken hearted.)

    August 28, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  12. Pitt Cairn

    Thanks to all the AA members for posting here. We are often misrepresented and misunderstood (as in South Park and Family Guy – which influence alot of kids, including my own). I am reading some of the most thoughful, positive comments I have ever seen on a posting board.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Rex Lutherin

      I thought Southpark's take was brilliant, and made sense in that something still controls you whether you choose to over-indulge in it or permanently avoid it, which is basically the same as saying everything is best when in moderation.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  13. Brook A.

    The whole "GOD" thing was very tricky for me at first as well. The pain of my drunken existence was far worse. Breaking down my "EGO" was paramount. Believing in something, anything greater than myself, was freeing. You can believe whatever you want to. As long as it stops the insanity of the EGO.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • sober

      I think the program is mostly about admitting you have no power and to do that people feel better believing that there is a power bigger than them that will take the reigns. It's just simple to insert God here. Believers will say God is behind that. Others will say they did it themselves. Whatev. Just so long as sobriety is obtained.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  14. Stephen

    God does believe in you, and lead you towards a path where you got help. The ability to love and beloved can not be found in any of the evolutionary scales or models, it is built inside of us, designed by the creator, but our minds are stimulated by outside influences that tend to dim the light that God wants to shine in our lives. To conclude your story was very inspiring, and deny God if you will but it was a testimony of how he leads people out of the bondage of drug and alcohol, and just imagine if you fully were to give your life to God and his will...God Bless

    August 28, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • David Charles

      So Stephen;

      Using your logic, if god can lead me out of drinking, we should then assume he led me into the booze?

      Rat bahstard.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  15. SM

    Finally someone with the guts to call reality as it really is – with no god required. Amen to that!

    August 28, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Truth

      If there is no god and life has no real meaning then who cares how much you drink or what other people think?

      August 28, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • thefurious

      Lol. She desires to serve other people, yet she believes in chaos within the cosmos. She believes she's flawed, yet has no belief as to why... Sounds like she needs to do a little more thinking into what she really believes. She believes in God, deep down, she just doesn't want to believe in the same thing guys like this "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!” The crazies.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Fred1

      "Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie

      August 28, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  16. DonJuan1943

    Congratulations on your sobriety. How can you say with any certainty that God won't sneak up on you?

    Your servant,

    Don Juan, the world's greatest alcoholic

    August 28, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • on the wagon

      Does God sneak? I usually see Him coming right before the WHACK.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Fred1

      Because I can say with a great deal of certainty the god does not exist

      August 28, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  17. Anafiel

    Lame. I feel for the author and understand her desire for sobriety, but turning your life over to a room full of morons is not the way to achieve that goal.

    I spent years in those rooms looking for the same thing, but all I found was a machine that turned your old crutches into new ones. I was also uncomfortable with their attempts to minimalism my existence and importance. It wasn't until I left those rooms and took a good hard look at myself and said, "You know...enough is enough!" that I was able to get sober. And don't tell me I wasn't an alcoholic then, because you don't know me. I lost EVERYTHING to my self-indulgences. It wasn't until I got tired of poking myself in the eye with a stick that I grew the h*ll up and started acting like an adult. Plain and simple.
    .
    GROW UP, A**HOLES. That's all you have to do. I have watched, with my own eyes, people die of this behavior. Die right in front of me. If you don't want to be like them, and I eventually didn't, then grow up.

    'nuff said.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Bob Rock

      Excellent comment!

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

      i already posted this a few comments back but comments get buried so quickly under new ones, thought you'd appreciate this:

      http://www.theonion.com/articles/man-somehow-overcomes-alcoholism-without-jesus,21146/

      August 28, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • No Beer

      That's it.

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

      If you wrote a book, I would seriously buy it! Excellent post.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Rex Lutherin

      "I have watched, with my own eyes, people die of this behavior." Did they die from AA or the booze?

      August 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  18. barry

    I'm an atheist. My God is Big Bang. He created the world in 3 one-trillionths of a second. Your god took 6 days. My God lets me do as I please. I have no conscience. I have no soul. There is no such thing as good or bad. If I harm you, it is because I had a higher need of survival. If I steal from you, it is because I needed it more.
    I pray to my God and hope that it is real just like you pray to your God and hope that my God isn't real. I pray that I will never wake up after I am dead. Because if I do, there will be hell to pay.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Joe

      Very profound statement...

      August 28, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Bob Rock

      Nice try, but it doesn't fly! Atheists are moral people, without your delusional religious guidance!

      August 28, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • sober

      My morals are questionable. I often think that is the only positive that religion offers...then they go and touch boys. F it. I'm more moral that the church. U right.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • GreenDru

      sober makes an great point. The morality of the church has always been questionable. Look at the Crusades...

      August 28, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Rex Lutherin

      So, what you're telling us is that you are an extremely selfish and uncaring individual? How many friends do you have left (if any)?

      August 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Bill

      strange how it seems to be impossible for some religious people to conceive of a person who does not worship a god of some kind. It's so alien to their worldview, which centers around worship and belief, that they can't imagine that atheists don't worship something.

      The big bang is our current best theory for how the universe came to exist. It doesn't explain everything, and science probably never will explain everything. The bottom line for me is that I'm not really sure how the universe got here, but for me it's enough that its here for us to enjoy. The big bang theory may yet be replaced by a better one, the theory of evolution will almost certainly change...so I would say that its likely that most of us don't worship theories. I know I don't.

      There are many important questions that atheism can't answer. So you have to be comfortable with acknowledging that you don't have all the answers. I guess thats tough for some people to understand and accept.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  19. The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

    Alinghi wrote on Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 3:34 am, stating, “Sounds like going from one dependency to another, Alcohol-AA. I've not yet met an Alcoholic who has not had his soul seriously scarred at some point in his/her life. AA doesn’t help with dealing with that. Having persons (AA) tell you how to run your life, instead of teaching independence cant be a healing. It is easy and comfortable though-but is that what life's about? The positive part is not being alone.” Please note Alinghi that I corrected some of your misspelled words.)

    All of us Alinghi are dependent upon another and when one becomes likened to being a “social recluse”. Such is where I find those people to be of in personalized suffrage that tends to incarcerate them to imbibe upon the “sauce” of Life.

    I am a personal friend to a confirmed alcoholic who leads a rationed recluse lifestyle and is in no apportioning means a danger to themselves or otherly folk. On the other hand I know of an alcoholic that spends his last bit of money for his wanton sweet taste desires to be embalmed and he relishes with deep-seeded relevancies the drunkardness way. I am an alcoholic as well Alinghi and I have led a somber and sober life since Saturday, September 5th, 2,009.

    AA as you say, doesn’t help in dealing with the personalized scars of alcoholism is a pious misnomer. Each group of AA has its’ rooted social individualities and many differed offerings to avail an alcoholic who does search the AA Fields in order to find one “group” where they can “fit in” and be partakers of that groups faithfulness in sobriety‘s sakes. AA members do not or should not be as “pastors” but rather as trustworthy leaning posts upon which to gird each other’s life needs around a shouldering means of comforting when the valleys of one’s life seem ever so low. The same can be said of those who have climbed their highest peak and found no one there to talk to. I am of the latter Alinghi and I use my AA sponsor/mentor to be likened to a springboard of sorts where I can lay upon him, my worded views and perspectives hoping all the while that my sponsor might find reason in my daunting views from the high-minded peaks of my thoughts.

    To summarize Alinghi, My newfound path of Lifewith AA is leading me onward in a living means upon being sober for soberness’s sake. Almost 2 years of sobriety is a hallmark of my many valiant attempts in my past to quit. AA has become my shelter from the storminess I pass through daily. A greater love hath no one found than another individual willing to be the tree of shadiness giving comforted branches of its’ shadowiness and partaking of bare-fruited relevancies from which to yearn for and with.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  20. Bob Rock

    To religious people that keep confusing Atheist with Communists: Communism or Nazism is a delusional doctrine quite similar to religion. Atheism is not a belief system. Actually, there are no atheists (that's just a convenient term to describe people that don't believe in god specifically) – just rational people that reject delusional beliefs of any kind.

    August 28, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Give it a rest Bob. Atheists are the most arrogant, self-serving, selfish folks on the planet.

      Call yourselves anything you want, Jesus already labeled you FOOLS.

      Amen.

      August 28, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Atheis5150

      Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.[1] In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.[2] Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.[3] Atheism is contrasted with theism,[4][5] which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.[5][6]

      The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning "without god", which was applied with a negative connotation to those thought to reject the gods worshipped by the larger society. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope. The first individuals to identify themselves as "atheist" appeared in the 18th century.
      Yes I copied and pasted. The belief in god is something you have to be taught, these teachings come from other humans. I suggest that everyone watches "the history of math"

      August 28, 2011 at 11:01 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.