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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. randy

    AA's 12 steps are designed to ensure the the survival of individual alcoholics. AA's 12 traditions are intended to safeguard the survival of AA as a whole.

    The content of the article is good. That Marya Hornbacher wrote it for the purpose of promoting herself and her book says something about her level of respect for the organization that gave her her life back. She's sober, but and it would seem that she could care less for those who might come after her. In case you missed them Marya, they're in the book:

    "Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films" and

    "Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy "

    August 28, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • mrk

      Thank you Randy for that post!! Many people do not read or understand the traditions of AA. That was great. Thanks for the reminder!!

      August 28, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  2. boomer lady

    It would be a great idea if you revisited the traditions. You don't have to believe in any God to adhere to them and not profit from your time in AA or to respect the anonymity principle of the program. 11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press (that's you), radio, films and TV. We need guard with SPECIAL care the anonymity of all AA members. (That's the rest of us). 12. Anonymity is the spiritual (you don't have to believe in god to be spiritual) foundation of all traditions, ever (not once in a while) reminding us (that includes you) to place PRINCIPAL (again, no belief in any God required) above personalities (especially sober ones). I wish you continued sobriety...

    August 28, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Willi D.

      Wow. I am truly glad I started reading the comments section of this article. I am thankful she is sober as well. However, using her so-called uniqueness to promote the book and write this article is against the traditions. Worker among workers. Thanks for speaking to how we need maintain our unity even when we could profit from it.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  3. No Beer

    Atheis5150 Skeptic inquiry? Where is our skeptic inquiry today? – in Science? Have you looked through the Hubble lately?

    Many are called but few are chosen. I can see that it means just that. I truly like that song everyone covered -"Lord Help me Jesus I've wasted it so, Help me Jesus I know what I am". – 'think Kris Kristopherson wrote it. Ex booze hound who saw himself dying from it and said 'No More'.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  4. Sober Dad

    I have been a member of AA for 4 years. It is a wonderful program. Saved my life. There are many, many AA groups. All are different. Rarely have I seen a group that is God centered in an organized religion sense. But there is a very strong sense of spirituality. In my group, we often say: You can get sober in AA with a belief in God (actually a Higher Power greater than yourself) or without God; but you cant get sober if you believe you are God. Take the focus of your life off yourself and put it on others. It works wonders.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Retread

      Exactly correct. AA does NOT require a belief in god but only a belief in a power higher or greater than yourself. For newcomers it could be the person sitting next to you with more sobriety. It does work thankfully. Hornbacher & you got it right. Tell the guy in the AA meeting she highlights at the beginning, "Thank you for sharing."

      August 28, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  5. Daniel O

    Why are people calling AA a cult? No one in the foundation or groups have any benifit of you being there besides getting sober. There is no Leader in AA, they talk a lot about the founder(s) of AA but that's just part of how it all got started, f you read the material you would know that it's not inteded to Control or Make Money. AA is a fellowship, if you want to call it a cult, then be it...

    August 28, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  6. jennabean

    I am confused. Isn't there a tradition that states that AA's are to remain anonymous at the level of PRESS, radio and film???

    August 28, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • jojobean

      You are correct. The lady writing the article should have left her name blank or only used her first name and no photo. However, CNN may not allow that. It's better she tell her story in the open public than not at all.

      I left AA after becoming an atheist and AA was the final straw of me becoming an atheist.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Willi D.

      Thank you!!! Someone who actually heard of a step. More power she is sober and I pray will all stay live Life one day at a time. Principles before personalities. I hope it reaches someone who is suffering at least.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Linda

      you can tell others you are a part of it, but you can't give names of others..

      August 28, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  7. Long John Silver

    I've been an AA member for decades and have long term sobriety. I tell people that first come in to watch out for vultures in AA. There are people that act like they are doing a good program and actually they are devoid of any spirituality that they espouse. I would say about 40% of the people in AA would skew you if they can. It is truly sick people getting better, not perfect. A lot of people in AA use the word "we" as if they are representing the whole of AA. There is no one in authority at AA. The newest member has as much authority as someone who has been in AA for decades. I am an agnostic but my higher power is very similar to what this author said about that. I don't believe in miracle but I have seen miraculous recoveries in AA and it is full of all types, from doctors and lawyers to street people. Those street people can turn from caterpillars into butterflies in AA though.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  8. EllieM

    Call it what you want, no one really cares as long as its a power greater than yourself. Many people use the power of the group as their Higher Power. I think you want to be "special" and need to check your ego.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  9. Sue B.

    Read page 164 of the Big Book. This is a book of suggestions and if you have a desire to stop drinking then join us and we trudge the road of happy destiny. It works for me and millions of others.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  10. mary

    Come on, folks. Stop being so arrogant and self-righteous. She has shared her experience strength and hope with us,and yes their is the anonymity issue. But ...she may help the still suffering alcoholic. And when did it become fasionable to spew venom at other members? The anonymity of this blog makes it possible for many to forget to practice these principles in all our affairs.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • randy

      She MAY help the alcoholic who still suffers, but why is she putting AA at risk? Same article signed Marya H. would have carried the same message. The book though, is a thorough indictment of her statement that she believes humility to be the most important AA principle.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Willi D.

      I understand your point, Mary. She is carrying the message but it does put her in a potentially dangerous area. She is not the first to break her anonymity. Many have drank again.. others have made the supreme sacrifice. being atheist in AA is no more special or unique than being teenager in AA. A person who cannot stop drinking and needs help simply wants a solution to that problem. That what AA simply does.Also, what if everyone in AA started breaking their anonymity???

      August 28, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • randy

      Looking through these posts, one thing is abundantly clear: Marya H. has well and truly drawn the AA name into public controversy!

      August 28, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  11. Mike

    First of all "God" does not exist so any of the "Steps" that refer to "God" are bogus. Second there is really only ONE STEP to sobriety... STOP DRINKING!!!! KIIS! KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID!!

    August 28, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  12. Steve

    Nice article explaining your position. I'm glad you found AA to help get past your issue. I am a person of faith (Christ Follower) who believes in a higher power. What I struggle with is crazies proclaiming faith that seem offensive or in your face. I'll backup them when I turned over my problems, issues and such to Jesus. Things seem to work themself out. It's not that I just said, here God, my problem is your problem now and I walk away. I actively tried to be patient and I had a feeling I wasn't alone.

    This is a question to all atheists? What God don't you believe in? Can you describe in more detail what God you don't believe in? Did you have a bad experience early in life or something in life to define your position. I'm not judging, just trying to understand the position.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • jim

      Can you explain to me what kind of unicorns you don't believe in? See, the question itself is kind of silly.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Chris

      In response to Steve – I don't believe in any god. In fact, there's a famous quote something along the lines of: Christians are atheists, too. I just believe in one fewer god than they do. Which god(s) don't you believe in? Can you describe in details all the gods you don't believe in? Did you have a bad experience early on in life with Allah, Jehovah, Krishna, Zeus, Odin, etc. etc. ad nauseum? My guess is that the very reason you don't believe in Allah is the same reason I don't either – there's no evidence to support his existence. I extend that line of reasoning to all gods: there's no reason to support their existences, so I don't believe in them just like I don't believe in unicorns, the tooth fairy or the Loch Ness Monster.

      I didn't have a bad experience with god (how can you experience something that doesn't exist?), but I've had bad experiences with scores of the gods' followers. But my bad experiences with them doesn't influence my lack of belief in god, it just influences my approach to religious people.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Fred1

      As I was growing up I noticed there was a lot weird ideas floating around: Loch Ness Monster, alien abductions, big bang theory, plate tectonics. Like ever. Everyone from the Scientologists to the Elvis is not dead crowed had enormous faith. Faith did not seem to be a good indicator or truth. Evidence seemed much better. I saw that if a thing was true it would have some evidence and it would acquire more evidence at time went on. Things that were not true had little or no evidence and didn’t get any more a time went on. This has worked very well for me and so I apply this test to all things to determine if they are true. Religion in general and Christianity fails the test miserably

      August 28, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  13. Auntie Christ

    First of, I am an agnostic alky. I say agnostic, cuz I don't know with certainty there is no god. I know there is no need for one to explain the universe, but I digress. I found myself laying in bed one morning looking at me sleeping wife, recalling teh previous night and swore this will be the last time I apologize for being a drunken azzhole. I had gotten to the point I was raging drunk at least 4 to 5 days per week. Somehow I wasn't physically dependent...

    First I looked into moderation management, but seeing how moderation is the PROBLEM, I don't see my brain with alcohol equaling limiting consumption. Then it downed on me I have to stop.

    So, I looked into 12 step programs, because that was all I knew about. Saw all the religion and said, riiiiight. Then found several secular groups. Secular Order of Sobriety is one. They have online forums and someone is always there. It teaches people to build our own toolbox of techniques. For me, just not putting the #@$ to my lips did wonders Heck, I'm good at not doing things :) It worked for me, sober 6 years now. The trick is first, knowing you must stop and wanting to quit, without that nothing will work. Then find the program that fits your belief system and work hard at it, it is hard, but incredibly rewarding. The bloom is still on my sobriety rose :)

    August 28, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  14. Ed

    What this lady doesn't realize is that what she is describing, quarks, her place in the world, what it means to be her etc, IS God. It's her God, no more or less real than the God that the AA people refer to. You can call God many names and deride and derogate someone else's version of God, but it's the same God folks. This lady just thinks she's above everyone else because she doesn't actually use the word.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • jim

      You appear to have very little understanding of what she really believes.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  15. Armando P

    I'm with Marya – and am also a true atheist in AA who has remained sober and found their own way of living spiritually. It's not for everybody, and certainly many lack the desire or ability to understand it, but it can certainly be done.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  16. Bob Rock

    The success rate of weaning people off physical drugs (once addicted) is almost none. It's almost impossible to get people off their religious drug. The way to do it is to start fresh – making sure the kids are not exposed to religious brainwashing at an early age (it's like giving cocaine to 3 year olds). Kids under 18 should not be subjected to religious brainwashing at all. As adults, the kids will hopefully have gained some basic reasoning skills and will see religion for what it is: hogwash. That's all it would take for any religion to die a natural death.

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

      I was fortunate in the sense that I became addicted to many things, met lots of people, and learned lots of different ways of looking at things. It was only then that I was able to have my eyes opened to the destructive nature of organized religion.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • mrk

      Believing in God and organized religion are two different things. I think calling organized religion, "hogwash" is just as narrow minded as calling a non-believer, "ignorant." We live in a free country where we can believe what we want to believe without being shot in the street and I am truly grateful for that. You can call it whatever you want, but people who are in recovery from alcholism or drug addiction, or whatever addiction they have, all have one thing in common. They believe in something, and that something has kept them sober and has changed their life forever.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  17. Rex Lutherin

    Think about this for a moment... if we are as random than anything else, why are we the only species in known existence who can invent things "out of thin air"? Because of this awe-inspiring fact, I see now harm in crediting something far greater than this world with our talents and unique characteristics as a species. Where the harm comes in is when you allow one or more of our own to dictate to us the meaning and purpose behind all this. The various interpretations of this mystery behind our existence are as random as it gets.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  18. taildragon

    I'm Barry. I believe an old man in the sky snapped his fingers and created the universe. I believe this because science and figuring things out is too much of a challenge.for me. I get all the answers for the really tough questions from an old book written by goat herders. I'm going to go back to my book of Make Believe now, because thinking makes my head hurt.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  19. CJG

    I can't wait to read this book. I'm an atheist who has attended AA meetings and have been sober for the past 5 years. Note: If you are an atheist and would like to find an atheist AA meeting in your area, do some research. They DO exist!

    August 28, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  20. godoftrade

    Ms. Hornbacher, congratulations for achieving sobriety. I have heard it's a tough journey.
    And thank you so much for such a great article. Specially the last few paragraphs which sum up exactly why us atheists are atheists. Because we don't assume that we're greater than anything and that we know the answer to the unknown. It's indeed a very humbling thing to know that we barely exist. That we are a mere result of chance. If that doesn't humble the "soul" of anyone, I don't know what else will.
    Kudos!

    August 28, 2011 at 11:07 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.