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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. Always

    The Greatest Story Ever Sold will open a lot of brain cells.

    The desire to change toward something pro-social is a noble trait.
    Congratulations on YOUR accomplishment.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  2. Liam

    Here in Toronto the meetings are all in churches and they close the meeting with a Christian prayer, the Lords prayer. So much for no religion.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  3. Angie

    You violated tradition 11. "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." This includes writing a book with your full name. I didn't read through all the over 300 comments so not sure if anyone posted anything about tradition 11. It's in the 12and12. And you really don't need to defend yourself on your beliefs.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      lol. You think anybody outside of AA cares about your silly made up rules?

      August 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Fred1

      There is a reason they are called traditions and not immutable laws

      August 28, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  4. Awkward Situations

    Step 1. First you have to give up, first you have to know... not fear... know... that someday you're gonna die.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  5. annotate

    19 years sober. AA was a big part of my life for the first 10-11 years. Don't go anymore. AA is basically a social program. Somewhere to go and people to see. The 'herd' instinct as AA calls it. I've seen 'nuts' and sane people there. Lots of people (I hesitate to say most) are not alcoholics and are just looking for something. But I may not have stayed sober without AA. Still like AA and I'm agnostic.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      When people think you're dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just... just waiting for their turn to speak.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • annotate

      That's also one of the BIG reasons that people go to AA, to speak.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  6. Miffed

    Why bother to stop drinking if you don't believe in God? Pointless.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Abdul

      why bother to eat when you believe in god?

      August 28, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Paul P

      My only problem with those who believe in a god is there insistence that everyone else share their beliefs. It seems to annoy some, but not all, believers that it is quite possible to lead a fulfilling, satisfying, productive, giving and loving life and not believe in a god.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • sanjosemike

      Why bother to exist (and stop drinking because you're an atheist)?

      1. People depend on you. You may not always be able to identify them, but they are still there.
      2. Why not make a contribution to society with your life? Drunks don't do that.
      3. Why not stop projectile vomiting and ruining your health?
      4. Why not learn to enjoy your existence without alcohol. Millions do and are pretty happy not being addicted.
      5. Why destroy your one opportunity for consciousness?
      6. Why spend so many (soused) hours with fellow drunks?

      These are just a few reasons to stop drinking excessively. One does not have to believe in god or gods to live a decent, honest, contributory and above all, happy life.

      sanjosemike

      August 28, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • T3chsupport

      A disbelief in god alone isn't going to fix the wholes in your liver or your relationships.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Paul P

      A belief in god alone isn't going to fix the wholes in your liver or your relationships.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Khal82

      You quit because it hurts: your life, your family, your job, everything. Those things are all we have, this life is all we have, and we value it. It is worth protecting. If all you have is a god to please and kneel to, and a supposed, unsubstantiated other life coming, well, I'm sorry about that. I know what is now. I didn't use AA, but I held on to my priorities and fought using my resilience and dug for inner strength.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  7. Paul P

    I'm 15 years sober, an atheist and AA saved my life. You don't have to be an evangelical Christian or "evangelical" atheist in this program. Just look for rational sober people and ask them for help. One thing seems to be true. No one can help an alcoholic like anther alcoholic.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Miffed

      I guess it might not be a bad idea to sober up so you can enjoy the life you have left since you aren't planning on going
      anywhere afterward. Very strange and weird that our entire existence and all of the finite details of our universe were
      created in one giant bang that we can totally understand and fully embrace. You will see the day you close your eyes in
      death. It won't be a pretty picture.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • sanjosemike

      Miffed said: "...You will see the day you close your eyes in death. It won't be a pretty picture."

      sanjosemike responds: Your god is not very nice. Just because I choose not to believe in a being that is not "suitable" to him, he will make me face eternal damnation. Why should I believe in a psychopathic god like yours?

      August 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Khal82

      Miffed – it's amusing how christians love to say, with such self-satisfaction, what they "know" will happen to nonbelievers when neither you nor we have any evidence at all that there is any place to go. All these elaborate stories from the bronze age bring out such hubric (not a pleasing quality); it is far humbler to know you don't know and do your best. Which part is weird, eh?

      August 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  8. Sonne

    Fauxnews and CNNagging are hilarious. One pushes Christianity and the other pushes Atheism. Both just refuse to let things be. Both are equal in idiocy.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • What

      You need to learn the difference between writers and the companies they work for. You also need to learn the difference between pushing and reporting. Just because someone is talking about something doesn't mean they are trying to get you personally to do it. This is what the country has been reduced to, a collection of vain people who think everything is determined to change their perception of the world in some way. Here is a clue...no one cares what you think, what you believe, and what you don't.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Sonne

      Oh please. If you don't think CNN and Fox push their belief on their readers you are living under a rock. I can go over the Fox news and find a similiar story to this, from one of their "guest reporters". Better?

      You proved nothing with your comment. You actually strengthened mine.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Laughing

      And how do you suggest they report?

      "In today's news, a group fought another group. One won and the other lost. We don't want to go into anymore details than that for fear of sounding bias"

      Face it, the atheist/christian bias you feel is what you're reading into it. I won't say neither fox nor cnn are completely objective, they need the ratings, but if you're angry that they can't keep subjectivity completely out of the news, then just go to iraq, libya, eastern seaboard during irene, etc... yourself to make your own obseravtions.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Sonne

      The point of my comment is that one is pushing Christianity and one is pushing Atheism. You basically agreed with me and argued with me at the same time. I don't get it. Oh, angry I am not. Sheesh.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Laughing

      I agree until I disagreed your comment about 1) Letting it be. News outlets can't let it be, sorry you're annoyed by it but it's sort of their job to report on the people who won't "let it be" and 2) Equal in idiocy? Again, what's idiotic about reporting on news?

      Sorry, your comment doesn't really hold a lot of water.

      August 28, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Answer

      @Laughing – hilarious and too accurate.

      Nice.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  9. Jesus Christ is lord

    it's funny...atheist always want to seem so smart and above everyone else's way of thinking....however to say there is no God is to show proof that he does not exsist..which you cannot do. There is far more evidence to show that what the bible says is true than to show that it's just a story..The irony is you want to seem scientific....but any good scientist concludes what the majority of the evidence shows..which in this case is that there is a God...but you say nay, I want to be scientific only if it comes out in my favor...That's why Jesus said it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved...they think they have it figured all out, don't need a savior, and their ego sends them to hell...Just try Jesus...he will let you..everybody has a vise..just because you were a drunk dosen't mean that was your "vise"...I imagine there is something else in your life right now of which you can't stop doing but want to....that, you will need Jesus for.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • SCAtheist

      We don't claim there is a proof that there is no god, but we're smart enough to see there is no evidence for one. That's because we know what evidence is.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Laughing

      First, it's vice, not vise. Secondly, learn to use "..." they don't replace periods.

      Ok, now that I'm done being a grammar nazi. Your statement is filled with misleading and wrong information. Being scientific doesn't work if you think everything should come out in your favor. That's being bias and completely unscientific. Also instead of making outrageous claims, can you please back up how you know the bible is filled with truth? Show where the garden of eden is, that the earth is 6,000 years old, there was at one point talking snakes, people rising from the dead, etc...., serisously, if you could do just one of these things instead of sounding like a sheep I would be interested in learning more about your position, which I currently am not.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Acroyear

      Excuse me buddy...but it is ALWAYS up to someone to prove their hypothesis, not DISPROVE yours. You can almost never DISPROVE anything. If I say pigs can fly...prove to me they can't? You can't do that. But I can't not prove that they can either...therefore, since I'm the one presenting the argument, I lose. So if you say there is a god, but if you can't provide a single bit of evidence (real solid, testable, scientific data) that he does, then you lose...PERIOD. If you have FAITH and you personally want to believe, more power too you, but don't try to say your FAITH proves there is a god...it doesn't.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • JB

      Well said! Atheists are just like people who don't believe in Unicorns. They keep saying that they are smart and that they don't believe in Unicorns but they don't have any proof that Unicorns don't exist!! May our lord have mercy on them heathens!

      August 28, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Matt

      When you can actually prove that Zeus does not exist, I'll show you how to prove god does not exist. A great quote: ""We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." (yeah that was Dawkins).

      August 28, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • mike

      Jesus Christ was a blatherskite. And you are seriously stupid.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • lolsigh

      Christians have no clue how to argue. If you claim something to be real than it is on you to provide that burden of proof, not to the one dismissing YOUR claim. As you cannot give any proof god there for does not exist. It is YOUR inability to provide proof that proves that he does not exist.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      Question: When I give myself a healthy dose of self-loving I like to stare at a picture of Jesus and sometimes I even watch risque videos (Mary getting knocked up by the Holy Ghost). Is it considered a "vise"?

      I hope not, because I love him, so much.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • ben

      If some of these atheists would take Jesus' advice, you might learn something.

      November 19, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  10. Willi D.

    Atheist are not special at all. Atheist help write the book that our society uses. besides promoting another atheist book .. why is this on CNN. It not new news. it is old news.... so old news. Being helping others is something all people can do every day!!!

    August 28, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  11. Daryl

    mimi...yea, better to have lots of religion, you know, the maniacal mass murdering (loving) god that you want to brainwash your children with. Religion is dead...it was killed by scientist and comment sense and everyone made sick by the 'love jesus or burn for eternity in hell' brilliant argument. Let it rot.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  12. SCAtheist

    If AA doesn't want to look like a cult, then they should stop acting like one. They lure people in then try to convert them to a higher power. They don't believe in medical science for the treatment of addiction. There is no a way non-addicted person is capable of understanding addiction, Psychiatry is a false profession. blah blah blah

    August 28, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • mws

      I agree completely. AA rarely helps, but often hurts. Not only is AA a cult, but the myth of powerlessness often drives people to drink again. It drive some to suicide. People are at their best when they leave AA to sober up on their own. They are not dry drunks, as those jealous idoits rotting away in an archaic program refer to them as; they are normal people getting over a bad habit. It is these people who ended up doing much, much better.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Answer

      The fact is simple. AA is not an organization in the sense that it is in direct control of it's entirety. No organization is fully capable of full authority.

      It is the matter of delegation of control in every separate parts of AA that is responsible for any individual that attends it.
      In matters of delegation, certain people that lead it are as different in their approach on how to do their jobs. Or in their duties to help others they employ their own experience – whether an ideal comes from a spiritual point or atheist approach – it is that 'leader' who is responsible for your experience or outcome. Don't blame the whole organization. It is an individual applying one's individual ideals to influence another individual to success.

      If you realize this whole point, you won't have so much to berate about. In humanity though – people like to argue to air out their own hates.

      August 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  13. Sammiamm

    Good for you! This is such a confusing topic for people trying to get sober. You CAN get off the sauce without believing in God by attending AA meetings and a lot of hard work. The important thing is to get to a meeting – period.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  14. Daniel O

    Anyone can say anything they want about AA, all I know is that it saved a lot of people's lives.... Regardless of people's believes.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • David Charles

      agreed.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • mws

      disagreed. come on. they are helping themselves. duh.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  15. Madame Rue

    Marya, I am very sorry for you. It must be so empty and worthless, living life as someone who refuses to believe. Incidentially, you are supposed to remain anonymous "at the level of press, radio and films." I bet your group just loves you!

    August 28, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Daryl

      It is YOU that refuse to believe...believe that your murdering god is anything more then a phantom of your imagination. Answer this, had you been born in bagdag, or ancient greece...would you still have held to your insane beliefs? You are what you are by an accident at birth, and by brainwashing and your own stupidity.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Santa Claus for the adults

      Or it must be so empty and worthless, living life as someone who desperately needs to believe that without some invisible magical sky daddy, life would just be so empty and worthless. This is what you project when you make comments to atheists like the one you did.

      Anyway, AA is not a science-based treatment, nor is it as efficacious as science/evidence-based treatments. Here's just one study from the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment that found those in AA "showed significantly less improvement on depression and anxiety."

      August 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Santa Claus for the adults

      The study mentioned in my post: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074054720800038X

      August 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  16. Mitch

    Interesting article, but don't like you breaking the tradition by putting your full name out here. All I am going to say is go to more meetings Marya. If you do, maybe you will hear that GOD can stand from Group Of Drunks to some AA's. Thanks...

    August 28, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  17. Reality

    "Alcoholism was becoming a concern of the American public before it was even officially recognized as a disease. Prohibition in the 1920s did little to curb the desire for alcohol and increased the power of organized crime mobs that specialized in the illegal production and sale of alcoholic beverages. As early as 1945, the federal government had attempted to place warning labels on alcoholic beverages. "

    "WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, during pregnancy can cause mental retardation and other birth defects.

    WARNING: Drinking this product, which contains alcohol, impairs your ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.

    WARNING: This product contains alcohol and is particularly hazardous in combination with some drugs.

    WARNING: The consumption of this product, which contains alcohol, can increase the risk of developing hypertension, liver disease, and cancer

    WARNING: Alcohol is a drug which may be addictive. "

    Unfortunately, the last three warnings were not used in the revised warning labels attached to alcoholic beverages.

    “l. According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. 2. Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.”

    August 28, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  18. mimi45

    Sick of the CNN anti-religion agenda. Communist News Network.

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

      I am sick of all the pro-religion drones who are enslaved by a dusty book written by shepherds and fisherman.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • David Charles

      The Commies are now are friends... Err.. Except Cuba. They are bad commies.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Matt

      let me get this straight. To you a "fair and balanced" news network is one that bends over backwards to show you your own opinion over and over again, all the while reinforcing your crappy opinion and twisting your worldview to something other than reality. While another news network (CNN) that actually tries to show other sides of stories in an attempt to actually be fair and balanced, well they must have an agenda.

      August 28, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Leo

      Did you bother to notice that CNN has bloggers from different faiths? That there are different points of view being offered all the time? There are very religious contributors on Belief Blog, there are folks who are moderately religious, and here you've got ONE atheist. How is that an anti-religion agenda?

      August 28, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • ben

      Malacoda-What? Shepherds and fisherman can't give good advice?

      November 19, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  19. Anonymous

    Tradition 11- "We need always maintain PERSONAL anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films." People like you put our life saving group at risk. SHAME on you Marya! And your description of AA's reputation is only one shared by people clinging to the right to stay in their disease. The medical profession, and families of suffering alcoholics do not see it as a "cult, a religion unto itself, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings, or morons."

    August 28, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Fred1

      they are traditions and not immutable laws. Stop thinking like an alcoholic

      August 28, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  20. Chris

    Marya,

    Standing at that same point, and having dismissed most organized religious teachings as unworkable for me, I wondered how I was going to get sober if I had to follow steps that I clearly could not rationalize. But, like you, I do believe that life is absolutely magic, and I am less than a speck in space and time. So, I accepted the steps I could and adapted those I could not, and now I stand at the edge of that hole, instead of in it. Every day is a challenge. If I don't forget that basic fact, then today can be as good or better than yesterday. I will deal with tomorrow when it gets here, but that hole is always there.

    August 28, 2011 at 11:27 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.