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. Eureka

    I used to be Muslim. Thanks I'm happier this way. Now I know to avoid the AA.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  2. Rand

    CNN hatin' once again.

    Ah, just deal with it CNN – why you gotta complain so much? Rofl, you guys are so weak.
    Please continue to cry more!

    August 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  3. Onedayer

    Meth free for 7+years. Challenges by the "God thing" at times. I now float easily between true believer to agnostic to atheist. Am always intrigued by hearing others' stories of how they do it! Bravo to you Mary! Keep fighting the fight and keep sharing YOUR truth!

    August 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  4. January Light

    I loved this article. As an atheist myself, I find stories like these inspiring!

    August 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Ed

      Inspired to do what? Feel better that there are more like you? That makes you a sheep. They choose to believe God, you choose to be a sheep. Period.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  5. Russ

    God is only a crutch for the weak A person can say I will take control of my weakness. or God will take control ether way it is you taking control

    August 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  6. OldSoul

    Congrats to you Mary for taking steps to a healthier life! I, too, cringed the first time I went to an AA meeting with all of the religious talk. I was born and raised Southern Baptist (forced on me) – which didn't resonate with me at all. I love using a mix of many religions, along with common sense, and do believe in a higher power. It does make my life more peaceful and joyous. Different belief systems work for different people – so we should never judge. I am not referring to fanatics from any religion – they have created their own hell in their lives. Kiindness, compassion and empathy, helping the less fortunate – is what we should be doing with our lives.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • OldSoul

      I forgot to add that I live my life spirituality.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • OldSoul

      I meant Spiritually!!! Sorry!

      August 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  7. god

    I exist because I am currently posting on CNN. I am an all-powerful, all-loving, all-present, and all-knowing. This clearly violates the laws of science so science must not exist.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  8. Jamas

    Alright, alright CNN producers...we get you don't believe in God already. We get it.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Realist

      which god are you referring to?? The xtian bible claims there are many, or don't you read it?

      August 28, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • david

      I'm tired of seeing the words 'athiest' and 'non-believer'. There are only normal people and 'religiousts'.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • pockets

      I did the same thing, I just attended the meetings and kept my thoughts on a so-called "power greater than myself" what ever the hell that is......total abstenience is the only way to stay sober.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • IceT

      You're seriously claiming CNN is anti-God? This is a BELIEF BLOG isn't it? Where's the non-belief blog then?

      August 28, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Grasshopper

      Where's the "I have no idea" blog?

      August 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • jim m

      The point from my perspective is that whether you are a believer or non-believer, trying to convince others to accept your belief may indicate a lack of humility which means, get back to working on yourself. Live & let live.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  9. thisispaul

    This is an important message. Many, many people have trouble swallowing supernatural mysticism and all that goes along with it. For those struggling with substance abuse issues, 12-step programs hold the best statistics for a better life. But how do you make yourself believe in something you just don't believe in? I believe the author is on the right path, no matter what she does or doesn't believe in. How dare we flame her as egotistical or impotent because she has found something that works for her, I would guess, wrote the article as a message of hope of alcoholics that struggle with belief. Thank you, Marya.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  10. god

    I invented alcohol and made my only son's blood out of wine. Quitting alcohol is blasphemy.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  11. Peter McGuire

    I have never been impressed with atheists who were so proud of their stance.

    Keep it to yourselves, people.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Amistavia

      Right back at you faithhead.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Realist

      I believe they don't agree with the integration of programs that mix religion with our tax dollar. Just a thought.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • S.G.

      What about when Christians are proud of their beliefs? Or Jews? I'm not necessarily challenging you, but it makes sense to be consistent about these things.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • William

      We don't NEED to impress anyone. That is the problem with religious freaks, as they go looking for conformation of their religion from people who DON"T believe. Sounds like you should read the following from Oolon Colluphid, ' Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway'? Also another called, 'Well, That About Wraps It Up For God'.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Jim

      Why is it OK for the religious to crow about their beliefs, pamphletize, witness, and shout from the rooftops; yet atheists need to keep it to themselves?

      August 28, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Jim

      Peter, I think you've missed the point. There are many nonbelievers who need help out there, but they may perhaps choose to eschew AA out of fear that they'll be seen as some infidel or blasphemer, or worse, that the other members will continually attempt to convert them. This article speaks from the author's experience that nonbelievers can find an agreeable path to freedom from alcohol through AA.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • IceT

      Faith in God is a very personal thing .. please keep it that way & off my laws.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Chud King

      Please keep your atheist bigotry and stupidity off my freedon of speech and religion.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • LouAz

      I have never been impressed with christians who were so proud of their stance.

      Keep it to yourselves, people.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Chud.. atheist bigotry ... what is that exactly is that? it the same as you accepting gays and Muslims into your church or neighborhood? We just do not agree with your belief in god.. and admit we need to proof to convince us...so far you cannot do it..if you can bring frorth the evidence...sorry if that sounds bigoted

      August 28, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Jennifer M

      (Why is it OK for the religious to crow about their beliefs, pamphletize, witness, and shout from the rooftops; yet atheists need to keep it to themselves?)

      Bingo, Jim. Couldn't have said it better. Some Christians seem to have a double standard...i.e., believing that when Christians stand up for their own beliefs, they're courageous, but when atheists stand up for theirs, they're obnoxious. Some Christians cannot see the elitism and prejudice behind such thinking.

      August 28, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  12. James

    I felt the same way too, any time I tried an AA meeting. It's just not for everyone – but does work for many – so no judgment. I had Southern Baptist shoved down my throat from birth to the age of 18 (my parents had the best intentions, but it just didn't work for me) At that time I outright refused to go to any more organized church services or activities. I was so traumitized, I cringed whenever I went to religious weddings for friends. I always believed there was some higher power – but just knew it wasn't within all of the shame, guilt and fear I was brought up with. I have studied so many different other ways of thinking, and just live spiritually, blending together the basics of most of them – love one another, be productive, help the less fortunate, and live a very peaceful and joyous Life. And again, this is not for everyone either. Congrats for you Mary – for taking this path towards being healthier

    August 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  13. Bo

    ===========@Geno/2:49================== The thing they say about a recoverd alcoholic is that once they've quit, if the ever even take a sip, they have to start all over, but it's the same with a smoker, but not as bad and to a degree with overweight people, but not as much. I used to weigh 185, now I only weigh 150 and I"ve been that way for 5yrs.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Realist

      Right, and it's a fear to gain one pound or consider one drink. That is the very wrong with AA. Why live with that over your head? You don't need to. Keep going to AA and you will.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  14. Realist

    AA has an extremely low success rate. If they were so successful, why to people have to tell you they've been in AA for x years? Because AA misses the root cause. It uses mental reservation, fooling oneself, to get you to stop drinking. What caused you to drink, is likely the very same. In the end, it robs personality. Sad, but very true.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • annie

      Counting years is a way for AA members to measure success, and remember how awful that last drink was. Returning to AA is not only available for the alcoholic who relapses, but for one in recovery to keep in touch and work on their personal self which are what the 12 steps are all about; being honest, being humble, being grateful, etc. Many people find it helpful to belong to a group for support no matter how many years its been since their last drink. A simple hour of listening and reflecting does wonders !

      August 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Friend of a friend

      The reason people keep going is for the continued support and understanding that fellow alcoholics can provide. It is about taking one day at a time, and even though some who have not drank in 30 years keep going to AA for support or to support others, doesn't mean the program is unsuccessful. AA isn't bad. It gives hope, it gives an option, to people with not much hope or many options left.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  15. M.S.

    Great Post! You are absolutely right about the only requirement for membership being the desire to stop drinking. Congratulations and keep it up just for today!

    August 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  16. luis

    The road to ruin is wide a straight, the road to salvation narrow and curvy.I believe that's in the good ol book. so by that definition atheist are the minority and believers are majority. The road to ruin is wide to accommodate the majority of people that will be on it and straight makes it the path of less resistance(following the herd,no thought involved). Being an athiest is tough in this world. Cant wait till we evolve a bit more.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  17. amazedbygrace

    thank you for your honesty. i think this will help others.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  18. minor diety

    I believe .... that I need another drink.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  19. Reikigirl

    What happened to "anonymity at the level of press, radio and film"? Check your ego at the door.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • dale...Christian and AA

      Her anonymity is hers to break, it is others that she must protect.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • John Richardson

      But speaking of the whole anonymity thing, it just reinforces the shame. If people really feel they need it, fine. But I wonder how weak you need to be to need it. I post under my own name. I used to drink heavily. I don't anymore. I'm neither terribly ashamed of my drinking past nor terribly proud of my sober present. To make either define who you are and then shrink into anonymity about it? I just don't get that.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Another Matt

      Amen to that Reikigirl. Though I do believe that anonymity at the level of press, radio, tv and film suggests that no single person ought to represent themselves as AA–though this happens all the time. For sure we cannot violate someone else's anonymity. At first I started to cringe about this article, but I think it does a good job of dispelling some myths that AA is a cult, a religion. That some meetings have a decidedly religious bent (towards a specific religion) is a reflection of its members, not AA as a whole. AA does not even require a belief in God. For me personally, I find it sad and a bit arrogant that those who cannot tolerate the concept of a higher power, whatever that might be, choose to not to try a proven solution. After all, a belief is nothing more than a thought that we keep thinking. It doesn't make it true. Those who succeed in AA are those who have hit their bottom–nothing else has worked and they are willing to do what is necessary to stay sober. Period. Like this author states and experts contend, the steps do work; there is a spiritual and even neurochemical basis to them. That the recovery rate in AA is small is not the fault of AA–it is a consequence of the deadliness and power of addiction. This is just my opinion though, I'm not an expert.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  20. Matt

    aaaah....good ol' atheist vitriol.

    You will never make us go away no matter what you say or what you do. We are going to witness to your children and families no matter what you say or what you do. Some of your children, families and loved ones will declare "Jesus is Lord!" no matter what you say or what you do.

    I bet it makes you feel a bit impotent.

    August 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • god

      allah akbar!

      August 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Melissa


      Have you ever heard the saying "having a religion is a lot like having a penis; it's perfectly fine to have one, it's even fine to be proud of it, but it's NOT okay to whip it out and display it in public, and it's CERTAINLY not okay to shove it down someone's throat."

      If you want atheists to respect your faith, have the same amount of respect for the boundaries they want to draw in society. Witness to someone else, please.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • minor diety

      Think the article was on booze, not impotence.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Amistavia

      Are you really so naive as to think that more children of Atheist become Christian than children of Christians become Atheist? It is we who will testify to your children, and get them to come to their senses and turn away from your fairy tale.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Matt, re "I bet it makes you feel a bit impotent."., no, actually, it makes us think that you are stupid. Really really stupid.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Mike

      not at all impotent....content, impudent, independent.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • William

      And we will be teaching our children to tell your children that they are weak minded individuals for believing in the most arrogant and egotistical religion that ever hit the face of the planet....

      August 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • steven harnack

      Keep knocking on my door or bother my family members and you will find out how NOT impotent I am. Do what ever primitive rituals that you want in your own space, I and mine have progressed.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • J.W

      Matt should witness specifically to Melissa. He should shove both his religion and his penis down her throat.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Ray

      Sorry, Matt, but I missed the 'vitriol'... care to elaborate? Or did you even bother reading the entire piece? (Likely not)

      This article was really informative. As someone who HAS gone to AA and experienced some of the 'blood of Jesus' types of Christians, I can relate to what the author is describing. The trick for me was to find the quieter folks, the humbler folks, who knew what real recovery was all about.

      I have no doubt that some people actually need the more religious kind of approach... but they need to understand that AA isn't about religion, it's about recovery. Period.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • X39

      @matt: Thank you for continuing to inflict your religious beliefs on our children and families. I will do everything in my power to encourage your children to question your authority, that your importance in their eyes will be diminished, and that they will ultimately rebel against you. Care to negotiate?

      August 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Jim

      I don't feel the least bit impotent. That's the problem with you people: you assume we believe in out hearts but are denying that belief.

      Frustrated, yes, impotent, no.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Richard H.

      Oh matt, we won't make you go away, time will. Anyone believe in Ra these days? How about Zeus? Any Apollo worshippers here? No. The weak and scared will always turn to magical explanations and fairy tales to comfort themselves. These stories change over time and eventually fade away. Anyhow I'm off to go slaughter some gauls in the name of Othinn as it's my religion and you can't stop me. You have to respect my religion you know.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • John Richardson

      You seem to be the one crowing like a deranged rooster, Matt. Does being "saved" make you feel important?

      August 28, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Gingerpeach

      Melissa, So, we that are religious need to zipp it while the Atheistic can carry on and wright news letters and all. Heaven forbid a religious person say anything about their faith in public?

      August 28, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • John Richardson

      uh oh. I misread your last word. Impotent????? Are you kidding? In any event, the usual theist response to atheist is like that in the article: "so you think your the most important thing in the universe?" Um no. But also far from impotent. If anything, the sad sacks I met in the few AA meetings I attended who keep affirming their powerlessness seem to have been at least headed for a bad case of "learned impotence".

      August 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • John Richardson

      @Gingerpeach God almighty, you religionists just never, ever get it, do you? You complain about persecution when you can't use tax dollars and public spaces for your idiotic nativity scenes and if someone simply expresses the viewpoint that your religion is a crock, on their own time and dime, you guys scream "don't force your beliefs on me!" You are the most appalling of hypocrites.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
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About this blog

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.