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. Mark

    By mass, we are made mostly of up and down quarks (and their binding energy), not strange quarks. Strange quarks may exist ephemerally in normal matter, and certainly exist in particle accelerators. But we are not made of them.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  2. Chris

    Look at all the "believers" freaking out.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Mr. Dis-ease

      You are on my list. I will be waiting for you to slip up... I never sleep.... always there...waiting....patiently...

      August 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • sun

      about faithlessness?

      August 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • twiddly

      That's because not believing means not living forever.
      We all fear death, but believing in fairy tales ain't gonna stop it.
      Sorry, but time to get over the existential drama and live life based on the here and now, because that's all that is real.
      All you need is the golden rule, everything else is so much fluff.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • sam

      Still better than Bei-lie-bers

      August 28, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  3. Undesreved Kindness

    With out Our Loving Creator, one who claims a sobriety is incomplete and all that hard work is for not. How vane, self centered and blind, just as Satan would have you. He's blinding the eyes of the unbelievers and succesfully ordered you to write this article for your owm pleasure. Don't kid yourself, your god is working overtime and has but a sort time left. Perhaps you missed a step.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • Observer

      "He's blinding the eyes of the unbelievers and succesfully ordered you to write this article for your owm pleasure"

      So we are all robots. No choice. Guess God ordered you to write.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Mr. Dis-ease

      So many non-believers, so little time to take them all. You are all mine for the taking...

      August 28, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • twiddly

      If your "loving creator" truly existed, it would be SO damn easy to just appear in the sky and make some godly proclamation.
      Gee, why doesn't this happen?
      Simple answer: he doesn't exist.
      Complex answer: there isn't a good one but the religious nuts will bend over backward trying to explain.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • In Reason I Trust

      That's right "Satan" is making me write this. And after that Darth Vader will make me dance, and Lex Luthor will make me shave my head. Grow up, your embarrassing our entire species.

      August 28, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  4. Steve

    I see that these are the Belief and Religion pages. Since the basic definition of an Atheist is a lack of belief in any religion, why is this story here?

    August 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Peace2All

      Ultimately, this is a 'discussion' forum. Obviously, a lot of people have a lot to say on this particular article.

      Everyone is free to express their opinions... even you !



      August 28, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • atheist

      we are in search of the truth, we are not fully convinced God does not exist and are looking for answers. Please Help!!!!

      August 28, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Steve

      ..Simply stating that Atheism has nothing in common with either of those subjects, therefore it does not belong in this forum.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Ahhh.... You seem to be missing the point (IMHO of course). And, way to many conversations going on for me anyway to try and take the time to explain it to you here.

      My suggestion then for you since, for some reason you felt the need to post that these concepts don't belong in the belief blog, is for you to write or email Gilgoff or Marrapodi as they do, as I understand it take 'feedback.'

      Good luck...



      August 29, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  5. FaithnGod`

    The author needs to read FOOTPRINTS. My mother always quoted it when I came to see here and complained about something bad that was happening in my life. God is always there....even when we do things to ourselves and one another.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      My mother also told me about FOOTPRINTS when I was a child, we actually had it framed on our living room wall. a very WASP family. But then I grew up and became an adult, which is why I no longer believe in imaginary friends that carry you around.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Kevin, VA

      The Author could read that book as i did and would not come any closer to finding god. God is not real, if you can prove he is then im willing to listen, until then you have no reason to assume a god is real, specially not the one you think is real.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • sun

      "Seek and you will surely find"

      August 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      "if you seek hard enough for anything, your mind will 'find' you something"

      August 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  6. Greg

    Surely You can't be that ignorant to make such an uneducated ,ignorant uninformed statement as this Mako,but maybe you are just that dumbed down that only idiocy comes out of your mind by now,sounds like you could use a meeting or two to confront your fears,because there are millions that strongly disagree with you...

    August 28, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  7. Kyle

    Sadly, only about 10 to 20 percent will be able to recover fully according to statistics. Being an atheist counselor lets you provide a unique mindset because many clients who are atheist can feel very alienated by a lot of the literature. Many people now are using "higher power" instead of "god" and your HP is defined by yourself. Good luck in maintaining your sobriety. Remember, it's progress not perfection.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Bob Rock

      "Higher power" is good. It's called "growing up" and "taking responsibility for one's action". Even the most religious person, using his "higher power" of reasoning and the ability to cut the riff from the raff would arrive at the same conclusion. Why don't they do it? Psychological payback. Religion is the psychological opiate that makes people feel good. They have an excuse and a way of entering an altered state of mind where they don't have to face reality. How different is it from using real drugs?

      August 28, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Mr. Dis-ease

      I have looked at all of the websites posted on this thread. I am so pleased that so much fear and denial exists in these rooms. Though I am sure many of you can do it on your own. Thus you were never an alcoholic. The rest of you are mine for the taking. I will creep into your lives. You will not know I am there until it is too late.

      Fear, shame and self-centeredness. You will blame others for your downfall. But the truth lies with in. I will first take your jobs, your homes, your families and ultimately come for you. Your sanity will slip away and desperation will consume you. I am so please.... So pleased...

      August 28, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Mr. Dis-ease

      " Thus you were never an alcoholic. "

      Kind of reminds me of the old..."You're not 'really' a Christian if... "


      August 28, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Mr. Dis-ease

      Peace2All I know who you are and I am waiting for you as well...... Someday you will be mine....

      August 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  8. David

    Which leads one to wonder, which has done more damage to our society - alcohol or christianity?

    August 28, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  9. dirtywhitebo

    Marya H. – Did your sponsor "think" it was a good idea to violate Tradition 11? If so, you should probably get a new sponsor. Don't have sponsor? It might be a good start .....

    August 28, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Wayne

      Man, she was right about you cranky old school AA types.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  10. On my knees for God's pleasure

    Jesus' first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding. What does this mean? Not only that the people at the wedding party were drinking so much they ran out of booze, but that Jesus actually supported such behavior. Jesus was probably getting sloshed as well, and said "hey, dont worry I can get some more booze. watch this crazy sh1 t!"

    August 28, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Bob Rock

      Jesus was the "anointed" one = meaning stoned with oil saturated with marijuana, the way these people did it in those days, so he felt no pain and was a bit out of his mind when they nailed him. Just another stoned hippie of his day.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  11. Atheist

    The only belief you need is the belief in yourself.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      Apparently some people need an all-seeing imaginary sky daddy to threaten them with eternal torture for it to work. They have no trust in their own abilities, they are still children.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Bob Rock

      Psychological payback. Religion is the psychological opiate that makes people feel good. It's a way of entering an altered state of mind where they don't have to face reality. How different is it from using real drugs?

      August 28, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Linda

      Thank you. I believe that too.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  12. Think


    August 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Bob Rock

      Pseudo-intellectual hogwash!

      August 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      lol this guy probably has never been to any schooling besides a seminary or in theology (which shouldn't be counted as education).

      He forgot to mention the thousands of more biologists and scientists who call themselves atheists or agnostic.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  13. mirroriago

    Just another Sunday with an anti-religion article from the Atheists at CNN - why so much hate?

    August 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Bob Rock

      No hate at all – just a discussion to point out religious idiocy of it all.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      Not all of these blogs on sunday are "anti-christian." Actually none are, not even this one, it just disturbs you that it is something that is different from what you believe.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Ob

      I don't think there was any hate. Just a point of view that AA helped someone get sober and that the main aspect was humility, not the god angle. Nobody is stopping you from going to church. Have at it.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Brandon

      Why is it that religious people always get in an upheave whenever someone dares to point out that alternative theories on life exist?

      August 28, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  14. terry wrist

    Christianity, atheist, together we live in a world we share,one believes one dose not, one trys to convince the other that they are right, and only one is right, but which one? well i would hate to be on the loosing side of this argument, but being a christian, i dont like the fact that, in the end the end last for eternity. good luck on the sobriety.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Bob Rock

      Basically. AA offers religion to replace the alcohol addiction with. Unfortunately, we are dealing with mentally sick people when it comes to religion also. Psychologists would call it untreated "Delusional Disorder" (google that one!). Very difficult to cure, and only if the patient recognizes his/her problems as a sickness and is willing to be treated (therapy sometimes helps these people). What needs to be done is prevention – the government should be strongly opposed to any religion, and our children, starting early, need to be taught about the fraudulent and absurd gist of religion. 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 7:21 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @terry wrist

      Apparently, wanting to hedge your bets as in "Pascal's Wager" works for you.

      You know, there could be a multi-tude of scenarios...'if' there should be a life after death, etc...

      Just something to think about.



      August 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Ob

      The loosing side of the argument?

      August 28, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Nick

      I'm pretty sure if there is a god, he will see through your "just in case" point of view. Good luck with that.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  15. Don R.

    This article is one of the most gregious breakages of the The 12 Traditions of AA that I have seen. Those of you unfamiliar with the 12 Traditions probably care less about their meaning, interpretation and enforcement but for those in the program that hope the program is around in the future to save the lives of struggling alcoholics, the Traditions are the lifeline for a sustainable infrastuture of the program. Actually, there really is no enforcement other than an individual's willingness and integrity to understand and follow them. In that, this autor blatantly broke one of the fundamental traditions about anonymity at the level of press, radio .... etc. And, the tradition was broken for personal gain and the promotion of a book while causing controlversy in the public domain. In shifting the focus from helping the suffering alcoholic to creating public controvery, the author succeeded in causing the very outcome that the tradition were created to prevent. It all illustrates why the traditions were written to begin with.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Peace2All

      So, if this article would have been written anonymously by a "Bill W."... would that have really made any difference in the truths/experiences etc... that this person has for the AA program...?



      August 28, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Greg

      The bottom line is,this person found a way to achieve success and sobriety,regardless of what "rules" were broken,and that should be honored and celebrated

      August 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • sam

      ...and that's all you got out of the whole article. Never occurred to you that it was brought up numerous times in the last 20 + pages, to the point where now you just look like an idiot. By complaining about it on a public forum, you're making it more public, adding more hits to the article, and causing your own problem. gtfo, seriously.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • AA Wife

      Don R., I fail to see how the author of this article broke the 12th Step: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." To me, she is trying to carry the message of how to use AA without religion. Although the principles of AA are so supposed to be for everyone regardless of religion (or lack thereof), in practice the concept of a "Higher Power" to a free thinker is a huge issue....if I don't believe in a Higher Power, how can I get through the 12 steps? This author is trying to show those, like her, it is possible.

      She broke her own anonymity, which she has every right to do. Just as my husband had every right to wear his AA tie-tack but he did not have any right to tell me who was at the meetings (nor did he). It is not a secret society that no one is allowed to talk about. Quite the contrary!! If an AA member chooses to disclose their own membership in AA to help others find their way to sobriety, there's nothing wrong with that. My husband frequent spoke at high school drug and alcohol awareness programs with the message "AA saved my life". He did not disclose anyone else's membership, only his own and how the program had helped him. Your take on breaking anonymity is simply wrong.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  16. Jake



    August 28, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Jake

      This one too:


      August 28, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Mr. Dis-ease

      Fear motives me.... I feed on the fear you are trying to create.

      August 28, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  17. Jake

    PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING: Addiction Recovery Groups (RG's) are Hazardous to your Life, Your Health, Your Mental Health, Your Liberty, Your Civil Rights, Your Safety, Your Dignity, and Your Pursuit of Happiness!

    Stinkin' Thinkin' Blog
    Public Health Warning: Recovery Groups
    THE ORANGE PAPERS: Analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous
    Alcoholics Anonymous: Of Course It’s a Cult!
    Why You Should Stay Away From Recovery Groups
    Recovery Group Disorders are Real
    Some Suggested Do's and Don'ts
    MORE REVEALED: Online Books
    Blamethenile on YouTube
    Informed Consent to Addiction Treatment and Recovery Group Participation
    The Recovery Hall of Mirrors
    Another Look at the 12-Step Program
    Alcoholics Anonymous: The Embodiment of The Beast

    August 28, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Mr. Dis-ease

      I love the fear..... I live for your fear....... You make it easy to do my work.....Thank you

      August 28, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  18. mako

    AA is a racket, the courts have been sucked in and now require mandatory attendance, it's gone as far now that you can't even get on the organ transplant list unless you cowtow to this religious whackyness. Don't be a victim, take responsibility for yourself, read Rational Recovery and let the hopeless clowns ruin others lives.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  19. Nick

    I quit the booze a year and a half ago WITHOUT the program, God or anyone else. Get a backbone and take some responsibility for yourself.

    August 28, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Mr. Dis-ease

      Then you do not have the disease of alcoholism. Consider yourself safe...for now....

      August 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      Good job Nick, it seems some people want others to go the same route as they have, or believe the same imaginary friend as them..

      August 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Mr. Dis-ease

      Yes, yes... the 'only' way to heaven is through Jesus Christ... I mean the 'only' way to be and stay sober is through AA.

      Propaganda much...?


      August 28, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • sam

      @Dis-ease: your street theater-style bullsh!t is getting old fast.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Patrick

      Hang in there Nick. I also quit alcohol without the need of a "supernatural being". It took me two tries to do it, but I've been alcohol free for almost eighteen years.

      August 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  20. Tim P

    I know folks love to publish this stuff, but the issue is twofold. Millions of people have recovered using AA as it was written, a spiritual program to recover from alcoholism. If this is not the case, alcoholics may think they can recover by just talking to their therapist. Therapy sadly does not work and promulgating this position gives the alcoholic an apparent way out that is deadly. Secondly, the spiritual awakening is a gift of AA. It is a cure that leaves the alcoholic better than before drink cut him down. To all who read this I can say Dr Bob on his deathbed (co founder of AA) said "If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you. If you still think you are strong enough to beat the game alone, that is your affair. But if you really and truly want to quit drinking liquor for good and all, and sincerely feel that you must have some help, we know that we have an answer for you. It never fails if you go about it with one half the zeal you have been in the habit of showing when getting another drink.

    Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!

    August 28, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • PleaseUseLogic

      Tim P, you didn't read the article, did you?

      August 28, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Danica

      That's quite long for a deathbed speach!

      August 28, 2011 at 7:47 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.