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. Robert

    AA is an interesting program. Studies show that it doesn't really increase one's chance of staying sober over any other program. It has the same overall success rate as attempting to stay sober on one's own. It does seem to increase the success rate for those who were the most determined to stay sober prior to beginning the program but those who were less determined are actually better off seeking help elsewhere as the tend to fail more often when they attend AA than if they did nothing, and their suicide rates go up.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Chris S.

      Love all these (non resourced) studies LOL.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Sober in MN

      And, whose statistics are you supposedly quoting? Are you a professional in the field or are you spouting off rhetoric like many here who are part of the "AA is a cult" group?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Robert

      MSW getting my PhD.

      I am not saying AA. It actually does improve success for those people who have a better chance of succeeding on their own. However, it lowers the chance of success for those more likely to fail on their own. That is why I cringe when I hear about someone being court ordered to attend AA. It isn't a blanket solution and shouldn't be treated ass one.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  2. mr j

    ive been sober for 2 years. the only aa i ever went to was court ordered. i dont belive in any "higher power" or aa.
    aa is a cross addiction for most. you used to spend all your time drinking, now you spend all your time in aa.
    im glad that it works for a lot of people. i found it to be useless. and quite a few people just use it as a place to feel better about themselves after a relapse. or they were just out of smokes. or needed a ride somewhere.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • David

      Most AA meetings last one hour. How do you propose that people spend all their time in AA.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  3. scott

    faithless, but refers to her "hell." God has blessed you, Marya. Perhaps you will see that when you quit trying to look inward for all the answers. Its not about you.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  4. anon

    you cannot deny something without first acknowledging its existence.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Brandon


      August 29, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • DrJStrangepork

      Believing in something doesn't make it exist.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Dan

      Anon, do you deny the existence of Santa Clause?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Ryan


      ha idiot.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Dan

      I don't understand this comment. Must I now believe in smurfs to claim they don't exist? What about flying unicorns?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Sam


      August 29, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Matt

      thats just a dumb statement. to say just because you've heard of something means it exists is a ridiculous notion. you would then be believing in every form of religion you have heard of, monsters such as the boogieman loch ness and the kraken. you also believe that horses once flew and that viking women rode them with hammers,spears, and swords in hand slaying monsters.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • LinCA


      You said "you cannot deny something without first acknowledging its existence."
      You, by your own reasoning, must believe in Bob the Magical Blue Sock.

      May I suggest you open your mind and think before you repeat the nonsense your preacher tells you?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • anon

      It's not meant to say that by "believing" in God that automatically means he exists. You're all completely correct, that would be completely idiotic and ignorant. Everyone has the ability to make this judgment for themselves. However, before you can completely deny the existence of a higher power described in the Bible, one should probably read said book. I feel like most "athiests" today claim atheism because they are too lazy to check into these things themselves. Ask any modern "hipster" you see what they believe. I can guarantee you that about 80% will claim atheism, but when asked why would not be able to back up that belief. By believing in God, you are not denying the truths of science. Why people can't see the way the two flow together on most subjects baffles me.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • LinCA


      You said "It's not meant to say that by "believing" in God that automatically means he exists."
      True. There are a lot of people that believe in a wide variety of gods. They are all equally unlikely to exist. Considering that there isn't a shred of evidence that any god exists, it is somewhat silly to assume they do.

      Even if there is a god, any god, he/she/it did a piss-poor job convincing people he/she/it exists. Man has worshiped thousands of gods in tens of thousands of ways. How can you be sure to worship the right one in the right way? Even if your christian god exists, he managed to screw up so badly that his flock splintered over more than 30,000 different cults, sects and denominations.

      You said "You're all completely correct, that would be completely idiotic and ignorant. Everyone has the ability to make this judgment for themselves. However, before you can completely deny the existence of a higher power described in the Bible, one should probably read said book."
      I have, and from the comments on this board I gather, most atheists here have. The book is totally nonsensical, and when read critically, a sure-fire way to atheism.

      You said "I feel like most "athiests" today claim atheism because they are too lazy to check into these things themselves."
      Quite the opposite. I am an atheist because I've checked things out myself. I did, and do, question what I'm told.

      You said "By believing in God, you are not denying the truths of science."
      Yes, you are. The two are mutually exclusive. Science is governed by verifiable evidence and logic. Belief in gods is done in spite of evidence and logic.

      You said "Why people can't see the way the two flow together on most subjects baffles me."
      It's probably because they don't. Anywhere.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  5. Nana Lenore

    I came to AA in 1970 without a belief in God and managed to sober up quite nicely and have maintained sobriety since then. I came from a strong Lutheran background and perhaps that is what makes me cringe when some people try to cram their particular take on God, Jesus and a literal reading of the Bible down other people's throats. Let anyone credit who or what they will for their sobriety; for me it was and is AA and the principles as set down in the 12 Steps and the Big Book. Meetings or groups that insist on a particular belief system not only turn me off, I think they can hurt newcomers. I avoid them like the plague and would no more consider taking a newcomer to one than I would a bar. A particular religion or belief system has NO place in AA. If a particular belief system was the Answer to sobriety, one has to wonder how any person who subscribed to that system ended up a drunk in the first place.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • tl123

      Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.

      I also state that a discussion of God is for philosophers and theologians, of which I am neither!

      August 29, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  6. butlerbulldawg74

    This post was too short and didn't really say much. It felt like the preface to a larger story. BTW, there are plenty of 12 step books for 'non-believers' or non-christians.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  7. Miles

    This author parrots a lot of AA rhetoric like "I'd be dead without AA." This is a common mantra spouted be AA followers. There are many sayings like this that are not true, but a way of showing your alcoholic credibility. AA is a cult and has a 90% plus relapse rate. It works for a while and well for some because it is a way to surround yourself with people who will support you and have similar experiences. No magic, no miracle, just a daily battle against a strong desire to drink. There are several ways to quit drinking or moderate your drinking.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Chris S.

      What is hilarious about all the anti AA's is the promotion of its cult status and Highly reported failure rates( where are these incredulous statistics from) . I love the fact that you give the program so much credit and power in your lives. You should really study history and what AA itself teaches. The Book Alcoholics Anonymous Clearly states several times there are many paths to recovery and we do not hold the end all solution, there are other ways. If you review history A has been the most successful program in history at recovery, prior to the program of AA there was almost no chance for a drunk to get straight. I am glad I was taught the greatest error is contempt prior to investigation. How many of the naysayers have actually read the AA literature? Our book is meant t be suggestive only LOL God luck I have feeling AA will weather the hate as it has the last 75+ years and continue to reach out to those so desperately in need of sobriety for free LOL If you read this and want to get sober please try AA if it doesn't work for you find something that does.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • David

      I've been sober for a little over a year and still attend AA. I agree with you about the whole "I'd be dead without AA" or better yet the more popular, "to drink is to die!" I think these sayings are way overused and maybe not true, or true only because inevitably we all die. When I hear these sayings, I think about people I know that are addicts that still drink and have modified their drinking, they're not close to death (as far as I know) but they're also not following their dreams, or living a very fulfilling life (from what I've gathered). Abstinence is not some radical idea only supported by this AA "cult"..I think if you came around to AA long enough and met some people you might rethink the modified drinking idea. Do you think most AA's haven't tried to modify their drinking? And I'm talking about an honest effort, maybe even with help from counselor's or doctors. Most, that I know of, have tried this before coming to AA. Look, there's plenty of silly rhetoric in AA meetings, but not enough to make AA silly. I don't see how it's a cult, and the idea that AA members are trading in their addiction for alcohol to AA itself is really funny.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  8. Chris S.

    Interesting article, but not really new concept the program only asks you to be open to the chance there is something more powerful then yourself, IE Higher Power. I find the authors journey through her belief and acceptance of others very commendable but not unique, I imagine this may help other struggling atheists in the program. I guess my only concern is that she seems to have not read or is ignoring the 11th AA tradition presented here in long form. 11.) Our relations with the general public should be characterized by personal anonymity. We think A.A. ought to avoid sensational advertising. Our names and pictures as A.A. members ought not be broadcast, filmed, or publicly printed. Our public relations should be guided by the principle of attraction rather than promotion. There is never need to praise ourselves. We feel it better to let our friends recommend us. I believe had her concerns been inline with the spirit of the program, she would have not written this book for the masses with her full name and picture disclosed. Alcoholics are insecure egomaniacs, the program helps to relive us of the bondage of self. She is in my opinion has not studied the traditions, or is intentionally ignored them out of pride. I wish her the best and pray she finds the strength to learn to practice the traditions along with the steps, she is not so unique AA will get through her grandiosity as it has so many times before with others (-: Good message poor delivery.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  9. AA-Truth

    AA doesn't work and has a recovery record worse than doing nothing: http://www.orange-papers.org/

    August 29, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Chris S.

      Keep coming back, Glad the hundreds of recovered alcoholics I personally interacted with over the past 19 years have some how manged to stay sober through this program that doesn't work LOL

      August 29, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • AA-Truth

      Add up the hundreds you know who recovered. Compare them to the millions you don't who didn't. That's the failure rate. No it's not Bill W's BS about them not using the program correctly...

      August 29, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Nana Lenore

      Worked for me for 41 years, 8 months, 7 days and counting.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Sober in MN

      Hate to tell you this but the alcohol and chemical dependency professionals out there believe that AA can be one answer. Sounds like either you: 1) don't have an issue; 2) tried AA and failed; OR 3) have no f'ing clue as to what you are talking about.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  10. Emily S.

    Tradition Eleven—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.

    I wonder if you talked to your sponsor before you published an article on CNN.com.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:09 am |

    Not very anonymous when you announce in a CNN article that you were a member.

    Also, nothing positive ever comes from enabling the illogical beliefs of religious people.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  12. Kara

    Calm Down people! She is an atheist who is merely claiming that A.A. did not help her because she did not have faith in a higher power. She's not asking you or your children to reliquish your belief in GOD. Her point is valid, if you do not have a strong belief in a higher power it certainly would be counterproductive to admit you are powerless over your addiction and then surrender yourself to whom?

    August 29, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Darnkid

      She did not say that AA did not help her. She said the biggest thing she learned FROM AA is humility. I think she got help from AA, even as an atheist.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Sober in MN

      There was a comment after yours referring to "attraction rather than promotion" of Tradition 11. I agree with that. This woman should have checked with her sponsor to see if this disclosure was made for selfish purposes – and she speaks of humility...? In addition, Step 11 refers to "God, as we understood Him..." It may say God but it could be anyone, anything, that could be believed in if someone had issues with/did not believe in God. What is typically used is the power of the group together as a support. She's basically saying that she does not believe in her fellow group members or even humankind (Step 12 refers to Service, which implies a love for her fellow man) but whatever she found for herself, great. She should not be self-promoting her way as "the answer for atheists." Her way works for her and not anyone else – regardless if that "anyone else" is an atheist. One thing I've noted in my 20 years in the program is that atheists have an especially tough time if they don't find something else to believe in other than the cosmos. It may be a simple program but it is often a tough program for many – Christian and non Christian alike – to swallow.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "She's not asking you or your children to reliquish your belief in GOD. "

      Umm... When I was 5 I believed in Santa. When I was 6, I put away childish notions.

      If my child had not questioned the existence of Santa Claus by 7, I would have bought her a helmet to avoid further brain damage.

      There is no more evidence for the Christian god, than for Santa. Both should be relinquished by children and adults.


      August 29, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  13. Bill W

    I haven't read all the comments (well, any of them actually) so forgive me if I am repeating other comments...Of course it is perfectly possible to sober up without a belief in God. However, it may not be possilbe without God believing in you.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:07 am |

      Thanks for the "LOL" this morning! I needed that!

      August 29, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Jay

      Atheists are just belivers that are mad at God. I mean seriously who has the time to dedicate to something that doesn't exist? I don't believe in Santa Claus but you don't see me dedicating any thought or time to it. I just don't believe and that's it. Every time someone angrily tells me they are an atheist I just nod gracefully and sometimes wink at them. Thank you for the "LOL" Atheeist (btw are you a 12 y/o girl b/c they pretty much own the rights to "LOL")

      August 29, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  14. Wilson Ben-Wa

    I'd like to see Marya lying on her back.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Jay

      Yes....go on

      August 29, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  15. sandiego1969

    Placing yourself at the bottom the the ladder, in humility, is outstanding recognition of our place in creation. Call it what you will, just keep on working at being sober.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Jared

      But creation is basically just telling us that we're god's gift to the universe.... doesn't seem like humility would come into play with this system of beliefs.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  16. Ryan

    It is 100% about a good support group. Friends, Family, AA class. I would hope people would not trade in one addiction for another......

    August 29, 2011 at 10:05 am |

      Exactly. How is a belief in something without proof any better than drinking?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  17. harrytubman

    The point is not that you have to believe in God, just a higher power than yourself.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  18. chris

    I'd rather be a drunk than a christian

    August 29, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Ryan


      August 29, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  19. Morgan Ladd Zealear

    It's sad that this writer is allowed to broadcast her story, as though it be the most gripping or compelling. I've been sober for 534 days (3.13.10), and my story is far more trying that this paltry editorial. Will my story ever be published? No. How about the millions of others, like me, who did it WITHOUT SETTING FOOT inside a single AA meeting. Atheist or Zealot, religion has NO PLACE in substance recovery. And if you want to read a better story, try 'My Notes' @ http://www.facebook.com/mozealear.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Peter

      Yes let's repress someone else's ability to tell their story just because you can't. It's called a 'blog' and any idiot who can figure out how to hit the 'post' button can write one. It may be beyond your ability but many people have figured it out.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • Parlemort

      I can't access your 'my notes' on FB, Morgan.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Darnkid

      Now you are just as bad as the writer. Maybe religion had/has no place in your recovery, but for millions of others it might be a huge part. Your story cannot be accessed, by the way. Your story is no more important than this writer's or anyone else. As the writer stated the biggest thing you get from AA is humility. You obviously haven't gotten to that point yet. Good luck with your recovery.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  20. David

    Wow. Just wasted a few minutes reading about a faithless drunk. Not gonna get that time back.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • David Johnson


      Hmm... Maybe if you pray about it. Ask god in Jesus' name to give you back the time... Oh, wait! Prayer doesn't work, because no one is home. LOL


      August 29, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • George

      And I take it that you are a "Faithful Drunk"?

      August 29, 2011 at 10:25 am |
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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.