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. S.B.

    Wonderful article. I couldn't agree with you more.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  2. Reality

    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. "

    August 29, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  3. Book of Life

    I shall pray for all of you doubters and sinners. For no one goes to the father except through me said the Lord Jesus.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • lucullus


      August 29, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • What

      Don't you mean us sinners? or are you as perfect as Jesus? Sanctimonious....

      August 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • wayne

      You are quite the slow learner. Prayer doesn't work either.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • flo

      Aren't you the righteous one! Please don't pray for us, we don't need your prayer. Just mind your own business. I can't stand people like you.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Relic-gion

      weak minded idi0t!! screw your book of fairy tales!!

      August 29, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  4. sober


    August 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  5. Jeff of Peoria

    What a great article. I BELIEVE she's wrong but I certainly DON'T KNOW that she's wrong and neither do you that are tearing her apart.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  6. deb

    good luck with that

    August 29, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  7. b0bc@t

    My experience with AA included the smoke filled rooms filled with thankful people spouting Scripture for their own means of salvation from their inner demons. I couldn't tolerate the cigarette smoke, and my preferred variety of smoke was dismissed as transferrence. I have been alcohol free for near thirty years and manage to eek out a semblance of a life without the adherence to a Cult life as described herein and by critics and members alike. Find your own path, that is good for you.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • deb

      hate to break it to you, they have nonsmoking meetings, even in my small town.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • caw

      since he said he's been alcohol free for thirty years, I presume his AA time was thirty years ago which would have meant smoke filled rooms.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • deb

      my point is thats no longer a reason not to go, if you need to go, If you can quit on your own, do it, whatever works, as a nurse I've seen the devastating effects on folks who drink heavily, and the victims of DUI.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • cleverusername

      I guess you havent been to a meeting in 30 years.... I have never even SEEN a meeting where it is ok to smoke in the building. People gather before and after outside to smoke, but never in the building it is held in. I have been to meetings in multiple states as well. This is in line with most places stance on smoking (AA or not).

      August 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  8. What

    No one needs God, AA or others to quit anything they don't want to do. All you need is the desire to not do it. I say this as a two year ex smoker. All the patches, gum, and prescriptions in the world, the support from family, co workers, friends did not help me anywhere near as much as just plain not wanting to smoke anymore. Once I didn't want to smoke anymore, quitting was easy.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • justin

      I agree, but the weak need something else to be addicted to to get them past the alcohol. too bad they choose hate mongering groups like christian churches to be addicted to. id rather you die of alcohol poisoning then to give that money against gay marriage or abortion.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • wayne

      I haven't smoked in 8 years. I haven't quit, I just haven't smoked. When my doctor tells me I only have 6 months left to live the first thing I'll do is buy cigarettes and booze. Oh wait, I still drink and I have some booze so I'll just get the cigarettes.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  9. William Stearns

    Interesting article. I suggest the author try SMART recovery where no higher power is required

    August 29, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  10. Bryan S.

    The best question I ever was asked was, "How's that working for you?"

    This was in reference to living my life ruled by my own thoughts and beliefs. When I honestly looked at the evidence of my life, my relationships, my internal condition [how I walked around experiencing the world], I saw that perhaps I was wrong, at least didn't have all the answers.

    I now try to live with the morality of, "Does it work?" where my ideas and beliefs are concerned. I don't expect everyone to believe or think as I do. I look at myself first, then turn my thoughts to others with a spirit of compassion and understanding.

    I can thank AA for this.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  11. Sober15

    So much for anonymity. Whatever her take is on AA (and yes, this is her opinion) – this is just plain wrong. The traditions are there for a reason.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • contraryjim

      Sorry, but that IS the reason AA isn't for me. Each person is unique.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Jon S.

      As someone who has attended Al-anon and AA meetings, I think you have it wrong – I have been told by more than one attendee that it is OK to attend meetings and follow the programs without being religious. While religion CAN play a part in recovery, if one wishes, a "higher power" can be whatever one wants. If it's spirituality without religion, that is OK. And I think it's highly hypocritical to say that it is necessary – you are, in fact, violating one of the cardinal rules I've learned in Al-anon, which is to take care of oneself, and not push your views and desires on others. As long as a person is clean and sober, by whatever they believe in, that is what is important, god or no.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • tffl

      Just because something is traditional doesn't mean that it is right. Things are traditional because people generally don't like change, things are right because they are right...

      August 29, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • JohnR

      Sorry, but all "higher power" talk is religious talk. It may be generic religious talk, but it is religious talk.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  12. John in OH

    A church I used to serve allowed AA to use its facilities for meetings. There were 108 churches in our zip code and when AA came to us, they had already been rejected by several of the other churches and municipal facilities for one reason or another. I'm certain what happened at AA every Tuesday night helped more people and saved more lives than what happened every Sunday in the sanctuary. That's pretty humbling for a church to witness...

    August 29, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  13. Ernest T. Bass

    I used to get drunk and beat up my wife. I used to think it was because of the liquor but now that I read the bible I realize that it's just because I love her so much.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Barney Fife

      Gobb and me are comin to get ya

      August 29, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Ernest T. Bass

      Now Deputy FIfe....you know me and Charlene won't be there.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Femenist B

      Are you honestly trying to say that you beat your wife because you love her? What kind of f*** bull**** is that?

      August 29, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  14. Hobbitea Baggins

    I once went to a Procrastinators Anonymous meeting, there was no one there......

    August 29, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • bookwench

      Were you late?

      August 29, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • caw

      Obviously you failed. If you showed up you didn't procrastinate long enough.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  15. What

    I love that being an atheist, or even the mere mention of the word atheist, or the simple idea of atheism so enflames the religious right. It is so comforting to know that whenever CNN posts some story revolving around some angle of atheism, for days these christians get on their high horse, and type big long scrawls they think other people actually read. What a waste of time. Its better than them being out in public somewhere spreading their values in my face though.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Brandon

      It's because a lot of Christians believe that if not everyone believes the way they do it is somehow a threat to the nature of reality. A lot of atheists believe that too. Just look at the comments to this article.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • The Fume

      or when there is a christian article and all the atheists have to jump in the forum and spread their drival and self worth.

      Street goes both ways bub.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • What

      How do you spread your self worth? You can't just type words that work in some context and expect them to have meaning in other contexts, bub

      August 29, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • What

      by the way, the street does not go both ways either. If you had your preacher here to tell you the meaning of the words I wrote, you would understand my words to have meant that anytime anything mentions atheism it sends the christians into a tizzy, like its an assault on their personal beliefs, Atheists have know for ever that there are christians around. The revelation that a christian did something and wrote about it in relation to their faith would not send the atheists into a defensive sanctimonious fit.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • The Fume

      what? oh wait that's your screen name. your comment was idiotic. you say xtians post on an atheist article and seem to come out in full force when articles like this show up, but you fail to realize that atheisits do the exact same thing to xtian articles. paint the kettle black and sip some more of your kool aid.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • The Fume

      lol now you imply cause I don't believe your beliefs that I am a xtian? idiot.

      August 29, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Freethinker

      Insecure christians and muslims have to attack when people disagree with their beliefs, because blind faith in the unknown and unexplained is a core principle for them. Deep down they know (or at least suspect) it is all make-believe, and it spoils the illusion when someone points out that the emperor is not, in fact, wearing any clothes. They can't stand to have the illusion spoiled, because they've invested so much of their mental, emotional, and sometimes physical selves in that fantasy.

      Insecure athiests have to attack because they see religionists as just one step removed from the Holy Inquisitors of the Middle Ages– people who, if given a choice, would continue to marginalize nonbelievers legislatively (at best) or criminalize them (at worst).

      Secure religious believers and non-traditional believers (such as atheists) do not need to attack, because they are secure in their own beliefs - whether those are the tenets of their professed religion, or the conclusions they've reached outside the context of religion.

      Attacks and anger are born of fear. There is a lot of fear in public discourse these days, and unfortunately the vast majority of politicians are only encouraging it, for political gain.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  16. bookwench

    This is beautiful, and you nearly moved me to tears. Thank you very, very much for sharing this with us.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  17. Chris H.

    Long live AA. Turn worry into wonder. Be free.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  18. BigNutz

    Marya's really pretty and has spunk. Too bad my only entre' into discussions with women is buying them a drink.............Whoa is me.........

    August 29, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  19. Alexandra

    AA Ukrainian Jews.

    I loved that part, because I am tech a ukraine blood jewess. in all seriousness though, can you tell me why G*d doesn't exist when we all say: he name in vain all the time. If He didn't exist at all, if there was no belief at all. Why does everyone use the name in daily life. eg "Oh, my G*d." Or, even "Thank, G*d I made it to my appointment on time." ? :/

    August 29, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • EnjaySea

      Yep. It's a figure of speech. We say it because it's part of our language. Saying OMG doesn't indicate a belief in god.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Robert Cotton

      perhaps because it's a common expression, moron.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Hobbitea Baggins

      What do you mean "he" everyone knows God is a black lesbian!

      August 29, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Noël

      Learned behavior by watching peers.
      I mean, technically you could ask that same question for every word. 'Why do we talk about unicorns if they don't exist?' Well, because somone said the word, then somone else said it and so on and so-forth.
      Humans are naturally pack animals and will pick up behaviours of their peers.
      It's science as to why we say God all the time.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  20. Jakey

    Wow, sounds like she is doing some other drugs now, rambling on and regurgitating some psuedo scientific crap to make herself feed her own ego.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • bookwench

      Ahhhh, quit being such a killjoy. She's sober. Why snark at that? Only 5% of folks who are hardline alcoholics manage; she's done something exceptional.

      August 29, 2011 at 11:46 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.