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. QS

    Curious...if the religious aspect of AA was more in line with how religion treats gay people, would the author of this article still feel the same way about AA?

    If, for example, religion attempted to get a law or some other piece of legislation passed that relegated alcoholics to a status of second-class citizenship by declaring that alcoholism is a sin and abomination and those who choose that lifestyle should not be allowed to drive a car, or obtain employment, or even get married, would the author still believe that AA is worth it if it requires that you submit yourself to such degradation?

    August 29, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • wayno

      If frogs had wings, they wouldn't bump their butts. Your argument is speculative and specious.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • QS

      It wasn't an argument and was meant to be speculative.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  2. RJ Evans

    SWOG... Sober Without Gods

    August 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  3. Rationalist

    Kicking an addiction requires nothing more than sheer willpower (albeit strong willpower) and time. God has absolutely nothing to do with it. If you believe otherwise, you're only kidding yourself and your entire existence altogether.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  4. Ken

    I wish more people would come out of the closet and admit that God doesn't exist, religion is the foundation of extremist.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Book of Life

      Exodus 21: 20-21
      When a man strikes his slave or slave girl with a stick and the slave dies on the spot, he must be punished. But he is not to be punished if the slave survives for one day or two, because the slave is his property.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • john

      book of life. im so sick of reading this. you DO KNOW slaves existed back then in egypt, and God did not enslave men, men enslaved men. i would think a text telling men not to kill someone is a good thing. athiests are always throwing this around like God loves slavery. so weird

      August 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • wayno

      Belief in God notwithstanding, extremists always find a crutch.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  5. Geezer

    I had friends that were happier and nice people before they turned to jesus and god.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Rationalist

      Religion tends to do that to people...

      August 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • snowboarder

      religion only divides. it never unites.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  6. D Frost

    God is the glue that has held this Republic together. As the glue dissolves, so does the Republic. I am not a Christian, Jew, or member of any other religion, but I know this to be true.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Bill

      you don't know anything

      August 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • dale

      That could be one of the dumbest statements I have ever read posted on CNN.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • QS

      Separation of church and state has been the glue holding this country together. As that dissolves, so does the nation.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  7. Book of Life

    Deuteronomy 23:1 ESV

    No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • D

      Classic Lord.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • El Loco

      Good point! Right on topic, too.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  8. laughingMagpie

    first, I read half and then being the recovering alcoholic that I am, I have to something to say. I am sure the whole article is "diplomatic" the part that I read were. And I like her openess about it. However in all the meetings that I attend and the literature BB 12 x 12 ect. all state GOD (higer power) as we (the individual) understood him/it/her. Maybe it mentions it later on in the blog. but I were a "newcomer" or someone who needed a place something to relieve me of my alocholisim, chaos – whatever name you want to give it. And were apprehensive over the God thing – this article could (operative word) mislead me and not get me into the rooms. As a newcomer (remembering how I felt) I was intimidated and uncomfortable so if you mentioned God, religion ect I would run and seek help elsewhere that may not actually help me. Our program is one of tolerance more importantly our program is a group of individuals who share a common bond who might not otherwise ever interact. And that bond is what keeps us sober and going. So I hope (and I should have read the whole article; also I think she does have some valid reasonings/points whatever and I repect them) I just don't think that pointing out how some people carry on about their higher power should be talked about. Personally, I believe in all aspects of many religious philosphies I don't nessecarily [sic} choose one nor do I think that everyone should bewlieve in what I believe its a personal thing and utlimately thats what this "higher power" thing is....I will read the artice in its entirety now : )

    August 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      LMAO, The article is one page. It must have taken you longer to reply then to read it.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  9. Jimmy Cracks Capricorns

    Sobriety in a world driven mad by religion is no easy task. Stay away from bars, find bliss in the purity of healthy living, and find company that supports this same lifestyle. It's all about having a support group – this country is chock full of substance abusers, they abuse Rx, they abuse Alcohol, they abuse their spouse or children, they abuse their religion, they hate themselves and so abuse comes naturally. Church is exactly the wrong place to find solace.....the bible is a book of bile, vile, delusional insanity.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Book of Life

      What say ye to this logic heaten!

      Judges 3:19-25 ESV

      And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Rationalist


      Book of Life needs to get off his high horse.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Eric

      Whats a heaten?

      August 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Book of Life

      A 'heaten' is one step lower than a 'heathen'. Don't you know anything dumbas.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  10. MsAnonymous

    I like what you said about your acceptance of AA's steps. I believe in AA as a way of life and being sober, I have a life I want to live.
    However, as AA's 12 Steps are HOW AA works, the 12 Traditions are WHY it works. Another AA tradition that you didn't mention is AA's 11th Tradition, which is "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." Please see the AA "companion text" to AA's official text book of ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, TWELVE STEPS AND TWELVE TRADITIONS, page 192.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • TSTO

      I could not agree more. I have been in recovery for over 4 years and my understanding is that we are not to be drawn into public controversy. I would have thought that someone with 12 years of sobriety would have understood this very simple tradition. No wonder some don't believe it works and have a hard time trusting when those with long term sobriety don't follow the traditions put forth by Bill W. and others. Sad, very sad...

      August 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Anonymity is the Spiritual Foundation

      I agree with Ms. Anonymous (below). As a long-time member of 12-step groups - and journalist - I am sad when I see anonymity broken like this in an article.

      However, as AA's 12 Steps are HOW AA works, the 12 Traditions are WHY it works. Another AA tradition that you didn't mention is AA's 11th Tradition, which is "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." Please see the AA "companion text" to AA's official text book of ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS, TWELVE STEPS AND TWELVE TRADITIONS, page 192.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  11. DC

    Marya, the only thing lacking with your atheism is universal backing. If there's no objective authority that compels you to abstain from alcohol, then subjectively, your choice to abstain is universally no more or less compelling than one who chooses to indulge in alcohol. It's all subject to debate then, really. Your ability to abstain then rests on your own willpower, not a perceived 'higher power' ...Still, good luck to you in your quest.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Apocrypha

      I dunno. "I will die of liver failure in a few years if I keep this up" is a pretty compelling argument. You don't need a God to wake up one day and realize you're hurting yourself and those around you.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • snowboarder

      "Your ability to abstain then rests on your own willpower"

      and community support. that is where everyone's ability rests.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • JohnR

      DC writes: "You have to do it my way even though you way has worked for you and many, many other people, cause I said so". Try again, DC.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  12. gin

    Well said Marya.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  13. Steve Vogel

    The point of this article is the fact that anyone can escape the chains of drug addiction–providing there is a desire to stop. Don't be fooled by that word–desire. The desire for ice cream is not the same as the desire for freedom. It is not to be taken lightly.

    No matter what is said or done in a meeting hall that runs contrary to your current ideas, your desire to live free from alcohol will override any of those current ideas you have. The Atheist author showed that. Anything less than that desire is a half measure. Half measures get you nothing in any endeavor. What I believe or don't believe about Higher Powers, Gods, Messiahs is of no importance to the here and now regarding alcoholism. Becoming that person we thought we would be when we were young dreamers is the important thing.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  14. Wally

    Without acknowledging God or having a spiritual awakening, one cannot work the 12 step program. It's a different program, yielding different results. The consequence is quite often – relapse!

    August 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Rationalist

      You're an idiot!

      August 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • snowboarder

      i'm not buying that. there are entire civilizations that did and still do thrive with no knowledge of your particular god. so many people need to pull their heads out of that dark smelly orifice and realize that there are billions of people and thousands of gods all coexisting.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Bill

      and relapse quite often occurs to those who believe

      August 29, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Joe

      Wally – my experience has been that I need only to right-size myself to the world around me in order to have an awakening of the spirit.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Um, who's "God" is that? I just use the word God to explain my higher power. I don not believe in a deity. There's not big guy in the clouds with a white beard and flowing robes. (IMHO)

      August 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  15. Sam Houston

    Glad you have your vice under control. However, do you really exist, or are you, and what is written here just a figment of someone's imagination?

    August 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  16. Guy

    'And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”'
    I don't think I'm the biggest, most important thing in the universe. My friends and family are the biggest, most important things in the universe to me, though. Is that egotistical or arrogant? I can't see how it's any more egocentric than the religious person's belief that he is special and hand-picked by God to go to a special place for special people.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  17. Cass

    Sorry, but I can see why this article is necessary. I'm Pagan and I was told at three different AA meetings I couldn't be sober without Jesus, and I DO believe in higher powers. AA is ridiculously intolerant. This writer was just saying she found a way to work through this while being true to her lack of belief. Nothing wrong with that.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • deh

      It's unfortunate that you were slammed with Jesus at any AA meeting, since that's not what it's all about at all. AA's twelve steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole [quoted from the forward to the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions]. I have found this to be true, and I did not believe when I walked in the rooms either. I wish you all the best.

      I am very happy that the author was able to apply the principles in her life, too.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  18. Ralph

    l know atheists don't take this kind of evidence into account, however I must say it. I too was very weary of God or anything else existing beyond myself. I thought I was the end-all be-all and that I had life all figured out. Isn't God some sort of fairy tale that losers belive in anyways? Well I decided to research certain things and upon further examination I found more and more credible evidence for God existing, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, God could exist. I decided one day to give it a shot and invite Jesus into my heart, I mean if nothing's there then I won't feel any different anyways and I'll continue on about my day. To my surprise, I felt a strong sense of peace and burden that was lifted off my shoulders. Not a delusional feeling, but something in my heart had completely changed that I couldn't describe.

    People can debate back and forth until the end of time whether God exists, however one cannot deny His existence when they have felt Him touch their hearts. Like I said, atheists probably don't consider this evidence (or empirical evidence atleast), but He commanded my attention and fully made himself known at that very moment.

    I wish that everybody could feel what I have felt, and I'm sure many have, however there are also many who refuse to, no matter what evidence is presented. Although they say they would believe if given credible evidence, the truth is that no amount of evidence will make them believe, for they have already decided not to.

    I wish peace to all and hope that people will do their own research and be honest with yourself. Btw I'm 25, a college graduate, work in a corporate setting (finance), so trying to call me delusional is a cop out.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  19. What that

    Oh help your little soul...how DARE someone say blood of jesus.I mean wow your not there to get help from the sauce, your there to 1. make sure no one believes in god right? I think you should get the f*** over yourself and focus on your problem. I am a recovered boozer myself ...hit the bottle for 8 years been sober for 2 going on the rest of my life. I sat through meetings hearing people praise every god imaginable....I took what was for me and let everyone else be themselves...ATHEIST STOP BEING FRIGGIN INTOLERENT!!

    August 29, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • mel

      so we who do not believe in god must pretend we do or be labeled intolerant? YOU are the intolerant one, sir. This woman is giving hope and support with her point of view to those who do not want to walk into a room and be told that they will not be able to get sober unless they change everything they believe and makes sense to them, regardless of what that is. I for one am sick and tired of having to tiptoe and avoid discussing my personal beliefs just so that I don't "offend" any christians, many of whom judge myself and others for not believing what they believe. Congrats to the courage of the author and if more people stood up for their beliefs, whatever they are, talked openly about them without fear of judgment and criticism, and accepted others' beliefs without judging them, the world would be a much better place. But alas, many want to discriminate those who believe in something different. I have family that has been unable to commit to AA because they constantly are telling them they can't do it without "god," and this is discouraging and unfair. This is not and should not be an argument about what is the correct "belief," but whether we should all have opportunities that are equal to one another despite our beliefs without having to have others shoving their beliefs down everyone's throats. Be christian, buddhist, jewish, whatever! But do not sit there and tell others that they will fail because they don't believe what you believe. Have some respect. That is all.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Ignaddio

      I'm intolerant of bigotry. Is that not allowed?

      August 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • snowboarder

      "....I took what was for me and let everyone else be themselves"

      if you read the article, you will notice that the author did the same.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Bill

      keep going to meetings, good luck

      August 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Jerry Senzee

    Is God willing but not able ?THEN HE IS NOT OMNIPOTENT.. Is he able, but not willing? THEN HE IS MALEVALENT. Is he both able and willing? THEN WHENCE COMETH EVIL ? Is he neither able nor willing ? THEN WHY CALL HIM GOD ?

    August 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Book of Life

      Mark 14:51-52 NASB

      A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Agno

      Your making a logical argument based off faith. The two are mutually exclusive. If you believe in faith you are by definition not believing in logic.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.