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. Steve

    Step 3 puts the disclaimer "...God, as we understood him." I've seen many addicts accept Good Ordely Direction as thir higher power. I've even seen some us ethe group, Group Of Drunks as their higher power or God. Not sure why you have to get hung up in other's undrtanding of who their higher power is .. Glad you are sober.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Carlos F.

      Thanks for this. I agree; Chapter 1 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous states that Bill Wilson did not accept the idea of a God until Ebby asked him "why don't you choose you own conception of God".That's right, even making up a God out of whole cloth will work.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  2. Dave

    AA is nothing more than addiction replacement. They strive to replace your addiction to alcohol with an addiction to religion. If you have sufficient personal strength, you need neither to clean up.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Wingrider

      Boy, did you miss the point or what? If all I needed was proper determination to get sober, I would not have spent all that determination on ways to get drunk. I have now been sober 23 years, but not without the help of AA and God.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Carlos F.

      Glad that worked for you.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Dave

      Make all the excuses you want, wingrider. You lacked the discipline to stop your first addiction, and simply replaced it with another. In truth, you aren't sober at all. You're as dependent on the crutch of religion as you ever were on the crutch of alcohol. You lack the strength to face life without some sort of artificial assistance. I feel so very sorry for you. You will always be a slave to your own weakness.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Are you an addict Dave.

      I didn't take up religion but I'm an active member of AA. Sorry for not being as strong as you. I'm not afraid to admit that I need help with my disease.

      Go find a Dr. and ask them what they think about AA. (dolt)

      August 29, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Dave

      @vrt...no, I'm not. I was, but I stopped being one. I tried AA, but all they did was try to shove their addiction down my throat. I went it alone, on sheer will and personal strength. Doctors love AA because it replaces a physical addiction with a mental one they can't see the negative effects of. You don't have a disease, you've got a character defect. Dennis Miller said it best..."If alcoholism is a disease, it's gotta be the best one. What other disease comes with pretzels, peanuts and Half-Price Happy Hour Hot Wings?"

      August 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  3. SoberOnHigh

    Great Article! If only people believed in themselves and their abilities like they beleive in God, the world would be the better for it.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  4. Carlos F.

    Mary, I love that you have written this. I had a similar impression when I got sober; I went so far as to ask whether this was some vast Christian conspiracy, and the leader of the meeting laughed and say "Of course it is"! (it is not!!!) I am happy to say that he and I have now been friends for 10 years and he has his taker on the Higher Power concept, and I have mine. I have elected to believe that most people's (atheist as well as religious) concept of "God" is very narrow. Mine is similar to yours, but I choose to call the laws of physics and the unmeasurable unifying force of love my "God". It works for me every day. Once I was able to live with ambiguity and some measure of humility I was on my way.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  5. Ralph


    Is Francis Collins dumb or delusional?

    August 29, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      Is this post just putrid chum or a transparent attempt to manipulate? A or B. No other choices. Hey, I like this game.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  6. lpie1225

    Hence the AA name ought not to be drawn into public controversy

    August 29, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  7. richard

    The real goal of AA is to convert people to faith.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      And you KNOW this how?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Wingrider

      But, Faith in what? It is not necessary to accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, no more than it is to accept Allah, but either are acceptable, as long as your primary purpose is to get and stay sober. You can do that whether you are a devout Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Athiest. It all works if you work it.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  8. MrHanson

    If I believed in a purposeless universe, that life nothing but an accident, me and my loved ones are no more valuable than tape worms, then I would be drinking constantly. Much like Edgar Alan Poe.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • John

      If I was as close-minded as you, I would be an alcoholic.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • QS

      If I believed I had to believe in magic in order to feel like I had a purpose...I'd be religious.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • estevan

      If I were as weak as you, I'd do the same. However, I can be strong without god(s).

      August 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  9. SDFrankie

    While it's possible to attend AA meetings as an atheist, it can make you very crazy. AAs will tolerate atheists, but who wants to be tolerated? Also, what's the point of attending AA when I don't believe the very core of the program: the idea that I cannot stay sober without divine intervention? And what's the point? AA works for about 5% of alcoholics. That's the same success rate as doing it yourself.

    August 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • David

      AA may work for 5% of Alcholics but it works for about 75% of people that honestly seek out AA and want to quit drinking. With regard to a higher power I have seen people believe in a door knob as a higher power. What ever it takes.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  10. Joe, Louisville, KY

    Interestingly there is NO objective evidence that AA either has a higher incidence of success or lower recidivism rate than any other route to getting sober. In fact, the very insistence on staying completely off any form of alcohol is seen as one of its biggest drawbacks. It is too black and white – you either win or you lose with nothing in between. Its like a diet that says you can NEVER eat bread or you will instantly gain back every ounce of fat.
    Also, as an atheist, it is ironic to say the least to call on an external 'power' when what you are trying to do is break the external power (alcohol) that is ruining your life – swapping one addiction for another is a pretty poor deal long term.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  11. To each

    his own.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  12. B W Messenger

    Ultimately there are millions of dry drunks that pretend they succeed at going through the 12-steps, but in all actually they NEVER recover. They are only in a deeper awakened sense of denial.

    As far as AA and Atheism goes, the Big Book dedicates an entire chapter on the subject.

    Therefore, in my mind, there is NO REASON why anyone in their right mind would need to read Hornbacher's book, it would simply be a waste of time.

    If you want to save some money, google "big book" chapter 4 we agnostics pdf – the first link is all you need to know about Atheism, AA and how each relate to each other.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Mark

      @Bill W Messenger: As an agnostic in AA, I found the chapter to which you refer, to be rather a disappointment as it seems to be written only from the perspective of those who were at one point either agnostic or atheist and had consequently found a faith. I wanted to know how other people who were “genuinely” agnostic and who may also not share a belief in a god or higher power worked their programme. I kind of wondered if AA was the right place for me for a while and then I connected with resources and people who were agnostic or atheist. This has been a great help to me, just as has hearing experiences from people who do have a faith.
      I’m now in a position where I’m glad to be in AA and an agnostic.
      To me, your argument seems rather narrow minded. That you may see no reason why “anyone in their right mind” would want to read the book that does not preclude those reasons from existing. If the work of this author helps anyone suffering from addiction then I applaud it.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  13. Do Twig Dot Com

    For those that cannot see God simply have no mirror.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • John

      No, we just believe the world around us can be explained through natural forces instead of relying on a supernatural ghost.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  14. Andy

    The roots of AA can be traced back to the Oxford group, a non-denominational Christian organization, which is credited with the basis of the original tenets of AA (see ‘The Four Absolutes Of The Oxford Group’) and later the twelve steps. If you recall, when Ebby Thacher went to visit Bill Wilson, he told Bill his sobriety was due to a religious and spiritual ‘conversion’. Bill didn’t want to believe that, and went on drinking until he met with Dr. Silkworth, who convinced Bill to go to Calvary Rescue Mission, where Bill finally got sober because he underwent the same transformation as Ebby. So, that is why God plays such an important part in AA and sobriety. I realize it's only because of unmerrited favor (i.e. grace), that I got sober, but it's difficult for me to select which of the steps keep me sober, so I need to put all twelve, as explained in the big book, into my life. But I do know this, half measures availed us nothing, and if I don’t believe in something, I’m afraid I’ll believe in anything.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • CRC

      I read the Big Book for my counseling class, and it is one of the most preachy books I have read along with the Bible.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  15. Saved

    I have a question. You say you do not believe in God in one sentence and in the next you say any route out of Hell. Both are christian beliefs so how can you believe in one and not the other.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Book of Life

      Deut. 25: 8-10
      At this, the elders of the town should summon him and reason with him. If he still stands his ground and says I refuse to take her, his brother's widow must go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, "Thus we requite the man who will not build up his brother's family. His family will be known in Israel as the house of the unsandalled man."

      August 29, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • snowboarder

      i believe she is using the word hell as a colloquialism. not literal.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Terri

      "Hell" is a mere metaphor, nothing more. It is used by athiest and agnostic as a term for a "bad place" just as saying "god or heaven help us" is just a saying for many of us. They are terms repeated so often in society it is quite difficult not to pick them up and use them.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • karen

      She never said she believed in hell. Good God, don't you have sayings you use? I don't believe in hell, but I use the word to describe horrible places, etc. I guess if I use the word alien, that means I believe in tiny green men. Take a deep breathe and get over yourself.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Rob

      The author was using "Hell" as an adjective, not a noun.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  16. Get over it

    Get over it.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  17. vtrweasel

    I walked into AA an atheist but a year later I’m agnostic (yes, there’s a difference) I still believe organized religion is an opiate for the masses but I also believe in the “Higher Power” concept.

    It took a few people that knew what they were talking about to explain it to me which is why getting a sponsor you can trust & respect is so important. I thought a sponsor had to be someone I’d like spending time with outside of AA and that’s just not the case. To be honest my sponsor is a pain in the ass but he saved my life.

    One of the worst things I’ve heard in AA was “If you don’t believe in God you are going to die!” When I walked into the rooms and saw the 12 Steps I just about turned around and left for good. But I thought I’d check out the program and just leave all the God stuff out. Well that didn’t work and I relapsed twice. Once I was beat down enough to at least be open to the idea of a higher power my life changed. I also did the work which is the most important thing. AA is a program of action not a cult or religious organization.


    (Non-Alcoholics need not reply to this article, I won’t listen to your opinions anyway)

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

      As someone so eloquently put it..."God is looking for spiritual fruit, not religious nuts!"

      August 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • John

      You aren't agnostic. You are an atheist who is being dishonest to himself. Agnosticism applies to things in which you find credible evidence. For example, I'm agnostic about the existence of life on other planets. We have no proof, no evidence, that any of the billions of other planets have life on them. Yet, given what we know about the formation of solar systems and the biology of life, combined with the fact that there are billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars, I find it perfectly plausible that alien life could exist. What is your plausible reasoning that God could exist? Athiesm is not about saying "I am 100% certain there is no God." Its saying "I see no current need for a God to explain the world around me."

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

      "(Non-Alcoholics need not reply to this article, I won’t listen to your opinions anyway)"

      But apparently, by your own admission, you could eventually get "beat you down enough" again that you would then listen to our opinions, right?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • SM

      Great post, John, very well stated.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Mymainman

      Actually, John, according to the dictionary:

      a·the·ism   /ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm/ Show Spelled[ey-thee-iz-uhm] Show IPA
      1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
      2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

      Atheism _is_ the belief that there is no God, not that there is no need to believe in one.

      In the words of the late Carl Sagan, an Agnostic himself,

      "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid."

      ... and he makes a great point. In order to truly know that there is no God, or believe it as true (as vehemently as some Atheists do, verily defining a religion of its own), an Atheist has to know a lot more than all of the rest of us on this world. That is about as statistically remote as finding alien life, albeit I still myself think it is out there.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Ptrika

      How would you know whether or not I am an alcoholic? Are you clairvoyant about identifying who is an alcoholic and who isn't?

      August 29, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      I get your point John, I was saying is " Within agnosticism there are agnostic atheists (who do not believe any deity exists, but do not deny it as a possibility)"

      I have no doubt there there is life outside of our galaxy and the universe (not really sure where that came from). I'm not so arrogant to say that I how it was created. I don't know if it was "God" but I'm open to the idea of a creator.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • John

      Mymainman, your dictionary reference in no way refutes what I said. Humans as a whole used to believe the Earth was flat, until evidence to the contrary was presented. Athiests, in the same fashion, believe there is no God until evidence to the contrary is available. This is not the same as saying "I am 100% there is no God". Its simply a rejection of belief on faith alone.

      VRT, you clearly missed my point. I simply brought up alien life as an example of what agnostic REALLY means. We have knowledge of natural processes that could very well lead to that conclusion, but we have no proof. To say you are agnostic about the existence of God implies that you have some knowledge that his existence is very reasonable, yet you have only stated that you are open to the idea.

      I'm atheist, and I'm completely open to the idea that God exists. I just need to see some evidence first. So far, what I think I know about the world around me can all be explained without the necessity for God. This doesn't mean I can never be convinced there is a God. I just need to see something in this universe that suggests a God as a rational explanation.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      John, we're on the same side. I think we're just arguing semantics.

      The social dynamic of AA has helped me more then the spiritual side of it but I'm using all the ammo I can get to help me with this chronic disease I have.

      This article would have helped me if I read it before I walked into the rooms of AA.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • John

      You are right VRT, we are on the same page.

      MyMainMan, one other point I'd like to make: If you're going to support Sagan's claim that athiests must presume to have much more knowledge than the rest of us, then the exact same must apply to Theists (those who believe in God). Simply put, Sagan presumed, as you do, that athiests have this arrogant notion that there will never be evidence of God. Yes, sadly, there are some close-minded athiests who flat out reject any possibility of God and look down upon anyone who doesn't agree with them. However, the same type of people exist on the religious side, those who think you are a hell-bound moron for not accepting Jesus into your life. However, mainstream Theists and Atheists alike are reasonable enough to admit that they simply see the world around them in a different light. I have no disrepect for people of faith, even though I am not one of them.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • QS

      "I have no disrepect for people of faith, even though I am not one of them."

      I have no disrespect for people of faith....it's religious people I have no respect for. People of faith typically tend to keep their beliefs to themselves and not lord it over others.

      Religious people are those who believe so adamantly that others must follow their beliefs that they attempt to enact legislation to make it so.

      Have faith in whatever you want, but for the sake of all that is sanity, drop the religion!

      August 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  18. 3lwood

    Awesome story. Rational and open-minded. I'm glad you were able to get help and be self motivated enough to go all the way. Very inspirational.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  19. Book of Life

    Leviticus 21: 18-20
    No man with a defect is to come, whether a blind man, a lame man, a man stunted or overgrown, or with misshapen brows, or film over his eyes, or discharge from it, a man who has a scab, or eruption, or has had a testicle ruptured.

    August 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Paco the Avenger

      Bathroom stall wall:
      Here I sit, broken hearted. Came to sh-it, only farted. Amen.

      August 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  20. Bradly Thomas Horton

    I respect anyone who is trying to get clean and sober, but the important thing to remember is there is no god to help you.. you are doing it on your own

    August 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      No, you're not doing it alone. You're doing it with the help of many other people. Alone you're screwed.

      August 29, 2011 at 1:51 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.