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. Sabrina

    Thank you for sharing your experience, strenghth and hope with others. The freedom to have a higher power of one's own understanding, while not always looked upon highly, is truly a blessing for some that would otherwise not attend AA. In addition while AA does have a strong Christian influence, it has been proven that there is also Eastern Religion influence in some of the program.
    Don't listen to the negative people on here. That is their S&*( and you don't need to concern yourself with it. Keep up the good work and the humble spirit. Thanks!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  2. Josh

    Interesting article, but what does it actually have to do with sobering up? Seems more like an angsty former-alcoholic's diary who just needed to get it out there that they "succeeded" without believing in a higher power!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • JW

      If you have EVER been to an AA meeting, the very fact you feel you can make it without a "higher power" or "God" or "Insert-your-own-favorite-deity" to "make it happen for you" is worthy of an article. Thousands and thousands of folks get turned off by the very bald faced religious aspects of AA. If that's your thing, you'd fit right in. But if not, as the author says "you'll . . .want to scream, laugh or walk back out." I know how off putting all the mention of "In the name of Jesus" was to me. I happen to not accept Jesus as MY lord and savior.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  3. carlspackler

    mmmmm...that martini looks delicious...

    August 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  4. Billy

    If you want to stop drinking, don't surround yourself with alcohol. It's that easy. If you "can't" stop drinking, you don't WANT it. The whole idea is how do you make yourself WANT to remain sober. A lot of people answer that with methods that improve their own self-confidence; recreating their lives as one that they want to live – one worth defending through staying sober. With many, turning to god will help give them the confidence that they need. With others, who have screwed things up with their family and friends, it is a need of companionship; those who will not judge them for their shortcomings or mistakes, or who understand what they have been through. Others can just stand up for themselves, declare themselves free, shut their voices of self-hatred up by living a life above the standards of those voices (sometimes the voices are right) and discover that they have been drowning in water that was shallow enough to stand in. It's a weird journey, and different for everyone.

    The heroin addicts are the the guys I don't envy. Actual physical addiction is a real female dog. T hey mental stuff is childsplay in comparison.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • The truth

      You obviously have no understanding that alcoholism is also a physical addiction as well as a psychological addiction. Just a dumb comment Billy.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Nameless Face

      Um....alcohol addiction IS a physical addiction. A very high percentage of people die when they go through alcohol withdrawl cold turkey without seeking medical attention because of the neurotoxicity.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Billy

      The guys who die from withdrawal are the ones on the pills and other junk they are combining. The physical changes in the body are from excess water retention, sugar imbalances, and neuro-transmitters that get whacked out of balance. It's a depressant, guys. Where do you get these excuses?

      August 30, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • Billy

      People aren't alcoholics because they "couldn't stop" drinking or because it is a "disease" and they are "physically addicted." It is simply a lack of self esteem and the confidence to actually make a decision you can stick to.

      The twelve steps don't involve going to a methadone clinic. They involve support and belief and confidence and consistency. This is dumb to you?

      August 30, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  5. ThinkAgain

    Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.

    Step 3: Made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God, as I understood God.

    Step literature is filled with this: You DO NOT have to believe in God, just something greater than yourself (the group, nature, common good, ethics, etc.). And if you do believe in God, it is the GOD OF YOUR UNDERSTANDING.

    So atheists are more than welcome! As the author of this article said, you just have to want to become sober.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  6. Peter R

    Peter R

    Simply put, I became teachable. Self will run riot did not work for me. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Your Higher Power can be anything you want it to be in AA. Hence, Group of Drunks (GOD) My life is second to none. I have been freed from the bondage of self. But I have to practice the principles in all of my affairs. Thank you AA

    August 29, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  7. Steve S.

    Congratulations. Whatever it takes to get you sober is what is important. I'm strongly agnostic and I have been sober for almost 16 years. There is a publication called "The Little Book." Get it. Read it. It worked for me and provided an alternative to AA (I've never attended a meeting). God has enough trouble keeping the sky blue. He doesn't need to worry about my sobriety.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  8. Ernesto L

    All the talk about quarks, chaos, infinity–sounds like she's still high.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Billy

      High? Or grounded? Have you ever read anything about physics? It's a pretty cool subject.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Andreas

      Or you are just not educated enough to understand. Maybe those things she mentioned really are above your understanding.
      10 devided by 3 = infinity. try it. Simple to do. Science...try it some time, it might change how you think and then how you live.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  9. sam

    This is great, but I wish there was "something" else out there for the people that don't believe. I couldn't get past the higher power part of AA, now I just go at it alone. I know there are others like me, and it would make it easier if I too had a support group.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • MikeH

      Sam, the concept of a higher power is easy. The earth itself is a higher power then all of humanity put together. Use the biosphere, I do. I too am an AA atheist, but believe in a higher power, and in the power of the group or fellowship. You may find 'holy rollers' in AA who pontificate their faith in 'god', so what? Let it and them go and just worry about your daily reprieve from the disease of alcoholism. The power of the group to bring serenity and relief from the urge to drink should not be dismissed so easily.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  10. USmellLikePee

    AA is nothing more than Scientology without the booze.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Skegeeace

    So is CNN now "Atheist News Central"? It seems like they're putting more and more stories out that put atheism in a good light or are talking about atheism. Good to know they're ignoring all us Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, theists, and agnostics.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • USmellLikePee

      They might as well be supporting drive thru abortions and socialism *gasps*

      August 29, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • EchoSider

      You're not very observant, are you? Or else you'd be able to see all the stories about Christianity, by Christians, or the main page story today about Muslims, and the story above the comments section about a Rabbi. But oh no, how dare CNN put up a story about atheists in a good light.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Johan Fruh

      Well you've got Fox for christians...
      And yes, it's very heartening to see a big information channel having the guts of taking a step forward, and not being pressured by a hugely christian and non-secular country.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Nameless Face

      @ Echo

      I think the thing that's most bothersome is that the atheist articles are posted in the "Belief Blog" when, in fact, the message repeated over and over by atheists is about their lack of of belief.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Will Duffield

      Oh gosh an article on Atheism, how dare CNN. Like you're religious views have not showered us for centuries.
      I demand you pray to the real lord and savior, his holiness the flying spaghetti monster. He can be worshiped at http://www.venganza.org/

      August 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • JT

      It's in the belief blog because theists (overwhelmingly Christian) are the majority and in power in the US and demonize those who do not believe in spirits and ghosts.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  12. Mark Toyota

    The Bible never said you can't sober up without God. In fact, you can do millions of things without God except live the life God made for you which is the best for you.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  13. USmellLikePee

    I'll drink to that!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  14. Anomic Office Drone

    I got busted smoking pot in my late teens and went to 8 court-ordered NA meetings. Aside from being really uncomfortable because-I was not only being forced to be there-I was there for pot when everyone else was there for things like meth and heroine, I found a lot of what they taught and practiced to be very cult-like. It's like trading an addiction to a substance for an addiction to a program. It's certainly a step up from being a junkie, but it's far from freedom from addiction.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  15. Tonelok

    Congrats on getting better. No matter how it is achieved.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  16. Pablo Pena


    Let me get this right. You think being a lump of glorified clay is "awe-inspiring"?? Why? Because some quantum physicists have figured out not only are you made up primarily of empty space but even that is just more or less a field of probability quotients?? Wow, who WOULDN"T be inspired by that?

    August 29, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Johan Fruh

      The lump of clay is the religious vision, isn't it?
      The scientific and awe-inspiring vision... is how beautifully many different intricacies combine together, to bring about a conscious being... all this without any architects behind it.
      Do a search on how the Hemoglobine works... or the ATP Synthetase works.... it's really quite incredible.

      August 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Bill

      I am incredibly inspired by the finest details. I believe that the physicist is the greatest of all priests. It is they who look into the true face of god and endeavor to understand the 'ordered harmony in nature'. The questions of the universe and the intricate workings of nature are far more awe-enspiring when viewed through the lens of science than from any religious text passed down through the ages. I enjoy Einstein's perspective: 'I believe in a god that is more concerned with the ordered harmony in nature than with the fates and actions of human beings'.

      August 29, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Goddog

      So what are you saying? It doesn't matter who/how we came to be... you're not impressed either way? Persons of religion can't be in awe of the science of something? Personally, I am in awe of the idea of time as a creator rather than a third grader mentalty explanation of an invisible super being.

      August 29, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  17. Tonelok

    The fact you had to go twice shows just how much god has helped keep you clean...

    August 29, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  18. Don

    Do you even have a sponsor??? Can you spell Anonymous?? Ever read the traditions?? Any idea why they're there??

    Do some studying before you start spouting off at the mouth about your recovery!!

    August 29, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  19. JT

    I'm not sure which is more destructive, being an alchoholic or replacing that vice with another scourge called Christianity.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • vtrweasel

      Holy crap, can you people who have no idea what AA is plz STFU?

      August 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • BostonBeebs81

      Erm... AA has nothing to do with Christianity.

      August 30, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  20. Zero Gods

    Addiction is a horrible state of mind/body. Best wishes to all who struggle with it, regardless of worldview.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:22 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.