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. propwash

    God/Devel were born in the mind of man, and there they reside.

    August 31, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  2. jimtanker

    I've been posting as atheist and replying as a christian and vice likewise been using many handles.

    And success! 3,000+. I'm quite tired but way to go for 5,000 or more.

    August 31, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  3. DC

    When I went to AA it was explained to me that your "higher power" could be anything, it could be a doorknob or a tree if you want. This struck me as rather weasly. Who is going to put their faith in a doorknob? But really the value of AA comes in admittance, reconciliation with those you may of hurt, and the strength and acceptance of the group; not from some mystical sky fairy. So I see these "higher power" references merely as relics of how the program was originally set up. Another person through their faith might find them useful.

    August 31, 2011 at 7:01 am |
  4. HouseHaunter454

    "The fool has said in his heart 'there is no God'". -Psalms

    August 31, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • DC

      So you are "proving" the veracity of Christian scripture with....Christian scripture? With this circular reasoning, I hope you have considered a career in politics.

      August 31, 2011 at 7:03 am |
    • Nix

      Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear. Thomas Jefferson

      September 2, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  5. Neil

    I find it funny that people believe in Jesus Christ, or whatever they were born into. I also find it funny, that people have addiction issues. Perhaps both are manifestations of the same, the unwillingness or inability to rationalize.

    August 31, 2011 at 4:17 am |
    • Joe

      Almost as funny as your judgmental close-mindedness that reeks of ignorance. I find that utterly hilarious that you try to play the superior high-horse card, when in fact you define intellectual bottom-feeding xD

      August 31, 2011 at 6:44 am |
  6. jimmyspeaks

    man oh man, you are all missing the point of life on lifes terms and being alive vs. just living.seems like everyone has the need to be right about their way of thinking, which by the way is where we ALL get into trouble. AA,religion,christ himself,science satanisim, math,medicine or whatever it is you choose to turn to try to get out of pain,remorse,guilt, anger, selfishness,legal problems,drug/alcohol abuse,financial ruin or any other negative result producing situation that you have brought upon yourself if it changes you for the betterand helps others feel better about you or themselves who cares what,who, or how someones higher power works!!! if you can't drive the bus, something (anything that can drive better than you) and keep some kind of peace and order onboard still needs to get you going to someplace different than where you are driving to. peace and happiness is total acceptance of life and knowledge that you don't exist to be RIGHT!!!

    August 31, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • ROBO

      Yea please keep religion out of something that is benefiting people. Hasn't mankind seen enough carnage, genocide and bloodshed in the name of religion in the last 3000 years thru christian crusades, inquisitions, zionism, reformation, counter reformation and jihad. Death that exceeds all the wars in history. And Bob, please don't be an AA nazi.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:10 am |
    • Joe

      Robo... LOL. Atheism and Communism has killed billions in the last 100 years. Just ask Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Laos, and other countries around the globe. Much more than religion has. It's people that kill people. They fight for resources and desires, and use whatever "banner" or "idea" they can rally people under. Religion just happens to be a powerful unifier. There are more good than bad things about it, but haters are gonna hate.

      August 31, 2011 at 6:42 am |
    • Frankie

      @Joe Those countries' leaders didn't kill because of atheism, they killed because they were bad people clinging on to their political power. Both Stalin and Hitler have moustaches, does that imply that moustaches kill people?

      August 31, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Nix

      I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of [hu]mankind has preserved the Cross. Consider what calamaties that engine of grief has produced! John Adams

      Russian Pograms
      Salem Witch Trials
      the Protestant v Catholic conflicts
      Manifest Destiny of the North and South American destruction of Native cultures
      Ad Infinitum......

      September 2, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  7. Bob

    This article is a violation of AA's 11th tradition, and should be removed immediately. There's really nothing else to say.

    August 31, 2011 at 2:02 am |
    • E.

      The 11th step is about personal anonymity, i.e. others. She is free to let the world know who she is. Great article. Need to see more stories of people's experiiences, strength and hope out there.

      August 31, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • ROBO

      Bob, sounds like you have a resentment. Please don't drink over it.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:17 am |
    • Chris

      Amen, but there's no enforcement of traditions... I can't believe how utterly stupid this egomaniac is.... but then again aren't we just ego's with an inferiority problem... hers' rages!

      August 31, 2011 at 5:55 am |
  8. Seneca

    I've been sober (and clean) in AA for 28 years now. I don't have a personal deity and haven't for many decades,not since I was a teenager reeling from the brutal religious experience of my childhood. And I have made three deep and complete trips through AA's 12 Steps over the years, which were profoundly helpful. Anyone who thinks you have to be a Christian (or any other kind of religionist) to to do that is simply clueless about AA.

    Long ago, when I realized I was going to have to come to some kind of grips with this idea of a Higher Power if I was going to have much hope of getting and staying sober (my way really hadn't worked very well), I did. I defined it as: what was best in me and other people. Which AA said I was perfectly free to do.

    There really isn't any kind of particular Higher Power you have to believe in, in AA. Truly. And anyone who tries to tell you there is, is just, well, wrong – or perhaps simply clueless. There is no Higher Power there in whose name you can go out and bash unbelievers, or browbeat them (or even cajole them for that matte)r. Anyone who tries that is working out of their own head, not out of AA.

    A fine place, AA. And of tremendous, literally life-saving help. But your own particular experience of it might well depend on just how bright or bigoted you are or are not.

    Be well.

    August 31, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  9. archie

    Hats off to Marya Hornbacher. AA's the only game in town for most people who want to stay sober. I play along with the Christians because I figure it's no skin off my ass to play along with them, even if they do sound like stupid little kids all the time in every way. It's that whole, "Would you rather be connected or right?" thing where I humble myself a little bit and play along to get along. In my view, religion poisons everything, including AA, but if you've spent a number of years in sobriety, then you already know what Hell is like. Understanding surrender & humility while humoring a bunch of Christians with all their blood-drenched macho Jesus crap in order to share the connections we have with each other on even deeper levels of sobriety is what AA is really all about.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  10. mike here

    a 14 Hindu girl is murdered by a man. the man is convicted of his crime and sentenced to prison, where he becomes " saved" as a christian. he dies in prison 40 years later

    Am I to believe that the Hindu girl is in hell, while the murderer is in paradise? obviously I dont believe in an afterlife but this thought experiment shows how illogical religion can be. by the criteria i have been told to get to heaven,even hitler could qualify by just repenting at the end of his life! imagine...hitler in heaven and a murdered 14 year old in hell

    August 30, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  11. Bill Wright

    You are your higher power. Bravo to you for overcoming alcoholism, and for writing of your atheism. A belief in God is only for those too weak and ignorant to believe in themselves.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
    • Joe

      You miss the entire point of a "higher power" friend. If they didn't feel overwhelmed by their shortcomings, they wouldn't be there in the first place. You are not alone in the universe, and accept it or not, you are affected by other beings/people/powers, etc. So thrive in your ego or just accept the simple facts that there are other powers than yourself and that you can use their leverage for your own "salvation" be it as influential role-models or food for thought. I know the new, cool thing is to be egotistical and self-worshipping, but then you have no room for growth. So just accept the world/universe around you and its variety. Embrace it, learn from it, grow.

      August 31, 2011 at 6:49 am |
  12. Preacher Man

    I am so thankful that the author of this article is sober. And doing it apart from God is much more difficult than doing with God. Just a thought: I find it interesting that no one wants absolute truth...until...it concerns them personally. "It's perfectly fine and socially acceptable to sleep with whomever you desire"...until it's your spouse having an affair. "It's not wrong to steal...to lie...to cheat..." until you are the one who is robbed, lied to or cheated. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. John 14:6

    Some food for mental consumption.

    August 30, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • jway

      Jesus Christ has been dead for two thousand years dude. Don't make him out to be something he wasn't. And his name wasn't Jesus Christ either for that matter.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • ejs239

      Silly person

      August 30, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • Bill Kilpatrick

      I'm having trouble with the logic of a self-help program designed to get people to make better choices by first telling them that they're "powerless" over their addiction. It's one thing to lose control, just as anyone can lose their balance and take a mighty plunge, but that's a far cry from being "powerless," especially after you've decided to get back up.

      August 30, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  13. Chad


    August 30, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  14. Koom

    You don't need to be a big book thumper , to do the steps or be a believer in a God for AA to help , to get sober and stay sober . All you need is a desire to get sober , a desire to get free and be serious about it , in my opinion you need to have hit bottom .Give it a while , find meetings you like , eventually get a sponsor you're comfortable with . Everyone has their own program is what it boils down to , you take what works for you and leave the rest , same with each and every meeting , don't critique people , listen and just take what you can get out of it I know , AA saved my life , 17 years ago . Most important is support , not being alone and having others who are going or have gone through the very same you are , only another alchi can truly understand . I meet some really good people in AA , some are gone now , I thank them from the bottom of my hear for being there . I can't change the past but I am OK with myself today , I have a good wife , am living instead of just existing and have a life worth living . Booze is the furthest thing from my mind today , just thinking of that smell and all that goes with it me actually repulses me . I am one of the lucky ones , thanks to AA .

    August 30, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Preacher Man

      Isn't it desire that got alcoholics in the mess in they find themselves in the first place? Their inability to control that desire automatically rules out "their desire to quit". They can't. They need a higher authority...i.e. God.

      August 30, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • jway

      Preacher Man, you need to learn more about what addiction actually is. Don't make up imaginary solutions for real problems.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Dave

      @ Preacher man...not always. I got sober with no help from any higher power, god, program, whatever. I got sober through inner strength and discipline. That's something that no god, higher power, or program can instill.

      August 30, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
    • Joe

      If you had a hero, an influence, or a role-model to get you through the hard times, then at that point in time, it could be considered a "higher power". Then there are those that believe in a deity/God or a greater purpose. Just re-read the article for waht it is, instead of trying to re-interpret it to feed your ego. Even atheists who believe in nothing greater than humanity can be humbled and learn from others for personal growth and prosperity. Great article!

      August 31, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  15. CR Green

    The thinking of Carl Jung contributed to that of those who founded AA. Following on from Freud, who discounted God, Jung saw that all over the world, in all cultures, we human beings need something more, what can be called a "higher power." Rather than being "pie in the sky," faith often turns out to be very practical.

    August 30, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • ellis jard

      You see, it's that business about C.G. Jung that's the real problem if one knows anything. Jung did NOT have much of anything at all to do with the origins of AA. He made a tiny comment on some "poor fellow, " who had come to see him. Jung was most dubious about Oxford movement and its claims, and he noted in letter he wrote some time afterwards that this "poor fellow" had not succeeded and had died.

      A disease that is caused by lies cannot be cured by more lies.

      August 30, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  16. TL

    A s an Athiest I too found myself in despair when I mistakenly believed that Higher Power meant "God". I was lucky enough to have chosen a very wise Sponser. She herself followed a spiritual path alighned with American Indian belief system, but she expressed to me that Highe Pwer meant anything you Believe to be more powerful than you...after deep thought over much time I found that I believe the ocean was more powerful than me and began the path of giving over my poerlessness to the sea...been sober for 24 years and thay has evoved int not just the sea, but rocks. old trees. the universe etc...Whatever works to keep you sober...a mindset that I see expressed over and over again here of small mindedness, critisism, and belittling of others would have doomed me to continue to be an active alcolholic.

    August 30, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • OzMan

      You said what I was thinking, TL. It simply says a "higher power". The author, by saying that she sees herself as the least important thing around, opened herself up to finding the "higher power"

      It's funny to see/hear/read AA's detractors. AA is perhaps the least obtrusive organisation out there. They take nothing (hey, if you can, do you want to chip in for the coffee and donuts you just had? You can't? OK, no problem), they welcome anyone, they keep to themselves, and although they are there to help those that stumble, they don't go around looking to "recruit".

      And, no, I have never needed their services. But I know a number of people in various stages of recovery. And I respect what they do.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • chlyn

      Thank you, this is a great thought and very well put.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  17. Jim

    Hey Atheist Lady, You Just Blew your ANONYMITY big time.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Jymbo

      Umm.. why should she be anonymous? We're the strong. We're the future. Theism is dying, god is already dead. Those who hold religious views will soon find themselves left behind... languishing in the dark ages, while we, atheist humanity flies higher than you can possibly imagine. Your time is over. The time of humanism has arrived. We will take the fire from the gods themselves and use it as we will. There is no higher power than mankind.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • jway

      You're right Jymbo. It's weird to live in an age when "reality" is whatever fantasy people like to create. It's better now than when the religions were strong though that's for sure!

      August 30, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Joy

      If you're talking about AA's anonymity, that refers to not outing others. One has a right to out oneself. I've heard rumors of AA groups or members not clear on that aspect of the concept, but if that's what you're trying to say, you're the first I've "met."

      August 30, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Jason

      Tradition 11 states, "We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films." This requires that members do not reveal their affiliation with AA at those levels. This article _IS_ a clear-cut break in that tradition. The reason for our tradition of anonymity is that when a public figure announces their affiliation with AA, if they drink, it makes AA look bad. The deeper reason is spiritual in nature. Marya Hornbacher is making money (at least I assume she was paid for writing this) and receiving notoriety for her affiliation with AA. AA's spiritual principle of anonymity stresses anonymous service to others without reward; or putting the greater good of Alcoholics Anonymous ahead of your own interests.

      I want to make it very clear (since the author did not) that this person does NOT speak for AA, and her article is a violation of AA's principles.

      August 31, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • ROBO

      Jason is what we call in the fellowship-"an AA Nazi".

      August 31, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  18. Sean

    "They looked at me in despair.

    And not infrequently, they said, “So you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?”

    What an arrogant, ignorant and fallacious combination of ad hominen attack, non sequitur and straw-man arguments! Do not encourage people to go near this cult and their pernicious activities.

    August 30, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Seneca

      Ah, my friend. And what cult is that you belong to, that leads you to name AA a cult and characterize its activities as "pernicious"?

      August 31, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  19. Nick

    Why did this alcoholic need to seek help from a religious organization? Because atheists don't offer her any solution.
    Atheists, whether directly or indirectly, have a dependency on religion and or religious organizations to offer solutions.
    But religious people have no such dependency on atheists. Atheists are good people, just not
    very _creative_ problem solvers.

    August 30, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • halligator

      AA ties its self to religion.

      August 30, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • Bill

      boy, I bet that makes you feel good about your creative self, doesn't it?

      August 30, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • StevePi

      As an atheist, my creative solution would be to not get addicted to alcohol in the first place or rely on your real friends and family, not a bunch of phony losers who need to join a club of losers like AA.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Rob

      You saying religious folks have never purchased insurance, visited a doctor, collected unemployment, collected social security, used electricity, used a computer, cooked with a microwave, flown in an airplane. Good thing because they would be relying on solutions brought to them without the help of religion.

      August 30, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • Chad

      Being a servant to others is something Jesus taught. It is the right thing to do, and does not take away from one when one follows through with it – whether you're a believer or not. It's in our blood.
      So much attack on Christianity everywhere you look...
      Stay strong where you can. A lot of good things origin from the followers of Christ. They have a good foundation on which to build on.
      The best foundation for Atheism would be the writings of Nietzsche. He spent the last few years of his life insane, and had one of the most influential followers in human history (Hitler). In the Atheistic mindset, the only thing Hitler did wrong was LOSE THE WAR!
      ... just sayin'.

      August 30, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • jway

      I agree with you Nick, religious people have made fantastic support structures for both themselves and nonbelievers. Religions can bind people together and allow them to achieve things that would otherwise be impossible. However it doesn't mean that god is real.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • ROBO

      Hey, there has been more genocide and bloodshed in the name of religion than all the wars for the last 3000 years. i.e. christian crusades, the inquisitions, the reformation, the counter reformation, jihad,.....

      August 31, 2011 at 12:53 am |
    • Matt H.

      Nick, there are Secular Organizations for Sobriety, SOS for short. One of my friends, an atheist and AA refugee, started an SOS group here in Wichita recently. There are apparently plenty of people who want support in getting and staying sober, but are turned off by the cultish AA program. SOS offers a religion/woo-free alternative.

      August 31, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  20. Leigh

    But....... WHO or WHAT is your Higher Power? Like Sam, that is what stymies me.............. ARGH!!

    August 30, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • jway

      Why do you think there's a higher power? There's nothing in the universe that needed a higher power to exist so why do you think that one must exist somewhere? The only "proof" of a higher power comes from a book written by people as confused and as scared as we are. They made up stories to sooth themselves, just as we do today.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:35 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.