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. Miss Celanious

    I appreciate the article, but the author broke a very important tradition of anonymity by signing off and publicly claiming to be a member. Many incidents of trial and error have proven that anonymity protects the members as well as AA as a whole. In addition, anonymity enhances each member's ability to be truly honest and authentic – honesty and authenticity are characteristics that really help a recovering alcoholic maintain sobriety. Even athiests in AA understand the importance of anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.

    September 3, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  2. John


    September 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Gwen

      She is seeking personal attention and throwing the 12 Traditions out the window and at what pric?. She could have left her name off the article or just mentioned "a 12 step program" leaving AA out. Now if she goes back out and kills someone while driving drunk, etc., it will reflect badly on AA. This tradition is to protect the fellowship as much or more than the endivedual. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our program, ever reminding us to place principles BEFORE personalities". No wonder you haven't found your higher power. You make up your own program. THIS is not what AA is about-PERSONAL attention. PS Were you PAID for this article? Maybe you should start your own recovery group and leave AA to those who can understand it.

      September 3, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • Louiscypher

      Gee Gwen, you sound like a bitter self loathing alcoholic. "Now if she goes back out and kills someone while driving drunk, etc., it will reflect badly on AA" That's pretty sad don't you think. What reflects badly on AA is self righteous people like yourself.
      Shae should be commended for battling her addiction, not belittled by fellow drunk. What a pathetic individual you must be. I thought all you cult members were supposed to help and encourage each other, not stab each other in the back.

      September 3, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • .....

      Garbage ALERT – junk video, click the report abuse link this person is a TROLL

      September 6, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  3. Sun

    Been with you since you were born. As I rise you wake up and as I set to the other side, you rest and goes to sleep. I have been with you all the time. Look no further. I am the almighty one. Alcohol is no match for my my love and warm hot cold spirit spiritual feelings that I give everyday. http://sungod.info

    September 3, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • Marlon


      September 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  4. Sarah W.

    From the Twelve Traditions:

    11. 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.

    12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

    September 3, 2011 at 1:54 am |
  5. Marie

    Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our program, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities" from AA Big Book. AGree with a lot of the posters..and TedTurnerMLY. The writer violates this basic principle, and yet criticizes others? A member is free to say who or what their higher power is to them..AA does NOT define your Higher Power. Tolerance of others beliefs , or nonbelief is key. Don't want to be around those who say allah is their higher power? find another meeting. Don't want to say Lord's prayer? don't. Pretty soon you will be back with a bottle as your companion. Not everyone in AA meetings is talking to you or about you. Get a sponsor,. Follow all the steps and tradtions as best you can, which means no books, webblogs, or payment for sharing your experience strength and hope. READ THE BIG BOOK..stories from all faiths and atheists. Oh, and anonymous, no royalties.

    September 3, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  6. John

    Has anybody on this blog ever read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.It clearly states that we know only a little about this disease and if you find a better solution our hats are off to you. It goes on to say we have found a solution that works for us and if you would like to us to show you how we have recovered we will. No one ever tried to convert me to do anything or believe anything. People simply shared there experience, strength and hope. If I chose to go the Atheist road like this lady i'm sure they would have loved me just as much as if I chose to believe in God. The fact is AA is the best known solution for Alcoholics in the last 6000 years with over 2,000,000 sober members. How can you argue with that. This 12 step program saves lives everyday. If you don't like AA or it's not for you then simply go about your business. To discredit AA is really pathetic.

    September 2, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  7. Oh Wow

    And I thought the AA bots claimed "dry drunks" were angry and judgmental.

    And seriously? AA is constantly self promoting. They ran TV ads for years. Now, they likely have a PR firm who does product and news placements like this. I remember them doing something in the show Six Feet Under a few years ago. "Your higher power can be whatever you want it to be." That's what they tell you to get you in the door. Once you're there, the pressure to convert begins. All they are trying to do is break into the fastest growing demographic in belief or non-belief in this case.

    Look all over the internet. AA is everywhere still acting like they have the only solution to sobriety to this day. Let me tell you guys a secret. AA doesn't work any better than just quitting. Study after study proves it.* In many cases, AA just makes it worse with their dogma of "powerlessness". Once a drunk relapses even a little, the drunk is taught they can't control themselves at all, so they might as well go all the way.

    *There is a high rate of recovery among alcoholics and addicts, treated and untreated. According to one estimate, heroin addicts break the habit in an average of 11 years. Another estimate is that at least 50% of alcoholics eventually free themselves although only 10% are ever treated. One recent study found that 80% of all alcoholics who recover for a year or more do so on their own, some after being unsuccessfully treated. When a group of these self-treated alcoholics was interviewed, 57% said they simply decided that alcohol was bad for them. Twenty-nine percent said health problems, frightening experiences, accidents, or blackouts persuaded them to quit. Others used such phrases as "Things were building up" or "I was sick and tired of it." Support from a husband or wife was important in sustaining the resolution.
    Treatment of Drug Abuse and Addiction — Part III, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Volume 12, Number 4, October 1995, page 3.
    (See Aug. (Part I), Sept. (Part II), Oct. 1995 (Part III).)

    September 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  8. Jim

    What a splendid article. Yes the 12 steps of AA are intended to encourage a relationship with a power greater than yourself and Bill W. did mean God. So what to do with people who are not credulous and have a rational view of the world. Why not just welcome them as an alcoholic who has a desire to stop drinking? What is it about atheists that so threaten people who believe in God? People who believe in God have faith in things not seen or proven. That's fine. People who do not believe in God simply have an absence of belief or faith.
    As for anonymity, I think many of the people commenting mis-understand the concept completely. We are to remain anonymous at the level of press, radio and film when we are commenting directly on AA as a group or on group issues. There is nothing written by Bill W., on the spiritual principle of anonymity, that prohibits us from talking about our personal experiences in AA or identifying ourselves therein. When talking of our experiences we are not to identify others but we can identify ourselves.
    Again, a great article and a belated welcome to AA.

    September 2, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  9. popeye

    If you don't like what AA offers, go elsewhere.

    September 2, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  10. Kevin

    For those who blasted the writer of this article for not keeping her participation in AA anonymous, we're now in an age where it's chic to admit that you've been in a program...that you've reached out for help. I guess times are changing. No longer is it seen as a weakness to need to reach out for help. I believe the anonymity part of AA will become a thing of the past. I've been in and out of the program myself over the years, and I've noticed more and more that members freely share with others outside the program that they go to meetings. Not that they're blabbing about who's attending the meetings. They're just more open to mentioning that they've quit drinking and they needed help.

    September 2, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • GodPot

      "I believe the anonymity part of AA will become a thing of the past."

      From now on I will just call them Alcoholics then.

      September 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • J.W

      I have to be honest. That did make me laugh. LOL

      September 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • linda

      You are absolutly right. AA requires that you respect other folk's right to be anonymous, but anyone in the program has a perfect right to be public about their own dependency. AA works better than most if not all programs to kick the addiction. But it works not because it's magic or god-based, but because – one – the person has to decide they want to stop, and – two – there is a wonderful network in the program that provides alll kinds of support. Sure you can stop without any help. But some folks really need support, especially when the urge gets to be overwhelming. AA is there for folks any day of the week.

      September 4, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  11. Nix

    Religion does not have a monopoly on good deeds. Most modern social and moral progress has been made by people free from religion–including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Darwin, Margaret Sanger, Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, H. L. Mencken, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Luther Burbank and many others who have enriched humanity.

    September 2, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • RuthAnn Jones

      Generally I agree with your statement, but why do people think that Darwin was a non believer in a higher power? He disagreed with the biblical creation story. That does not mean that he was an atheist.

      PS: I refer to myself as a quarter inch from atheist. I don't disbelieve in God, but I don't like the established religions godmas (oops, dogmas), 🙂

      September 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  12. William Demuth

    Religions recruit the vulnerable. They find the lost, the confused and the frustrated and turn them into sheep.

    AA toasted a dear freinds mind. She was an amicable drunk with a silly streak.

    Now she is a sober coffee swilling ramroad up her rear Jesus freak., who is loathed by her children, is being dumped by her hubby, and is avoided like the plauge.

    Her real issues were OCD related, and the AA troops played that card till she has lost her mind.

    Having been joyously addicted to MANY things, I can assure you that ANYONE can stop, and they don't need to check their rationality at the door to do so.

    September 2, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • GodPot

      "Religions recruit the vulnerable. They find the lost, the confused and the frustrated and turn them into sheep."

      Supply and demand at its best. They have a demand for comfort, a need to feel needed, they want to be wanted and be a part of something larger than themselves. And religion knows they have the market almost cornered, save for those few pesky atheists, and will continue to sell their spiritual sugar pills and snake oil to the writhing masses looking for something to believe in.

      September 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Greta

      What were you joyously addicted to?

      September 3, 2011 at 12:09 am |
    • Kathryn

      You have awesome comments!

      September 3, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • The Lambly Winged Lion of The Gods Does Roar

      Silly Willy DeMuthie,,,,,stated on Friday, September 2, 2011 at 9:54 am, "Having been joyously addicted to MANY things, I can assure you that ANYONE can stop, and they don't need to check their rationality at the door to do so."

      I admit wholeheartedly that "Love Affairs" with per capita things regarded voluptuously as social dictates of nationalized illegalities holds and does bind up one's sovereign individualized contingencies creating a psycho-social turmoil within the Singular mindsets.

      September 3, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  13. Tia Basco

    Dissapointed at the intolerance from the AA member who won't respect an atheists honest opinion. I have begun 12 step meetings and am trying to understand how to stay in the program with my ambivalence about God as an ex catholic burned by righteous hostility. Fortunately the spiritual people I have encountered in AA are not judgemental like the previous commentor.

    As for anonymity – isn't it the anonymity of other members that we agree to protect our own anonymity is ours to keep or not?

    September 2, 2011 at 5:03 am |
  14. TedturnerMustloveyou

    I think I'm going to be sick, AA wants nothing to do with press radio or film (nor does it wish to engage in any sect, cults or religion), yet you have the nerve to write an opinionated article about not believing in God and being part of AA? Keep your opinions to yourself and stop trying to 12 step athiests, go call your sponsor and see what they have to say about you broadcasting AA to everyone because you're an athiest. Sounds like an insecurity to me. I'm proud to say this because I'm active in AA working a program and I know it's by the Grace of God or a Higher Power that this program exists and that even these athiests can stay sober (thanks to AA and the 12 steps). If you don't believe in God or a higher power and you go to AA: until you want to believe- do us all a favor and keep your mouth shut during the Serenity prayer and the Lord's prayer- Don't mock God by saying prayers in which you don't believe in.
    The sad thing is for you Athiests is that one day ROMANS 14:11 Every Knee will bow and Every tounge shall confess: Even you my athiest friends. Special Message to Ted Turner: Joe Carter Baby; your wife tried praying and you batted her hand down in the 9th inning: Ye have little faith my friend, Ye have little faith. HAHA! 1992 WORLD SERIES CHAMPS!!! PEACE OUT

    Pardon my Young interpretation of this pathetic article, but it has more holes in it than a drawer full of moths. I pray the hand of God comes into your life and saves you from eternal damnation. Ted, how does it feel to be rich and miserable, or was that just because your team lost in 92?

    September 2, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • bob searcy

      you dont comprehend very well do you ? the lady said that aa was a fine program if you could coexist with the weakminded religious fanatics..

      September 2, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • William Demuth

      SO you like the cult and she dosen't.

      I guess she goes to hell now RIGHT?

      Put your Bronze Age silliness in the past where it belongs. Some of us do NOT need your imaginary sky freind to live an excellent life.

      September 2, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • tallulah13

      Wow. So the book that tells you what to believe reinforces it's own self-proclaimed authority. Too bad that there is not one single shred of proof that your god or any god exists, and there is not an ounce of proof that your bible is anything more than a book of fables written by bronze age men.

      September 2, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • herbert juarez

      Can any of you yahoos define the bronze age?One yahoo probably used the phrase eons ago and all of you jump on it like lemmings.

      September 2, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Justin

      "you dont comprehend very well do you ? the lady said that aa was a fine program if you could coexist with the weakminded religious fanatics.."

      What about the strong minded religious? Surely you can't believe all believers in a higher power have weak minds.

      September 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  15. Daniel Dickey

    THIS ARTICLE IS TERRIBLE!!!.... just kidding. Well said, well put.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  16. lovesnewslady

    guess this author missed the anonomous part of a 12 step program. particularly in aa one does not promote oneself for gain and noterity. aa is a program of attraction not promotoin. you have to want it and work it. and if you don't and take the first drink the miracle might happen.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Or else she decided to sacrifice her anonymity in order to show atheists that this program can help them too.

      September 2, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  17. ex-drunk

    Alcoholism have a 50% natural remission rate. In other words, 50% of people will quit the habit naturally within their own lifetime. 50% of alcoholics will die with the disease. Somewhere between 3-7% of alcoholics quit drinking (go in to remission) every year. Here is the thing, 80% of them do it without any treatment program. None, zero nada.
    AA makes it sound like the only way to get sober is through them. They aren't. There is also smart recovery for those of you who dislike AA's religious undertones.
    The other way is to realize you have a problem, you want to quit and you can't cut back. Some people can, but you can't. You were born without that part of your brain or you broke it from drinking. What you have to do is put the booze and never take another drink. I'm going on two years cold turkey.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Congrats to you!

      Stay strong.

      September 2, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • David G.

      The statistics on alcoholism recovery are not nearly as clear as has been suggested here. For one thing, as many as 60% of those who die from alcohol related causes do not identify themselves as alcoholics. And since alcoholism is ONLY a self-diagnosis, it is clear why the data are very difficult to quantify. In my own experience, AA made no attempt to convert or recruit me. But, after MANY attempts to stop drinking on my own, I finally reached out to AA where the people there embraced me and showed me how they were able to quit drinking. It's that simple. I've not had a drink in almost three years, my marriage has healed, my health is restored and I have a new lease on life. If AA is a cult, then count me in!

      September 4, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  18. Winston G.

    It would be interesting to see how long a successful, 50+ year recovery program would have lasted without the concept of a Higher Power ??

    September 1, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Trolleyfish

      Well, Winston G., it would probably last just as long as a successful, 50+ year old person who doesn't believe in a higher power. What's your point?

      September 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Fifty plus years?

      Here is a tougher one.

      Does the Muslim or Jewish versions of the AA cult have more or less success?

      We can use those figures to determine which imaginary God is strongest!

      September 2, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • RuthAnn Jones

      @William, in order for a profit (Mohamed) or the Messiah (Jesus) to change an existing religion Judaism they must, by definition, be Jewish. Therefore, in all three religions there is only one God. He might have three religions, but there is still only one God.
      Now I don't know if there are Hindu, Animistic, or Atheist AA meetings. That would be an accurate way for your test. PS: I count myself a confused on the question of faith.

      September 2, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • RuthAnn Jones

      oops that should be prophet not profit.

      September 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  19. Marsha

    Thanks for letting others know that you can be sober in AA and not believe in a higher power. I've been sober in AA for quite a few years and have felt that I had to hide or defend my lack of belief in a higher power, but I think much of that discomfort comes from my need to fit in. So if you're new to 12 step programs, stick with it and don't sweat the "god stuff". Work the steps and be true to your own beliefs.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  20. Chris

    Thank you for that wonderful article. I've had a problem with AA's views on the concept of a higher power. I quit going to meetings and fell off the wagon a few months ago.
    This has inspired me to give the 'rooms' another try. And, by the way, I know what you meant by your belief in math, chaos, etc. 🙂

    Thanks again,


    September 1, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • ex-drunk


      September 1, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Pat gregory

      Re; the God parts of AA. The slogan take what you need, leave the rest behind helps me"

      September 2, 2011 at 5:06 am |
    • Miss Celanious

      Depending on where you live, there may be meetings attended by mostly athiests and agnostics. If not, you are free to start your own. There are four a week in my county. I hope you find what you need.

      September 3, 2011 at 11:53 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.