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)

    i go to AA meetings to meet loose women

    September 14, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  2. Jack

    The termite people of communist China had their Mao and their little red book, and the termite people of AA have their Bill W. and their little big book. The doubter is regarded as an unclean beast.

    September 14, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  3. Kyle

    god put alcohol on this planet for us to drink. Why would it want us to stop through some religious program?

    Is the lord jesus almighty the tooth fairy playing good cop/bad cop?

    September 14, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  4. TYBG

    I'm an atheist in the AA program with 5 months of not drinking. I appreciate parts of what AA is attempting to do but, there is no way that I'm ascribing to a religion and It hurts my brain to hear of proclaimed atheists who do so. I am my higher power and I'm Based for Life.

    September 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • TYBG

      subscribe, not ascribe =/

      September 14, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Dont be that guy

      The religious tone of AA has a very important purpose. Submitting to a Higher Power as part of the AA platform is to force alcoholics to realize that something bigger than them is needed to overcome the addiction. If you were the Higher Power the entire time, I doubt you would have ended up in AA in the first place. High Power can be ones family, ones goal, anything outside of yourself that is bigger than you. For some addicts who are isolated, have little to no resources, and nothing of substantial importance, a faith in a power such as God that can be carried at all times is a great option. Faith can go with you anywhere and be a part of you at all times. If depending on yourself as a Higher Power was the greatest choice, you probably would not have needed AA in the first place

      September 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Kyle

      that guy,

      if god was bigger than any of us, we'd be able to see it. But, he isn't.

      He does not exist.

      You're welcome.

      September 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • VivaleSmoka

      I am also an atheist, and have been sober for nearly a year and a half. For the first six months of my sobriety, I spent alot of time going to various AA meetings. Eventually I stopped going altogether because everywhere I went, every meeting soon degenerated into something more akin to a church sermon than any kind of support group.

      Aside from the pervasive religious references throughout AA literature, I do believe that most of the 12 steps have relevance and a proper place for anyone who wishes to make positive changes in their life. Should I be aware of, and responsible for my actions? Absolutely. Do I need to believe in something that makes no logical sense to me (god)? Absolutely NOT.

      September 14, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • Esteban


      If God were small enough for us to understand, He would be big enough for us to worship.

      Funny how we, mere humans, insist on being let in on His Plans. A mark on how utterly selfish we are.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  5. Stacy

    I am a believer in the 12 steps. They've helped me in more ways than I can count. I believe in God, in Jesus Christ, and am a Roman Catholic. I am so happy you found help with the 12 steps. Your courage to stick with it is awesome. Way to go!

    September 14, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  6. test post

    testing, please ignore


    September 14, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  7. Harriet

    Anonymity is indeed the spiritual foundation of AA principles and our traditions indicate that we should be forever anonymous at the level of press, etc.
    The tradition of anonymity exists for a variety of reasons – one of which is to keep our egos in check .
    Breaking one's anonymity at a public level most often does stroke one's ego – even if done under the guise of attempting to help others. Perhaps this was not the case for the writer of this particular article. I am a sober alcohiolic of many years now
    and I think the overwhelming majority of recovering alcoholics join me in wishing all alcoholics sobriety – whether it be through
    a 12 Step Program or any other source that works for them. Recovery is the aim – not any "in-house" bickering about the
    path one chooses to achieve the goal.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • arvin

      'I agree with you. I've been in AA for several years and the religious thing is always thrown around with shaming and pressure. The person that said they felt like a "forced believer" pretty much says it all. One is told they must believe –or else. Although, I've never seen or even heard of anyone who leads a meeting proclaim that any christian religous deity got them sober and be taken seriously. That part of the story sounds a little odd. I also agree with you that breaking the Traditions for a religion or to sell a book is the really same thing, and they both say that something is not right. Hopefully, there will be a way for people who were abused by religion and turned to addictions to blank out their pain, to get clean from their addictions without having to get back into that religion's thinking.

      September 15, 2011 at 2:20 am |
  8. J

    "I believe that I exist at random..."

    So, why should I read or believe thoughts from a brain produced entirely by chance?

    September 14, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Solo Mio

      Believe what you want. Sounds like you believe in a random non-existant god.

      September 14, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Allen

      You don't have to, nobody cares. Your typical atheist doesn't care either. That's the difference between the two.

      Believer – "Believe what I say or harm will come to you!" (whether it be through some particular deity, or via violence by the speaker)

      Non-believer – "I don't believe you, but it really doesn't matter either way."

      September 14, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  9. WWRRD

    I'm glad AA worked for you. Maybe someday you'll be ready to change your mind about your faith. Peace

    September 14, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Christy

      Really? No? She is happy with believing in herself and with the faith of what she chooses to live by! You brain washed moron! Ugh!

      September 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Moishe

      I'm very sorry to hear about your faith-arrogance addiction, as well.
      If we accept the person in whom you base your "faith," will we become arrogant like you too?

      September 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Shawn

      I hope she'll one day be ready to change to shinto. What? That's not the religion you were implying? I'm shocked!

      September 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  10. yak

    I'm in the program and the reason that I "believe" is that I am afraid. Period. That isn't much to go on. In fact, it's pretty oppressive. But the prevailing christian nature and all-or-none overtones of AA press over and over again that one must have a higher power in order to get and stay sober. Bill W. doesn't have good things to say about non-believers. In fact, he becomes rather dismissive in As Bill Sees it and he dedicates an entire chapter of pleading an awfully stilted case against non-belief in the AA Big Book. I'm uncomfortable operating as a "forced believer," but I need sobriety. AA's stats on effectiveness are consistently pretty good. They're much better than the so-called "Rational" recovery clubs. So, I don't like what I have to do around belief but I do it to stay sober. There's not much quality of life around "belief" if it is done out of fear. One cannot love what one fears.

    September 14, 2011 at 1:04 am |
    • VivaleSmoka

      The "higher power" concept is very subjective. I was also very put off by the negativity with which non-believers were regarded in AA literature and meetings, which is the reason I stopped attending meetings after I had gotten myself put back together.

      What works for one person may or may not work for another. I found that logical awareness and personal responsibility, as well as brutal honesty, worked best for me. Alcoholism is as much a physical disease as it is a mental one, so I find that anything which seeks to simply replace one "crutch" (for lack of better word) with another (switching alcohol for "god") may not be addressing the full problem, and comes across as very sketchy to me.

      Depending on where you live, there may be an AA meeting or two specifically for atheists and agnostics. Best of luck to ya.

      September 14, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  11. Ida

    We are energy and energy has to go somewhere when we die.

    September 13, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Kim

      Actually, according to the law of Conservation of Energy, the energy doesn't really "go" anywhere–it's converted to another form.

      September 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Nonimus

      The human body uses food as fuel to run the chemical/thermal/electrical processes that make us who we are, e.g. the electrical impulses in the brain that consti.tute our thoughts. When a person dies that conversion of food to fuel, i.e. metabolism, stops and no more energy is produced, therefore there is no more available energy to go anywhere, except thermal energy which dissipates into the surroundings as the body cools.

      September 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • bob

      I think Ida is referring to the soul. The soul is energy and must go somewhere. The human body is just flesh and bones and eventually decomposes when we die. But the soul is much more complicated, something that science can't explain.

      September 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  12. Dec Deb

    I am really not suprised I did not spell anonymous correctly, sorry about that folks. I use spell check all the time because I am so bad at it. And I was not wearing my reading glasses nor did I proof read what I had written. So, it is just obvious (sp?) to everyone I am not a writer.
    But I am sure that anonymity is not decided by the individual. We put our common welfare first before our individual needs or wants. It is the spiritual foundation of our program.

    September 13, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Nonimus

      I always assumed the anonymity was intended to protect those who wanted it. In other words, you can 'out' yourself as an AA member but no one else.

      September 13, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  13. Dave

    Seems like many commenting here believe there is only one path to sobriety . That seems consistent with their belief there is only one way to spiritual enlightenment and the rest of us will burn in hell . I see it like this . It may turn out there is a "god" and there may be , lets call it a big surprise for people who didn't believe . It is just not possible that this whatever it is would be so hateful that there would be any consequence so horrific as eternal damnation .People keep telling me god is about love after all..... I work in a rehab facility . While i don't happen to share the patient's beliefs i take them very seriously because i see they help them stay sober . I also see people who do just fine without these beliefs . I know the one way[to enlightenment or sobriety] people are not going to like this but it is a BIG world out there with many different paths and ideas and it seems not probable they are all wrong and against gods will . I find the idea itself that a man could know a "gods" will kind of absurd anyway . My thoughts are beginning to wonder .

    September 13, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • john hillman

      Why do these people think THEY are so important that 'God' will take time to specifically 'cure' them. THEY believe they are so important that THEY will get special attention after years of drinking to excess. How narcissistic is THAT????

      They are told to approach god as a child would. Do parents agree to everything a child wants? Why do these people think there are "unanswered" prayers. S/he said "NO". You act like those children pestering to get what you want. YOU made yourself an alcoholic. YOU have to fix it. YOU have to do the work. If your "higher power" did it, you would wake up permanently sober.

      September 13, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  14. GraceP

    This is an interesting article by Ms. Hornbacher based on her book. The many comments are interesting read as well. AA has been the treatment approach for many for a long time. However, alternative treatments are now available. A new understanding of addiction must be recognized so that people who drink or take drugs do not end up embarrassed, sick, dependent or dead! Viewing intoxication as a biological inevitability gives us a better understanding of how drug use differs from drug abuse. Check out American Euphoria: Saying 'Know' to Drugs ebook: http://www.amazon.com/American-Euphoria-Saying-Drugs-ebook/dp/B0053ZH1PY and learn more.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  15. james

    I have done some research and this will mean nothing to those that have done more, but it seems that aa has roots in the whole born in sin mindset...no matter what you do you cannot be something better...I am of a different mindset...I can apologize for my bad behavior, but a 12 step program that offers me no hope is nothing I want a part of...it is like joining a church that says you can repent, but there is no heaven for you...I truly think that this is a chemical and mental issue...and that spirituality can help, but it is not the only way...

    September 11, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  16. REhab is for quitters

    1. if someone wants to drink let em...if they die its there own fault
    2. Why do atheist really give a sh** about mentioning god or a diety in AA...if u dont believe in it..it should have no bearing on your life...get over it and move on ..sheesh *Talk about drama queens*
    3. A real boozer who wants to quit will....cause no AA or friends or pills will stop you ONLY YOU WILL STOP YOU.
    4. Be right back, going to get a capt n coke 😀

    September 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Allen

      1.) So if one of our loved ones was going to commit suicide you wouldn't stop them or try to help them? That's essentially what you're saying.
      2.) That's the point, numbnuts. 12-step programs are supposed to work and they're supposed to help you. If you don't believe in one of the main tenets of the program, you don't think that would pose a problem?
      3.) A real smoker who wants to quit will, but don't you think it would be a lot more successful if that person used the patch, or Chantix, or joined a smoking cessation program, etc.? You're basically saying that if you were to come across a mountain, it makes more sense to climb over it instead of walking around it. That's pretty d@mn stupid.
      4.) You're trying to be clever, aren't you? I hardly think joking about alcohol to people who are alcoholics is funny. If that was your intention, then "Be right back, I'm going to go get a d0uchebag" 😀

      September 14, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  17. Babu G. Ranganathan

    Please read my Internet article published in Russia's English Pravda: The Scientific Case Against Atheism

    September 10, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Gadflie

      There actually is no scientific case against atheism. The ONLY arguments against atheism are either a logical fallacy (almost always an Argument from Ignorance) or a misuse of statistics that is only persuasive to someone who has never taken math past high school.

      September 11, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      I'd be more interested in seeing the long-rumored (but I suspect apocryphal) PhD thesis, The Scientific Case FOR God.
      Really, you start out not believing anything, then you have to be convinced or persuaded to believe Idea X. So atheism is simply the default position, the universal starting point, the place where tiny babies begin. What moves anybody OFF of that starting point? My contention: When it comes to God, it sure ain't science.

      September 11, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • Malear

      Similarly, there is no valid scientific argument against God either. Sciences deals with hypothesis, theorems and repeatable experimentation. Religions deal in faith. Please don't mix the two up; that's how wars get started.

      September 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • Solo Mio

      Malear >"Similarly, there is no valid scientific argument against God either".

      Science is, simply stated, the ongoing collection of knowledge. Science studies what IS. Science adheres to the scientific method. Very helpful for finding the truth and avoided "faithfully" by believers and in the fields of theology, mysticism, magic and foolishness.

      Google the Scientific Method. It is almost religious in its beauty. Science has no branch studying voids or gods that I am aware of. Wish they did. It would be nice to put the thousands of gods to rest along with Santa. Maybe then we could have a little peace on this planet. Amen.

      September 14, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  18. Non-Religious

    Sorry Paul – that reply was meant @What?

    and again, a way OUT of the AA cult : http://www.smartrecovery.org/ and http://lifering.org/how-we-can-help-you-2/

    are just 2 sites that dont require the EXTREMELY IRRATIONAL belief in a higher power to get sober.
    YOU are NOT powerless – YOU have the power to do anything you set your mind to – dont believe the AA lie!

    September 10, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Johnny

      What I continue to find so astonishing is how so many non-believers can be so close to the truth and yet be so far. This lady has faith, even though it's in herself, which is prideful. Yet she claims she is humble. Really she sees herself as humble. But is she really humble if she believes in herself? This new age thinking, "You can do anything you put your mind to" sounds great and all, but what will that do for you when you stand before your Maker?

      My certificate of debt is nailed to the cross. – Col. 2:14. God has taken it out of the way. Will you be holding yours? Do you even realize you have one? That's the problem. People say, "I'm humble", but they don't acknowledge they have shortcomings, esp. sin, which separates them from God. So God lets them go on their way, not forcing Himself on anyone. Eventually they realize they have a problem and need help. But they can't admit they have been wrong for so long, so they go to something like AA and say, "I can do this!", and feel so proud as this lady does (yet she's "humble"). She's lying to herself.

      The worst thing we can do is to say we don't need God.

      September 10, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • frank burnsf

      Johnny, you are so utterly prideful stepping in on this woman's party with your egocentrism. Get a life.

      September 11, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • AGuest9

      the only TRUE faith is faith in yourself.

      September 11, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  19. Dave

    Have another drink of Kool-Aid, and send a ove letter to Pelosi! But good luck staying sober. A liberal cannot re-write spiritual programs to fit with their Kool-Aid high, and expect them to work. Here is a relaspe waiting to happen.

    September 9, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • frank burnsf

      Dave, you are a fine example of the depths to which Tea Party types love to sink.

      September 11, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Andrea M

      Oh, but I'm very sure a conservative could. In your eyes, conservatives can rewrite anything they want to fit their own needs (a little church 'n' state clause comes to mind.)

      September 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • Ida

      Don't worry, we will all find out in the end if there is or isn't a God.

      September 13, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  20. December Deb

    This article is wrongfully published. We are Anonomous at the level of the press. We do not use our names on published material ever. If you are sincere about helping others then submit your work to New York World Services and see if you can get conference approval or publish anonomously. It is the foundation of our program. AA will survive in spite of attention seekers like you but remember, every time one of you goes public someone else dies of this disease because of something you wrote or did. And yes, you are responsible. Once you know you are an alcoholic, you are responsible.

    September 9, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • the beta female

      Not entirely sure why you feel this way, December Deb. I can see how publishing under your real name isn't "anonymous" but I don't think she's an attention seeker. I think she's just trying to reach people who might not have been reached otherwise because of the religious tone of AA meetings. She was trying to explain that it can be helpful, even if you don't believe in God. I'm not entirely sure how this article would directly cause someone to die from alcoholism, like you implied. In fact, it may HELP people NOT die who might not have otherwise been turned off by AA.

      I have never had any negative thoughts about AA until now, thanks to you December Deb. AA has helped a few friends of mine but now I am concerned that AA may possibly be another one of those health and wellness subcultures that fears subjecting it's methods to criticism and THAT is the real reason they remain anonymous. This is upsetting to me because I always thought of AA as being a force of genuine good. Now I'm wondering if your comment is just an example of AA rhetoric meant to protect the integrity of the methods. It seems like people like youdon't understand WHY they do things enough to understand what is important. If you understand what AA is trying to do, you can modify those methods to meet your own needs and worldview. That is what the author of this article did, and apparently it worked for her.

      If you're not smart enough to see the underlying point and mechanism of the work you are doing, then I suppose you'll be stuck having to believe the methods are magic and that you need to follow them exactly and have all the exact right thoughts for them to "work." If you don't understand what I'm talking about, then I'm probably describing you.

      September 9, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Kyle

      I'm not responsible for anything anyone chooses to do. That's their choice. Quit being a Debbie Downer. Have a few dozen drinks.

      September 9, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • Happily a non-AA non-drinker for decades

      Deb is a perfect example of the ideological rigidity and totalitarian structure of AA, and why it is so incredibly ineffective. There are much better ways. There are few worse ways.

      September 9, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • elle

      How can you not even know how to spell anonymous?

      September 10, 2011 at 3:42 am |
    • tom

      Wow way to tone down the cult rhetoric...

      September 11, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • James

      I do not believe that you even attend AA. One, I think anonymity is at the discretion of the individual, and it is OK to not be anonymous if you so choose, just as long as you do not out somebody else without their permission.

      September 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • arvin

      I hear you, Deb. Been in for a lot of years and have seen this kind of anonymity break several times. In fact, I've also read about people like this author in the AA literature –and why what she is doing is poor judgement. Sounds like she wants to make a buck off of her time in AA and is willing to throw out the Traditions (like 11 & 12) along the way. I guess it's like replacing willingness and sobriety for money and the prestige of the book. It's too bad. I consider myself a guest of AA and am willing to refrain from doing what they ask me to for the sake of other in the the program. I'll bet she avoided contacting WSO.

      September 15, 2011 at 2:39 am |
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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.