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. AGuest9

    So, if you have Jesus, what is a good god-fearing person out who.ring around at bars until 2 and 3 AM when there's a service in the morning?

    September 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  2. Kenneth Terrano

    I agree that a belief in God is not required to participate in a 12 step program. However, my current spritual beliefs (I follow buddist principles – Eckhart Tolle teachings) were not achieved by attending 12 step meetings. In fact, in all the meetings I have attended over the years ( probably about 1,000 over twenty years) I found that discussions about this topic were often based on that person's chilhood belief system and were very limited regarding a true connection with a higher power and our purpose here on earth. My own self -examination and spiritual growth began with an examination of the underlying reason (addictions are just a symptom of a much deeper issue) for my addiction. This was a long and difficult journey that was often more painful that the addiction itself. In the end, I relized that inner peace (which is what I was searching for) could only come but transcending my ego and learning true "stillness". I respect the author's view on religion as it is her journey; however, to just say I stopped drimking without looking deeper to explore the void that created the addiction is not true "recovery". She just simply stopped drinking and missed a great opportunity to explore a much deeper experience than trnscends form (material objects) and ego.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  3. Bill Woolson

    I have been around the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymouse since 1987. I have heard on occassion over the years people use the JC name. Frankly, it makes my hair stand up on the back of my neck.

    My takes is different than the writer on God is or isnt. I heard what I came in I could pick any God I wanted. Thanksfully, because I had so many prejudices from growing up, most were off limits. I do know as a result of my own will and thinking I crawled into Alcoholics Anonymous and I went from a living a hopeless, desperate life to the one I have now. Having stumbled a couple of time in the last 25 years and got back on track. I did finally find my God (as a result of the steps). I didnt "grow up" to get here, didnt "mature", "outgrow" it, etc. It was an intervention by my God.

    And important part of coming back was literature study which you supposedly have thorough reviewed. Certainly you saw the part about Anonymity at the level of press radio and films. The traditions are to protect AA from the Alcoholic. For you to know that, read that and just ignore it is irresponsible.

    We either get drunk or we get sober thats what I know. With my history I am going to keep my eye on the ball, do the steps with the help of a sponsor (who would have told me "what the hell are you doing writing an article on AA. What about Anonymity at the level of press...." ) and my will power alone wont do it for me as I said thats what got me to AA in the first place.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  4. juan carr

    I went to AA with a friend and the 1st time it was wierd, as is anything that one has never done before. But then the next time the lord had revealed to me the pitty party of it all, not that this outfit is not a good thing or anything only that I was to pull away from it. I guess from a back sliding stand point or risk of, its like going for a ride in a car with the windows up and the 5 other passengers are cheifing up some tied stick, I guess I chose not ride and walk or take a cab. Needless to say my root of the problem was being accountable for all my wrong choices, and chose to believe in alcohol as my escape goat, and found that it was eaisier to blame EVERYBODY else for all the things I was guilty of I was normal, And I keep learning each and everyday that just because I dont drink anymore or do alot of things I used to do anymore, and that I trusted in Jesus as my sin bearer, That I am still normal, in other words I understand that its me that is my worst enemy their my choices, guilty I guess must be the root meaning for humility or conviction, and so called believers could do alot better to see in Gods word that thats what Jesus stood for, not self rightousness, and surely not judging others as, Free will is what it is, its not wether someone drinks or does drugs or has murdered someone or not, its not in what weve done or havent done that enables us to recieve the truth, its in just excepting what Jesus did on our behalf that we as individuals can recieve 1st off complete forgiveness for being normal and to guide us and give us the wisdom to choose our way through life safely, Not to complicated, but because were normal what we do when we recieve this gift of the holy spirit or the wisdom of God,we do what we do best and thats assume, what do we assume His rightousness as our own, thats why we interpit His word wrong as He prophisies, like this part where Jesus says that if they hated ME they will hate you also, we assume that makes it ok, NOT He prophisied our assuming His rightousness, His word Holiness, that we have or have been given authority to cast out demons in His name,heal and the like, man the only reason He gives you anything that might be of any power it is to He who is greater like the apostle Paul says greater is He who is in me than he that is in the world. when we walk in this guilty state or normal state or convicted state judging ourself and not our neighbor, this thing called grace it moves, and NOT untill then hence ALL the hypcricy in the churches, I would go out on a limb here to say that there is probley agnostics and athiests that could very well be closer to seeing a repaired faith mechanizim then some that CLAIM to know Jesus as their Lord and savior, as far as that dude that was asking about God in face book or whatever, little does he know that he is being used to glorify God whether he believes it or not, its a good thing! be on the look out for grace and when you see it except it its good it brings hope and I know we can ALL ways use it, God Bless and take care.

    September 17, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  5. J.P.

    i'm in love...but I don't know if I believe in Quarks yet!

    September 17, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  6. GTB

    What part of "Anonymous" does she not understand? What part of "AA, as such, has no opinion on outside issues and therefore should not be drawn into any controversy?" What part of "practice these principles in all our affairs" did she not absorb? If humility is her (it certainly is not AA's) #1 spiritual principle, perhaps she ought to practice it by respecting the AA principles and post her blog sans picture and last name.

    September 17, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • GalapagosPete

      That is her decision to make, not yours to make for her.

      September 17, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • anonymous

      this is the 2nd article/blog i have seen this week about AA with pictures and last names on CNN– can someone from GSO reach out to CNN to advise that AA appreciates respect of the traditions? it used to be that all the media networks respected AA anonymity and did not publish things like this.

      September 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  7. Gadfly

    I am an atheist and an alcoholic. I am very open about what I am and the good people of AA have never made me feel unwelcome. In my experience people who have experienced addiction have so much in common that whether or not they believe in Darwin or Creation is practically irrelevant. At it's beat AA is about giving love and support to anyone who asks for it, everything else is negotiable including a belief in supernatural beings.

    September 17, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  8. bill

    I was forced to attend AA meeting for 8 months and like many intelligent people realized I had been immersed in a sea of old line American Christian hypocrisy. Many of the people who were long time attendees ate that stuff up like a kid with candy and in a superficial way it offered them something, I suppose. None of them had the intelligence to examine themselves objectively and the few who often led in group discussions were basically con men doing what they do best. AA has been surpassed by more current groups who understand the weakness of adhering to Christian dogma. As more Muslims and Buddhists enter mainstream American cultural and develop a taste for its cheap alcohol, it only makes sense.

    September 16, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Alabama Chick

      Most people who are forced to attend AA meetings usually have a problem controlling their drinking and end up getting into trouble with the law because of it. In my AA group, there are people who are Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, New Age, Hindu, Athiest and more. AA is not about any religion or religious dogma. Respectfully, I am very curious what more current groups are there, specifically?

      September 18, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Tom F.

      Perhaps the fact that you were "forced to go" AA meetings left you with the inability to hear the part that talks of a higher power of your own understanding.

      September 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  9. Esteban


    I am not sure what Bible you are reading, my friend. I suppose you could translate it any way you wish, but it does not make it the right translation. If you want to translate it to be your will burn in Hell by not believing, this is your choice. And who am I to try to convince you otherwise.

    God offers us all an opportunity to believe in Him. Which means one has to lose the desire to control things. This is a very difficult life to lead, and no one (believer or non) is going to perfect it.

    September 16, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Ben

      So how come god can't get a bible to us that isn't subject to so many interpretations? And how about maybe a real internet presence by god? Ain't no such thing.

      God can't even use Facebook. Facebook is now greater than god.

      Pretty poor excuse for a god you've made for yourself there.

      September 16, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  10. MCacro

    Loved this article! I have been in and out of AA for years. I have endlessly tried to believe in God as I was directed to do by other members. I was told that I needed a conscious contact with a higher power to stay sober because I couldn't do it myself. It was easy to agree that I can't do it myself, but every cell in my body, every inclination as a rational human being and everything I ever learned in my Chemistry, Physics and Bio courses in college gave me the strong feeling there was no such thing. I don't believe in magic, mythology, the occult, or ghosts, I believe in the laws of physics, period. Finally, I stopped trying to believe and resigned myself to the recognition that I am in fact an atheist. I truly accepted this about myself......low and behold, I have been sober 2 years. They say "be true to thine self," for me it was "be true to thine own beliefs." It was as simply as that. Once I was over the God issue I was able to delve into the program and its principles without the belief issue. Anyone can get sober with the 12 steps, even if they don't believe in God.

    September 16, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Esteban


      "be true to thine own beliefs." Seriously? It is difficult to live in The Truth because it was not written by your or my hand. Living up to God's Way is very very difficult and impossible to perfect. I will give you that point. Much easier to make up your own rules and try to live by the My-Rules. Very comfortable because we can always change them if they are not meeting our selfish needs or desires.

      Hypothetical question; if your wife/daughter/niece were in Playboy living by Hugh Heffner's rules, who would be right?

      Everyone, I suppose. And everyone being right means everyone is also wrong. Strange and sad.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • MCacro

      @E I respect your opinions, but I simply can't give your statements about living up to God's rules any validity. The God concept was a human invention and the bible a story written by primitive people. It is all a made up story and you speak of it as fact, which it is not. Morals are not God given. Right and wrong are universal truths that I can adhere to without the belief in a higher power. You automatically accuse someone of being immoral because they don't believe what you believe...that's close minded and intolerant.

      The hypothetical question you posed is a good one. Of course I would think that is wrong, but not because God says so, but because I would not want family (or anyone for that matter ) doing something that may injure their self-respect/esteem. It is degrading and immoral. I believe this because I grew up in a family that instilled these values in me. I know what makes me feel whole and selling my flesh is not one of those things.

      It is much more admirable when someone does the right thing because they are adhering to their own beliefs and inherent sense of morality, not because they are afraid some mythical creature is going to punish them in the after life. You threaten a simple minded child with the boogie man because they don't eat their peas. You tell an adult to eat their peas because they are good for them.

      September 16, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Esteban


      The respect is mutual. Some of your statements cause me to recoil.

      "Bible written by primitive people" – By that logic, your opinions and lineage will be irrelevant in a thousand years (assuming the world has not collapsed of its' own accord by then).
      "You automatically accuse...believe..." – I assume you mean Christians that are close minded, not me.

      To be candid; Christians are not the only ones doing good things. I have many friends/neighbors who are awesome people that do not believe in Him as of this time. I also know Christians who are not-so-awesome people. I have found, for me, that by living right by His standards, not mine, is the best source of testimony. I respect logical differences of opinion. (i.e. The Hugh Heffner question is not logical to anyone I would respect).

      The best news of all is; we are given a choice to believe is God or not. He does not hold a gun to anyone's head. I lived in disbelief for 35 years, and most of the Apostles were similar (and I am NOWHERE near an Apostle). For me, I discovered God was never lost, I was the one who was lost. My testimony.

      September 16, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Ben

      That "choice" is a false dichotomy. Would be nice if your little god would show his face more than once every few thousand years too. Ever even wonder about that?

      September 16, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  11. firebird9999

    As a non-believer myself, and I seriously doubt that on my deathbed I will be thinking of heaven or hell but rather how sad that I have to leave my kids, I applaud Ms. Hornbacher for being able to adapt a program to fit her needs. I'm glad it helped. For those of you who spout off on god, jesus, religion, hellfire & damnation and whatever else the storybooks made up, all I can say is "to each his/her own." Glad it works for you but leave me out of it.

    September 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  12. Mary Ellen Hood


    September 16, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Ben

      MEH, go google on "Pascal's Wager". Come on back and post only when you understand it, you stupid twit.

      September 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  13. Tom Leykis

    AA is a scam to predate on weak losers for their money.

    September 16, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • MCacro

      AA is free dude.....do your research. The only thing it has cost me is a buck in the basket when I can afford it. There are absolutely no dues or fees to join, you are a member when you say you are. I have to admit I would have paid any price for the benefits and friends I have gotten from this program. However, though don't charge a dime.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Esteban


      You hit it right on the head. AA has saved hundreds of thousands of lives/marriages etc. for the cost of nothing.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Alabama Chick

      AA is FREE – does not cost a dime. In fact AA will not accept any "donation" in excess of $4,000 (i.e. money left to the organization in someone's will, any single donation, etc.). AA is a bona-fide non-profit organization that has saved many lives from the very deadly disease called alcoholism. It's mantra is "Progress not perfection." The only requirement to become a member is a desire to stop drinking. With a 65% effectiveness rate, it's the best recovery program available to alcoholics. I am a very humble, grateful, recovering alcoholic who is sober... so far today.

      September 18, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • keitho

      it does not cost anything to go to a.a...iv been a member for years,and what happees is a basket comes around and you donate a dollar if you have it,or you dont..the money only goes towards the rent of the a.a meeting room,the coffee and sugar that we use during the meeting.if you dont have a dollar no one cares,its not about monet mate...not at all.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  14. Glenn

    I quit without AA, NA, or any other program. If your brain is dirty then get to a meeting and get brain washed.

    September 16, 2011 at 5:48 am |
  15. Drew

    I guess we're conveniently ignoring that part where AA members are supposed to maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and film...

    September 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Rich Zubaty

      Thank you.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • DNYCE

      I've never been to an AA meeting and I don't believe that fellowship could have saved me the way that NA has. I will never knock another fellowship as so many people do, for if it saves lives (and both fellowships most certainly do) then I'm all for it. It's a shame that so many people quote traditions (and we have the same tradition in NA...and I've read all the AA literature as well)....but they've never done the work behind the traditions (or even are aware that there are also 12 concepts of service). they are not talking about your own personal anonymity when you choose to identify yourself as a member of the fellowship. they are talking about the personal anonymity of other members of the fellowship. if you choose to acknowledge yourself as a member of either fellowship in the public sphere that is perfectly okay. This article perfectly fits the tradition: "our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion". this woman is quite possibly attracting people to the program by saying "even if you don't believe there is a god, this fellowship can still help. she is effectively carrying the message that NO MATTER WHAT, help is available if you want it. Motives are often what matter most when determining a scenario's effect. If a member chooses to identify herself as a member of the fellowship that is perfectly okay, especially when they fulfill the primary purpose, to carry the message that recovery is possible to ANYONE...even an athiest.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • Alabama Chick

      It's the Organization of Alcoholics Anonymous that does not believe in touting itself in the press, radio or films – Not the AA members themselves. AA members are not prohibited from sharing their stories or opinions publicly. And each individual AA member is allowed to expose their anonymity – which is what I choose to do.

      September 18, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  16. Question everything

    How typical it is for the egomaniacs that we are to believe that one of us, a human, created the galaxies. Pretty convenient, isn't it?

    September 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  17. John


    September 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  18. Cleveland Jim

    How does God not entice belief with fear? Have you read the Bible? Why would anyone pray to you? And thanking god for helping you overcome another human being? As if god has chosen you over him? Sounds like your praying to yourself more than you believe. While you say your crediting god with your win you are also saying God has chosen you for you are better or holier than thou. While touchdown and goals are exciting, people are also praying to god as they fly airplanes into buildings. You quit drinking on your own, you were only fooled into thinking it was by the grace of god.

    September 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Esteban


      Not even sure where to start, my friend... A lot can be misinterpreted in text; no tone of voice, body actions etc.

      I did quit drinking on my own. However, I did not do it alone. God works in mysterious ways that our feeble minds cannot comprehend. Belief in Him has carried me through.

      I read the Bible every day. And I can say that it speaks to me differently all the time. There are no Christians praying to God as they fly into buildings. I have heard many stories of people killing their children/spouse or whoever because "God told them to".

      At the end of the day, as a believer, the Holy Spirit of God gives me conviction or peace of mind on my actions. And I fail in some way every day.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  19. Kiljoy616

    Considering that the God(s) creature is basically primitive monkey brain crazy I find the whole God helps me but did not stop me from starting. If you want to stop drinking and your Genes don't get in the way you can stop drinking its really about staying away from those things that make you want to drink. For a friend of mine it was just moving away from family and their crazy dogmatic believes. Once that stress was gone he just found that he did not have a reason to drink heave, last time I was over his place to have a LAN party he had been 5 years sober and happy.

    September 15, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Esteban


      Geographical changes are usually a suspect to stop drinking. Every "real" alcoholic I have met (and I have not met the millions of them) has tried, at some point, to change where they live in an attempt to stop. Every town, State, Country has alcohol so this rarely works.

      I am glad that, in your friends case, it did work for him.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  20. Brian

    I was a bad alcoholic for years and I never went to AA meetings. Everyone in the town I was in was Christian and they were the most hypocritical people I ever met. They were all pretty much alcoholics but wanted me to feel guilty because I did it in excess. My dad was the worst of all. He drinks hard liquor about every night and tried to get me to go to AA. Talk about pot calling the kettle black. I am an atheist and stopped drinking by my own will ,not by an imaginary beings will. People who rely on a non existent god to heal them or provide some kind of crutch in their life are just delusional or weak. And yes he is non existent because there is no proof of his exitence and faith does equal fact just so you know because a lot of christians seemed to be confused about faith. Believing strongly in something does not make that something true no matter how bad you want it to and no matter how many times your parents and church told you it is true. I wonder if people in other religions have this same problem with relying on their gods to help them through their addictions or are they more logical about being not logical with their religion. makes you wonder.

    September 14, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
    • Esteban

      I am thankful that you are recovering from this hideous disease. I, too, have been sober (7 years). By the grace of God.

      To your point about "no proof"; Thankfully, we have a choice to believe in something. For me, I believed I had all the answers and worshiped a bottle of Jack Daniels. It got me into places I would not wish on anyone.

      If you believe in your will and way versus God's Way, this is your choice. I am grateful that God doesn't hold a gun to our heads to entice us to believe in Him through fear.

      All I know is, when people are dying, celebrating a goal/touchdown etc... and they get on their knees, they are not praying to me.

      Best of luck remaining sober, Brian. I wish you well.

      September 15, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • GodPot

      " I am grateful that God doesn't hold a gun to our heads to entice us to believe in Him through fear."

      No, he only tells people they will burn and suffer for eternity if they don't do what he wants. So much nicer than a gun to the head.

      I guess I'd rather see the hand coming out of heaven with a gun in it. At least then people would have something tangible to believe in.

      September 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Well done, Brian. It takes strength to overcome problems without a crutch.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • Alabama Chick

      I am a member of AA and I do not believe in God – and I live right smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. AA doesn't require me to use God as a "crutch". AA teaches me how to live life without drinking – how to live life on life's terms. I believe I'm a more useful member of society as a result of what I've learned from AA.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • Alabama Chick

      I do not believe in God – and I live right smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. AA doesn't require me to use God as a "crutch". AA teaches me how to live life without drinking – how to live life on life's terms. I believe I'm a more useful member of society as a result of what I've learned from AA.

      September 18, 2011 at 9:10 am |
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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.