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. rick

    Things that don't evolve eventually go away. It took a long time for Alcoholism to be reconginized as a legitimate medical illness. And is the only illness that requires those who benefit from it must remain anonoymous. If I had a doctor that told me to take a cure but not share it openly, I'd find another Doc. But then again any other medical cure with as low a success rate as AA which refused to change in an effort to improve its rate will slowly die. Things are vastly different today than they were when this program was started. Shout it from the roof tops and put a face to it. If not, "you're only as sick as your secrets"!
    Excellent article! Beautiful woman! Love her openess and honesty!
    Take what you want and leave the rest. Or take nothing at all.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  2. C.D.

    This woman is not a representative of AA, and I wish there was a disclaimer stating that outright. I'm glad she got sober in AA though. This disease is a sad and ferocious one. I hope for her sake and others that she will come to learn about our traditions, which emphasize anonymity in all things. To anyone who thinks they may be an alcoholic: try AA or don't, many of us have found it useful, some have not. May you achieve sobriety and/or serenity regardless.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  3. Jerry Miller

    Congratulations on your sobriety. I believe your motive was to help and say even atheists can come to AA. Bill Wilson said the same thing. And the book talks about atoms, we can't see them but they are there. Enjoy the journey.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Dennis

      I started AA as an atheist. I realized that anything can be your higher power, just something you do it for other than yourself, a doorknob. I eventually became a spiritual person, joined a religion, and went back to university. It was in school that i learned of dying gods and savior gods which made me study religion and back to being an atheist for the right reasons. The biggest question is did god make man or did man invent god to explain what at that time was not explainable. I believe the latter....with a rum and coke if i choose to.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  4. Betsy

    I'm loving that I'm reading CNN and it's not about Afghanistan. I spent 3 years reading and watching every day while my son was deployed with the Marine Corps. Today, it's about something I value as much as my child~ my participation in AA. I'm proud of the members who've addressed this article anonymously and once again dissapointed with those who either cannot stand in Unity for our Traditions, or absolutely Insist on violating them.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:20 am |
  5. PhaniLeigh

    I have been a sober member of AA for 5 years. Shame on you!! This is a complete violation of Tradition 11which states, "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."
    I hope you get a letter from GSO explaining to you why this article is not proper AA posture. And you should get a sponsor who helps you understand our traditions better. God or no God, read the literature properly and respect the traditions, which are the foundation of AA.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • Betsy

      There's a time and a place. CNN is NOT the place. And lots (millions) of people get sober without a belief in God, usually quite happy in AA~ none of us, right Phani? needed to break our anonymity for a paycheck. Some of us write quite well, and have bypassed many opportunities to glorify ourselves at the expense of others (Unity). Poor Marya, obviously no one cared enough about her sobriety to stop her.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  6. Curtis DOS 4/16/2000

    Good for you, Marya! You are sober and found a way which works for you! I am grateful another alcoholic has found a way out of the misery and perhaps your path will help others to recover.

    My personal story is believing in a Great Spirit and living the 12 steps in my life as best as I can. That is what works for me and what I try to pass along to others seeking recovery. I hope those who are troubled by any part of your article perhaps take the time to examine why it bothers them. As an alcoholic, I run on fear and discussed your article with my AA sponsor. He simply pointed out to me the part of the Big Book which state we do not have a monoploy on how to recover. Enough said! I believe and it works for me, you don't and it works for you! We are both sober!

    September 20, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  7. Cando

    Nice to see some depth in these discussions for a change. Really, we're all capable of it if we put our anger aside and treat each other with respect.

    September 20, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  8. BILL B


    September 20, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Moon Man

      Bill B,
      Calm down my friend. Isn't one of the teachings of AA, judge not for ye be judged?

      September 20, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Betsy

      Thanks Bill. Couldn't have said it better myself.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  9. Michel

    Actually, only five steps refer to God and those of us with skepticism understand step two as something that can be God, the courts or just the group. Only absolute pro or cons make it specifically a god and nothing else. Secondly, if a person can relate that power as the universe, then there is still a choice to be made how we view it. This writer chooses to see it as a chaos and therfore everything in her 'belief' system falls (and eventually fails) within that pattern. Simply by changing the perspective to that of a cosmos instead of a chaos changes everything in that perspective and that alone is sufficient to create the psychic change that AA speaks of... first expressed by C. Jung.

    September 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  10. Josef

    Why the sentimental nonsense about serving others as a basis for stopping drinking? The author stated that essential nature is all matter that is reducible to leptons, atoms, quarks, etc. The outcome of drinking or not drinking is the same. If not drinking promotes your happiness, great. If being a raging drunk promotes your happiness, great. In light of meaninglessness and time, it really doesn't matter. But can the sentimental nonsense about serving others as the reason for existence.

    September 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  11. Gary

    well i did not read all of her article but i have been around the program a number of years , i knew a guy who used a tree as his higher power another used a brass doorknob , my opinion is use what ever the hell you want if it keeps you from drinking . i have been ina few thousand meetings and i have chaired a few thousand and i know a very good way to end the usless bantering of some person who wants to sit and talk about jesus christ , allatola or obama , i do not mind interrupting them one bit and telling them that " that is a outside issue and if you feel the uncontrolable urge to discuss it i will gladly talk with you after the meeting , do not shun your obligation to the alcoholic who still suffers by allowing much of anything else to be discussed but your problems with alcohol . God saved my rear plain and simple but it was not the result of any meeting it was the result of crawling on the floor with a 357 in one hand and a half gallon of whiskey in the other ,i could not keep from drinking and i didnt have the guts to use the gun so after 55 years of living i decided to ask God for help and bygawd i got it , not immediately but slowly and the meetings started to make more sence , i actuall had had all i could stand . hell dieing would have been the easy way out . if you want your soul saved go to church , if you want your ass saved to to a meeting and do not let the first 50 meetings form your opinion of the program, try 500 . my name is Gary and I am a real alkie .

    September 20, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • George

      Hcw you thought of going to AA wher there is freedom of thought and action?

      September 20, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • Cando

      Been around alkies but I dont have the problem. However, I can say that I find your story inspiring. Whatever makes a man better is not a bad thing. Thanks.

      September 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  12. George

    Good news for this person.
    We are not your judges.
    Bill Wilson said
    Alcoholics A\onymous is not a religious orginization. There is no dogma. The one theooloical proposition is a power greater than oneself. Even this concept is forced on no one.
    Bill Wilson wrote in the 12&12 A sponsor will say first Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand you believe anything. Our steps are only suggestions.
    Bill Wilson described the members of AA as neurotics of our hue. So if a meeting of AA seems like medicine less week at the funny farm, take it in stride.

    September 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  13. Russ k

    Sorry folks but she isn't breaking a tradition. The tradition says: 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.

    1. she's not in a public relations position and she's not promoting AA. She's sharing her experience on a specific topic.
    2. the tradition is also for us in the group not to deman that a celebrity promote for us. Its to keep us group members in check and give a celebrity a chance at sobriety just like we had and not use them like promoters do.
    3. yes, there is an aspect that someone could get drunk and hurt AA as a whole but I think that's to combat the risk of 'bigshotism' on our part and not use AA to look good.

    just my thoughts. Good stuff on this topic.

    September 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Lane

      we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.

      She used her picture, name and mentioned that she is a member of A.A. in CNN. She DID NOT maintain personal anonymity at the level of press. That CLEARLY violated the 11th tradition.

      September 20, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  14. grantlogic

    So, I just read up on the 11th tradition. While I understand that there was technically a violation here, as an "outsider," I do not see the dilemma. If I were dealing with alcoholism, went to an AA meeting and were confronted with heavy religious references, and had not read this article, I would likely leave. I view this article as an encouragement to those who may be struggling with alcoholism, and are put off by what may be religious dialogue in their local AA meeting.

    Isn't that the point? To attract people and give them the structure they need to heal–not drive them away by religious rhetoric?

    While there may be a tradition violation here, I see this article as doing far more good than harm. Step back and see the bigger picture.

    September 19, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Shay

      There is a reason for the 11th tradition. If the author of this article were to go "off the wagon" and end up in the news for having gotten a DWI, people who read this article may very well say that A.A. doesn't work. That is why it is so important to keep anonymous at the level of media. I have been a member of A.A. for years and have never heard one person get preachy as to who they choose to call God. Maybe the author took offense to hearing someone mention Jesus. That is something she should have taken up with her sponsor, not write an article about it. She clearly violated a very important tradition.

      September 19, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • ridgeback

      AA is for everyone that has a problem with alcohol regardless of faith.

      September 19, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • marianne

      AA is not a religious organization. You would never be confronted with "heavy religious references" at an AA meeting. All are welcome and all are in the rooms-people who subscribe to a religion,atheists and the many many "undeclareds".Some AA's choose to call this power by a name,like HP,etc. I don't have a name for mine.AA is not a religious program and AA's don't preach about religion.

      September 19, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  15. Kristin

    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.
    What part of that are you having are you not understanding, Marya? You and Jane Velez Mitchell. Sheesh!

    September 19, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  16. Paige

    Breaking anonymity is hardly a big deal compared to breaking the much more important tradition of leaving out personal religion. It's so rampant in AA now it's causing "traditionalists" to leave AA all together.

    September 19, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Lane

      I don't know what AA meetings you have been attending, but the meetings that I have been going to for YEARS and YEARS, have NEVER mentioned religion. Maybe some people look for that stuff to have something to complain about?

      September 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  17. marianne

    Maya, you violated an important tradition here. We do not identify ourselves at the level of radio,press and film because if somebody doesn't like you,Maya,or share your political views,your views on ciggarette smoking or what kind of smoked salmon is best,this may dissuade them,a sick and suffering alcoholic from getting the help they need to save their life. How could someone who seems to be an author dismiss or maybe completely miss the importance of this tradition. It is perfectly fine to tell whomever wou want that you are an Alcoholic but when you associate yourself with the program,you become a spokesperson for the group and no one person can ever be a spokeseperson for the group.
    p.s., i attend 7 meetings a week and I can count on one hand the number of times anyone has talked about jesus. so thanks for giving everyon the wrong idea about the program.you may sell books with your new found fame as an AA but you may cost another alcoholic their solution. and good luck with the millions of resentments at your home group!

    September 19, 2011 at 7:31 am |
    • Paige

      My mother has been in AA for over 20 years and has noticed a dramatic increase in Christianity being brought into meetings. She struggles to find an AA meeting that DOESN'T mention Christianity. AA is supposed to be for all religions including the non-religious. She is Christian, but doesn't' bring it into the meetings. It's a VERY common problem with AA now. And the few that oppose it and try and bring back the Big Book and the other literature written by the founders are scoffed at and are even turned out of meetings. It's sad that fundamentalism is pushing it's way into every crevice of society.

      September 19, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • May

      Alcoholics come in all shapes and sizes, but everyone already knows that. There will always be someone who will move for a change, and we just happen to be lucky, or unlucky, enough to have an atheist make that change. Of course, privacy could also present a counter-productive factor to alcoholic recovery. It means anonymity adds to the burden of being an alcoholic. Personally, I do not see the advantage of AA meetings for recovery in any way. I prefer a direct approach involving subtle doses of both alcohol and medication prescribed by my doctor. Sure it is expensive, but if I was able to afford all that wine, why should I not pay for effective treatment?

      September 19, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Kristin

      Marianne beat me to it. You broke tradition and anonymity. You could have very well chased a newcomer away just to get some attention. I suggest doing a 9th and 10th step and boning up on your traditions.

      September 19, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Heather

      I'll admit to being biased here, but over and over again, I've been told in various areas that I need to just keep quiet about being an atheist. At work when a customer gets angry at me for saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas," I can't respond with, "Oh, but I'm not Christian", at school I was told to just stop complaining about the prayer sessions. Christianity is in so much of what this country does, but I think that Christians don't realize (I'm hoping it's just an issue of not realizing) how much that can ostracize none believers. Marya was just pointing that out.

      September 19, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Shay

      @ Heather: In aa, nobody cares what your "higher power" (or lack of one) is. We aren't here to make one a believer. What I am upset about has nothing to do with God, it has to do with her blatent disregard for the 11th tradition. Seeing public figures who announce from the rooftops that they are in AA and fall from grace, turns many people away as well.

      September 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  18. LowellGuy

    Tom F., there is nothing about Alcoholics Anonymous that says you cannot or should not say that you attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, that you are an alcoholic, or your progress in the program. I'm not an alcoholic, nor do I attend AA meetings. However, I am familiar enough with the program to know at least that much.

    September 18, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • marianne

      There is something about it indeed. it is the 11th tradition. it is clear and concise. You can Google it.You can say you are an acloholic and many do. Claiming membership and therefore representing the program is the viloation of the tradition here.

      September 19, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • Kristin

      Are you "familiar" with the 11th tradition? Maybe you should be before posting something you really aren't "familiar" with .

      September 19, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  19. Tom F.

    That was a good story and take on spirituality but the full name and photo are definitely an anonymity violation. I am dissapointed that a journalist would blow their anonymity this way.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • SC

      I agree, especially since there are many atheists out there looking for their place in AA. This article could be a huge help for them, but with her busted anonymity she could potentially publicly relapse, negating the validity of her story.

      September 19, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • lilgtogirl

      Anonimity is so that people can freely admit to their faults without judgment. So therefore, since she feels she can do that, she does not owe HERSELF anonimity. And it is important to hear her viewpoint. While I am not an athiest, I hate when anyone talks about god because god is personal. Keep your opinions about it to yourself. So to hear what it is like to be a person like her with the bible thumpers is important.

      September 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  20. Chris Sheridan

    There's a chapter in the Big Book called "We Agnostics" – Chapter 4 – it's been there since 1939. Marya Hornbacher should have read this, and if she kept reading she might have read the 11th tradition. #anonymityfail

    September 18, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.