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. Mac

    If we are cosmic accidents and the end is oblivion then life hardly matters, and sober or drunk matters even less.

    October 1, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  2. Linda

    You go girl. I think that for the majority of faith based people, having religions helps them beat the urge to drink. However for those of us who don't want to use that method, we become the minority. I know many people who would shun AA just because of the religion factor. Kudos to you for sticking with it, even though you were criticized for your beliefs. I'm really happy I found this article. I hate feeling like I'm the only one getting those blinks of disbelief when I say how the world works in my eyes. It always surprises me how much resistance and anger a simple: I don't believe in God statement can bring.

    October 1, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  3. Herf

    There are plenty of secular alcoholic recovery programs that are highly effective. Seek them out if you're an atheist or agnostic.

    They even publish their success rates which AA will not do.

    October 1, 2011 at 2:48 am |
    • Dmac

      AA is not able to track the results all that well. Truth is, all programs have dismal success in the long run.

      October 2, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  4. BoboInParadise

    Setting the AA stuff aside...

    As someone wrestling through a very tough time and wondering for the first time if God is really there, I find this terribly depressing. Being told that God is not there but I'm not alone because there are other piles of quarks moving about in my vicinity is in fact the loneliest thought I have ever confronted. I'm not saying that makes it not true - it may very well be - but I've never met an atheist who is real about the ramifications of their beliefs.

    And so I feel very far from two people - (1) the Christian who believes many of their friends and possibly family members will be eternally tortured in hell but are all smiles and "joy" nonetheless; and (2) the atheist who says we are material and we are alone in the universe, but is all smiles and "self-help" nonetheless.

    Stil looking for answers. None to be found in this article.

    September 30, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Brad Ashlock

      BoboInParadise: You will not find answers in this article, nor anywhere... there ARE no answers! You just need to find what works for you, and go with it. Just don't lie to yourself or try to be something you're not.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • jdunc

      Why look for an answer to an unsolvable problem? No one can prove there is a god and no one can prove there isn't. So, live your life, do the RIGHT things morally, feel good about yourself, and stop worrying. Religion, for thousands of years, has been a means of explaining the unknown, it hasn't changed. Using fear and ignorance to make people behave in certain ways hasn't changed much. I just find it hard to believe most of the religious mythology, so I don't. I don't think I'm missing anything, although I do like some of the music!

      October 1, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  5. GordoTaco

    To each his/her own. AA is for people who want it. For those who find other ways – congratulations. As acknowledged in several posts – stopping drinking is just the first part. Learning how to live as a humble, productive, serving member of society is the ultimate goal. I have found that AA helps me live more in line with this. THe more I live in line with these guiding principles, the less I want to return to my old ways and the happier (and more productive) I am. Best of luck to all who have been touched by addiction. May you find peace.

    September 30, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Jeremy

      Is being sober really the main point here? If we are "by chance" then die and all is over...why bother being sober? Why invest in anything for that matter? Becasue it's not an investment if it isn't sustained. Everything is always only about Jesus, our creator and savior. That is not a prideful statement as some agnostics think, it's a humble staement. I need his saving love. I'd rather know Jesus and his love and be drunk than be sober, not know him and spend eternity seperated from my creator.

      September 30, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • In Response

      Jeremy – I'd rather be a good agnostic that does good deeds for the sake of doing good deeds than a Christian who does good deeds for a reward, that is to get to Heaven. Religious or not, you should not need a reason to be a good person. Whether or not there is a God or multiple, you should be good for the sake of being good. I admit Jesus probably did exist. Whether he was just a man like you or I or something else, I don't know one way or another. I'm good because I choose to be good, no other reason.

      September 30, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  6. Nothing in particular

    I went into Al-anon a Christian and ended up a Zen practicing agnostic who's comfortable listening to everyone else share whatever they have to share about their spiritual beliefs, no matter what they are. I've worked with atheists, Christians, Buddhists, and pagans in the context of program.

    The only real question is, "Am I behaving as if I think I'm God?" If the answer is No, then it doesn't really who or what my Higher Power is - or isn't.

    September 30, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  7. Whatever

    AA is not a religious program. Anyone who attends knows that. Anyone who attends AA also knows that this Blowhard author is in direct violation of the 11th tradition. Good job.

    September 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  8. Nicole

    I don't agree with quite a bit about twelve step meetings, but I have attended several and honestly believe the community and support is the key, not the religion and the steps.

    I know a person who was in a cultish 12 step meeting (most are not like this, hers had taken on a life of it's own) and I do believe that AA and the like are especially susceptible because they combine authoritative religion with what, honestly, is just a good support group advocating sound cognitive behavioral techniques. Unfortunately it is often near impossible to find a good, affordable support group that is not a 12 step group.

    September 30, 2011 at 2:58 am |
    • shshsh walk softly

      Just going through 12 steps in AA isn't the complete answer. I'm not an alchoholic or drink alchohol as my childhood life was damaged by drinkers. You can't totally fix the damage done to others or relationships. Instead of hanging around with alcoholic peers I believe they should do personal penance, eg.voluntary community work & integrate into society more, if they truly want to be permanently reformed. It's a sad road & long battle for them, walk a mile in their shoes. No thank you, I chose not to drink when I was young. Life's full of choices.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:35 am |
    • Paul Landis

      "Atheism" is for idiots!!!!! When then bullets start flying, the atheists start praying!!!!
      Here is a story used by a rabbi-

      A king goes to visit a rabbi and tells him he doubts the existance of a Creator of the Universe. He told the rabbi everything just happened, the entire universe is a huge coincidence with no purpose, just the result of luck and many throws of the dice.
      He asks the rabbi to prove the universe was created by a intelligent design.

      The rabbi says to please open up the window, and then that the king unscrews the top of the ink bottle but leave it on there, with the feather quill pen next to it.

      He asks him to put a clean piece of paper next to it.

      The king complies and leaves, told to return the next afternoon and his answer will be explained.

      Next day the atheist king returns, and sees the most beautifully caligraphed poem written on that piece of paper and the rest of the ink spilling onto the floor.

      "What a beautifully caligraphed poem, what a nice rhyme, who wrote this?" the king asks the rabbi.

      "No one. I forgot to close the window last night. A cat or a bird or a rat must have climbed or flown in and knocked over the bottle of ink.

      No, the kings insists, Someone wrote it. Did you write it?

      The rabbi shakes his head, and says, "its just a coincidence that the ink spelled into words, and which rhyme and make sense.

      The king laughs, but the rabbi is serious.

      "No, someone had to write that poem."

      "Its just a piece of paper with spilled ink. One little coincidence, compared to the hills and trees and clouds and mountains you see out of this window," explained the rabbi.

      Albert Einstein said, "God does not play dice with the universe.'

      September 30, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  9. JFritz

    Oh, man, folks in AA could believe in the flying spaghetti monster, and I'd support it. I've known people whose lives were saved by joining this organization, spouses who could face another day because of Alanon, and kids who got a sense of their own worth through Alanon for teens. Until science comes up with something better, this is it for many who want to quit the sauce. Just like quitting anything, some people can quit on their own. Some people need churches, and some people just need understanding friends. Some people can't face the shame of being a drunk without the anonymity of a group of others who understand what they do and why they do it.

    September 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  10. POD

    Drinking is the only thing that keeps me from picking up an AK-47......marching up to Wall Street and wiping out that whole class of criminals that have destroyed the lifes of millions of Americans.....

    September 29, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Chris

      You know that "see something, say something" newspeak that I keep hearing in airports?

      You make me want to say something.

      PS: Over-regulation sank the ship there, sport. Go visit the House and Senate.

      September 30, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  11. Walt P.

    When one individual makes another individual his or hers higher power, they both forget that alcoholism is a sickness like none other of mind, body, and spirit. When the spiritual sickness is restored we straighten out physically and mentally. AA is not about drinking and sobriety. It’s a way of life for those that want it.

    September 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • YoYoString

      You are so right sir.....I salute you. Best answer.

      September 30, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  12. Tone

    The BigBook tells us that "Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us." (pg 77) The God Marya chose was Good Orderly Direction. Just meditating on the concept of cellular reduction, quarks and leptons formed a spiritual awakening sufficient enough to grasp the concept of a Higher Power, even if limitted by the universe. She understands humility and is no longer selfish or self centered, nor driven by self delusion, self seeking and self pity – the root of our troubles.(pg 62) The "miracles" often taked about are those complete down and out, low bottom drunks referred to as "category 4". For these poor souls the 12 steps were developed, not for the common problem drinkers. To watch these Category 4 drunks recover, to see them help others, to watch their lonliness vanish, THIS is the experience which is truely Spiritual!

    September 29, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  13. Atheist Art

    "it’s perfectly possible to sober up sans belief in God."

    Uh, it's perfectly possible to sober up sans inclusion in Alcoholics Anonymous. I did. Clean & Sober for over 21 years. And I'm weak willed. Easily swayed. BUT I'M SOBER & I DIDN'T NEED ANYONE'S HELP TO GET HERE.

    September 28, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • AA

      Good to see that you worked on your character flaws like arrogance and wanting to be the center of attention. Stopping drinking is the easy part, changing yourself and becoming a better person is what the program is about.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:31 am |
  14. Brandon

    Not very anonymous.

    September 28, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  15. Ben

    what the hell does religion have to do with being addicted to alcohol? Is everything impure the devil's work? That devil sure has his hands busy and man he just doesn't give up does he. You have to admire that about him. For centuries he has been forcing people to drink alcohol in excess. And dare I say masturbating too. evil evil evil

    September 28, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  16. faisal rehman


    September 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Kathy

      Can you spell conscious? And by that, do you mean consciousness? Are you implying that this is strictly a human trait? Because any animal has consciousness, unless they're unconscious. Or maybe you mean conscience? I cannot in all good conscience opine further on your terse posit without some clarification.

      September 29, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • G

      "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" Julian Jaynes. Princeton U 30 years

      September 29, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • BoboInParadise

      Hey everyone. Come see how smart Kathy is.

      September 30, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Lisa

    I have long admired Marya's writing and this essay just reinforces this.

    I enjoy the AA-bashers who jump into any internet discussion of the program. A cult? Listen – I could stop going to meetings right now and nobody is going to show up at my door in the middle of the night to kidnap me, shoot me, or tell me that Bill Wilson is going to rise from his grave tomorrow and wouldn't I rather be with the ones who are going to be Raptured? Save for the dollar I put in the basket to pay for coffee and cookies, my participation in AA is cost-free. I am happily agnostic in AA, and have said as much, and my experience in the nine+ years I've been coming around has been that most people who have come to terms with themselves and their issues don't have a problem with my beliefs. Wish the same could be said of the AA-bashers.

    September 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Lou Saboter

      When I left the cult I got ridiculed and heckled every chance they got. Cults typically don't break the law and trespass on your property to harass you idiot.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  18. Hi

    What the heck is AA??

    September 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Nicole

      Google is your friend.

      September 30, 2011 at 2:53 am |
  19. Chibbers

    I've often felt bad for some of my friends and family who have gone through AA due to six of the steps involving a higher power. And oddly enough, after a few of them gave up the program because they tired of being condemned to their addiction until accepting said higher power, eg, usually God, they left the program and became sober of their own with support and hard work. Not to bash AA because it works well for many, but I think South Park summed up the religious mentality that makes it cult worthy quite nicely.

    September 28, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  20. system you

    My problem with AA is they say that people are powerless of booze (all of a sudden you are a victim). I believe that we are powerful over it....why would you want to believe anything else? I went the Buddhist route when I got sober and this path has only solidified my belief that I am powerful over booze.

    September 28, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • wendy

      , Why do people continually think that if they can do soemthing it has to be just as easy for another person to do the same thing. That is just so ignorant.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:49 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.