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. Terry T.

    Thank you! I've been sober in AA for 23 years. I have a Homegroup, a sponsor and I sponsor 4 people. I have been out of the Atheist closet in AA for ten years and love my sobriety more than ever. I live in service, in the moment and with a great deal of love and joy, because, like you, I have never dreamt of doing it alone. Yes, it IS possible to stay sober in AA as an atheist.

    August 1, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  2. Mark

    There are no atheists. Some people like to call themselves that because they think it somehow makes them appear smart to some of their godless friends, when really it only makes them appear foolish to most people. To say there is no God means one would have to have all knowledge, which no one has, except for God HImself. At best rebellious man can only be agnostic, because he doesn't know, and cannot know weather God exists outside of his understanding. God is real. Better to come to terms with HIm now than after we die. Then, its too late. He is real, He sent His Son who died a real death to pay for our real sins, so that we do not have to suffer the real penalty of our own sins. Receive Him and you will find peace with God and have eternal life. God bless

    July 29, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  3. Luizaa Maribethm

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    July 25, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • Dee S.

      As of Sept. 7,2012 I wand have not ill have been a member of A.A. and sober for 28 years. I came in as an atheist and have remained an atheist. As for the notion of a power greater than myself, it was evident that alcohol was greater than myself and if drinking made me insane,. sobriety could and dId restore me to sanity. I pratice ruthless sobriety;meaning that I will do whatever it takes to avoid taking that first drink.I still attend meetings regularly and occasionally cause members of the god squad to get thier panties in a wad, but as we say ib the South the proof is in the pudding; I'm sober and happy.

      July 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  4. To The Point

    If I were pretending to be an atheist I imagine that I would be quite the boozer too. Every time a normal thought would come into my head I would have to knock it back with a drink. How did the heavens and earth come about? ...Take a drink. Why doesn't the sun burn itself out? ...Have another round. How does human life develop in the womb?..give me a strong one. Yes, if I were continually lying to myself I think I would be in rehab. "The fool has said in his heart there is no God". ....Psalm 53:1

    July 17, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @To The Point

      Wow there is all kinds of stupid in your post. Congrats, I think you might get the idiot post award for the day.

      July 17, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • FTC

      Your post is a fine example of why people question religion and god. Clearly you're posing as a christian because your quoting the bible, however, you make no valid points and seem to only be interested in taunting someone for having their own opinion. What a very sad person you seem to be.

      July 23, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • To The Point

      Gee, I hope I didn't offend any of the godless. I know how sensative those who live only for themselves can be. lol Your pathetic. God got it right. "The fool has said in his heart there is no God" .....Psalm 53:1

      July 26, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  5. niknak

    AA is for quiters!!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Linda

      wow > Thank you soooo much for speaking My Truth in this article! phew ..

      July 14, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  6. Lou Saboter

    The idiocy of this is that she is cherry picking AA just like Christians cherry pick the Bible to make it sound like a positive thing. The message of the Big Book and most of what you hear in the rooms is clear. You thoroughly follow the path or you die. What is also clear is this is a seemingly reasonable person who in fact has no problem ignoring contradictions just because they like the false comfort of belonging to an organization. There is no evidence of a higher power that cares whether or not a quark takes a drink. Somebody has warped reality just to suit a bunch of delusional 12 steppers and that's the real shame of this.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Philip A

      Well, Lou, a few things are clear. You're probably not an alcoholic/addict, or if you are, your unrehabilitated. I like this article because, like Marya, I too am a strong atheist and I am currently working on the second step, turning my life over to a higher power. And as the "12 and 12" points out the 12 steps don't claim divine inspiration, they are suggestions or guidelines, that have proven helpful to thousands to help clean up their lives. So what if my higher power is the progressive force of evolution and the guy next to me loves Jesus. We're both tailoring the same advice to meet our ultimate goal, getting through this day sober. Its not cherry-picking and we're not delusional. We're just learning from people who have taken control of their life in a way we want to as well. So what if you can't respect that. Go fight your own battles, and leave me to mine.

      June 24, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • Linda

      your level of "Acceptance" is Underwhelming.

      July 14, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  7. Riceep

    Thank You Marya, I had my last drink on April 15, 1981. I agree with you one hundred percent. Similar to you I do believe in a Higher Power but not an absolute god if you will. The peole in AA, or any people for that matter, help me see my way through life. I don't care what someone believes in if it helps them live a construcrive happy life. I'm a show me kind of person and that's what I get at meetings and in life generally.

    I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
    I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
    The eye's a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
    Fine counsel is confusing, but example's always clear;
    And the best of all preachers are the men who live their creeds,
    For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.
    I soon can learn to do it if you'll let me see it done;
    I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
    And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
    But I'd rather get my lessons by observing what you do;
    For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
    But there's no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

    June 16, 2012 at 4:21 am |
  8. motorcycle camping

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    June 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Hello

      Another colossal complainer!! Wow.....start your own AAA – Atheists program and leave everyone else alone. If your higher power is math – then use math and quit complaining!!! Sick to tears of these sensitive whiners who want everything changed to meet their needs

      June 9, 2012 at 4:06 am |
  9. Time Warner Cable TV for North Carolina

    Thanks , I have just been searching for information approximately this subject for a long time and yours is the best I've found out so far. However, what concerning the bottom line? Are you sure concerning the source?|What i do not realize is in fact how you are not really a lot more smartly-favored than you may be now. You're very intelligent.

    May 24, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  10. Kindness

    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    Your all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    May 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "Your all smart people . I tell the truth."

      LMAO! Your all smart people . I tell the truth. = EGO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • rod

      Yeah... why can't she believe in the made up myths and dogma like everyone else? Trying to use her brain power is really silly. Can't she realize it's better to replace drinking with another crutch like religion and god?

      July 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Linda

      omg > why can't you ACCEPT that there are those of us > Many in fact > Who simply do NOT believe in any God.

      Acceptance rather than preaching might lend YOU more peace of mind.

      July 14, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  11. Alphax Serifj

    This post is pleasant and fruitful in favor of all new Personal home pages related web programmers; they have to read it and do the practice.

    April 27, 2012 at 2:54 am |
  12. David Crandall

    Everyone has to believe in something, I believe I'll have another beer.

    April 3, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Cravid Dandall

      I do like the article, and I believe these are lyrics from the 80's punk band FEAR...?? Appreciate the humor!!

      July 18, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  13. McCambridge

    I am thankful for AA. I now have, going on 5 years sober. I had a great sponsor who helped me past the god stuff. The thing being I am also a recovering Roman Catholic. The important part was that I was 100% honest about it with him. My AA buddy helped me with the steps, some how understanding my disbelief in the "All Mighty." He joked how I read the Big Book like a novel. Perhaps I did. I am ok with being a happy accident on this planet, and REALLY do not miss drinking one bit. Some I know would read this and thank "god" for showing me the way. What ever... I tried to stop drinking on my own, didn't work for me. There it is... For some people it takes "god" to help them. Cool, if it works for you. We are all the same and different at the same time. Well except for woman. They drive me nuts!!! But they don't drive me to drink no matter what. Get over the god thing. Since I was in grade school, during the pledge, I just kept silent at that one part I would say aloud..." ...one nation -– - indivisible..." and no one ever called me on it, nor did I advertise what I did. No problem. Blah blah blah.

    March 26, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • jay lawhorne

      thanks my friend.. i am also in business 4 myself and a recovering alkie. i go 2 meetings regularly, but the group is my higher power. i bow my head during serenity prayer, and sometimes repeat it with the group, out of respect 4 them. only a couple members know that i dont believe in god. i feel like i should keep it on the low low 4 business purposes and 2 keep from being ostrisized.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • Linda

      19 years sober .. and there is still no god .

      I am thankful that I didn't fall into the NEED to be accepted and all that crap for any length of time.. My story is almost word for word this article. I am grateful for this woman's Courage to speak her Truth ... despite the knowledge that some "christians' will use this as an opportunity to BULLY.

      What you DO speaks more of you than what you Spew.

      July 14, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  14. Micah

    "...I am among the smallest."

    "I barely exist."

    "I believe...the most important...principle...is humility...and...service to others."

    All this advice from a drunk that is "humble and barely exists" on CNN.com driven by spiritually vacant humanist atheism. WHOA.


    March 7, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Linda

      comprehensio n problems Micah?

      July 14, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  15. periwinkle

    AA should drop the 'god cause'.... it's getting so old. I'm tired of having to hear the same self absorbed righteousness from strangers, people walking up my driveway, girl scouts, the pledge of allegiance, and the face of our money and buildings. Religion is supposed to be a private or sacred thing that people choose to have within them, or not. It is definitely not supposed to be advertised, commercialized, and squaked in my ear ovey time I turn on the news, take my kids to sports, school or activities, or merely walk out my front door.

    March 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  16. Denise

    As an atheist, and an alcoholic in AA I struggle daily to with a group who's beliefs are different than mine. Some accept our differences. Most of the members no longer see me as an evil, and self centered infidel. The reality is I am sober and have been for almost 3 years. For me to safely stay sober I will have to work within the AA program as best as I can. Thank you for your article. I helps to know I am not alone.

    March 3, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Linda

      Awesome Denise!! I ahve 19 years > all without a diety > Not a minute on my knees .. well except to clean up the dust bunnies 🙂

      July 14, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  17. Batman

    I was forced to go to AA because I was on prohibation for a misdameaner marijuana charge. Being an atheist I realized this is just nonsense to get others to convert to christianity, nothing more nothing less. Anybody can have will power and I know a lot of people know weed is not addicting but I also tried other substances so yes will power does exist. I thought it was funny there was another atheist, he siad Chuck Norris was going to be his higher power. Really I just stayed sober until our prohibation was over forging signatures that I was going to meetings because I couldn't relate to people who won't stop self distruction with crack, meth, heroine or liquor. I will never quit toking but for the most part I'm sober now without AA.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • airforce1990

      Maybe if you didn't "toke" so much, you'd know how to spell probation.

      April 12, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  18. Chuck

    While I applaud any group with good intentions such as A.A. More people quit on their own than use these groups You are your own higher power

    February 26, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Brian

      ITotally agreed. I was an absolutely raging alcoholic and I began to realize (through severe blood sugar problems and other issues) that my body was beginning to fall apart. I was an alcoholic for about 7 years and quit completely on my own without any of this higher power, AA stuff. I'm not knocking it for those who feel it worked for them, but I also don't believe that everyone needs a program to stop.

      The fear of death, particularly since I'm an atheist, is what convinced me. When I started feeling severe pain right over the liver area I knew immediately that I was done for good.

      June 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  19. putnk

    Проститутки Екатеринбурга http://putanaek.com/

    February 19, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Mike

      вы некультурный, если вам нужна проститутка

      February 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • airforce1990

      Возможно, вам стоит прочитать статью. Речь идет о алкоголики, а не проституток.

      April 12, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  20. CECEAnoymously

    Well so much for anonymity. This would be a great article if it was written in any AA newsletter. We are anonymous to "radio, press and film". We do no break our anonymity except amongst our members. She needed to not have her picture or name submitted with this article. Now if she gets drunk and says AA doesn't work for her all her "good" work is for naught. People who break their anonymity in public put AA at risk and get people drunk. When will these idiots learn, we have few rules in AA but the few we have protect the many. AND there will be people out there who will not hire you bc they believe "once an addict always an addict".. Good job sister. Why don't you sit down shut up and actually work the program for a change. LISTEN. Don't speak until you actually know something. and when you think you know something be silent anyway.

    February 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • CC

      Seriously? You sound like a moron... maybe you should have taken your own advice, " Why don't you sit down and shut up. Don't speak until you actually know something. and when you think you know something be silent anyway."

      February 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • powder32

      Well, I understand your aggravated with the issue of anonymity but your going a little far. As an agnostic I googled AA and atheism/agnostic and this is what came up!!! I'm sure I'm not alone. AA is about attraction not promotion and because of the god platform I'm not attracted. The issue must be addressed, it is the 21st century and religion has run its course for many and alternative spiritual avenues have lent themselves to recovery. As society evolves and AA doesn't the group will lose effectiveness. The numbers of those without traditional religion will enivitably grow as education levels rise and the need to exclude religion from the AA platorm will be a must to survive. Trust me when I tell you this will happen, probably not in our lifetime but eventually. AA has become it's own worst enemy because of its stagnation. It preaches progress not perfection but refuses to progress itself. Times are a changing and AA must change with them or suffer a relapse!!!!!

      March 6, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Michael bowering

      I have been a member Of AA since 1993. People like you drive people right out the door. Have you no manners, can you not represent yourself and AA in a polite, sensitive manner. The only requirementment for membership is the desire to stop drinking. Take your own advise just listen, say nothing in public. You do not have the skill or compassion that AA needs for public expressions of its purposes. You sound as dry as a bone.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:00 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.