Posted by: RealisticRecovery | September 13, 2011

CNN Article – My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA

My Faithlessness: The atheist way through AA

CNN 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.

CNN: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marya Hornbacher




  1. Pretty good. However, in my experience I’ve been ridiculed by the “cult” and treated like crap because of my non-belief. I kept drinking for years because I believed their disease/powerlessness nonsense until I realized I’m the only one who can keep me sober. No higher powers, groups, or sponsors needed.
    The cult tries to destroy a person’s self-confidence, self-esteem and confidence in one’s own ability to reason. Then you need a supernatural being with magical powers to make it all better. They then lie and say “we’re spiritual, not religious”.
    My challenge now is to not let my hatred of AA and the damage they’ve caused me and others destroy my life.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. thank you.

    in trying to help a friend that admits to being an atheist i have been searching for the door that will help get them through the third step.

    my own story follows yours and i used to constantly struggle with those that believe their own religion the only possible path through the steps.

    i profess to being daoist and an agnostic, a word that begins to convey the “i struggle to identify, but i cannot be you” my neutral stand has given me the ability to work with those of hindu, muslim, jewish, and buddhist backgrounds.

    as i change i have found truth in the Tao, and Buddhist practices. i have replaced “god” with “love” in “we agnositcs” and found a satisfactory relationship with the world that i do not need to harbor disdain for any religious belief.

    i continue to read “non conference approved” and “conference approved” literature about AA history. this division is as old as the fellowship. and i find that “we” is the only belief i need to survive. the steps are universal principles as old as humanity.

    may whatever you believe in keep you sober.

    “karma” can be the instant that an action of one being changes the path of another being toward a permanent improvement of that path.

    • Thanks George for dropping by and taking the time to comment.
      Although I have to “admit” I found it interesting when you wrote “trying to help a friend that admits to being an atheist”.
      You write about your friend like they have committed a crime, like they “admitted” something they should not be proud of.
      I hope that was a mistake.
      If your friend is already an atheist, they are well on their way back to sanity, and I’m sure they will welcome your help in recovery as long as that does not entail attempting to mold them towards your religious/spiritual beliefs.
      Just a thought.

      Here’s the 3rd step that I wrote for my own use, I would suggest to get your friend to re-write the 3rd Step (and maybe the entire 12 steps) also in a way that they feel comfortable with, in a way that reflects their own personal beliefs. This will help them feel like they are not selling out their own strong convictions, and not just to adopt the the standard AA 12 Steps which might be outdated and too religious for some.

      RR Step 3: I will let myself be helped by myself and others by using realistic and rational thinking and will never again turn my will and life over to addictive thinking.

      As you can see, this version is consistent with the purpose of the AA Step 3 (and the main purposes of the 12 Steps, to recover from addiction with help from outside sources and from within), but without compromising someone’s already existent beliefs.


  3. Thank you so much for posting your 3rd step. Thank you thank you thank you.

  4. I recently started required NA meetings and am wondering how to bring up my non-belief in a totally respectful, non-judgemental way. I respect the other member’s beliefs and feel that if that’s what they need to be happy joyous and free then good for them. If anyone has any suggestions about how I can get my point across, as painlessly as possible that is, I would be very grateful. Thanks

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