AA For Atheists

Atheists: Faith ≠ Sobriety

Atheists succeed in AA even through faithlessness.

In Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, she shares her road to sobriety through AA as an Atheist. To follow-up Man Quits Booze Without Jesus, this article addresses the challenges and biases spiritual AA members have about Atheists and Agnostics.

Atheists and George Bernard Shaw

CNN reported that when Hornbacher attended her first AA meeting, she saw the chapter’s leader bang his fist [on a table] who bellowed, “By the grace of this program and the blood of Jesus Christ, I’m sober today!

She thought she attended a Christian revivalist AA. Hornbacher wondered: Could there be an AA for lapsed Catholics? Hare Krishnas? Ukrainian Jews. Hindus? Buddhists? Hornbacher wondered if Atheists were welcomed in the organization.

Hornbacher later learned AA and other 12-step programs do not exclude Atheists, but welcome 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.

Many people misunderstand Atheists as those who have no beliefs. Contrary to this perception, Atheists chose to pursue the nature of reality as passionately as any spiritual person. A good number of them explore various sciences, and question reality.

The only requirement for any 12-step program should involve one’s desire to end destructive behavior. Hornbacher initially felt she would have a problem with a “higher power” concept to start her path to sobriety. She is an Atheist and believes people can become sober—or conquer any addiction—without subscribing to faith, religion, or spirituality.

Hornbacher explains many people consider AA cultist, a bunch of blathering self-helpers, a herd of lemmings or morons, and it isn’t those things, either. She discovered It’s a pretty straightforward series of steps, based on spiritual principles, that helps people clean up their lives.

She gives advice to Atheists who feel intimidated about believers who attend AA meetings.

As 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; (3) they knew something I did not.

She then researched all AA literature, several major religions, and discussed her Atheism with priests, rabbis, fanatics and her father. People related their stories of God, divinity, love, intelligent design, a creator that had no origin and no end.

When Hornbacher tried to reason with people of faith of her conviction in science, chaos, and infinity, she wrote that they looked at her with despair. They asked, So, you think you’re the biggest, most important thing in the universe?

She wrote:

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.

She came to realize the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility, recognizing our flaws, and knowing we can and must change. She found her own higher power—not only sobriety, but help to others. As do most Atheists, Hornbacher believes her existence is chance, but that she is not alone. Rather, she views herself as a part of humanity. She to function on this hurtling planet is to give what I can to other extant things .

She wryly writes, That keeps me sober. Amen.

Mad Mike’s America thanks CNN and The Toronto News
Why does AA exclude secular chapters comprised of Atheists and Agnostics?

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Posted by on September 8, 2011. Filed under atheism/agnostic/spiritual,Commentary,COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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6 Responses to AA For Atheists

  1. Leslie Parsley

    September 8, 2011 at 10:41 am

    I don’t know if I’d describe myself as a dedicated atheist particularly. What I do know without a single doubt is that what keeps me sober is the mere thought of ever having to attend another AA meeting.

  2. Ernie

    October 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm


    So I’ve been attending AA meetings in the so called bible-belt for years and not once have I heard anyone name check Jesus let alone make aggressive declarations that its the “blood of Jesus Christ” that made them sober. I don’t know where Hornbacher went for her AA meetings but she found some that are very unlike those I’ve attended. If AA had a covert agenda of christian conversion I’m sure I would have encountered it by now. The AA preamble, which is read at every meeting, states:

    “A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution”

    Thus if anyone is proselytizing they can be reminded of the above statement. But as I said, I’ve never seen this happen because no one has crossed that line. I think Hornbacher took what was most assuredly an exceptional event and blew it out of proportion.

    Also I don’t know if its shoddy reporting on the part of CNN but AA doesn’t have “chapter leaders”. We do have group discussion leaders who change for every meeting but as reported in the CNN article its loosely worded to give the impression that AA groups have leaders who are perhaps dictating dogma to newcomers as a preacher would to a new convert.

    The article also indicates that Hornbacher feels that “The only requirement for any 12-step program should involve one’s desire to end destructive behavior”. So I’m wondering if she really has ever been to an AA meeting as the 3rd tradition, which is read at every meeting, states

    “The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking”.

    AA talks about “God as we understand him” with each being responsible for his/her own interpretation. The reality is that there are many agnostics and atheists in AA but its hard to determine what anyone’s so called “higher power” is because we rarely feel the need to tell others. In fact, if anything, we are encouraged to keep that personal unless someone asks and ,even then, its done outside of meetings.

    A higher power concept is there to get people outside of themselves and develop some perspective. There are no limitations on what one’s higher power is. AA members are free to believe anything they like about God including his non-existence. Something tells me that Hornbacher might know all this but it makes for a better book if stereotypes of AA can be used to make the book more interesting.

    • Michael John Scott

      October 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

      Thanks Ernie for a very informative reply. Your points are well taken and for me a lesson learned.

  3. Blair

    April 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    great insights
    i am writing an article for a university science journalism class on the effectiveness of AA for atheists. If anyone posted here has any stories theyd like to share, coming from an atheists perspective, i would really enjoy starting a dialogue. thanks for all the well articulated thoughts so far.

  4. Travis

    October 30, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Look, I’m no fan of organized religion. But the notion of all AA or Al-Anon group leaders preaching about the blood of Christ , etc etc is simply untrue. Perhaps that happens once in a blue moon, but it’s certainly not the norm.

    I’m currently reading her book Waiting, though as I often do struggle w/ the higher power thing and I have ever since I decided to not believe in Catholicism anymore. From the meetings I’ve attended, it’s clear that many people are very religious, which as a self-proclaimed Atheist can be a little offputting. However, everyone I’ve met there has been super nice and doesn’t try to cram their beliefs down your throat.

    I’d give Al-Anon and ACA a mostly positive review so far.

    • FriendofBillW

      May 27, 2014 at 9:24 pm

      I’ve been to meetings where someone has claimed to be Jesus, (we get some really sick people walking through the doors), but no one has referenced a particular higher power. Most of the meetings I’ve attended seem to have more agnostics/atheists than christians although given that no one really talks about a specific higher power, I can’t be sure. Comments like those made by Hornbacher do concern me because her experience seems , in my opinion, to have been manufactured to make it appear that AA is somehow “Jesus obssessed” or is a christian organization, which gives her a straw man to knock down in her book. She is hardly the first atheist or agnostic to have tried AA. It is an INclusive organization and I know many AAs who are atheist. Her depictions of the AA experience seem like those you might see in a poorly made TV show. And those depictions certainly don’t reflect the reality I’ve experienced in AA over the last decade.