Marya Hornbacher (author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power) was “vaguely atheistic” and “very alcoholic” when she began AA and was taken aback by all the “higher power” talk. Her response was not to just to submit to dogma and just believe in God and nor was it to reject the program altogether. Instead she inquired into the connections between where she comes from, how she fits into the universe, and where meaning comes from for herself, and found her own better path to the humility AA requires from people, to reasonable success. She describes her personal process and her reasoning process very well:
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.
Recently, I also interviewed Friendly Atheist’s Richard Wade on the topic of atheists and Alcoholics Anonymous. Richard’s advice was extremely good as well and the comments section was illuminating about the dark and nastily anti-atheist (anti-rational) side of AA. There is a need for the Marya Hornbachers of the world to articulate alternative conceptions of humility and to promote them among their fellow AA members. I also recommend checking out my own philosophical account of the nature and value of humility, wherein I focus on some other important truths which should prove to us that it is only rational to be humble in some respects (even as we should rightfully be proud in others).