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Can You Stay Sober Without God?

How can a non-believer navigate the twelve steps?  The Pulitzer-nominated author of Wasted discusses an agnostic's path to sobriety.

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Bestselling Author Marya Hornbacher on Recovery Without Religion
Photo by Mark Trockman

By Jesse Beach

09/21/11

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Twelve-step fellowships were founded on the idea of one amateur helping another. Our currency is experience, not expertise. If we canonize founders and enshrine their words as instructions or rules—on spirituality as in other matters—aren’t we forgetting the very message that was entrusted to us, to pass on to the next in line? Marya Hornbacher was next in line. Like many, she didn’t come to save her soul, she came to save her ass—only later did she find that they were connected.

Individualistic and flaunting a casual disdain for structure and authority, Marya’s also a rather famous writer: in 1998, whe she was just 23, she wrote  Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, which sold over a million copies in the US and has been translated into 16 languages. Her third book, Madness: A Bipolar Life rose to the top spot on The New York Times bestseller list in 2008.

Marya’s now been sober more than 12 years and her most recent two books are written addict-to-addict, continuing a conversation started in AA in the 1930s and keeping recovery talk alive for a new millennium. Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps was published last year and hot-off-the-press is May’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. She isn’t announcing her candidacy to lead a Twelve Step revolution in Waiting. She’s chronicling how she got sober in a God-conscious fellowship—without having a theistic world-view herself.

"I don’t know two people who share identical spiritual beliefs."

She wrote of recovery in Wasted, “There is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ended, or why or who you are. You want one and I want one, but there isn’t one. It comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up, and still there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented and imperfect.”

Many people wrote Marya to respond to this, saying it pained them to read it and asking if addicts ever feel whole. She asks what “wholeness” means to them: “Do you need to feel attached, complete, saved, well and perfect? I don’t need to feel that way. I know many people in recovery who accept their incompleteness, or that to the extent to which we can find any completeness, it comes from a spiritual life.”

Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power addresses the issue in depth. Hornbacher’s spiritual life is not a series of Hollywood “Ah ha!” moments of peace and clarity. Instead, spiritual connection is the doubt, the asking without a sense of entitlement, the humility, the waiting. Versed in the religious literature of a number of traditions, Hornbacher saw doubt portrayed as suffering—but that was not her experience. To her, doubt is an opportunity. Sometimes the answers come and sometimes they don’t, but the exercise of waiting teaches patience, humility and willingness. Now that is adapting to life on life’s terms. Who better to talk with about the challenges Twelve Step groups face in adapting an age-old message to the scrutiny of the modern world? She shared her thoughts with The Fix.

Why stick to the word “Nonbeliever?” Your writing clearly shows that you believe a lot.

I get asked, “Are you an atheist or are you an agnostic?” I don’t like the common definition of either word. People’s experience differs from this popular understanding. The assumption is that nothing spiritual exists for atheists. I know many atheists who do believe a spiritual life exists within us and between us. And many agnostics would not say, “Yes I believe there is something out there.”

“Nonbeliever” for me is a very specific term meaning that I do not believe in a theistic or deistic world or universe. I was frustrated. I was talking to a friend and I said, “You know I feel like I am required to know an upwardly located deity or power. I searched and I didn’t find one.”

When you say the word “atheist” you hear or feel or imagine a ripple; or maybe that’s just my perception. Maybe people don’t bat an eye. But my perception is that as I speak, you can hear people thinking, “Oh God, how is she going to do this if she can’t recognize God as she understands Him?” Some people suggest the group as your higher power, a door knob, whatever you need, but I struggle with the very idea of a higher power. My experience has been that I don’t require one in order to find spiritual growth in recovery. I find these things in the rooms, in actions, reflections, the work I do with people and the work they do with me.

So, your message is both for those inside the fellowship and those who dismiss a Twelve Step solution for their addiction because of an incompatible world-view?

The subject line of an email to me said, “You have taken away my last excuse for not going to AA.” That cracked me up. Many do stay away from AA because they feel like they are going to have to believe in a certain type of spiritual platform.

I don’t know two people who share identical spiritual beliefs. There are people who believe identical tenets, but tenets are not the same as spiritual or religious beliefs. Tenets are: I do or do not believe in abortion rights. Tenets are platforms. Those are the things I wanted people to move away from. [Waiting] is not about religious or spiritual tenets. It is not about, “I do believe this” and “I do not believe in that.” People who don’t believe in God are not a-spiritual. I also wanted to give a voice to the people who believe that without God-consciousness, they are destined to a cold and intellectualized world. I want them to realize that there is a way to spiritual connectivity without any deity.

I recently heard a story of someone asking a monk, who may have been Benedictine, “What is your life like as a monk?” The monk replied: “We walk, we fall down, someone helps us up. We walk some more; someone else falls down. We help them up. That’s pretty much what we do.” I love that; it is so spiritually articulate. We are responsible for the spiritual care and feeding of each other and ourselves.

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