Grateful without God: A secular Thanksgiving
This week, millions of Americans will pause before diving into the turkey, stuffing and gravy to give thanks to God for the bounty on their table.
But many of the nonreligious will also include a moment of thanks, as "secular grace" grows in popularity among atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers and other so-called "nones."
"We give thanks for what is happening here and now," said Maggie Ardiente, director of development and communications for the American Humanist Association, which last week asked members to share their secular grace on its website.
"It is important for us as nonbelievers to recognize that we are lucky in the grand scheme of the universe and to spend this time with our friends and family, and the tradition of doing that once a year, whether you are religious or not, is a valuable thing to do."
While secular grace addresses no deity and involves no spirituality, those who say it say it still fulfills a need.
"What we do is thank people," said Zachary Moore, a 33-year-old atheist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "Thanksgiving is like a microcosm of your life, when you can look at who has helped you get to the point where you have a family or a close circle of friends you can sit down with. As an atheist, I want to give thanks to those people and everyone around me. That is a real thanksgiving."
The idea of a secular grace is not new. Unitarian-Universalists and adherents of other nontheistic faiths have said godless blessings for years, and Robert Ingersoll, "the Great Agnostic," gave a "Thanksgiving Sermon" in 1897 in which he thanked scientists, artists, statesmen, mothers, fathers, poets and just about everybody except God.
Secular grace typically recognizes the animals who gave their lives for the feast, the people who prepared the meal and even the elements of nature that contributed to it — earth, water, fire and air. It also usually makes reference to the secular humanist touchstones of community, interdependence and relationships.
And there's one more key difference between secular grace and the religious kind: Secular grace is not offered as a prayer, but more as a benediction over those present.
"Gratitude knows no theology," Moore said. "Gratitude is a human experience."
It's unknown how many people offer up a secular grace. A Facebook page titled "1,000,000 People for a Secular Grace this Thanksgiving" attracted only 44 "likes" at its creation in 2010.
But polls reveal the number of those who adhere to no religion is on the rise — one in five Americans and one-third of all adults under 30, according to the Pew Research Center. And many "nones" observe elements drawn from religion. The same poll found 21 percent of the nonreligious say they pray every day.
"There is a big variance among people who are not religious," said Jennifer Beahan, assistant director of the Center for Inquiry's branch in Grand Rapids, Mich. Beahan, 25, has contributed a secular blessing at the city's annual interfaith Thanksgiving service several times since its inception in 2000.
"There are some who never want to do another ritualistic thing in their lives because it comes from religion," she said, "but there are others who like the ceremonial marking of things."
Adam Lee is one of them. Lee, a New York City-based novelist and blogger, wrote "An Atheist Dinner Benediction" after reading an advice column that recommended atheists leave the Thanksgiving table when a religious grace is said.
"But that yields the floor to the religious and outs you as an atheist, which can disrupt the family peace," he said. "I thought, 'Let's come up with something an atheist could say for grace.'"
Lee's grace, which first appeared online in 2006 and was included in a book about gratitude, has been widely used ever since.
"May this sharing of food foster peace and understanding among us," it reads in part. "May it bring us to the recognition that we depend on each other for all the good we can ever hope to receive, and that all the good we can hope to accomplish rests in helping others in turn."