Beliefs Culture

Grateful without God: A secular Thanksgiving

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" painting.

(RNS) 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.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" painting.

photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting

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.’”

“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.”

At Deborah Strod’s Thanksgiving table, the grace is less formal, but no less important, she said. She and more than a dozen friends, family members and a stray or two gather at her father’s Massachusetts home and go around the table, one at a time, saying what they are grateful for.

“They get pretty deep sometimes,” said Strod, a 49-year-old lifelong nonbeliever. “My father once said something like he is grateful that out of matter comes art and creativity and love. I suppose others would be grateful to a god or gods for that. In our case, it just is, but it does not change the level of appreciation.”

Nor does the fact that those at the table are speaking to each other — and not to God — alter the importance of the ritual, she said.

“We are all sharing things that are touching and important to us,” she said. “I think that sharing, regardless of how you explain the origin of the things being shared, is the most important point. It is a point of deliberate and shared human connection meaningful to everyone there.”

Sarah Kaiser, 25, said her family used to say a religious grace before celebratory meals so steadfastly that today, even as an atheist, she jokes that she sometimes doesn’t know when to begin eating until grace is said.

But since Kaiser began identifying as an atheist in college, her mother has introduced “Quaker grace” at the Thanksgiving table — a moment of silence in which Kaiser says she tries to clear her mind and enjoy the presence of those she loves.

“I really like that,” Kaiser said. “It seems a lot more open and accepting than a lot of traditions.”

“An Atheist Benediction” by Adam Lee

“As we come together to share this meal, let us first remember how it came to us and be thankful to the people who made it possible.

This food was born from the bounty of the Earth, in warm sunlight, rich earth and cool rain.

May it nourish us, in body and mind, and provide us with the things that are good for living.

We are grateful to those who cultivated it, those who harvested it, those who brought it to us and those who prepared it.

May its consumption bring about the pleasures of friendship, love and good company.

And as we partake of this food in each other’s company,

as what was once separate from all of us becomes part of each of us,

may we also remember what we have in common and what brings us all together.

May this sharing of food foster peace and understanding among us,

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.

May it remind us that as we reach out to others to brighten their lives,

so are our lives brightened in turn.”

 From Jennifer Beahan:

“We give thanks to Nature for all it has provided us.

For Family and Friends who walk with us throughout the years.

We give thanks for those who have touched our hearts and made us smile.

We give thanks to those who have alleviated suffering,

Who have championed a cause,

For those who have resisted unjust laws,

Who have fought against oppression and injustice, and have fought for the freedoms we enjoy.

We give thanks for those who have sacrificed their lives to make our world a better place to be.

We give thanks for those who have advanced our understanding of medicine and science.

Who have helped explain the workings of the Universe.

We give thanks to those who have applied paint to canvas in a way that stirs feelings deep within us,

Who have composed songs which make our spirits soar,

To all the people – past, present and future – who strive to better our world and make life worth living, to these people, we give our highest praise and our endless thanks.”


Video courtesy The Atheist Voice via YouTube

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • You should also be very thankful that God will welcome you back when you realize your foolishness of denying God.

  • I would respectfully disagree with Hemant. If your family and friends don’t already know you’re not a believer, you need to do a better job of communicating with them throughout the year, sharing lives, feelings and yes even beliefs. Many in my my family are believers, and I respect their right to believe, as they respect mine not to. If they say a prayer, no one expects me to close my eyes and lower my head, but they also expect I will show them respect in their beliefs be being quiet, which I do. We have made it a tradition to say a little something about what we are grateful for in the past year, one at a time. Most of the time it is for something that one of us has done for another. Goodness, kindness, and just being human to each other can be achieved without belief in a fairytale.
    Happy Turkey day to both believers, and non-believers!!

  • I’m thakful for “Frank.’

    For his “dribble.”
    For the predictability of his posts.
    For constantly being a sounding gong and tinkling cymbal.
    For his constant spelling of “Gods” when he means “God’s” which makes him seem a polytheist.
    For just being “Frank”

  • Thankful to the animals who gave up their lives so we can eat?! And the atheists say religion is nonsensical?! It’s not as though the animals had a say in it.

  • You can say what you want, you can think what you wish, but one day we will all stand before a righteous God and give an account of one’s self. What will you say then?

  • John Gibson- prove it. A book that cites itself as proof isn’t proof. If I stand before god, I’ll ask why all the stupidity in his creation, why an appendix, why do you let children get raped, planes fly into buildings when I’m sure at least one person prayed, maybe the pilots payers meant more to god… Oh well.

    John Bancroft – nature is the catch all for the natural world, they didn’t pray to it, they’re thankful for the system to which makes such things as us, breathing, eating, mating and in the odd occasion returning to the cycle, I say odd occasion cause embalming pretty much nullifies that process. About being thankful for the animals to eat, no they didn’t have a say in it, as much as I despise the taste of turkey, I’m thankful to its ugly hide feeding me, especially since it had no say in it.

  • fWe don’t need to be thankful TO anything, just be thankful in general. Just admire how lucky we all are to have the things we have, and a relatively non-threatening planet on which to live. It was not because of a “God’s” grace, or even the mercy of nature. It was just the way things turned out that you and I have a life to live, food to eat, and a computer on which to read this. If God did not exist (or abandoned us), some people would still have more than others, coincidences would still happen, events of great joy and great sorrow would still happen. Don’t be thankful, just recognize how much worse your life could have been, and how the environmental events in your life did not make it that way. Heck, you could use the moment as an opportunity to recognize how your life could be so much better, and how the environmental events in your life did not make it that way. Have a reasonable and happy Thanksgiving.


  • …actually Kevin, that sums it up perfectly, things leading up to my existence more or less a series of un/fortunate events.

  • That wasn’t meant to be an “offering”… just an observation.
    Here’s a Thanksgiving secular grace I cooked up for tonight’s dinner:

    We are grateful for the presence of those we love, for all the events and circumstances which have made it possible for us to be here.
    We are thankful for this food, for those who planted, grew, provided and prepared it.
    We stand in awe-struck gratitude for the countless millions of stars which, by exploding, provided the elements which make up everything we are and all we know.
    We hope that, in the fullness of time, all peoples everywhere will have the bounty we are grateful for today.

  • Dear Adrian I certainly feel sorry for you and all the non- believers in this present age, however I promise you one thing for sure, when you stand before God you will not ask anything , but mercy, but it may be too late.

  • John, you can promise all you like, but you lack the authority (read “evidence”) to do so.
    Don’t feel too sorry for me and others like me. I’m enjoying and making the most of this life, the only one I will have; and I’m not wasting any of it worshiping, fearing, or generally sucking up to an imaginary sky fairy.
    In the unlikely event your scenario occurs, I will ask “the boss” why he did such a pathetically bad job of providing any reasonable evidence of his existence. and if that means I get sent to eternal fire, I’ll at least get off one loud “[expletive deleted] you!”
    And I’ll have lots of good company as well! 🙂

  • “We are lucky in the grand scheme of the universe”? No disrespect (well, not too much anyway), but what in the Sam Hills kind of godless thanks is that? Oh shoot, let me just shut up on this mess. Mr. Abe, will you please explain things again to this wayward nation?

    “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

    — Washington DC, October 3, 1863.

  • Steve, John Gibson is too uneducated to understand any other concept besides what has been drilled into him as a child. It is easier to believe in the fairytale of god then try to understand the complexities of this universe. He believe wholeheartedly in god but hasn’t read the bible. He preaches to others but doesn’t follow the word of jesus ie he owns a computer.Some people simply lack common sense.

  • Sounds like a great start to being thankful. Just one more step to thank the creator who created everything you are thankful for. Then you will have some wisdom.

  • Jeez, read these comments by Christians babbling on about their magical, invisible friend.


  • Gee, thanks for the pity, though I need it about as much as I need your psychopathic imaginary “god”. Meanwhile, if you can provide any plausible evidence that the “god of Abraham” is any more real than the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pesto be Upon Him… he boiled for your sins), I’d like to see it.

  • I am an atheist who thinks it’s pretty silly to be “thankful” except to the cook. Why not say we are “glad” to be alive, glad to be with loved ones, etc.–that we “celebrate” being alive, celebrate being with loved ones?

  • If that’s your best argument then you have failed miserably. And if you don’t understand that ….double fail.

  • “What will you say then?”

    To quote the late, great Steve Landesberg on the show Barney Miller when confronted with the same question, “Whoops”

    Pascal’s Wager?


    You want to go with the idea that God is vainglorious and cares nothing for the actions of people, but just wants to be praised in an empty fashion.

    Are you sure you want to go that route? It makes God seem awfully petty and undeserving of genuine devotion.

  • It doesnt make what your saying any less ridiculous. Fairy tales for adults… Ill pray for you frank that you see the light one day and stop wasting your life on such nonsense. (see we can be condescending too).

  • Eveidence is actually a good thing to have when trying to prove something, Athough, it doesnt supreise me that you dont think that way.