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An atheist Thanksgiving: Yes, the godless can ‘give thanks’ — and here is how they do it

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A popular Internet meme asks the question: When atheists celebrate Thanksgiving to whom are they giving thanks?

Of course, we don’t need to believe in a supernatural deity to feel thankful for friends, family, and all the privileges which make life good on this fourth Thursday of November. 2015 has been one of the best years of my life so far: the birth of my first grandbaby, being named “Atheist of the Year” at the American Atheists National Convention in Memphis, being head over heels in love! I can’t help saying, Thank you, Thank You, Thank You! to all the wonderful people who’ve added to my happiness.

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I asked my atheist friends to share why, how, and to whom they’re grateful this year. Their responses are thoughtful and heartwarming.

Amanda Marcotte, Feminist writer:

I’ve been doing Friendsgiving long before they called it that, and I’m grateful to have such wonderful, loving friends to eat a bunch of food with and to chat about our mutual obsessions without judgment. Oh, and without praying. I’m in my 30s and still have no idea what to do when people are praying.

Bruce Gerencser, Former Independent Fundamental Baptist pastor, blogger:

As chronic illness and pain make their mark on my life and I struggle to face each new day, I’m grateful for a loving wife, six wonderful children, and ten reasons to get up in the morning, my grandchildren. It is my family that gives meaning and purpose to my life, and for this I’m thankful.

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Beth Presswood, Godless Bitches:

I’m thankful for a religious family that finally came around and started treating me and my atheist husband with respect, despite our differences.

Dan Arel, Author/Journalist, Author of Parenting Without God:

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I am thankful that I am able to raise my family in such peace and happiness while knowing that many of the world’s families are living through so much turmoil. I am grateful that my family understands our social responsibility to do everything we can to help those around the world who most desperately need it.

Daniel Fincke, blogger at Camels With Hammers, and private philosophy teacher:

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I am in awe of the number of human beings whose contributions are indispensable to everything I do—from our forebears who painstakingly discovered agriculture and built societies, to modern people who have created world transforming sciences, technologies, and social institutions. Each one of us is the heir to enormous efforts of imagination and countless hours of labor. And I am thankful whenever I contemplate how many people it takes to produce the food I eat, to synthesize the plastics, to design and build all the buildings and roads, to do the computer programming, collect the garbage, devise vaccines, run factories, transport raw materials and finished goods around the world, and to do all the investigative journalism and political activism, etc., creating a world where I can meet so many of my needs and wants, while devoting my energies to my own passions and contributions to society. And I can never have enough gratitude to my parents, teachers, professors, friends, colleagues, enemies, and lovers for the efforts they have put into building up my own personal abilities. I feel nothing but gratitude and a sense of responsibility not to squander so much investment, but to help keep the grand human project going.

David Silverman, President, American Atheists, author of Fighting God:

I am grateful for, most of all, time and effort.  So many of us get tangled in the material, but I strive to focus on intent, dedication, and love.  At Thanksgiving I focus on the time and effort my family spends on me and us, and I am grateful for this most of all.

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Ed Brayton, Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

This year, like every year, I’m thankful to be surrounded by an incredible community of people – atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist – who share a commitment to social justice, equality and service to others. The holidays for me have always been about family and community and I am thankful that most everyone in mine are in relatively good health. And I am thankful to those in the broader atheist community who work to build a movement based on humanist values rather than just a rejection of religion.

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement:

I am very thankful to have been given love and support since the moment I was born, I am also very lucky to have made it alive out of Iraq, and been given the opportunity to be able to help people over there through Movements.org

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Greta Christina, blogger, author of Why Are You Atheists So Angry?:

I have a strong awareness of having good things in my life that I didn’t earn. Including, most importantly, my very existence. And it feels wrong to not express this awareness in some way. It feels churlish, or entitled, or self-absorbed. I don’t like treating my good fortune as if it’s just my due. I think gratitude is a good thing. Gratitude is intimately connected with one of our central ethical values — our sense of fairness and justice. It’s how we know that the scales of fairness have tipped in our direction — and it’s what inspires us to balance that scale, and give others their due. That’s a good thing.

James Croft, Outreach Director, Ethical Society of St. Louis:

This year I’m grateful for my community at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and for the trust they’ve placed in me as their Outreach Director. Very few people are lucky enough to wake up every morning excited to go to work, and I am so thankful that I get to follow my passion for Humanist activism and community building not just in my personal life but as a career.

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John W. Loftus, Debunking Christianity, author of How to Defend the Christian Faith: Advice from an Atheist:

I’m grateful for being alive now in this era, rather than in the barbaric past, or what looks like the coming worldwide religious wars, and/or global disasters in the future. I’m also thankful I have been healthy enough to live longer than most human beings have ever lived, and that I have had more wealth than most people on the planet can dream about, and that I’ve never gone a day without the essentials of life.  I’m also grateful for my family and personal friends who, like me, have never known the violence we see in many parts of the world today. I’m also grateful to have broken out of the cave of superstition, and knowing I’m one of the lucky few who see the universe and our world as it is, without pretending there is a mind-reading barbaric deity telling us what to do, such that we have the privilege of figuring it out for ourselves, and doing a much better job of it. Yes, I am thankful that the forces of nature just happened to give me and others these wonderful gifts. I’m thankful I’ll have the privilege of dying, since that is the price I must pay for being alive, and knowing that upon dying I’ll return to the same state I was in before being born, rather than suffering eternally because I could not believe in a deity that lacked sufficient evidence.

Lilandra Ra, Reason Advocates:

My mother’s family were refugees from the Vietnam war. My mother flew over from Vietnam before it fell with me in her belly. I am thankful that I have never had to escape from my own country. My heart goes out to Syrian and other refugee families that have lost everything including loved ones that are irreplaceable.

Mandisa Thomas, Founder and President, Black Nonbelievers, Inc.:

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Every experience in my life has taught me valuable lessons that I can use to have a better existence for myself, and to try and help others. I am especially grateful for my late grandmother, Ethel Mae Welch, for being such a loving and caring person. It is the kindness and caring of people like her that I am thankful for, and that I try to share.

Matt Dillahunty, The Atheist Experience:

I’m thankful that I live in the best of times when people are healthier and have better access to information than at any point in history. I’m thankful for the freedom that allows us to seek understanding and to realize the full potential of human greatness.

Nathan Phelps, Former Westboro Baptist Church member, Writer, Speaker, LGBT Advocate:

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I find it a daunting challenge to effectively communicate all I’m grateful for. The sense of peace that came with discarding the hateful, painful concept of a creator and discovering a rich community of like-minded people who put the humanist qualities in action in their lives.

At the same time I am humbly grateful for the ability to affect the lives of so many people through a coincidence of birth.

But in the final analysis, it’s the people I’m surrounded by in my personal life. A wife with infinite patience and an emotional heart; beautiful,  intelligent children who get to live their lives free of a burden of mythical fear; and precious, miraculous grandchildren who make my heart younger.

Ophelia Benson, blogger, author of Does God Hate Women?

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I don’t love the word “thankful” in this context, I suppose because it sounds too personal and who would that person be if not some version of “God”? But I’m very glad to live in a world with…sunsets, rain, music, dogs, cats, chocolate, mountains, oceans, forests, books, art – even the Internet. I’m very glad I live at a time when and in a place where women are allowed to go outside without asking anyone’s permission. I could go on this way forever.

Rebecca Hensler, Grief Beyond Belief:

I’m profoundly grateful every day for the many people in my life and my community who — as a secular teenager I know once said – “make our own miracles.” The miracles of compassion and kindness and patience and creativity, even in times of great struggle and pain. The miracle of love, even when one is grieving or suffering. I see this every day at Grief Beyond Belief and am infinitely grateful.

Rebecca Vitsmun, Foundation Beyond Belief:

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This year, I’m grateful that I’ve learned that I want nothing more out of life than to be a 95 year old woman who is bedridden, humming music to herself, and who has become friends with her caretakers. I’m grateful that I desire to fill all of the moments between this one and that with all of the things that I love and can do. I’m grateful that at every low moment this year, I was able to find a way to feel better about what was happening; from being happy that chastising my armed robber goaded him into being more polite when he stole my car, to watching the hour a day I placed into learning the ukulele allow me to write my first song while bedridden with a neck injury, and another song when again bedridden with a ten-day-long asthma attack. I was grateful to watch myself, breathlessly singing and strumming away with a smile on my face, because I could imagine 95 year old me, left with little more than myself, still happy. I’m grateful for a husband who cared for our amazing child while I worked on a project I believe in. I’m grateful to spend my time in life doing the things that I love and that I have the great fortune of loving many things.

Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Sense and Goodness without God:

I’m thankful for the advantages accident has bestowed on me, to be born and raised when and where I was, in life and in history, for my intelligence and the opportunity to develop it with education, and for all the good times I’ve been able to have, and all the good friends who stick by me. But I’m even more thankful that these benefits are becoming available, albeit maddeningly slowly, to more and more people across the earth, even in the face of resistance, and that I can be a small part of helping make that happen, as both writer and citizen, of a democracy that is far from where it should be, but very roughly heading in the right, albeit still distant, place to be.

Russell Glasser, host of The Atheist Experience:

I’m grateful that we live in a time of instant communication with everybody on the planet, and that vast amounts of information are at my fingertips at all times because of mobile devices. I’m grateful that this technology has brought unbelievers and freethinkers together, so that they can express their opinions confidently and not be marginalized. Although we still have a long way to go, and there are roadblocks every step of the way, I am an optimist and believe that our lives are on an upward trajectory towards more education and better understanding of each other.

Ryan Bell, Year Without God, Life After God:

I am thankful for the people in my life who have been a life line to me; people who have supported me through relationship challenges, job losses, and deep uncertainty about my future. I am grateful for the many new friends I have made along my journey. People who have stuck with me as my world came unraveled and new friends who have supported me more recently. You know who you are and I could not be more thankful for you.

Sarah Morehead, Atheist, Secular Humanist, Mother, and Activist, Recovering From Religion:

It’s easy to feel grateful when we’re surrounded by abundance, but how do you find appreciation when pastures of plenty become a barren tundra? I frequently say to myself: “If this is my biggest crisis, I’m luckier than most. If it isn’t… I’d better save my energy.” This reminds me that whatever I am facing, I always have things to be grateful for. When the checkout line stalls, it keeps me grounded. When the “big stuff” hits, it keeps me cognizant of what I have, rather than what I don’t.

In recent weeks my family was rocked to the core with heart stopping news that has changed us forever. A jagged terrain lies ahead, far beyond my range of experience or understanding. Emotions swirl from cold rage to utter despair, and it seems vast and infinite before we will regain solid footing. Some of you might identify with these feelings. You might know how easy it is to sink into a crevasse of hopelessness, especially with the holidays just ahead. So how does one feel grateful in times like this?

The more challenging life becomes, the more intentionally thankful I am. Notice I said intentionally thankful? That’s because I make time daily, sometimes hourly, to seek out my own gratitude, big and small. This keeps me from drowning in stress and anxiety of uncertainty, and I’ve taught this to my kids as well. Thankfulness becomes our fresh air, our respite from feeling lost in the frustration of helplessness with situations far beyond our control. I might “find my thankful” in a smile from a stranger, or an accomplishment that feels as big as landing on the moon. Maybe it’s a hug from my kids, or a Diet Dr. Pepper from a friend to lift my spirits. Today my 14 year old daughter “found her thankful” in the beautiful blue sky, and my 7 year old daughter’s “thankful” was for her beloved purple blanket. My almost three year old son gleefully thanked his brain for his toes. This is a daily exercise I have taught my children, and they now use sincere appreciation as their oxygen mask. When the air gets too thin, when the mountains feel too big to scale, we embrace genuine and valid reasons to be thankful for every breath, every triumph (big or small), and every step we take.

Intentional, daily gratitude makes traveling this road a little easier, and our thoughts a little more clear. It keeps us focused on an upward spiral of what we can control amidst the chaos, even if it’s only this. For us, it makes every day Thanksgiving. and for that, I am truly and deeply grateful.

Seth Andrews, The Thinking Atheist, author of Sacred Cows:

I’m tremendously thankful for the support and friendship of so many across the globe who have taken me and my show into their lives.  They’ve become an extended – and cherished – family, and they’re a constant reminder that one doesn’t require the supernatural to be truly, exceptionally good.

Steve Hill, Comedian, Steve Hill for State Senate:

I’m so grateful to live in a country that has a constitution that stipulates that there will be no religious test to run for public office! #articleVI

Teresa MacBain, Director, The Hotline Project:

As a believer and a pastor, Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. It was a time when I examined all the good in my life, and gave thanks to God for everything. From the food on my table to the loved ones gathered around me, my gratitude was always directed toward a deity. Now, as a nonbeliever, Thanksgiving may be even more special to me. As I gather with friends and family for the holiday meal, I KNOW what giving thanks is about. It’s about looking at relationships, fortunes and misfortunes, and life in general through the lens of reason and reality. Instead of attributing everything to divine benevolence, I am able to see the arms that embraced me during a difficult time, the calloused hands that worked to produce and provide the food on my table, and the hearts of those who devote their time to help others. That’s what Thanksgiving is for me. Saying thank you, not to God, but to the person who makes a real difference in my life!

Thomas True, Organizer, Gateway to Reason, St. Louis, MO:

For me, the stress and planning of putting on a successful conference of freethinkers in St. Louis stands big. It brought the light of our community to the local area. it seems the result has lead to a more positive and visible community. It also has lead to some friendships that I value.

I am grateful for the many people in the country and nation that choose to stand up for equality in so many areas, sexuality equality, religious freedom for all, racial justice, and rights of others. it is good to have vision and a desire to stand against the delusional to show empathy for your fellow human.

Above all, I am thankful for my family that is accepting and/or is secular as well. I have been to two of my nieces weddings in two years and both were totally secular.

Shelley Segal, singer/songwriter:

Vyckie Garrison was once a minor celebrity in the Quiverfull Movement, made famous by TV’s Duggar family. As a devout, Bible-believing Christian and the mother of seven homeschooled children, Garrison spent 16 years, with her husband, publishing a newspaper for families on a similar path. Today, via a website called No Longer Quivering, she publishes resources for women leaving the movement.


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