Atheist Grace

4 min read

On Thanksgiving Day, Americans of diverse spiritual affiliations follow the tradition of saying grace: atheists who have never ascribed to supernaturalism, atheists who deconverted from a religion they are now pushing against, post-theists who reject the theist-atheist dichotomy, and theists of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and other faiths. According to household surveys, theists do not have a monopoly on pre-dinner blessings. Still, non-theists may be uncomfortable with a ritual that seems religious. We shouldn’t be.

According to the Hebrew Bible’s overarching theme, all historical outcomes are controlled by God. In the Book of Deuteronomy,[1] a dying Moses reminds his people to never mistakenly believe that the might of their own hands is responsible for a success. Numerous Biblical legends about improbable, underdog victories reinforce this message: long odds can only be overcome with supernatural intervention. Israelites carried the ark of the covenant into battle, hoping for divine empowerment. But, when opponents were evenly matched, God withheld victory,[2] lest the Israelites conclude that their own hands had won them the day.[3] Iron Age people saw most of life as outside their control. The righteous suffer. The wicked prosper. Hard work and cleverness aren’t enough.

The truth in that 2600-year-old text has been reconfirmed by 21st-century research on class mobility, racial and gender privilege, and drivers of longevity and wealth accumulation. Today, we know that men walk more freely through the world than women do, with risks further away and opportunities in closer reach. We know that, compared to people of color, white people enjoy less fear of unwarranted police brutality and false incarceration, and more access to education, jobs, and promotions. We know from empirical data that childhood adversity explains much of later life outcomes. We understand that mental illness is a genetic sentence, exacerbated by exogenous circumstances. We know that men often earn more than women in the same job, while their lives cost less than women’s do; as a result, their higher net disposable income enables them to invest more, spend more on recreation, and afford to take greater physical and professional risks. And, we now know that the particularities of birthplace, graduation year, and one’s parents’ economic circumstances have more influence on net worth than raw intelligence does.

Compared to our pre-scientific, Iron Age ancestors, we can explain far more of our unmeritocratic world. And, in so doing, we concur with them that hard work and cleverness are not enough.

Thus, we must humbly also recognize that our own hands did not win us this feast here today. For that great portion of life that is indeed outside our control, today we come together to express gratitude. Giving thanks motivates some 90% of Americans to gather for a special meal on the fourth Thursday of November, and 15% of us to travel out of town to do so. Our people are moved by this beloved holiday.

So, who is it that are we thanking?

The religious impulse has been explained as gratitude without a concrete target, directed instead toward an abstract deity.[4] Humans conjure a supernatural controller for that great portion of life that is outside our control and that we cannot otherwise explain. Randomness causes angst, and religion offers comfort.

Thanksgiving began in 17th-century America as a Protestant Christian holy day, to thank God for a good harvest and for other positive events which had no known explanation. Most human societies have had an autumn harvest festival to thank deities for food supplies. Also, most religions feature sacramental meals, making Thanksgiving easily conceptualized as ecumenical and inclusive.

Alternatively, one can instead be grateful for statistical happenstance, without invoking any supernatural target. Non-theists accept that the great portion of life is both uncontrollable and unexplainable. Gratitude need not have an object. We are simply thankful for what is here today, mindful of the capriciousness and preciousness of human existence. Piety has been described as an awareness of absolute dependence on the infinite.[5] In that sense, non-theists and theists around the table today share piety as well as gratitude.

From Thanksgiving’s Christian Vorlage to today’s secular national holiday, we also carry forward the emotional value of ritual. Food serves as an identity marker; sharing food promotes bonding; and, drama intensifies experience. By sanctifying — literally “setting apart” — this dinner from the mundane consumption of everyday food, we enable a more profound sense of gratitude, be it of the object-directed or non-directed variety.

Therefore, whether one wishes to thank good fortune or thank divine providence, we can all agree and pause to reflect:

For the food we are about to receive

and for the fellowship at this table,

may we feel truly and humbly grateful.


Happy Thanksgiving!

— Denver 2017

[1] Deuteronomy 8:17

[2] Judges 7:2

[3] Psalms 44:3

[4] Richard Dawkins, contemporary British evolutionary biologist

[5] Friedrich Schleiermacher, German theologian active at the turn of the 19th century

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