Giving thanks, the ‘nones’ way

Esther J. Cepeda
Staff Photo |

CHICAGO — Early 20th-century American author Wallace Wattles was fond of saying that “the exercise of gratitude will never fail to strengthen your faith and renew your purpose.”

Just because some people thought the man who wrote the 1910 self-help book “The Science of Getting Rich” was something of a spiritual charlatan doesn’t mean that his take on giving thanks is any less true or relevant today.

However, at a time when more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public) plus nearly 33 million others say they have no particular religious affiliation (14 percent of the population), Wattles’ view of gratitude begs the question: Faith in what?

The well-documented rise of the “nones” — who report not identifying with a particular religion — is changing our social lives in ways we haven’t yet begun to fully quantify, much less understand.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, about half of Americans say the growing number of “people who are not religious” is bad for our society. About the same number say it’s either a good trend or doesn’t make much difference.

Yet there is something afoot. People are coming together to revel in fellowship, good music and the affirmation of life — all without a deity to organize around.

Last week, several news outlets ran stories about the rise of atheist “megachurches.” As is happening in cities across the world, crowds of nonbelievers flocked to Los Angeles to a “Sunday Assembly” of merry-making and living up to the motto “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

Thanksgiving is the holiday where we acknowledge our blessings. With unprecedented numbers of people not thanking a particular holy spirit, it occurs to this ex-Catholic, that we should reconsider our traditional notions of gratitude.

After talking to several other “nones” about who or what they’d be thanking this Thursday, the consensus I found was that one can be plenty thankful without thanking a spirit. We can appreciate all that we are and all that we have without attributing the blessings to a particular faith.

“When I asked my husband who he thanks on Thanksgiving, he said he’s always thankful for the cook,” said Rebecca Hale, the president of the American Humanist Association, an organization made up of atheists, agnostics and other unaffiliateds striving to “bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted way to live life.”

She added, chuckling, “Well, I’m not grateful for the cook because I am the cook — so it’s really all about your perspective.”

Taking a more introspective turn, Hale told me that to her, it’s really all about mindfulness.

“We humanists don’t like to say ‘thank you’ to somebody with some sort of power over whether we have food on our table,” Hale said. “I’d rather be mindful of how wonderful the universe is, mindful of my family and how much I love them, mindful of the farmer who farmed the sweet potatoes I’m going to eat and the trucker who brought them to the store. It’s about taking that moment of pause to think about how fortunate we are.

“And that’s whether or not we’ve worked our butts off for what we have — some people do work hard every day and still don’t have access to clean air, clean water or plentiful food.”

The inclusiveness of this mindset is appealing. Especially, I’d imagine, to the many culturally, racially and religiously mixed families gathering to share meals that are probably more diverse in their ethnic origins than ever before.

“Last year we asked our membership to write to us about what they were thankful for and the range of answers was, well … heartwarming,” Hale said.

She sent me a large sample of responses and they were much like what you’d hear around any average Thanksgiving Day table: appreciation for family, friends, shelter and health. Maybe even with an added twinge of wonderment and idealism that, Hale said, the non-religious are rarely credited with.

My favorite: “My thankfulness is to have participated in this truly awesome Universe — or multiverse, if you prefer — and to have been born and lived a life that is meaningful in how I have contributed to our human society.”

Enjoy renewing your sense of purpose by being grateful and giving thanks freely.

— Esther Cepeda’s email address is Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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