The thankful atheist

Famous scientist and atheist Carl Sagan in 1980. Sagan, who died in 1996, was noted for his gratitude. (NASA / Public Domain)
Famous scientist and atheist Carl Sagan in 1980. Sagan, who died in 1996, was noted for his gratitude. (NASA / Public Domain)

The hateful atheist: it’s as common a stereotype as the perfectionist Mormon, and just as damaging.

I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), so when I heard the word “atheist,” a picture of a bitter, pretentious college professor came to mind.

I grew up reading the old Biblical proverb, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.” I was taught from childhood onward the moral imperative to believe and give thanks to my Maker.

Atheists were not thankful; they were blasphemers, spiteful of the bounty God provided to them.

Once I became an atheist myself, it took a little while to get that narrative out of my head.

This year’s film “God’s Not Dead” paints atheists as angry, narcissistic and shortsighted, unable to see another’s point of view. While I do think these kinds of people exist, they’re probably few and far between. I can confidently state I am not one of them.

I don’t hate God. I don’t even hate religion. Religion teaches good things, most of the time.

Another characterization of atheism does not ring true: the charge of ingratitude.

“In the last days perilous times shall come,” writes Paul in the New Testament. “For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful…”

On the face of it, this makes sense. Why show thanks to a being you don’t believe in?

Just because I don’t give thanks to God or gods doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate Thanksgiving.

I’m thankful to my parents, my community and my country. I’m thankful for artists, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

I’m thankful for everyone who makes life more than an unending stream of work, eating and rest.

I don’t think blessing a Thanksgiving Day feast in the name of God does any good (or any harm, really), but does that stop me from being thankful to those who prepared it? A moment of silence pondering how that food got to the table in the first place is an excellent idea.

Even if I can’t thank a specific person or organization, being thankful for my life in the abstract sense is ennobling. Call it “fate” or “the cosmos”; I like to take time to be thankful for my life, the good and the grit together.

The one thing I’ve learned in my short time here is to be thankful: thankful for the time I can spend with other people, the time I can use to give meaning to my existence, if I spend it wisely.

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence,” said renowned scientist and atheist Carl Sagan in 1996, eight months before he passed away. “Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

In other words, be grateful for what you have, and have a happy Thanksgiving!