What God Can Learn from Santa, or How to Lose Belief But Keep the Gifts

Click below for the recorded version of my first PechaKucha night, at the Opalka Gallery, Albany, New York. PechaKucha is a presentation format with strict parameters: 20 slides, 20 seconds of narration for each. So if I seem to be speaking extra slowly or suspiciously quickly at certain points, that’s why.

Thank you, Jesse, for the musical assist. And thank you, Liz, for the original invitation.

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Grace for an Atheist Table

Thanksgiving table

As an atheist, I have always loved Thanksgiving. It’s the perfect holiday: national but not nationalistic, it celebrates consumption but not consumerism. And it provides all the benefits of a religious holiday (food! family! fellowship!) without reference to a Supreme Being.

Or so I thought. Until, curious, I looked up the facts — a terrible mistake if you want to leave your beliefs undisturbed. The origin of Thanksgiving is seriously, sincerely religious, more so than Christmas. Apparently New England colonists used to declare days of prayer in which to give thanks to God, and George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation—October 3, 1789—does just that. It recommends “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be… devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

OK, got it. No wiggle room there.

From “Whereas” to “in the year of our Lord 1789,” in 467 words, there are seven mentions of God as a noun, four as a pronoun, and five as a possessive adjective (“his”).

Where’s the food? The feast? The harvest? One word—“plenty”—will have to suffice.

Seventy-four years later, Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation began like this: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Ah, that’s more like it. But — wait — that’s shocking! The year that was drawing to a close was 1863, the bloodiest year of the Civil War. Those fruitful fields were the scene of gruesome, relentless slaughter: more than 100,000 men lost their lives in Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and Chickamauga alone. This would be like writing, mid-September 2001, “It’s been another beautiful week in New York City.”

But that’s the point of this call for gratitude: even in the midst of our great national horror, there is good, so much good. Lincoln’s proclamation—probably written by his Secretary of State, William Seward—is longer than Washington’s and refers to God less often, but does so far more pointedly: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God . . .”

And it goes on:

To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

That’s my heart he’s talking about. And my children’s hearts. (And possibly Lincoln’s; he was not known to be devout.) Of course, as an atheist, I don’t ever ascribe these gracious gifts to God; I never believed a supernatural being to be the source of the bounties that I enjoy.

And yet, like any other lucky soul, I am still “prone to forget” my many blessings and am “habitually insensible” to my own good fortune. I can use a day set aside now and then to make myself remember.

I could—with apologies to the Puritans—keep Thanksgiving but leave God and prayer out of it. Just because it began as a day of prayer doesn’t mean mine has to be. Atheists don’t have to thank God: they can thank their hosts (or welcome their guests), toast the cooks, and enjoy the food.

Maybe that would be enough for me if I didn’t have kids. But even though I don’t want my children to believe in God, I still want them to believe in blessings. Beauty. Wonder. Good fortune. Grace.

And have the words to talk about them.

So I have written a prayer, a few communal words that try to express not just passing emotion but universal truth. As an atheist who craves the comforts of religion, I do a lot of DIY: making new meaning of old holidays, making up my own holidays, trying (and trying again) to establish family rituals. Sometimes, to be honest, I get discouraged. Religious feeling depends so much on community: on the fact that the whole village recognizes the significance of a bar mitzvah, that everyone beside you in church knows the tune of the hymn. How can I possibly achieve that on my own?

Still, I think of the extraordinary bounties that my children and I enjoy, and I have to try.

If you like this prayer, please consider saying it before your Thanksgiving meal. Wherever you are, you’ll be saying it with us.

For the food.

For the sun and earth, farmer and cook,

We give thanks.

For family and friends.

For___________ [this is the interactive part, if you want it to be: the speaker of the prayer names person to the right, who says “and for ___________,” naming person to the right, and so on, till back to the speaker; or the speaker could just name everyone]

We give thanks.

For the time to gather and the leisure to sit and the spirit to celebrate

We give thanks.

We pause to remember those who cannot be with us today

And those who live more in famine than in feast.

May our sense of good fortune overshadow our daily troubles

And yet cast light on the struggles of our neighbors.

For life’s great bounty and the will to share it

We give thanks.

And in gratitude, we eat.

Amen.

****

I am grateful to The Friendly Atheist, where this post first appeared.

Four Criteria for Thank-You Notes (or why Lena isn’t done yet)

IMG_6945“You’re not going to like this,” says Lena, handing me a thank-you note fresh from the printer. It is 7 already; bedtime is 8. This is the final task standing between her and TV.

I read it. “You’re right,” I say. She waits. I tell her what to do.

“That’s it?”

“Yep.”

“OK,” she says, and heads back to the computer.

That, my friends—that remarkable exhibition of obedience—is the Principle of Parental Certitude at work. When faced with their parents’ absolute certainty, children (at least young children) tend to obey. Whatever rules you consider non-negotiable, your children will not try to negotiate.

In practice, of course, almost everything is negotiable. You’re a reasonable person. You’re willing to let piano practice go for the day, wait till tomorrow for the room to be cleaned, accept sub-standard levels of personal hygiene. Or if you’re not, your co-parent is. In our case, once we remove every topic on which either of us is at all ambivalent, we’re left with . . . kids who eat their vegetables, make eye contact with adults, and write thank-you notes.

The thank-you note imperative comes from my side of the family. If a high regard for manners and a deep respect for the written word married and had a baby, it would be me—I mean, a thank-you note. I’m not obsessed with the details. It doesn’t have to be handwritten in black or blue-black ink. It doesn’t have to be perfectly spelled or punctuated. It doesn’t have to be perfectly serious. But it does have to meet certain criteria.

(1) It must be written.

On actual paper. Which my children then put in an envelope, on which they painstakingly write the address. They thanked the person in person or on the phone? I don’t care. They’re not sure it was really a present? I don’t care. Texting is easier? I don’t care. The gift-giver went to some trouble; my children will acknowledge that by going to some trouble themselves.

 (2) It must be written by a human.

“Thank you for the ___________! I love it. I’m glad you could come to my party” could come from a robot. Not even an empathetic, Wall-E type robot; more like the kind that assembles cars. And yet that’s the sort of thank-you note that children turn out all the time. I am sympathetic, believe me: it’s surprisingly difficult to write in a human voice. So I instruct my kids to begin a thank-you note with anything but “Thank you for the . . .” If they force themselves to start in some other way—any other way—then the rest of their letter is less likely to fall down the thank-you note production chute.

(I used to insist on the different-first-line rule, until presented with a note that bore the following first line: “Mom says I can’t start this letter with the words ‘thank you.’” Outsmarted, I relented. Still, my children almost never start with “thank you” because they know it boxes them in.)

(3) It must be written to a human.

That means my kids have to acknowledge not just the gift—the particular gift—but the particular person. Children who write “Thank you for the present” become the new parents who send out a form email with a photo of Baby Trixie and a sentence thanking us (and presumably many others just like us) for our “generous gift.” Um . . . you’re welcome?

The subtext of the thank-you note is recognizing another human being: I see your generosity. I see what you mean to me. I see you. (All forms of ritual correspondence do this: a condolence letter says, I see your pain.) A form letter does the opposite: it makes the gift-giver feel invisible, unseen.

I would prefer not to receive a thank-you note than to receive this kind. At least then I could think badly of the (spoiled, heedless, or irresponsible) person rather than of my (unimportant, unnoticed, or unloved) self.

(4) It must express gratitude.

Many thank-you notes fail this most obvious requirement because they don’t meet criteria 1, 2, or 3. It can be hard to find the gratitude in a hastily written, rote, or generalized sentiment. But it is possible to meet the first three criteria and still fail to meet the last. Lena, for example, was so intent on chatting about the present in question that she forgot to write a sentence expressing thanks for it. Sometimes, too, my children kind of write around the gift itself because they didn’t really want it. These letters are still sweet and friendly, but there’s something missing: true gratitude. To write true gratitude—gratitude that can be felt by the reader—you have to feel true gratitude, if only for the ten minutes you are writing.

This exercise is important exactly to the extent that it is difficult. My kids are spoiled, materially speaking. They have and continue to receive far, far more than they need. In the midst of all this luck and luxury, they must take a moment to contemplate their good fortune and those responsible for it.

Not “they should” or “they would do well to” . . . they must. And so Lena does, without arguing, tonight, before TV. She can clean her room tomorrow.

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