Austria Michelangelo

A visitors passes a poster from the Sistine Chapel showing "Creation of Adam" at the Albertina museum, in Vienna, Austria.

To acknowledge a feast of Thanksgiving, to give thanks for what we have and be mindful of those who don’t have it, must one acknowledge some sort of higher power in the universe?

That is a question for each person to answer for themselves. But one answer to it in recent Eagle reporting left me wanting.

Asked how nonbelievers can mark the holiday, the Rev. Elizabeth Goodman of the United Church of Christ in Monterey and the Church on the Hill in Lenox, cited the federal holiday’s origin in a proclamation from Abraham Lincoln encouraging thanks toward God. Goodman “suggests that it wouldn’t be harmful to ‘pretend’” one believes in a higher power’s existence.

Goodman advises one to imagine a God “who is love itself” and consider what one would “give thanks to that God for” and what one would say “to that God.”

This is a lovely sentiment, and I am sure there are those who respond well to it.

But the root attitude — that the only way to experience the profound gratitude of the day is to emulate the faithful — is harmful. It implies that atheists’ firm and well-considered nonbelief is less-than, and implies that theists’ firm and well-considered beliefs are something that can be put on or pretended.

I do not begrudge Rev. Goodman giving a religious answer to the question of how a nonbeliever ought to approach a day of Thanksgiving ordained by an unabashedly religious state. But I felt an alternative was missing from Thursday’s dispatch.

It’s a heady question, one that comes up in every facet of daily life from the Pledge of Allegiance to organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous. Must one acknowledge a higher power in order to do or acknowledge good in America and the world?

The fact that the moral compass of atheists still points north is proven undoubtedly by the many upstanding nonbelievers who do good deeds, random acts of kindness and charitable works every day without the command or pressure of a higher power, but simply because that is what being a member of a human society entails.

Of course, I am not so naive as to look at millennia of religious history and ask with tongue-in-cheek: “But what did the Romans ever do for us?” I recognize that nonreligious human thought on sociology, psychology and ethics are intertwined intractably in the many volumes of religious thought written on the same subjects. Neither could exist in a vacuum.

The free speech I relish in writing this is rooted, among many other places, in the notion that each person should have unalienable equal rights — declared in 1776 as endowed from the Creator, and written down no later than Nicaea as the still-radical proposition that each person was an equal child of God.

Not pretending, but empathizing

Rather than pretending we believe something we do not, we can turn to a kinder alternative: People of all faiths or nonfaiths can place themselves in one another’s shoes and have empathy for those different from us. I do this with religious people of many backgrounds all the time.

A lover of art, I marvel at the intricate and sublimely beautiful architectural marvels, frescoes, altarpieces, sculptures, paintings, prints and illuminated manuscripts people produced while inspired by their religion. I am awed by how much joy and power and zeal they must have felt to hew from marble or etch onto canvas such impressive testaments.

A person who was raised in the Jewish faith, I find myself thinking often of ancestors whose names I never knew, whose villages have been wiped off the face of the Earth by the years and by evil, yet whose rituals and prayers I could go back in time and still somewhat understand.

I think of the deep, abiding spirit they must have held to undergo each successive hell yet still retain their faith long enough for it to pass to me. Sometimes I wonder whether my forsaking that faith throws away all that survival. I hope it doesn’t. I view them as people, made from dust and unto dust bade to return, as I am, each a thinking individual constrained by the knowledge and social mores of their time.

I try not to be hypocritical when I participate in ritual. To view it as a historical act, to put myself in the shoes of the people who first performed it, while acknowledging its roots in myth and superstition. To recognize the compilers of the holy books as creators in their own right, and to connect with them in some minuscule way as a writer.

Perhaps in an older faith tradition, whose rituals have been longer established and whose devotees possess a parallel, pseudo-ethnic connection, it is easier to view one’s religion through a historiographic prism. But for all it is possible, and a crucial step at answering the question of your beliefs for yourself — a question every person should try to approach.

Let there be light

This Hanukkah, I can light a candle and recall how miraculous it must have been for the Maccabees of history to win their struggle against Hellenistic rule, as miraculous as the flame that comes from a match when one knows little of how it works. I can even think about the writers who created the story of the oil that lasted for eight days, a parable of survival and grace, and appreciate that their myth has lasted into my household.

This Thanksgiving, I was able to look into the eyes of my family and be staggered by the immense luck, privilege, sacrifice and hard work it took for us to make it to the table for another year.

Because even without a religious angle, I can marvel.

How marvelous it is to possess a human brain, analytical yet empathic; intelligent yet all too fallible. The same collection of nerve cells that our ancestors used to investigate and attempt to answer the big questions is the one we use today.

The organ that inspired legions of scribes to write down the local legends of the time into the holy books of the world’s religions is the same one that we use today to find different answers and to question those books, weighing for each of us what we believe based on what they knew then against what we now know.

How marvelous to live in a society built by people who acknowledged that it is each person’s sacred right to determine for themselves that answer.

How marvelous to give thanks for all that we have, together, and enjoy a meal in each other’s company in an exercise practiced by our hominid ancestors since before the word “God” was ever uttered, sitting around a fire that seemed to come from another world.

How marvelous to not have to “pretend” to be awed by the world around us, even if one believes its entire existence is one extremely lucky happenstance.

Evan Berkowitz is The Eagle’s page one design editor.