It's a common misconception among theists that just about anything religious upsets atheists. Prayer, crosses, the Ten Commandments, you get the picture. What is misunderstood however is why atheists get upset over these things. Usually it comes down to separation of church and state, religion in public places, and our struggle to keep America secular. Atheist, secularists and humanists support the freedom of religion, but believe this includes all religions and the non-religious.
There is one thing however that does not cover any of the above reasons, and yet tends to upset many atheists, humanists and other secular persons. Thanking God.
To say that thanking God makes atheists mad should be further clarified. When the words "thank God I found that parking space" are spoken there is no anger, they find it silly, but it's not going to make atheists lose their minds. When they hear sports stars, musicians or celebrities thank God for their achievements, again, they may find this silly (does God really like Justin Bieber that much?), but it doesn't make atheists mad.
However, when a doctor saves someone's life, or when someone's cancer goes into remission after months or years of chemotherapy, you rarely hear doctors or modern medicine research thanked, but there is never of a lack of thanks to God. Personally feeling God looked out for you, or feeling "blessed" does not harm anyone, but don't forget to thank the ones who worked tirelessly and used all the knowledge of science and medicine they possibly could to save your life. Don't forget to donate to medical and scientific research so others may enjoy this same treatment.
Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett caught people’s attention when he proclaimed “thank goodness” after a brush with death in 2006. Dennett then wrote an essay of “Thank Goodness” and proclaimed “There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.” By thanking goodness, Dennett showed his gratitude to those who helped him, and did not place praise or blame on any person deity of which he does not personally believe. The doctors who saved his life, the friends and family who offered him comfort, those are who was deserving of thanks.
Now when a disaster strikes, a fire, tornado or even an act of terrorism, and lives are lost or ruined forever, and atheists hear "we were spared, thank God" or "we want to thank God for sparing the life of our child" atheists and humanists can tend to get angry. Why? Simple, they hear an insult to those who were not so lucky. They hear that your God thinks of you more highly than the children or adults lost or seriously hurt in a tragic event. To them, this sounds selfish.
During the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year a church posted online "Members of our congregation attended the Boston Marathon today, we are please to say we have heard from them all, everyone is okay, we want to thank God for looking out for the brothers and sisters of our congregation." What are atheists to think about the victims who lost their lives? Was God not looking out for them? Did God not value that child's life the same as those of the congregation?
Even more recently on September 16, 2013 a shooter walked into a Washington, DC Navy Yard killing 12 people. "I guess God was with me,” said Gary Humes to USA Today. Hume, because he went into work late, avoided injury or death. The idea that God was only with Humes on this day, but not the individuals killed or injured strikes a nerve among humanists and atheists.
When hearing the words thank God many atheists immediately wonder what the families who lost a loved one are feeling when they hear them too. Why would someone believe God is picking and choosing who to save and who not to? Many Christians do not believe God works in this way, but are quick to thank him when they believe he has benefited them personally.
If you want to thank God for sparing your family, that is your right, but be considerate and thoughtful of others. Tragedy should be a time of social solidarity. All those affected by disaster lose something, but some lose more than others, and instead of publicly praising what you have and rejoicing in your safety or good health, remember those who lost it all and reach out to help them piece their lives back together. Not as a Christian, Muslim, humanist, or atheist, but simply as a human being.