How can the nontheist be thankful on Thanksgiving?
To many in the fundamentalist world, Thanksgiving is an especially difficult day to be a nonbeliever. It lays bare, they believe, the clear hypocrisy of a belief system they regard as one giant exercise in willful denial. It brings out with rather embarrassing clarity, they cluck, the God-shaped hole they presume sits at the core of our worldview. After all, we don’t believe in their god, so by our own rebellious logic, we have no one to thank. So why don’t we just sit around and mope on Thanksgiving Day?
So: either celebrate the holiday and admit you’re a hypocrite, or have the courage of your convictions to do nothing this Thursday, admitting that thankfulness without the fundamentalist God is irrational. Gotcha!
As always, these sorts of facile, black-and-white polarities obscure a whole lot of thoughtfulness and real human nuance. But today, let’s thank them for spurring us to think it through, and answer their challenge: why does it make sense to be thankful, if you don’t believe in a providential god?
I will even grant – because I think it’s entirely true – that gratitude is a salutary emotion. And I think this is true (mostly) for the reasons fundamentalists themselves lay out: it impels us to “count our blessings.” Gratitude makes us attend to, and hence appreciate, what we have. That’s a good thing.
In fact, I will go them one further: gratitude is also good because, in sensitizing you to the many good things you have, it deepens your awareness of, and empathy for, those who do not have as much. Thus, gratitude serves as an impetus toward social justice and helping others. That’s a good thing, too.
So, just how can the nontheist be thankful?
Well, for one, because there are lots of very this-worldly human beings to whom you do owe a debt of gratitude, for concrete things they have done. Your spouse, for instance, for the life you create together – the love, the companionship, the shared laughter, comfort and grief, the kick in the pants when you need it, and for the irreplaceable solace of the everyday. Your friends, for their acceptance and understanding, their encouragement, and their willingness to be honest with you and love you no matter what. Your parents, for their guidance and, hopefully, their belief in your better self. Your children for the inexpressible joie de vivre they bring into your life.
We can feel thankfulness to the farmers who grow our food, to the police, firefighters, and soldiers who protect us. To the engineers who build our roads, the scientists who expand our knowledge, and the mentors and teachers who educate us. To the writers, freethinkers, and intellectual rabble-rousers who challenge us to question our assumptions. To the clerk who helped you use the self-checkout isle successfully. To the countless ranks of social workers, aid workers, and volunteers who try to repair the many wrongs of the world, one soul at a time.
We can even, perhaps, feel thankful to those religious folk in our own past, who did their best to comfort and guide us as best they knew how – as well as to those patient nonbelievers who tried to show us something they thought would serve us better.
Feel free to fill in this list as you see fit. I could expand it all night. We all could.
So, there’s one reason. There are more than enough good things in the world that are the result of real, flesh-and-blood people to justify a yearly holiday in their honor. At least that!
Now, why else can nonbelievers feel thankful? In a word: because we’re human. Far too many people seem to think that human emotions somehow have to be “logical”. But as I have written before, the human limbic system (that mediates emotion) does not consult a syllogism before deciding to fire. Emotions follow their own rules, and they always make sense – on their own terms – if you understand how they work. Emotions are what they are, and what they are is governed by our biology, our evolutionary heritage, and our own individual development.
To feel grateful when you have good things in your life is as natural as sunshine. It’s simply part of our nature as social primates, and it requires no further explanation. Gratitude is an emotion, and as an emotion is does not have to be justified, defended, grounded, rationalized, or vindicated. Emotions just are.
So, no: neither thankfulness nor any other emotion “has” to have anything in particular as its object. To call an emotion “irrational” is like calling a windy day “irrational.” The category does not apply.
So everyone, it seems, has plenty of good “reasons” to feel grateful , God or no God.
For my part, I do not know whether or not there is a God. But, practically, I find it just doesn’t matter to me all that much. Speaking for myself, I find an amazing and overwhelming abundance of good things in my life, enough to fill many lifetimes, and more every time a trouble myself to look. And for all of it, I am grateful. Simultaneously, I find that it is these very things that make me realize how much work there is to do in the world. If there is a God that grounds this all, I suppose I’ll find that out someday. But for now I just want to know how to say thank you.
My answer so far? Live life well. Make the world better. And find someone – a real human being – to thank.