I never really thought of Thanksgiving as a religious holiday. Sure, I understood that “to give thanks” implies a direct object (one gives thanks to some person or other entity), and I knew that other families said a prayer before the meal. We said a prayer when joining certain parts of my extended family for the holiday. But Thanksgiving has never been about religion for me. I’ve always seen it as the contemporary American harvest festival. Feeling happy about the bounty of a good harvest has, for most of human history, meant that it’s time to make some ritual sacrifice, perform some special rites, or sing a hymn of praise to the deity or deities you believe created the earth and control happenings on it. That doesn’t mean that I, in the 21st century, have to continue doing the same.
The explicitly religious origins of Thanksgiving in the United States honestly surprised me. I hadn’t ever looked into them before reading Hemant Mehta’s post about atheists celebrating the holiday. The US government has issued various Proclamations of Thanksgiving directed toward an “Almighty God,” offering “their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST,” and so on in an unmistakably Christian manner. It’s disappointing and confusing coming from some of the same people who ratified the Treaty of Tripoli, which declared that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” — but that’s history for you. People weren’t any more intellectually coherent two hundred years ago than they are now. Even Abraham Lincoln, who never joined a church, began an annual tradition of observing a Thanksgiving holiday this way:
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, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
It’s clear that my godless approach to Thanksgiving is not what the writers of any of these declarations would have imagined. Then again, I also doubt they imagined that Americans would be gorging themselves and then falling asleep in front of a football game on TV, or gathering to scour the ad circulars for the best Black Friday deals and setting their alarm clocks for 4 AM. I don’t think Abraham Lincoln would have used the casual term, “Turkey Day.” Of course the holiday has evolved over the last 150 years. There’s no Grand Inquisitor of Thanksgiving — thankfully — so we all get to celebrate it in whatever way we find most pleasant and personally meaningful (if at all), regardless of the original declarations.
Personally, I find I have a lot to be grateful for. There’s really nothing about belief in gods that affects one’s ability to be grateful; all it means is being appreciative of the good circumstances and benefits one enjoys. Sometimes that means being grateful to other people for the things they do. Other times, there’s no conscious entity responsible — but I can still recognize my good fortune in being the beneficiary of chance events. Regardless, I like the practice of setting aside one day a year to reflect on these things and really savor them. (There’s no reason why it should be only one day… but we all get distracted with our busy lives, so I see value in designating a special occasion.)
I’m grateful to my family and my friends for their love and support, for the good times we have together, and for their advice and wisdom. I’m grateful to all the people I interact with on a regular basis whose hard work enriches my life, as well as all the hardworking people I never interact with; in fact I’m grateful for the interdependent web of humans that make up the global economy, from the people out in fields picking crops to the people designing new technology, for providing me with goods and services that I enjoy.
I’m grateful for the many privileges I’ve been able to enjoy because I happened to be born into a white, middle-class family in the United States. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to get a good education, and I’m grateful to all the people who have been or are still involved in educating me. I’m grateful for my generally good health, and for the good health of most of the people close to me.
I’m grateful to all of you for reading my blog and making me feel like I have something interesting to say from time to time. Thanks for being here, and thanks for the times when you’ve shared your feedback on what I write (positive or negative!).
I could go on at this for a while, of course. I haven’t even said anything yet about being grateful for hedgehogs, waterfalls, or cheese! But I’ll spare you additional sappiness. You get the idea. Even as an atheist, I have plenty reason to celebrate Thanksgiving.
I’ll be spending this long weekend with family, and I doubt I’ll be posting here for a few days. I hope you all enjoy your holiday, and I’ll see you next week!