Today in America is Thanksgiving Day (Canada’s was last month), a federal holiday in the U. S. since 1863 during the Civil War. It enjoys widespread acceptance across all economic levels, personal philosophies/religions, geographic regions, and political positions. The iconic scenario is that of a family—some who’ve come from far away—gathered around a well-stocked table to break bread together. The practice is so a-political that the President of the United States—to the enjoyment of almost all—symbolically “pardons” two turkeys for their crimes of, well, being turkeys.
(This month’s Scientific American reminds us that in 1864 [ostensibly unrelated to President Lincoln’s action], the Peking Gazette announced that the Chinese government—upon beating back the Taiping rebellion—called for “thanks [to] be offered to the gods for their assistance” and, intriguingly, a study of which gods rendered which divine services.)
The usual purpose of the North American event is to thank the Judeo-Christian God for blessings of various sorts and, with a bit of chutzpah, asking for more, at least for another year. Normally, thanks are for many things like health, food, housing, promotions, new babies, battlefield success, and so forth. And these thanks are to one thing, God. Assuming there’s a supernatural spirit responsible for giving or allowing the good things of life, that thankfulness fulfills a humble, social obligation, not to mention staying off God’s bad side doubtlessly deserved by ingrates.
But whom does an atheist thank? After all, atheists compared to theists are as grateful for life’s rewards, as socially conscious about saying “please” and “thank you,” and as hopeful for future satisfactions for themselves and others. Are they to send thanks into a void?
Not at all. Let’s not forget that “no man is an island,” so the question is an easy one: Virtually all the satisfying, fulfilling events and materials in our lives are produced by other human beings; very few do we create ourselves. As a normal human being, I am quite aware, thankfully aware, that I grow no food, produce no electricity, build my housing, assemble my car, diagnose and treat various physical ills, nor even make the clothes I wear. This lists goes further than anyone would want to read, for it’s neither news to anyone nor unique to me.
In other words, in true secular humanist tradition, I am thankful, indeed. I am thankful to you and you and you on a catalog so long and spread that I am largely unaware of all but a fraction of the human beings who contribute to my life. Hence, this atheist’s thanks are for much and to many. Today and (if I were fully conscious) every day should be Thanksgiving Day with just as much meaning for me as for persons who believe a supernatural being had the major hand in things. I want nothing—particularly a “being” for whom there is no evidence—to dilute my obligation to recognize and appreciate those who gave the affection and friendship, made sacrifices, worked hard, and cleverly invented or produced most of the pleasures of my life.
But to whomever you give thanks today and every day, Happy Thanksgiving!