How can the nontheist be thankful on Thanksgiving?

November 25, 2008 at 6:26 pm 15 comments

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.

– Richard

Entry filed under: Richard. Tags: , , , .

Belonging Until Freedom

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. LeoPardus  |  November 25, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    I never thought that non-believers didn’t have reason to celebrate and enjoy Thanksgiving. I figured they’d be thankful for jobs, homes, family, friends, food, football, beer, and just about all the other things any believer would be thankful for. The only difference was that as a believer, I was thanking God for those things, while any unbeliever would be thankful to their own good fortune and hard work.

    This year I can once again also be thankful that I am no longer trapped in the ridiculous belief that I owe everything to an invisible, undetectable, capricious being. I’m thankful to be free.

  • 2. the chaplain  |  November 25, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    Nice piece. I like the idea of directing my gratitude where it really belongs, at the many people who enrich my life, rather than an egotistical deity.

  • 3. orDover  |  November 25, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner there is always that awkward moment where we all go around and say what we are thankful for. At least half of the family say something religious, like “I’m thankful for the grace of Jesus and his forgiveness of my wrongdoings,” and the other half say something offering direct thanks to God like “I’m so grateful that God has blessed us this year with health.” After I de-converted, I didn’t know what I should say when it was my turn. The first few times time I just fudged something religious to I wouldn’t stand out, but I felt so phony. Last year Thanksgiving happened to fall on my little sister’s birthday. She was turning 8. When it was my turn I said very simple, “I’m thankful for Gracie.” Gracie turned to me and was absolutely beaming. I think she understood. I wasn’t thankful to God for creating Gracie, or thankful to God for bringing her into my life and keeping her alive healthy. I was just thankful for her. I was thankful that she was the sweet and wonderful person that she is and thankful that I got to spend time with her. I was thankful to her for being her, and that was it. Somehow that was so much more meaningful to the both of us.

  • 4. Josh  |  November 25, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Richard, thanks for this post. I have been somewhat dreading this Thanksgiving primarily for the reasons that orDover has cited. What will I say to my family when we have the traditional ’round the table thank God for something’ moment? I’ve thought about saying “I’m thankful that hell doesn’t exist” but I’m not sure how that would go over 🙂

    As I read your post it occurred to me just how self-righteous it is to thank a deity when you are really thankful for another human being. It is almost as if it is not enough for a Christian to say “thank you” to another human. Instead they have to “one up” this thankfulness and instead “thank God” for supplying that human into their life. All emotions are directed upward and it leaves the other person feeling empty and like a pawn in a cosmic dictatorship. No wonder Christians think everyone in the world has a void that needs filling: the deeper Christians get into the faith, the bigger their own personal void becomes and the more they think they need Jesus. The more they have this void, the more it convinces them that Jesus is filling it somehow and the more they commit themselves to ministry. And around and around we go!

    I, for my part, agree with orDover: it is so much more meaningful to have someone look me in the eye and just say “thank you” than to have them say “I thank God for you”, as if I really had nothing to do with it at all. Or to have them say “I will help you” than “I will pray for you” – as if redirecting their feelings of love and empathy toward God would somehow alleviate the other person’s pain or struggle.

    So for this thanksgiving I am thankful that Christianity is not true because I can now begin to truly experience life to the fullest.

  • 5. supersweetfamily  |  November 25, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    I would like to quote from this in my blog… let me know if you’d rather I took the quotes out 🙂 (I’m linking to the post.) no one reads my blog really…

  • 6. Kristopia  |  November 26, 2008 at 12:28 am

    I’m thankful that I’ve chosen to live in a state where the only relative is my daughter, so I won’t have to deal this year with those awkward issues because I’m the only non-fundamentalist. So it will be my daughter, and five of my friends as well. I’m thankful that I can thank myself and other people in my life, and not any invisible beings.

    Good post.

  • 7. The de-Convert  |  November 26, 2008 at 6:53 am


    Edit your wordpress profile to include your blog url (in “Primary Blog”) and it will send some visitors to your blog as you comment on other blogs.


  • 8. Digital Dame  |  November 26, 2008 at 12:46 pm


    Beautiful piece, very eloquent.

  • 9. aforcier  |  November 26, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    very good comments.

    gratitude is the key to happiness And greater happiness is recived from giving thanks to the “forms” of nature than to an imaginary overseer in the sky.

  • 10. LeoPardus  |  November 26, 2008 at 1:48 pm


    All emotions are directed upward and it leaves the other person feeling empty and like a pawn in a cosmic dictatorship.

    You have a way with a phrase. 🙂

    No wonder Christians think everyone in the world has a void that needs filling: the deeper Christians get into the faith, the bigger their own personal void becomes and the more they think they need Jesus. The more they have this void, the more it convinces them that Jesus is filling it somehow and the more they commit themselves to ministry. And around and around we go!

    And with logic. 😉

  • 11. Josh  |  November 26, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    LeoPardus –

    Thank you 🙂

  • 12. INTJ Mom  |  November 29, 2008 at 2:57 am

    How interesting. I’ve never thought of Thanksgiving as a religious holiday. Not even when I was religious. I’ve always thought of it as a day to be wtih family and eat a lot of good food. I’ve always thought people can be thankful for good things in their lives without needing to direct that thanks toward anyone (like a god). As a country tradition and holiday, Thanksgiving has always been more of a symbol of the early history of the US to me & symbolic of people working together to survive.

    This whole religious angle is news to me. I guess I’ve been a bit dense!

  • 13. orDover  |  November 29, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Oh common, INTJ Mom, who do you think helped the Pilgrims survive that hard year? Their hard work ethic? The native Americans? Nope. Jesus.

  • 14. Richard  |  November 29, 2008 at 9:00 pm


    Here is the post that got me thinking:

  • 15. watercat  |  November 30, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    orDover @ 3: that’s awesome. You did more good with that than a million prayers would do.

    a thanksgiving unprayer

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