My Thanks November 26, 2009

by Jesse Galef

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. Its connection to religion is only peripheral so we atheists can participate easily, it celebrates one of humanity’s best attributes, and it only tangentially invokes our history of slaughtering the indigenous population (not as badly as Columbus Day, at least).

I treat Thanksgiving a bit like liberal religious individuals treat prayer. Gratitude is a powerful emotion and I find it genuinely does me good to express it. There’s real value in reflection and appreciation for the good things in life. I think PZ Myers might be missing that point

The universe is cold and uncaring. You may be grateful that you weren’t vaporized by a meteor falling out of the sky this year, but there’s no agent out there who will feel pleased that you noticed, and the fact of your general relief that your existence continues will not be a factor in the motion of space rocks in the next year.

So don’t sit at your table and think you’re being good by warmly thanking an indifferent universe for whatever. It doesn’t care.

Right PZ, and do you walk up to people who are writing in their diaries, saying “You know that nobody’s reading that but you, right?”  (Actually, I can picture that happening, though PZ would have a mischievous twinkle in his eye.)  It’s not all about informing someone else that you’re thankful; it’s also about reminding yourself of all the good things in your life.

So if you’ll allow me to indulge my cheesy side… It’s true that things are not quite as I’d like them to be in my life – what with the unemployment and all – but there’s so much for which I need to give thanks. I have a wonderful girlfriend who makes me happy, a loving family who supports me in my secular quests, a great group of friends with whom I always have fun, a fascinating world around me with endless possibilities for excitement, and – in the interest of making this slightly less solemn – the opportunity to enjoy such delicious treats as basil, rosemary, and waffles (not necessarily together, although I suddenly have something I want to try…)

But I also need to thank all of you. I’ve been surprised at how nice people have been, both in comments and getting in touch with me on Facebook (it’s not too late to add me as a friend!)  I never expected to get such nice messages and words of support from the atheist community, but you’ve blown me away. It always brightens my day to hear from you. Thank you.

I’ll be spending the day first playing a pickup game of football with friends then eating with my family and relatives from New York.  When my grandmother was alive, she would always put us on the spot by saying “Let’s all go around the table and share something we’re thankful for.” Perhaps I should take over that role now…

How do you celebrate this high secular holiday?  Do you think there’s something to it, or are we just being foolish?


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  • muggle

    Jesse, I love Thanksgiving too! And I confess to being like your grandmother. I make my family do that too.

    There’s nothing wrong with taking a day to reflect on, well, what’s good in life. In fact, it seems quite a healthy way to combat depression. If we don’t realize what we have, we will only focus on what we don’t. I’m often taken for a pessimist because I do complain when things are wrong but the truth is I really am a glass is half-full kind of gal.

    My grandson’s thankful for his family and school. I’m thankful for my family, that my daughter’s going to school to make a better future for my grandson and herself, and that I can still work despite my difficulties walking. My daughter’s thankful for family and that she’s got a car. (Yes, I know we all said family.)

    Oh, and the other reason Thanksgiving’s one of my favorite holidays — guilt free eat all you want day! Um, I can be kind of shallow sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    Thanksgiving has no meaning for me. I don’t celebrate it, nor do I require a day to reflect on everything I am thankful for. I have to do that almost every day, just to keep from being depressed so badly I do something drastic.

  • Reflecting on the good things in one’s life is no doubt an excellent practice (if nothing else, it probably helps ward off depression). But we pedants (and I think this is PZ’s point) must point out that gratitude, by definition, requires an object — an agent who granted you that benefit. The notion of an unfocussed, generic, object-free gratitude is simply incoherent.

    However, by all means thank your family and friends for all they do for you. That strikes me as an excellent secular way to invoke the “giving thanks” theme.

    (Me? I was all thankful six weeks ago.)

  • medussa

    I think it’s healthy to take a step back occasionally and feel some gratitude for the things you have. I agree with PZ that no one is listening out there, but it’s important to remember that we are privileged compared to many out there.
    And those of us who are literate and can afford both a computer and internet access are indeed privileged.

    And yes, Thanksgiving is a beautifully uncomplicated holiday, at least compared to the rest of the holidays this year.
    I remember my kindergarten and elementary school giving us the pilgrims and Indians spiel, and that has a lot of cultural arrogance attached to it, but it’s also validly a harvest feast that virtually every culture celebrates as winter approaches.

    In any case, I hope everyone is having a great feast today…

  • kristie

    I wanted to do the table-go-round of what everyone was thankful for… but then the turkey and dressing would have gotten cold. So I waited til we were stuffing face and thanked everyone. I got an (almost standing) ovation for my work on the food, so, it was worth waiting til we were eating.

  • Richard Wade

    Thanksgiving is also my favorite holiday. It doesn’t matter that there’s no object for my gratitude “out there,” because the recipients of my thankfulness are all around me: My family, my friends, my neighbors, my community, my country, and my species. Oh and turkeys too.

    I try to be thankful year-round. To be grateful is to experience being rich; the wealth of the heart. Swelling bank accounts have nothing to do with what I mean. To be resentful is to experience the poverty of the heart. Empty bank accounts have nothing to do with what I mean.

    Thank you Jesse, for this post, another deposit in my heart’s account.

  • unique.smile.within

    I celebrate thanksgiving by being happy – and telling those I love that I love them, and then stuffing my face with all the good things my dad cooks up! I also reflect on all those who died for my freedom – I know they can’t hear me, but I still honor them. I live in a free country because they died. It isn’t a happy thought, them dying, but I am happy that I can be who I am. That is something worth celebrating, and honoring.

  • ZombieGirl

    I don’t necessarily thank anything in particular…when I think of the things I am “thankful for” I just keep in mind all the things that I have that others do not….it is important not to forget those things or we may start to expect more from life than what is obtainable. I don’t think we should take one day out of the year to remember those things; we should remember them often.

    Annnyywayss….I eat a LOT of pumpkin pie. Tonight, I think I ate at least half of one. I invited my Japanese friend over because he has never experienced Thanksgiving before and he was so excited about it. I’m glad I got to make someone smile. 🙂

    p.s. the thing I most hate about Thanksgiving is the so called holiday after it—Black Friday. I refuse to acknowledge it as a holiday. >.> I am being grumpy about it because most of these Black Friday deals that I’ve seen are total crap and just encourage people to buy crap that they don’t need at 4 in the morning.

  • Ok I don’t like Thanksgiving at all, and I’m going to sound off about it just once:

    Who are you thanking if not a god? Sure, you can make sense by thanking people for their hard work, but Christians created this holiday so that you could thank their god.

    When I was a Christian, Thanksgiving was a VERY important religious holiday. I never could figure out why an Atheist would want to try to secularize it. Just like Christmas. How many other parts of religion do we need to try to co-opt?

    It’s their party, their problem. We don’t need to wait for one particular day of the year to thank people. Sheesh!

    Some of us don’t like religious holidays, even if we try to secularize them. It’s useless. We should be original instead. Trying to use someone else’s special day for our own purposes is dishonest and unecessary. We DO have better holiday ideas. Just because the majority doesn’t recognize them doesn’t mean we need to give up in that regard.

    Plus I have some Cherokee in me. That’s another huge set of reasons. There are more. Gluttony…sloth…one need not be religious in order to see such obvious and repeated problems.

    I’m glad it’s over. Now to the War on Christmas! Charge! :o)

  • muggle

    Who says the agent you are grateful to has to be “God”?

    I’m grateful to my daughter for going to school. I’m grateful to her and my son for being a loving family to me. I’m grateful to myself for selecting a career that places me behind a desk and enables me to keep working. I appreciate my doctor keeping me on my feet enough to continue it. I’m thankful to whoever invented the rolling walker in general and to Nova sepcifically for being the brand I bought that is enabling to still get around a bit.

    The day’s Thanksgiving. It doesn’t say who you have to thank. That’s a very individual choice. So Christians thank “God”; I’ll thank science for my pain medication and the walker even while I curse my genetics and the childhood malnutrition that led me here too fucking early in life. (I’m only 51.) And, frankly, better my legs than my brain.

    Yes, I do appreciate what I have year round but it’s nice to have a day designated to remind us to reflect on all we do have instead of all we don’t.

  • muggle

    ZombieGirl, don’t get me started on Black Friday. People got trampled to death last year and still no one seems to give a damn. Just be as manic as ever. Shop for things, things, things. Assholes, plain and simple and the merchants are for exploiting it.

    Black Friday is a good day to stay home out of harm’s way. Or work. Work is dead. It’s an easy day’s pay. Problem will be the traffic on the commute home. I live near a mall. It’s gonna be a bitch from now until Christmas getting past said mall.

  • Thanksgiving is a day in which we are required to be miserable by hanging around people that we don’t like? 🙂

    Just kidding…sort of. There are times when I wish that we had Thanksgiving class though…so long as we quit in time for the football games!

    But yes, the exercise of taking stock and looking for things to be grateful for helps me mood and it helps put me in the frame of mind to share some of my extra with those who don’t have any.

  • ryan

    I disagree that gratitude requires an agent—regardless of thank’s definition in my computer’s dictionary as a transitive verb.

    To require that gratitude be expressed to a specific agent seems fallacious in the same way that the existence of the universe requires an agent to have created it. If the universe can just be, can’t I just be thankful?

    Many of the things I’m thankful for cannot be nailed down to a specific agent or few. I’m thankful that I have a house to live in. Does that require that I seek out the individual builders that participated in its manufacture for my gratitude to exist coherently as defined? I’ve never met these agents and likely never will. What does it mean that I have a feeling of gratitude that cannot be directed toward a specific human individual that can comprehend that expression? That I’m delusionally incoherent?

    That in mind, I also think it’s a much more powerful expression to turn to a family member at the table during Thanksgiving and say, “Thank you for your help with … this past summer. I was really struggling, and your … meant a lot,” than to mumble out a bland “I’m thankful for my family and my happiness and my health and.…”

  • muggle

    I also think it’s a much more powerful expression to turn to a family member at the table during Thanksgiving and say, “Thank you for your help with … this past summer. I was really struggling, and your … meant a lot,” than to mumble out a bland “I’m thankful for my family and my happiness and my health and.…”

    Hmm, Ryan, that is a thought. I will keep this in mind. My daughter’s doing a lot for me these days and even though you say thank you when these things are done, it seems so automatic. I think it would please her to have a special thanks in that kind of setting and she deserves the special acknowledgement.

  • spink

    i grew up in a lutheran/methodist family and have only recently told them that i’m now an atheist. this thanksgiving, i consciously directed my thanks to people rather than an invisible deity; after all, my family members have always supported me but their god has done nothing for me. it’s meaningful to express thanks to the individuals who I know and love.

  • When I was a Christian, Thanksgiving was a VERY important religious holiday. I never could figure out why an Atheist would want to try to secularize it.

    Don’t you think the religious aspect is somewhat ambiguous? It certainly wasn’t apparent to me when I was a child. I’m rather embarrassed to say that I didn’t even make the connection between Thanksgiving and giving thanks to a god until I was in my teens. My family always celebrated Thanksgiving in a secular way. I learned the story of the Pilgrims in school, of course, but I’d always thought that they were thanking the Indians for helping them survive the winter. I knew the Pilgrims were religious, but it just never occurred to me that modern-day people were supposed to be thanking a deity.