Thanksgiving Without God November 19, 2010

Thanksgiving Without God

The Salt Lake Tribune published an article about atheists celebrating Thanksgiving. It turns out — who knew? — that non-religious people can be thankful, too!

West Valley City resident Ken Guthrie and his partner will be at his aunt’s house on Thanksgiving, sharing a table with his grandmother, siblings and cousins — a veritable holiday crowd.

But when it comes time to express thanks, Guthrie, a board member of Salt Lake City Pagan Pride, will not be speaking to the Christian God his relatives might address.

“I’m thanking, first, the universe for allowing me to be alive. I’m thanking my family for being with me, and I give thanks to the turkey that gave its life, the plants on our table, to the Earth itself for being abundant.”

Even the college atheists have plans of their own:

Elaine Ball, a co-founder of Secular Humanism Inquiry and Freethought at the University of Utah, says Thanksgiving is “more of a time for family than gratitude toward a god.”

This year, she and several friends will pitch in to buy a free-range turkey, because ethically raised animals and plants, she says, replenish the Earth.

Gratitude to an abundant Earth, Ball says, leads her toward greater charity. “Having so much food and so much good food makes me think of those people who don’t.”

I didn’t realize that Thanksgiving was thought of as a “Christian-only” holiday and it’s strange to talk about how atheists might celebrate it — mostly because I suspect theists and atheists have similar Thanksgiving traditions.

But I suppose we should welcome any article that portrays atheists as “just like everybody else.”

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  • Meredith

    “This modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century,” historian Eve Laplante wrote in The Boston Globe in 2007. “The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving — a ‘public day’ that they observed regularly — was almost the precise opposite of today’s celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself — and one’s community — with an eye toward spiritual improvement.”

    I read this article just yesterday and was surprised, as I know never known it to be a Christian holiday.

    I have been giving thanks for 38 years, just not to a god.

  • Jeff Akston

    Even thanking the universe, earth, the turkey, etc. is pointless.

    I don’t “thank” any inanimate or unwilling object.

    Thanksgiving is for thanking loved ones and loved ones alone.

    Spend all your efforts showing them thanks and don’t waste any time on anything that can’t thank you back.

  • This is the kind of press we need…showing that we enjoy celebrations, but we don’t need God to find joy and meaning in them.

    Because, to be honest, I’m still a big fan of Christmas, and I’m not sacrificing my tree, my presents, and my Christmas music just because I don’t believe the myth. 🙂

  • Like Meredith above, I read the article and have never associated Thanksgiving with the Christian God. While I do know the Pilgrims story of giving thanks, the association this holiday has with that faith is nothing like the furor and close ties with Christmas.

    It’s all about giving thanks for tangible things in life: Good health, good food, employed and paid to afford food to eat.. etc.

  • Lolznet

    Huh. That’s weird. In my family we always sacrificed some goats to Satan and Ba’al, and then feasted on the flesh of a roasted Christian baby after a fun-filled evening of satanic orgies and church desecration. What a strange way to celebrate Thanksgiving!

  • Heidi

    Well if it’s supposed to be Christians Only, then why did we invite the Native Americans?

  • Don

    I’m happy to sit down with family and enjoy the kinds of food I don’t usually cook the rest of the year. But if anyone asks me “What are you thankful for?” they’ll get a patient explanation that I give thanks to people, not to unidentified unseen mythical beings.

    I definitely am not “just like” theists, and the article seems a bit patronizing to me, as if to be visible during Thanksgiving, atheists have to still acknowledge thankfulness toward some vague spiritual woo.

  • Valhar2000

    Well if it’s supposed to be Christians Only, then why did we invite the Native Americans?

    To save their souls, obviously. God expect performance from his recruiters.

  • Cheryl

    Thanksgiving is the celebration of the first welfare soup kitchen. Native Americans took pity on the clueless Pilgrims who didn’t know how to survive in that area. I’ve read the Pilgrims had even brought their own seeds to plant because they didn’t want to eat heathen food. The crops failed because they did not understand the land and climate.

    There’s also the fact that Thanksgiving was a Dutch tradition the Pilgrims picked up there before coming to America.

  • tim

    I’m surprised to learn that people didn’t realize Thanksgiving has its roots in christian dogma. Interesting.

  • littlejohn

    I wonder how Christian turkeys feel about Thanksgiving?

  • Mostly, it’s a time to get together with family and lick wounds. Mine has lost an awful lot of people in the October-January stretch over the years. Now that I am grown, I try to take in stragglers, to give them something a bit more familiar than take out. That’s pretty easy in a college town.

    But, as a genocide scholar, I spend a lot of time being thankful that I’m alive and a lot of time being thoughtful about those who aren’t. Our history is a long and sordid one, and Thanksgiving–while harvest feasts long predated the colonies–is all wrapped up in it. It’s territory I tread lightly.

    Also, I experiment with nontraditional proteins. This year will be rabbit and rainbow trout. We hate turkey.

  • We are free to have Thanksgiving mean anything we want it to mean. At least the last time I checked…

  • Ben

    “give thanks to the universe?” the universe doesn’t give a crap whether we are here or not and won’t care when we’re gone.
    Be thankful for the people in your life and actually perform the act of thanking them for their love, friendship, counsel, and swift kicks in your butt when it’s called for. That’s what I’m thankful for.


    I thank the fact that I was physically able to provide the necessities of a good life to my family.
    I’m thankful that science has been able to stave off most of the serious illnesses that afflicted people in the past. More being done in that category.
    I will NOT thank an imaginary entity for what fundies claim he/she/it has been capable of in their holy book.

  • Productive people can observe Thanksgiving to celebrate the success of their work, without attributing their material supplies to a god.

  • More often I’m thankful to, not thankful for. By that I mean I’m not thankful for my parents, because nobody gave them to me but genetics; I’m thankful to them because of the love, support, and guidance they’ve given me. Things like that. I’m not giving thanks to the universe – I’m showing my thankfulness to my parents.

    Also, turkey, beer, and football.

  • Steve

    To save their souls, obviously. God expect performance from his recruiters.

    Initially there was some controversy over whether native Americans had souls. Then it apparently dawned on someone that they would be an awesome way to increase the Church’s numbers. In the long run it worked very well in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Unfortunately, those countries have the most devout followers these days.

  • jose

    Hmm. Do American atheists also bless the table before eating by thanking the universe and the earth?

  • C H

    Growing up in a very religious family, Thanksgiving was all about God. It wasn’t always pleasant for me. I like spending time with my family and am glad I can do that. That’s what I use the holiday for.

  • Food, family, and a warm place in which to enjoy them — that’s Thanksgiving, to me. (Incidentally, so is Christmas, only that one has gift exchanges, too.)

    Not a football fan, see.

  • Joe_No_Halo

    “I give thanks to the turkey that gave its life…”

    No turkey gives its life. It has its life taken away from them.

    Happy Vegetarian Thanksgiving, Hemant!

  • Erin

    I’m thankful to a family that doesn’t bat an eye at not bowing for the prayer before the meal, although my aunt’s singing one year was awkward just because none of her siblings could remember the lyrics from eh hymn she was using, lol

  • BlueRidgeLady

    Joe No halo-

    Definitely. The idea of animals consenting to their own violent deaths is a myth people have created.

  • NFQ

    Yeah, it is funny that people think of Thanksgiving as a Christian holiday. I know people say grace before eating, but … I’ve always been pleased that an essentially secular holiday like Thanksgiving, really a harvest festival, was such a big part of our national narrative. Ah well. Just goes to show that some people will take any excuse to make a conversation all about their god/s.

  • Dmitri

    So why does an article about atheists interview a Pagan? If he was an atheist Pagan, that would make sense…

    Anyway, it seems all the “vaguely spriritual woo” people are complaining about comes from an interviewee who doesn’t seem to (unambiguously) identify as atheist. Doesn’t seem like it should be too shocking to me.

    Although I’ve never really considered Thanksgiving as “Christian only”, I have always connected it to a degree with church, since the small Southern Baptist church I grew up in always had a special sermon for it, and we sang Thanksiving themed hymns. Plus, the prayer before the family meal tends to be considerably longer that day. Definite intertwining there. So, I could see how people with similar experiences might think, ‘How do people who don’t pray to anyone do this thing?’ when thankfulness is ultimately associated with ‘Thank God’ in their minds.

  • Matt

    What do you think if I refused to hold hands during the dinner prayer this year? I never bow my head or join in, but hold hands feels like silent acceptance.

  • When I was a little girl, I was under the impression that Thanksgiving was about the Pilgrims thanking the Indians for helping them survive. Of course, I did learn that the Pilgrims came here seeking religious freedom, but I never thought to connect their harvest celebration with giving thanks to a deity. Particularly since I didn’t even hear about deities until I had already been celebrating Thanksgiving for several years.

    From the article:

    Larimer will join an old high-school buddy at the friend’s mother’s home for dinner, and he will bow his head if the group prays.

    “I don’t fall into that angry atheist crowd,” he says. “I’m going to respect other people’s beliefs … and would hope others would respect my right to believe in what I believe in.”

    Um, I’m not an “angry atheist” either, but what does that have to do with bowing your head? There’s a difference between being respectful and being submissive. I would never interrupt anyone’s prayer, but I would absolutely never pretend to pray to a god that I don’t believe in. Wouldn’t that actually be disrespectful to the people who take things like prayer seriously?

  • I’m one of the people quoted in this story. I was caught a bit off-guard by the interview request because, while yes it has religious origins, Thanksgiving is WAY more secualr than, say, Christmas. A godless Thanksgiving is the same as a Christian one, except with 100% less praying and no Puritan fetish (now THAT’S an oxymoron).

  • JSug

    I’ve never thought of it as a Christian holiday, but then I’ve never been a Christian.

    It makes sense, I guess. If you believe that everything you have is attributed to divine will, then a day of giving thanks should logically be devoted to whatever deity you think is responsible. Whatever. As far as I’m concerned, they’re welcome to celebrate it however they like. For my part, I’ll continue to thank the people who have tangibly helped to make my life as good as it is.

  • Vanessa

    Err, I am kind of confused as to why this article is attributed to atheists. No atheists I know give thanks to the universe or say stuff like this: “ethically raised animals and plants … replenish the Earth.”

  • Daniel

    From Bill Logan 2001

    For what we are about to receive
    let us be truly thankful
    …to those who planted the crops
    …to those who cultivated the fields
    …to those who gathered the harvest.

    For what we are about to receive
    let us be truly thankful
    to those who prepared it and those who served it.

    In this festivity let us remember too
    those who have no festivity
    those who cannot share this plenty
    those whose lives are more affected than our own
    by war, oppression and exploitation
    those who are hungry, sick and cold

    In sharing in this meal
    let us be truly thankful
    for the good things we have
    for the warm hospitality
    and for this good company.


    -Ran into this some years ago and use all or parts of it regularly. (generally if I’m a guest at a place that asks me to “say grace”)

  • I never thought of Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, but I suppose the gluttony of Thanksgiving fits in quite nicely with all the other Christian holidays based around sins.

  • qtip

    I think many of the quotes will sound like stereotypical new-age hippy stuff to the “Real Americans” that read it and it will further cement their impression of us as “other”.

  • For people who have kids, I compiled a list of atheist-friendly Thanksgiving books a while back:

    Secular Thanksgiving Picture Books

    I’ve read all of them, but the first five titles are my favorites.

  • Peterson, C.

    Like others, my Thanksgivings always involved pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys, with no mention of God. As a kid, I don’t even think I knew why it was the pilgrims had come to America in the first place. Or perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention when I was told.

    However, none of that stops me from giving thanks to Optimus Prime for defending us from the Decepticon menace.

  • Jim [different Jim]

    I, for one, am thankful that Starfleet was able to defend the Federation from the Dominion. I am also thankful that the Klingons and Romulans were on OUR side.

    Live Long And Prosper.

  • Robert W.

    Here is the proclamation that Lincoln issued when thanksgiving was made a national holiday. It does show that the day was set aside to thank God for his blessings:

    Proclamation of Thanksgiving
    by the President of the United States of America

    The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

    In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

    Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the field of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than theretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

    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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

    In testimony wherof I have herunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

    A. Lincoln

  • Frances

    If it is a Christian holiday, why are American Christians the only ones to celebrate it?

    I think even Lincoln, who made it a national holiday, did not think of it as a specifically Christian holiday. He mentions God but I think that it more because they had no idea who/what else to thank at that point.

    I’m an atheist and I love pumpkin pie. Truth be told, I do not pay much attention to the being thankful part. I am always happy to have my sister visiting but I do not claim to be thankful for everything in my life like most of my relatives.

  • I’ll be working all day Thanksgiving and the day after, regardless of what my boss wants.

  • this is going to be a different thanksgiving for me this year. i’m utterly avoiding blood family and will probably spend it with a girlfriend and her family instead. i used to do thanksgiving with my gay “family” when i lived in a city big enough to have lots; plenty of us weren’t exactly “welcome” at the praying thanksgiving tables of our homes.

    my family are mostly atheists, but my parents are old enough that they still sort of feared for my “soul” when i was a child, and i remember for a while, we’d “pray” on major holidays. because it was the only time we ever prayed, and because my parents never went to church, and because they never talked about religious stuff any other time, i was always uncomfortable during these moments. i was like “why are you saying this stuff, and who are you talking to? i don’t understand. what does this have to do with native american generosity to colonists?”

    i sort of despise this holiday, honestly. let’s not even get into how the colonists “rewarded” the native peoples who helped them that first year. today’s holiday? ick. the gluttony, the football, the hypocrisy of “look, the family is soooo happy to be together” when various members were screaming hatred at each other just the week before… the past few years, i’ve spent most of T’giving on a blog, after i cooked dinner and cleaned up the kitchen. to get *away* from my family. it’s not that i hate them, so much as they are very different from me (everyone else is str8). i also get annoyed, esp in these times of war, unemployment and great suffering around the globe, to look at $500 worth of food on a table for a single meal for just a few people. it seems… sort of obscene. i may volunteer at a homeless shelter this year, that would be different.

  • Robert W.


    i may volunteer at a homeless shelter this year, that would be different.

    I would encourage you to do that. It is a great way to celebrate this holiday. A good reminder of the fact that not everyone is as blessed ( or fortunate) as we are.

  • Even when I was a Catholic kid, I always thought about the “thankfulness” of the holiday to be more about generalized appreciation of our good fortune than giving thanks to a god. Thanksgiving as a modern holiday has always seemed very inclusive and nonsectarian to me, despite its origins.

    Just as I don’t feel I’m seriously invoking Odin when I refer to Wednesday, I don’t feel like Thanksgiving is meaningfully tied to Christianity anymore.

  • Jim

    Not a big fan of the Christian affinity for groveling and proclamations of unworthiness. The idea of enforced gratitude is similarly repellent; thanks should be given freely and only when it is earned. So I’m not too keen on Biblical types having any say on what Thanksgiving should be about.

    New Age types irritate me even more. No, don’t thank Mother Earth. “She’s” not your mother (or anyone else’s), “she” didn’t provide you with anything, and “she” doesn’t give a shit whether you live or die (or whether you were ever born for that matter).

    Sorry, I’m a bit grumpy today. I just found out I’ve gotta work on Thanksgiving, so I’m gonna be eating leftover turkey.

  • JD

    If you want to argue anything about the universe, it’s more out to kill life than allow it to live. Life manages to survive wherever it can, but they’re in insignificant niches relative to the vastness of space.

    Also, the turkey didn’t “give” its life to provide food for people, its life is simply taken, it had little choice in the matter. I eat turkey, but let’s not kid ourselves with lofty things that didn’t happen as we’d like.

  • Sarah TX.

    Thanksgiving is simply a harvest festival; like all good holidays, it was co-opted by the Christians to be All About God.

    I feel the same way about XMas, which is why I feel no Atheist Guilt at celebrating Non-Religious Winter Solstice Food- and Gift- Binge Day.

  • Mariela

    The religious version of Thanksgiving is the reason I’m staying home with the dog (and having dinner on Thursday with random friends who also stayed around) instead of going to my boyfriend’s parents’ house this week. His parents are very nice, and they respect the fact that I’m not particularly religious (or so they think – I wouldn’t use the a-word in front of them), but I have no intention of thanking god for whatever it is he is supposed to have done for me this past year.

    As a foreigner, Thanksgiving is just a great occasion to make really tasty leftovers.

  • Tony

    I give thanks to the turkey that it gave its only begotten son that we may be stuffed. Full of turkey.

    *Hemant: It tastes like baby.

  • NotYou007

    I thought Thanksgiving was all about Football.

  • has a “feed a turkey” day. You give the turkeys their favorite foods: stuffed squash, cranberries, etc.
    I thought that was extremely sweet. I don’t know if I’ll actually do it … Maybe I’ll just stay home and feed a squirrel.

  • I grew up in the south in a fairly religious family and I have never thought of Thanksgiving as a holiday giving thanks to god. I always thought it was thanking those that came before us and worked hard so that we could exist. Family ancestors, what have you…but never god. Hmmm

  • cat

    The story about pilgrims and indians is utter bullshit. It never happened. What did happen was a lot of genocide, including a white power party followed by a lynching of native men. In the 1600s when the puritans came over on the mayflower, there was a bounty for murdering or capturing as a slave the local native americans. The term ‘thanksgiving’ comes from a speach by John Winthrop, and it was held to give thanks to God for their victories in their ‘war’ (read genocide of civilians) against the Pequot. The history of this holiday is racism and genocide and that should be enough to do away with it, as should the massive level of racism that goes along with white kids playing native around this time of year. The puritans weren’t benevolent and they didn’t come for religious freedom (because they already had that in the Netherlands), they were genocidal theocrats. It is long past time we stopped pretending otherwise.

  • Robert W.


    The puritans weren’t benevolent and they didn’t come for religious freedom (because they already had that in the Netherlands), they were genocidal theocrats. It is long past time we stopped pretending otherwise.

    Do you have a source for this?

  • One of my religious friends seems surprised whenever I celebrate a holiday… except Halloween. That’s the “devil’s day” (his words) so he’s not surprised I participate… however he can’t understand why a non-believer would want anything to do with any other holiday.

    This article would completely baffle him.

  • Since when is a pagon nonreligious? Seriously, that’s the first thing that leaped out at me and I resent the paper implying that pagans represent Atheists. They most decidedly do not.

    I thank the fact that I have a pension and my daughter works and our two incomes put food on the table under the roof we mutually pay for. I thank me for paying the electric bill and her for paying for the car that gets us to the store per our mutual agreement on splitting expenses to buy the murdered turkey (good grief, “gave” its life, um, did they ask the turkey before raising the axe if it would ever so kindly let them chop its head off).

    I curse football for pre-empting everything that day then sigh, accept reality and put some DVD’s on after the Macy’s Parade which we all like. The day before PBS is playing “Curious George 2” so I’m getting up early that day too and grandson is reminding me that he’s counting on me too and to get him up and breakfasted, dressed, etc. before it begins so he doesn’t have to miss any of it. I’m a little worried this might be a new tradition until he outgrows it.

    And, yeah, damn it. It’s a harvest festival. I definitely don’t celebrate the murderous pilgrims. Whether or not they invited Indians to the first harvest feast in the new world, they were an unsavory, murderous, ungrateful lot. The Indians should have scalped each and every one of them or at least let them starve.

  • I’ve never associated Thanksgiving with Christianity, but I think there’s an idea some people hold which basically says that atheists can’t be thankful, since they don’t believe in a God that they could thank. This never made much sense to me, as there are so many people to be thankful to.

    I like Thanksgiving, personally, because it means seeing old family friends who we don’t visit too often.

  • Steve

    The Puritans may have fled religious persecution in England, but as the case in so often, they weren’t any better than the people they fled from (or in other cases fought against). They established outright theocracies in America and persecuted anyone who wasn’t like them. Early colonial America is an embarrassing story of religious tyranny.

    The Quakers had to flee Massachusetts to practice their faith and founded Rhode Island explicitly with religious freedom in mind.

  • Even though I grew up in a religious household, I’ve always thought of Thanksgiving as a secular holiday. Even as a vegetarian who despises the turkey industry, I freaking LOVE Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite. It gives me a chance to cook tasty gourmet veg food (that I normally don’t have time to make), hang out with my L.A. family, play games, and relax.

    I will be thankful that my brothers and I are all reasonable and logical people despite all the churchiness of our upbringing!

  • Sanchez

    I found an interesting article that contains some interesting and rather unknown facts about the origins of Thanksgiving as well as insightful reflections on what it means to be thankful in a religious context. A very nice thing to read today, I think:

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