A personal view on celebrating Thanksgiving as an atheist

Secular Atheist Thanksgiving

I’ve always loved “the holidays” in America: that period of time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s when people unironically listen to clichéd music, eat food that is considered seasonal, even though it’s available year-round, and randomly decorate the crap out of every inanimate object in sight.

Some Debbie Downers, of course, feel compelled to remind us that the history of Thanksgiving is inherently tied to the genocide of Native Americans and destruction of an entire continent’s ecosystem. Others feel compelled to turn Christmas into a debate about which God, god, or gods are “really” being celebrated when you stuff your face with chocolate and pie at the end of December. Although I’m not a supernaturalist, and I enjoy a good socio-political historical debate from time to time, I tend to find the sheer repetition these discussions pretty boring.

Because let’s face it: If you really cared that much about the Native Americans, you’d be talking about it more than two days a year (Columbus Day and Thanksgiving), now wouldn’t you?

So although I respect and appreciate serious attempts to shed some historical light on the problemed aspects of Thanksgiving, and I believe that we as a nation should be having those uncomfortable historical conversations from time to time, that is not how I choose to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Instead, I choose to celebrate the holiday in the spirit that our modern culture intends it: a time to reflect on my good fortune.

I spent some time reflecting on the nature of Thanksgiving this morning. To me, the word “thanks” feels inherently transitive. You thank someone or something. To “give thanks” is a social act, with an agent who gives the thanks and an agent that receives the thanks.

With that understanding of “thanks”, there are some things that I should be thankful for. I can thank my parents for the wonderful upbringing I had, and the fact that they had enough money to give me everything I ever wanted. I can thank my parents that they brought me up with a philosophy of life that was completely empowering: I never once doubted, as a child or a teen, that I would be able to succeed at whatever I chose if I put enough effort into it.

I can thank my partner, and the great love of my life, Jon, for being so loving and supportive all the years I have known him. I thank him for being my co-conspirator, my witness, my teacher and student, and my inspiration. I thank him for making me a better person than I was before I met him.

I can also thank my friends for being supportive and understanding. I can thank them for putting up with me when I’m anxious or depressed, when I turn to them for soothing. I can thank my friends for the small favors they do for me on a daily basis, and the comfort they bring.

But it makes less sense to me to be “thankful” for my good health, or good genetics, or that I was born in a wealthy country. It doesn’t make sense to me to be “thankful” that I didn’t catch Ebola or that I didn’t die in a car crash this year. These are not things that were bestowed upon me by anyone or anything. They are context; they are circumstance; for many cases, they are happenstance and coincidence.

That isn’t to say that I’m not glad. Of course I’m glad! I’m glad for all of the unearned benefits that have arisen in my life from chance and circumstance. I’m glad that I’m male. I’m glad that I’m white. I’m glad that I’m tall. I’m glad that I’m healthy. I’m glad that I don’t speak with a stutter.

Does that sound weird to say? It shouldn’t. Don’t mistake the phrase “I’m glad” to mean that I feel that I somehow deserve it, or that I think it makes me better than anyone else. Far from it. I consider all of those things to be things that give me a completely unfair and unearned advantage in our society. I don’t take pride in them, but they make my life easier. So, sure: I’m glad.

I’m glad, but I’m not thankful for it. There is literally nobody to thank.

So what’s a better word? On Twitter this morning, I suggested that maybe “gratitude” was a better word than “thanks”, because to me the word “gratitude” feels like it describes an inner feeling more than a social transaction. Can I experience an emotional state of gratitude without it being directed at someone? This was the question I put out into social media for Thanksgiving this year.

Almost immediately, it erupted into a little debate. Isn’t the word “gratitude” also transitive? Doesn’t the root gratia mean “thankfulness”? If someone can ask “thankful to whom?” couldn’t they equally well ask “grateful to whom?” Should we even get into the habit of inferring ontological claims from the quirks and habits of language?

It was a good debate, and it got me thinking. Maybe my intuitions are wrong! Maybe “grateful” bears just as much of an implicit theological and metaphysical burden as “thankful”. Someone suggested “fortunate” as an alternative… and that is a suggestion that I liked very much. I’m fortunate, but not thankful, to have had the opportunity to discuss the matter with my great friends and followers on social media.

So that is what Thanksgiving means to me. As I said at the top of this article: Thanksgiving is a time when I like to reflect on my good fortune. My family that is supportive, my friends who make me smile, Jon, whom I love so much, and the fabric of society that exists around me every day that makes my life possible. I am fortunate to exist not as a “lone wolf” or a hermit in a depopulated world. Instead, I live as part of a rich and complex cultural and social fabric: one that includes rich and poor, liberal and conservative, educated and uneducated, and whether I’ve met them or not they are all part of the amazing and complicated world that I live in.

And it is a world that I love. It makes me feel….. glad.



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