At least that's what one person noted online. I breathed a quick "pffffft," stirred by the unique ignorance of the historical significance of the day and moved on. However, in the days since, my mind has repeatedly returned to the statement and itched me in a way I have been trying to understand how to scratch.

Thanksgiving sans religion is a sentiment shared by many. The American Humanist Association weighs in, "There are so few secular holidays, let’s be thankful for this one."

Does this posture square with reality?

Though it is what first struck me, the historical objection is not what I'm going to focus on primarily. Yes, we could discuss the prototype day of thanksgiving the Puritan settlers and Indians at Plymouth celebrated, giving thanks to God for their provision. Or we could jump to 1789 when President Washington instituted an official day of national thanksgiving, saying in part

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God--to obey his will--to be grateful for his benefits--and humbly implore his protection and favour. . . 

We could explore how, President Lincoln, in 1863 finally set Thanksgiving as an official national holiday, having been influenced by a long campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale. Lincoln invites U.S. citizens in country and abroad 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 [speaking of the Civil War], commend to His tender care all [who suffered due to the civil conflict]

It all puts statements such as this one by "Agnosticism/Atheism Expert" Austin Cline on shaky ground: "Ideally, the question of celebrating Thanksgiving shouldn't be an issue at all [for atheists] because it really isn't a religious holiday (at least in theory)." His theory at least. Cline does then acknowledge a religious component of the origins of Thanksgiving and continues, "As such, there can be conflicts for atheists participating in Thanksgiving celebrations. Many aren't a problem and most of the day for most people is devoid of religious questions."  This brings us to my next point, which is more fundamental to the question of the religious nature of the day.

Can Thanksgiving be devoid of religious questions? To take it further, can thanksgiving (with lower case t) be devoid of religious questions. I'm not so sure.

First, the very concept of thanks requires an object. "Thank" is a "verb (used with object); to express gratitude, appreciation, or acknowledge to: [an object]." It is a consciousness "of benefit received" (Merriam-Webster). "Received" requires an object from which something is received. Gratitude, similarly implies "appreciati[on] of benefits received" ( Received from whom or what?

This is no small point to be bypassed quickly. I challenge you to try to understand the concept of thankfulness without an immediate pull in your mind toward a giver, without an object to which we are giving thanks. The entire concept of thanksgiving and gratefulness is flooded with acknowledgement that something came to you from another, not of your own accord. Of course, it's more complicated than that and there will be objections.

Someone will say, what does this have to do with religion? Can't I be thankful to someone or something that has no religious connotations? Yes (and no). A great quantity of our thanks is directed toward other people. They give us something we did not have and we recognize that fact. That is thanksgiving. This also tells us something about giving thanks. It has a personal aspect. That is, we thank persons.  The object of our thanks is an entity that has consciousness and will. Do we thank a robot when it hands us our pencil on command? Not really. Not in the deepest sense of thanks. The robot made no independent decision and did not care about the result. So, we might say "thanks Siri" when our smart phone gets us to the right location on time, but if we dug into that acknowledgement we would find it is one of two things: 1) simply a feeling and not really gratefulness, or 2) a thankful attitude toward what (or more properly, who) is behind the beneficent geographic instructions Siri provided. 

On the first account, there are many times we use "thanks" in an idiomatic fashion to describe pleasure. Someone might be pleased or feel good or have tingles in their toes when they get what they want. Our passions, emotions, or sensors of pleasure are stirred and we say "thank you." All that means is, "it feels good." This is not thanksgiving in the true sense. It is a statement of gratification. There is something deeper that stirs within us when we really mean "thank you." The honest secularist or atheist whose controlling paradigm is evolutionary biology will admit that, yes, thanks is simply a feeling derived from biological changes that are either a complete accident without meaning or an accidental change that put those sentient beings feeling "thanks" in a better position to survive and thrive. Though, on their account, it's a plausible intellectual scenario, I have yet to meet an atheist that holds to that consistently in real life. When an atheist tells their mother, "thank you for all you did to raise me and feed me and cloth me" I venture that in their heart of hearts they are not saying, "Your great sacrifices made me biologically satisfied." Rather, I think they are really saying that they appreciate the person of their mother who willfully sacrificed her pleasure for their child's good even though it wasn't always perceived as pleasure in the moment by the child. Again, the atheist can assert that the gratitude is a useful fiction, so I simply challenge them to ponder this deeply and consider whether there might be something more to it. In the meantime, stop using the words "thankful, grateful, thanksgiving, etc." Knowing that the typical person is using those words in a deeper sense, they are being intentionally deceitful to communicate with those words when they really mean "I feel good." At least they will be admired for their consistency.  

Speaking about the Thanksgiving holiday in the "Ethical Dilemma" column of the Secular Humanists Association (No, really. This is an ethical dilemma for them.), their sage straddles this dilemma writing, 

Humanists can use the occasion to recognize things we are thankful for, without designating any recipient of the thanks—or by directing our gratitude toward our friends and family, nature, science, life, the universe.

The first part of this comment is simply false as previously mentioned, unless they are willing to reject thanks as more than tingles. The second part of the sentence leads us to a discussion of point #2 above. That thankfulness will ultimately point to a person, but also to a transcendent person. We've already said gratitude toward friends and family is legitimate. There are many people that have done many things to our good. Without them we would still be hunter gatherers wandering in search of food. Without them we would have died in infancy. Without them we would be enslaved, impoverished, and short lived. However, upon reflection you will see that there is more by volume that we are grateful for that is not directly attributable to other human persons. Without the elements of the periodic table, without the sun, without the earth and fire and water, without the seasons, without the rain, and without the soil and the seeds where would we be? We wouldn't be at all. And this is not only on a Christian account of the world, but on the atheist account as well. Can we thank our forefathers for these things? No. They themselves were reliant on the foundational elements, rain, sun, and wind. Yet, we, as they, are thankful for them. This is almost uniform human experience. Humanity is thankful for the rain and the seasons. The ancient pagans gave thanks to their gods for these things as has every civilization since. No observant person is immune from the import of what we have been "given" (if indeed it was given). The result is that human persons cannot be the ultimate reason for our gratitude. There must be something beyond, transcendent to, homo sapiens if we are to properly acknowledge the source, or object, of our gratitude. 

What about thanks to nature? Can we give thanks toward creation, science, life, the universe? Science is the practice by scientists of the examination of nature, and we can be grateful to scient-ists. Yet, science isn't a thing without persons to perform it. That goes no where. We can be thankful to nature, life, and the universe only in the way we can be thankful to stars. We like them. We are glad they exist. Yet, as we've said, that isn't thanks, but pleasure. "I take pleasure in the stars." Indeed, 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said, “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me (emphasis mine).” Awe is a start, but it is not thanksgiving.

If gratitude demands an object why can't the universe be the object? For the same reason we aren't really appreciative toward Siri, but toward those who organized the bits and bytes that is Siri. Something transcends Siri and our gratitude does not find its final and proper resting place until it lands on the programmers at Apple and the assembly line workers in China. In the same way, there can be no real gratitude to the universe. It is not personal. It does not care if you live or die and it does not care that you give gratitude. Only a person that transcends the universe can properly be the object of our gratitude. And suddenly this starts to sound a bit like something religious.

The "Dear Abby" of the American Humanists says in relation to Thanksgiving Day

So if we humanists want to take existing celebrations that have picked up religious overtones and make them our own god-free occasions, we are just perpetuating (or restoring) what humans have been doing throughout the ages. So enjoy the holiday in your own un-holy way.

Dear atheist, you can "celebrate" or "enjoy" the day in your own un-holy way, but surely you can't actually give thanks. That's legitimately reserved for those who believe in an object of their thanks, or at the very least those who don't deny there is someone to thank. You cannot thank the rock that falls and kills the snake just before it bites you. You can be glad, but the rock does not receive your thanks. It would not have cared more or less if it dropped and killed you instead of the snake. Your own account of the universe indicates that the only thing that rules is blind pitiless chance. If you really believe your narrative, stop giving thanks as it's only a bold lie. My guess is, however, that you won't be able to stop, as somewhere deep down you know there is a personal and transcendent object of your gratitude. My guess is that upon the birth of your first child, upon the vista of the majestic Himalayas, upon peering into the seemingly endless and beautiful expanse through your telescope, or upon the sublime experience of family bonds you will find yourself truly thankful. And when this happens your world is undone.

Lincoln's proclamation in 1863 remains pertinent,

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields 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 cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.


The above article was "recycled" from it's original posting in 2014.

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The interesting thing here is that if we trace this “to whom” line of questioning back, like pulling on the threads of some tapestry, we find a singular answer at the end of each and every thread. The answer is God.

To whom are we grateful? We are grateful in an ultimate sense to God…."

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