Tomorrow, Americans will gather around tables with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. For many the holiday is just one more day on the way to Christmas, but the holiday’s origins reach back in our history to the early settlers and their difficult times. During the harvest, they recognized the provision which they had been granted, and they celebrated feasts of thanksgiving. This pattern would continue throughout the formation of the country as subsequent generations expressed thankfulness for what had they had received.
The mold cast by the early American settlers of celebrating and giving thanks is one with which we can all identify. However, it raises a quandary for some. Throughout most of American history, those who have declared celebrations of Thanksgiving have recognized that there was someone or something to whom they were giving thanks. This raises the question: “to whom do atheists give thanks?”
The very notion of giving thanks demands that there is someone or something to whom thanks is due. Thanks is an expression of gratitude and it acknowledges that there is another receiving it. To put it another way, if there is nothing or no one to receive the thanks, then there is no reason to give it in the first place.
But let’s take a step further back. If all of humanity is merely the product of a set of naturalistic processes, then not only is there no one to give thanks, neither is there any reason for thankfulness. If naturalistic forces brought about all that is by chance, then it is merely by chance that we possess everything we have. Why should someone be thankful for what they have and express that to someone or something else if everything is a product of chance?
In the traditional sense of the word, Thanksgiving only makes sense if there is One to whom we rightly owe thanks. We express gratitude for that which we have received from one greater than ourselves. Without such an entity we must empty Thanksgiving of its traditional meaning.
The first way to do this is by finding someone to whom we can give thanks, e.g. the farmer who farmed the what and raised the animals. The second way to shift the meaning of Thanksgiving is by redefining thankfulness to mean gladness. Thus, someone can be glad about what they have without being thankful.
The conundrum of the atheist lay in finding one to whom they can give thanks. For the Christian, however, the One deserving our gratitude is made clear from the opening phrase of the Bible, “In the beginning God.”
The early American settlers and the framers of our republic all recognized that there was One who rightly deserved our gratitude. Whether they were Deists or orthodox Theists, they shared the conviction that God had provided abundantly and rightly deserved their thanks. Christians surrounded by our increasing prosperity would do well to remember just how reliant we are on God for His daily provision and express our gratitude to Him as the One rightly deserving our thanks.