The Problem of Thanksgiving for the Unbeliever
I suppose that I should make one qualification up front. And that is that I personally know a number of non-Christians who are very thankful people and who thoroughly enjoy the celebration of this American holiday. There can be no doubting the deep Christian roots of this event, but regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof), there is much in life to be thankful for as Americans. I should also state up front that many people (Christians included) live out their lives holding to a variety of inconsistencies without paying them any mind or suffering as a result of said inconsistencies — such is the natural end of living in a post-modern world. My intent here is not so much to argue the merits of a thoroughly consistent worldview, but rather to raise the question of Thanksgiving for the atheist, assuming the value of a consistent worldview.
To begin with, there are several categories by which we may mark our thankfulness. The first, we could think of as “personal thankfulness,” which would reflect a certain sense of satisfaction for having made choices or having done something that brought benefits to your life. “I am so glad that I chose such-and-such a restaurant for dinner” or “I am thankful that I chose to strive for this goal” are the kinds of mental thoughts that would accompany this kind of thankfulness. This thankfulness is good and important, but I would suggest that it makes up a smaller percentage of the state of our thankfulness than one might initially think. Simply put, often that restaurant was suggested by a friend or we were helped to the particular goal by others and the timing was perfect for you to be successful. Thus, this kind of thankfulness often is at least partially dependent on events or persons outside of you as an individual.
And that, then, leads us to the second kind of thankfulness: thankfulness toward others. This reflects the kind of thankfulness that is directed towards another human being who has done something that has benefitted you. It might be a nice gift, but it also might be found in the form of advice, counsel, or even a rebuke. As I look back on my life, I am very thankful toward certain friends of mine who had the integrity to tell me that I was about to make a stupid mistake if I took this or that action. I might not have felt thankful at the moment, we seldom do when people speak truth to us, but over time, once my ego stopped swelling and my self-defense mechanisms returned to their proper place, I realized the wisdom of what was told to me and was thankful to have such friends.
Yet, again, this kind of thankfulness, while common to our experience, likely does not make up as large a proportion of our total thankfulness as we might think. The reality is that even in cases like this, there are still elements of providence (the atheist would likely call them coincidence) that are outside of the control of either you or the person toward whom you are thankful. For example, there are chance meetings that brought about conversations that led to the advice (or whatever) you happened to be given. And how did you make such a friendship? The singular friendship that I have maintained from my years at the University is that of a lady with whom I happened to get lost on campus. It seems that the two of us were given wrong information as to where a certain English class was to meet and we both ended up in the wrong corridor together at the same time. The typo on our course-lists, the fact that neither of us had received the correction (when most of the class did), and the timing by which we bumped into each other were all elements that were outside of our direct or indirect influence. I am thankful for all of these events because she and I have kept up correspondence over the years and have encouraged one another as we have both gone our separate ways in life. If we are honest as we survey the landscape of our experience, there are numerous such events that can be traced in our lives for which we are surely thankful. Again, some would call these things coincidence, from a Christian perspective, I choose to use the term “providence.”
Thus far, at least in the immediate sense of personal satisfaction and thankfulness to someone for kindness, there is no contradiction between the atheistic worldview and said thankfulness. In fact, were an atheist choosing not to be thankful for these things, one would have to draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person’s thinking. Yet here is where the consistency comes to an end, for how is it that someone can direct their thankfulness toward someone (or something) in which he does not believe? Let me explain.
If I am given a gift, while I am thankful for the gift, I will typically express that thanks toward the one from whom the gift came (to do otherwise would be considered rude). That is easy enough to do when a friend or neighbor gives something to us, but what about when providence shines its face upon our lives? To whom (or to what) does the atheist express his thanks? Arguably, one of the reasons that ancient man began worshipping idols was to solve this dilemma. At least in the stone representation of that which his imagination dictated was the source of good things, one could then direct one’s thanksgiving. Yet, the atheist does not set up idols of wood or stone.
The likely answer to this dilemma that the modern atheist will bring to the table falls into one of two categories. One view is to argue that all things are determined by a sequence of cause and effects and thus these things took place and they could not have not taken place. This worldview is referred to as “fatalism” and is a form of deterministic approach. The atheist who holds to this view ought, then, be thankful for nothing (for what happened logically must have happened and could not have been otherwise) or recognize that their thankfulness also is simply a result of chemical interactions that are a result of causes (and again could not have been otherwise), thus making the idea of thankfulness devoid of meaning (it is simply an experience). Any discussion of thanksgiving, from a fatalistic perspective, reduces itself to meaningless absurdity and is thus neither internally consistent nor helpful if one is trying to be consistent with their worldview.
The second, and arguably more palatable, solution of the dilemma as to whom shall we express our thankfulness is to argue that what I am referring to as “providence” is nothing more than pure random chance and thus, I am not thankful to chance, but thankful for chance, in turn, never directing one’s thanksgiving toward someone or something. Yet, how can one be thankful for something that is purely random? Even the craps-shooter praises “Lady Luck” for his good-fortune with the dice. It is not that which is random that we are thankful for, but we are thankful for that which guides or superintends that which is perceived to be random. Granted that the atheist will likely counter that we simply perceive someone guiding “chance events,” but our perception is little more than a figment of our own imaginations. Certainly, the question as to whether God is a figment of our imagination or not is a discussion to be pursued, but not here because this response of the atheist is meant to do little more than to distract from the question at hand: can an atheist be thankful in a meaningful way while still being consistent within his atheism. The answer to the matter must be “no,” for thankfulness must be directed outside of oneself, particularly for the events and circumstances that we have no control over. I am thankful, for example, that I was born and raised in the United States of America in a middle-class home with a family who loved me. This very fact has afforded me opportunities that I would not have had were circumstances different. Yet there is not one aspect of these circumstances that I can say that I had any control over. I might thank my parents for loving me and for their choice to reside in America, but their choice to do so was also based on events that were outside of their sphere of influence (where there were jobs, etc…).
So, where does that lead us? No, I do not expect a run of atheists coming into the church, giving up their unbelief, and accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior because their worldview has inconsistencies. Sure, it could happen, but that would be a work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of a logical argument. In addition, it should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who can appeal to this kind of argument, any religious institution that envisions their gods interacting with the lives of men can appeal in similar ways. My purpose is to appeal to what I believe is an inward desire that we each have — and that is to have a worldview that is consistent with experience, reason, and itself. I have had atheists say to me, “I am thankful for my inconsistency,” but deep down, is that a very satisfying way to live? Is intellectual inconsistency either satisfying or something to thank oneself for? I would suggest it is not and would counter that intellectual consistency is not only satisfying, but it is something we desire deep down (and ought to because we are made in the image of a God who is perfectly consistent with himself).