On this day of (American) Thanksgiving I thought we’d take a moment to reflect on the idea of giving thanks. You’ve probably heard this quote before: “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.” Sometimes attributed (mistakenly) to G.K. Chesterton, it was in fact written by Dante Rosetti. (You have to wonder how many great quotes have been mistakenly attributed to the likes of Chesterton and Lewis, Twain and Mencken? It’s like a positive feedback loop: the cleverer you are, the more you are thought to be clever.)
However, there is a link between Chesterton and this passage, for he did quote Rosetti and then added: “The converse of this proposition is also true…. All goods look better when they look like gifts.” (in Dale Ahlquist, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, (Ignatius, 2003), p. 97)
Dante’s quote is apt to irritate an atheist who woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but it does indeed identify a problem. We all have a natural disposition to be thankful not simply for the things that other human agents have control over. We can also find ourselves thankful for our overall life circumstances, our place in history, the health of our families, and countless other things that have no immediate dependence on a human agent.
The Christian knows to whom they are ultimately thankful in those circumstances. But an atheist who speaks of being thankful at such moments faces a dilemma. Thankfulness means a feeling or expression of gratitude. But if one believes there is no intelligence superintending the events for which one is thankful then to whom is one thankful?
The one option is to try to hypostasize some entity toward which one could meaningfully be thankful in these circumstances. Perhaps “luck” / “chance and circumstance” or “the processes of history” or some other equally curious and equally inappropriate entity. Maybe even the abstract aggregate of all human wills that contributed wittingly or unwittingly in any degree to the positive realization of the state of affairs for which one currently finds oneself thankful.
The other option is to treat thankfulness for these grand themes in one’s life as a mere facon de parler, that is, a figure of speech which has all the significance of “It’s good to see you” when directed toward an irritating former colleague. In other words, it just seems the right thing to say at the dinner table.
Well if we may talk turkey for a moment, I must say neither option seems particularly appealing.