I originally posted “An Atheist at Thanksgiving” on November 22, 2012. I have since extensively rewritten the article (the entire latter half is new) and reposted it in honor of Canadian Thanksgiving which occurs on Monday, October 12th.
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On this weekend of (Canadian) 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 he 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)
I agree with Chesterton. Goods look even better as gifts.
Take this piercingly beautiful Autumn day. The sky was a brilliant blue, the leaves rustling in the breeze, mottled with splashes of red, orange, and yellow, and the temperature perfect for relaxing on the back patio. We took a walk in the woods by our house, relishing every moment as the squirrels and beavers busily prepared for the rapidly impending winter and the Canadian geese soared far overhead in their perfect “v” formations.
In short, it was a perfect day.
Take this particular day. And in the midst of the somber pains and disappointments of life — not to mention Alberta’s interminably long and bitterly cold winters — a day like this comes as a special gift.
We all have a natural disposition to be thankful, and not simply for circumstances that we owe to other human agents. 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 … including one piercingly beautiful autumn day.
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 — e.g. a fiercely beautiful autumn day — then to whom is one thankful?
At points like this the facon de parler beckons. By imbuing some aspect of the natural world or history with personified characteristics, we can speak as if we are thankful to some reified entity beyond the human realm. Just keep in mind that it is a figure of speech, and nothing more.
Are you thankful for the day? Well go ahead and extend your thanks. Indeed, you have your pick: you might thank “Mother Nature” or your “lucky stars” or “chance and circumstance”. Whatever suits your purposes, just so long as you keep in mind that there isn’t really any object to which your thankfulness is really directed.
Perhaps. But personally I find the prospect of a personified abstraction insufficient to meet that impulse for thankfulness. All goods look better when they look like gifts. This day has been a gift. And I am thankful.