“So, if you don’t believe in God, what do you do on Thanksgiving?”
I have heard that question a few times. Over the years I have developed an answer, of course, but I have never written it down. It has served me well in those moments at mixed atheistic / theistic table when some of those gathered have looked at me to participate in the ritual thanking that believers seem to require ore even to say “grace.” It may not be possible, or polite, to disrupt the flow of Thanksgiving if you are a guest, but perhaps these suggestion will give you a silent way to secularize your Thanksgiving.
We can use the turkey as an example. A long time ago a turkey farmer in Iowa, or someplace like Iowa, incubated the egg that delivered your turkey’s great-great-great-grandfather into the world for someone’s holiday dining pleasure. Years ago, I drove occasionally past a turkey farm along highway 20 in the rolling hills of central Iowa, somewhere west of Fort Dodge. There had to be thousands of turkeys there, at that time running free in the large crowded yards. We can start by thanking that farmer.
That farmer fed his flock every day, probably using at least some feed from a local elevator, mixed with the vitamins and minerals needed to grow a plump tom turkey. Every morning, a sunburned man in overalls arrived at that elevator. By the end of the day, he probably had one strap undone, after mixing and bagging feed for hours, and pumping grains around among the various silos and elevators. When he got into his truck at night, his arms and hair were covered in that fine dust that hovers around farm country. We need to thank him for day after day of honest work.
While you’re driving home from Thanksgiving dinner, you might see some semis on the road or in a truck stop. The drivers of those trucks didn’t get home for Thanksgiving. They will be having that at a Mid-America Truck Plaza or maybe Denny’s. One of those guys might have been the one that delivered your turkey, plucked, cleaned, and frozen, to your supermarket so that you could go in and purchase it without having to expend any extraneous effort.
The same is true for everything on your table at Thanksgiving, as well as for the table itself. There were a plethora of real human beings that were involved in your Thanksgiving dinner this year, and every year. You will never meet them. You will never have a chance to shake their hands. But you could take the time, on a day tailor-made for such things, to offer up a word of thanks to these people, without whom you would be having, at best, a peanut butter sandwich. Be advised that if that were true, you would have people to thank for that, too.
If you would like, you could extend this idea to other areas of your life. Think about the people that work for your physician, or your attorney. How about the folks down at Wal-Mart, the ones that stock the shelves and check you out? Maybe you would like to remember that doctor in the emergency room that was there to keep you alive when you needed it. I know that all of these people get paid. But they could have found something easier to do. You need them. Of course, maybe they should be at home thanking you on Thanksgiving, too.
While you’re at it, think of the genuine, living, breathing friends and family members that you should be thanking. Some of them may be having dinner with you on this special day. Give some thought to thanking them for all the things that they do to make your life more livable. The poet John Donne was correct when he said that no man is an island. As the world gets more complicated, we are connected to (and owe thanks to) more and more human beings. At the very bottom basic level of the manifestos, that is one of the true meanings of Humanism.
It is not necessary to look into the sky for an invisible, magical god in order to have a Thanksgiving. We all owe thanks to many real people. If you are living your life in a positive and ethical fashion, a large number of people will owe you thanks, as well. None of us should need any more than that to be thankful.