Secular Thanksgiving

“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.


Secular Thanksgiving — 13 Comments

  1. Thanksgiving is already a secular holiday. The Native Americans who saved the collective ass of the pilgrims weren’t Christians. The pilgrims no doubt were religious crazies on the level of focus on the family but this was just one of many holidays that started out pagan/secular that has been turned into a Clusterf*** for Christ.

  2. My goodness, Miles, who ever told you that this was a secular holiday? Just whom to you suppose is supposed to get thanked? Take a look, as an example, at:

    paying special attention to the parts that read like this, in a description of the ceremony in 1619:

    The group’s charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a “day of thanksgiving” to God. On that first day, Captain John Woodleaf held the service of thanksgiving. Here is the section of the Charter of Berkeley Hundred which specifies the thanksgiving service:

    “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

  3. Xtians have an amazing way of just saying “thank god” rather than even for a single moment thinking of the skilled people who, for example, save their family members life. They say people have a “god given gift”, rather than acknowledging that someone worked hard to learn the skills of their trade.

    It’s really quite dehumanizing.

  4. I too have always thought of Thanksgiving as a relatively secular holiday. I certainly have never felt any sort of theistic vs. atheistic conflict over the dinner table about it. Mr. Jones citation of early Thanksgiving celebrations offering thanks to God is only evidence that one particular captain was a religious man or that one group at that time held those beliefs.

    As with most holidays now, Thanksgiving is more of a worship to the spirit of capitalism than anything else. Black Friday sales anyone?

  5. I am sorry, Brian, but either you have never been around the religious on Thanksgiving, or ever watched any entertainment of any kind which dealt with a Thanksgiving dinner, or ever looked up the term. As for religious references, just Google the terms Thanksgiving and god, which will get you 8,780,000 hits. For your own edification, just wade through a few and see what you have apparently totally missed in life.

    As for capitalism having taken over holidays, I am with you 100%. If you think religion is is the only thing that annoys me, we just have not talked about corporate and political greed, and their subversion of America and the world. ;o) And, alas, this is not the place. ;o)

  6. Amen, Stephanie. ;o) You are exactly right. Marilyn, my co-editor here, is especially displeased when a team of doctors has worked very hard and save the life of someone that was dying, and the relatives are dim (and impolite) enough to say, “Thank god.” What are the doctor’s, cream cheese?

  7. Excellent ideas.
    I host Thanksgiving at my home each year to some 20 or so family members most if not all besides my wife and I are religious to most extreme or another. I guess I should hold my head in shame but few in my family know that my wife and I are atheist. So each year for 17 years running they look to me for “grace”. Well I have managed over the years to give thanks what what is truly to be thankful for and that is the family and friends around me. I have done this each and every year without once thanking god, jesus, lord, savior or using words like abundance, blessed, rejoice or amen. I usually start with “I am really thankful for………..(go through the list) wrap it up with “I am truly a lucky man”
    My aunt even tell me what a good boy I am for hosting thanksgiving each year and saying such a wonderful “grace”.

  8. Scott –

    Our country has become so religious in terms of custom that it is truly difficult to come out of the Atheist closet. That is especially true if you are surrounded by a family that is religious, plus a boss, coworkers, acquaintances and friends. One of the things that we are tying to do with this little magazine is make Atheism more reasonable to theists. It will be darned hard for people to declare themselves to be non-believers while the negative myths of atheism are so strong in our culture.

  9. Michael,

    So very true. More times than I can count I want to debate people on their religious beliefs. My secretary for example is a wonderful woman but she is in my opinion over the top. She wears her religious beliefs everywhere such as her car bumper and clothing to the wallpaper on her computer. One time I did have to call her down (which much pleasure I might add) on her radio at her desk. She works in our receptionist area as a fill in for another person during lunch breaks. When she does she would turn the radio to a flaming Christian station that did not play music but rather screamed gospel versus and such. One day I received a compliant from someone visiting our office about the radio blasting bible versus at the front desk. This visitor did what I was was unable to do for years and provided me with the ammo to deal with it. I brought her into my office and told her she would need to lower the volume so that she could only her for herself. While she politely said she would do but she did follow up with she could not believe so many people in this world want to reject god and said the visitor complaining was probably some sort of devil worshiping atheist. I could not help but laugh and even put my toe in the water and said how can a person be a devil worshiping and a atheist at the same time. Her response was the typical circular reasoning I have come to expect from most religious people I have encountered. Her response was the devil blinds you and makes you an atheist so atheist don’t even know they are worshiping the devil. Rather than engage her further I chuckled and made a reason for her to go so I could get back to work.
    I will admit being a atheist sure has made me appreciate just what being in the minority is but on the up side I have so many free Sundays to forget about it 🙂

  10. I loved your post and the comments …and I have an etiquette question. I’m Canadian, so we celebrate Thanksgiving a few weeks prior to the US holiday. I often have the dinner at my place. I’m a Christian (don’t flame me, plllleeeesse – although the Cdn Anglican lefty type, not the focus on the family type if that mitigates at all). ANYWAY, I often have people over, and one year it was mostly my fellow religious friends (including my partner, a priest) and a couple agnostics who obligingly tolerate my religious beliefs and we do kick around ideas, and a self-declared atheist. I wanted to say a brief grace before the meal, and my partner did, but I also felt like an idiot for imposing that on my friends who don’t share my belief – in fact, my atheist friend (somewhat pointedly?) got up and served himself dinner instead.
    If you had been at my place, how would you have wanted me to handle it, so it felt comfortable? (and this is not some kind of trick question – I really cared about my friends and was just stuck on this one!)

  11. Well, Nancy, anyone who knows me would never mistake me for Miss Manners. ;o) From the other side of the table as you, though, I have an answer. In those situations, I have asked each guest around the table to briefly say what they are thankful for on that particular day. The only rule was that it had to be totally original and short. If you have a good group of friends, and I’m sure that you do, this process will not cause a problem.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but an honest statement of opinion which does not border on the radical is acceptable in almost any situation or topic at my house. I do not expect all people to believe alike about anything. I do expect that we can all be polite and respectful in company. So far, I have almost always been right.

    Do you think that would have worked in your situation?

  12. hmmm — I like the idea, a lot … but, isn’t it implicitly secular, then? Is there room at the table for people who actually really want to Thank God? Or would they need to set that aside and simply give an “I’m thankful for…” example, in which case, it seems an exclusion the other direction.

  13. Nancy –

    First, what are the odds of getting a dozen people together who agree on much of anything? I would guess that we are living in the most divided and polarized era the world has ever known. There are way too many things to disagree about, and way too many angles from which to come at all of them.

    Second, if we don’t discuss those disagreements, how are we ever going to going to drive consensus on them? One of the most ignorant expressions that I have ever heard is the implication not to discuss politics, religion, or sex. If you add the always-unspoken “race” to those words, what things do we need to talk about more? Political correctness is one of the most divisive policies of a divisive time.

    So, here we are at Thanksgiving dinner. The theists are thinking, “Oh, man, Michael is an Atheist. He’s going to blast us!” The Atheists are thinking, “Please, please, don’t do the prostrate-yourself-before-the-lord thing!” But if everybody is reasonable, what’s the problem? We should all thank our families and friends, shouldn’t we, whether we believe in a god or not?

    If the theists can manage to thank their god, using a religious name no more than twice and not being all gushy about it, certainly the atheists can restrain themselves from saying how archaic they find the belief in a god. No formal, rote prayers. No angry accusations. Just say a few words extemporaneously and from the heart. If folks can do that, who is to be hurt? The atheist will heave a small sigh because somebody thanked an invisible man in the sky. The theist will heave a small sigh because the atheist didn’.

    Then we can have dinner? ;o)

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