by Blake Anderson
At least that's what one person noted online. I breathed a quick "pffffft," stirred by the unique ignorance of the historical significance of the day and moved on. However, in the days since, my mind has repeatedly returned to the statement and itched me in a way I have been trying to understand how to scratch.
Thanksgiving sans religion is a sentiment shared by many. The American Humanist Association weighs in, "There are so few secular holidays, let’s be thankful for this one."
Does this posture square with reality?
Though it is what first struck me, the historical objection is not what I'm going to focus on primarily. Yes, we could discuss the prototype day of thanksgiving the Puritan settlers and Indians at Plymouth celebrated, giving thanks to God for their provision. Or we could jump to 1789 when President Washington instituted an official day of national thanksgiving, saying in part,
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God--to obey his will--to be grateful for his benefits--and humbly implore his protection and favour. . .
We could explore how, President Lincoln, in 1863 finally set Thanksgiving as an official national holiday, having been influenced by a long campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale. Lincoln invites U.S. citizens in country and abroad to,
set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience [speaking of the Civil War], commend to His tender care all [who suffered due to the civil conflict]
It all puts statements such as this one by "Agnosticism/Atheism Expert" Austin Cline on shaky ground: "Ideally, the question of celebrating Thanksgiving shouldn't be an issue at all [for atheists] because it really isn't a religious holiday (at least in theory)." His theory at least. Cline does then acknowledge a religious component of the origins of Thanksgiving and continues, "As such, there can be conflicts for atheists participating in Thanksgiving celebrations. Many aren't a problem and most of the day for most people is devoid of religious questions." This brings us to my next point, which is more fundamental to the question of the religious nature of the day.
Can Thanksgiving be devoid of religious questions? To take it further, can thanksgiving (with lower case t) be devoid of religious questions. I'm not so sure.
First, the very concept of thanks requires an object. "Thank" is a "verb (used with object); to express gratitude, appreciation, or acknowledge to: [an object]." It is a consciousness "of benefit received" (Merriam-Webster). "Received" requires an object from which something is received. Gratitude, similarly implies "appreciati[on] of benefits received" (thefreedictionary.com). Received from whom or what?
This is no small point to be bypassed quickly. I challenge you to try to understand the concept of thankfulness without an immediate pull in your mind toward a giver, without an object to which we are giving thanks. The entire concept of thanksgiving and gratefulness is flooded with acknowledgement that something came to you from another, not of your own accord. Of course, it's more complicated than that and there will be objections…
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