The Trouble with Thankfulness

By David Swanson

Like most Americans, I’m appreciative of all the wonderful people and experiences in my life, and I like the idea of taking a day off from lamenting all the painful, tragic, and humiliating experiences in my life and the many more in the lives of so many people around the world impacted by my government (even if we are now losing an innocent life in Iraq alone at the rate of one every 10 minutes, or 144 in the day I take off to “be thankful”).

And in fact, I never thank my wife, my son, my parents, my friends, my employer, my allies, my heroes enough. A day set aside to phone and write and visit those people to thank them would be a holiday above all other holidays. But that is not what Thanksgiving is. At best, that is what Thanksgiving might someday become.

For theists, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to thank “god.” For muddleheaded atheists Thanksgiving is an opportunity to thank… [blank] (there’s no conclusion to the sentence). And for clear thinking atheists, it’s a holiday that does not fit. One cannot be thankful to nothing. If you’re going to be thankful, not for what your loved ones do, but that they exist, you must be thankful to “god” or to some nameless mush standing in for “god.”

Well, what – after all – is so wrong with that? What’s wrong with nice warm humble feelings, even if they make no grammatical sense? I think there are two major things wrong with it, one fairly obvious, the other a little less so.

The obvious problem is the panglossian blinders required. Rather than appreciating my loved ones, I am supposed to feel a sense of “thankfulness” for them that is inevitably directed at the same divine fate that gives the world such overwhelming misery, pain, and death. In short, “god” has so much to answer for, that before I would consider summoning an ounce of gratitude for the beautiful trees and squirrels outside my window, I want to know what good can come of the precarious situation that is providing this summer weather in November, I want to know why a neighbor was recently murdered, I want to know why so much of the world has to live in such horrendous poverty for the benefit of a gluttonous minority, and I want to know what war is for. Thanking anyone or anything who runs this spectacle strikes me as presenting an award to a mass murderer because he polishes his knife so beautifully.

The less obvious trouble with thankfulness can be seen when we move beyond blaming “god” for the world’s misery. After all, if you don’t “believe in god” you can’t blame “god” any more than you can praise him/her/it. And if you cannot blame “god” then the truly painful thought arrives: we must blame ourselves. In fact, we and nobody else bear the responsibility for what goes well and poorly in the world. We get no credit for the squirrels. They simply evolved. But we get credit for maintaining a world they can live in, or blame for destroying it. We acquired this responsibility when we gained the power to destroy the world. That doesn’t mean a key to preserving the world doesn’t lie in refraining from trying to control it.

Children who die from preventable diseases, workers who die from unsafe working conditions, and families who die in wars all die with their blood on our hands and nobody else’s. We, humanity, and we, Americans in particular, are the ultimate cause of tremendous suffering. Far from thanking some primitive fantasy for the state of things, we should be standing, speaking, and acting to change things. Instinctive acceptance of the status quo as at least partially “right” is the most dangerous result of vestigial theism, and the last thing we have time for is a holiday that promotes it.

This Thanksgiving, go out of your way to thank somebody who is working for radical democratic change in the world. And, this holiday season, thank your loved ones for who they are. Don’t thank anybody else for them. But put your generosity where it belongs: in actions aimed at benefitting those in the world who have it worst.

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