An Atheist Plea for Preserving Thanksgiving

(cc) Chriss Knisley (cknisley44),
(cc) Chriss Knisley (cknisley44),

I don’t often use the term ‘atheist’ to describe myself, because my lack of someone else’s belief is not something I see as important, and because those who choose that term as their primary moniker are often focused on making a statement about being without a belief in a God. I prefer the term Spiritual Naturalist because this is a term that talks about the most significant aspects of my belief and practice in a positive sense. I am a naturalist, meaning I don’t hold any supernatural faith-based beliefs. But I am also spiritual, in the broadest original sense of the word, as referring to the essential things of life – which for me is a practice of mindfulness, virtue, and compassion for all beings. (as best I can anyway!)

But I’m going against my usual aversion to negative terms in the title of this article because, in this case, lack of theism is of relevance. I intend to make a case for Thanksgiving, not only as a personal practice, but as a social institution – something that may be surprising to hear coming from an atheist.


What is “Thanksgiving”?

By “Thanksgiving” I do not refer merely to that custom of coming together to feast on Turkey with friends and family, or to that particular history regarding pilgrims in the ‘new world’. What I’m really talking about is a special time of year to remind ourselves to be thankful – an internal disposition. At the Spiritual Naturalist Society, we often talk about the meaning and value of ritual for naturalists and it comes down to the importance of what’s going on mentally as you perform those outward actions. Although thankfulness is an internal disposition, that disposition can be encouraged and cultivated by our outward actions, traditionalized and shared in community.

But why be thankful, and to whom? It’s true that for naturalists like myself, we don’t believe there is an all-powerful entity somewhere who took conscious action on our behalf, and to be thankful toward. But certainly being thankful to other people for what they have done for us and what they mean to our lives has obvious benefits and ethical value in itself. We can be thankful to our family, to our friends, our teachers and mentors, and to people we don’t even know who have lent to the benefits we enjoy. This includes the workers who grew and delivered our food, the scientists who furthered our knowledge, the artists who inspired us, the visionaries who showed our society new paths, the entrepreneurs who keep our economy diverse, the people who risk their lives to keep us safe, the leaders who provide excellent management, the ethical teachers (activists, philosophers, religious) who help our society improve, the good parents who raise all of these kinds of people, and the most unfortunate who give us the privilege of helping.


The Benefits of Gratitude

Beyond that, however, there are the benefits of a general attitude of gratefulness – a general appreciation for the good experiences in our lives, whether the result of agency or not. In 2002 McCullough and Tsang at Southern Methodist University and Emmons at University of California showed that attitudes of higher gratitude improved well-being and prosocial behaviors while reducing envy and economic materialism (study link).  In 2006 Kashdan, Uswatte, and Julian of George Mason University showed that gratitude helped veterans with PTSD and lent to a flourishing (eudaimonic) life (study link) – one of the very things the Spiritual Naturalist Society works to promote for its subscribers and members.  In 2008 Wood, Joseph, Maltby of the Universities of Warwick, Nottingham, and Leicester respectively, showed that higher gratitude improves satisfaction in life and that such people were “more open… conscientious, and less neurotic” (study link). Many more studies of this nature have taken place over the years and continue today.


Preserving Thanksgiving

There has been a growing controversy over businesses being open on Thanksgiving, and black Friday being extended into the time of the holiday. This makes it more difficult for workers to practice Thanksgiving and so on. While Thanksgiving also has religious meaning to many, I think I have made the case for the benefits of Thanksgiving in helping to cultivate a quality that has secular benefit, and is therefore a benefit to society. We generally do not write on social or political issues at the Spiritual Naturalist Society, but I would suggest that we ought to try to preserve Thanksgiving as a special day and help others do the same. What we do focus on in our group is promoting practices that provide personal cultivation of qualities that make for a flourishing life. And, as it happens, those practices include rituals that are often most effective when communal. While private businesses should be free to make their own choices, we can help preserve Thanksgiving by refusing to do that black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving. And, for the sake of others if not ourselves, we can ask our businesses not to be open on that day. Not all atheists will agree with this, of course, but many who are also Spiritual Naturalists might, like myself, see that there is a benefit to having certain sacred times we recognize as a society. But, aside from that social issue, what is most important is cultivating that internal disposition of gratitude through appreciation of the ‘big picture’. In this way, Thanksgiving will always be preserved.


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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Thanks to Wikipedia for help in finding references given in this article.

4 thoughts on “An Atheist Plea for Preserving Thanksgiving”

  1. This question of who or what to be thankful to was a stumbling block for years for me. These days, less so. I agree with the idea that we can be thankful to other humans. I've also come to feel gratitude to the Universe or the Earth makes sense to me, though I don't tend to picture the Universe as a person or a conscious entity. That feeling of gratitude doesn't seem to require a conceptualize a conscious agent on the receiving end. So I think the idea of a secular Thanksgiving is entirely coherent and consonant with an atheistic, naturalistic mindset.


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