Thanksgiving for Atheists

From our November 15, 2015 "do-over" service (first service on a non-first-Sunday of the month)

Almost at the end of this month — this year it falls on the 26th — is Thanksgiving. As happens every year we can expect that it will come with the usual "you can't celebrate because you're an atheist!" attack from some believers. As there is more awareness of religious unbelief — a good thing! — we can also expect some of the same criticism expressed in the media and on the internet.

A few years ago a prominent evangelical — that I never heard of before and you probably haven't either — but who's had an internationally syndicated radio show, has pastored a church in LA for over 40 years and written scores of books and was a frequent guest on Larry King Live — in other words, a lot of people agree with him and think he's really great — had this to say on the subject: [from] [John F. MacArthur]

"to be willfully ungrateful toward the Creator is to deny an essential aspect of our own humanity … even the most dogmatic atheists are not immune from the knowledge that they ought to give thanks to God. Try as they might to suppress or deny the impulse, 'what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them,' according to Romans 1:19."

This is a variation on the "atheists really know that God exists," usually followed by "because they want to sin" or "they want to be morally irresponsible." It's a strange notion. It would be like Creationists saying: "those scientists know that evolution is a cooked-up lie and the earth is only 6000 years old," … oh, wait, Creationists do say that! Well, it's like people in one political party saying "those people who vote the other way know we're right but they just want the world to be evil," … oh wait, they say that too. Well, let me try again: it's like people who believe in extraterrestrial visitations of earth saying the government has been hiding … well, never mind. Oh, wait, I know! Do the Hindus say that Muslims and Christians, in their heart of hearts, know that Krishna is Lord?

So here's our evangelical theologian again:

"Richard Dawkins admitted that when he looks at the Milky Way or the Grand Canyon, he is overcome by a profound feeling of thankfulness. 'It's a feeling of sort of an abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders,' he said. 'When I look down a microscope it's the same feeling. I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.' To whom does an atheist like Mr. Dawkins express such gratitude?"

Don't you just love that "admitted" word? Yes, Richard Dawkins slipped up and ADMITTED that he feels "sort of an abstract gratitude." For people like MacArthur this proves the supernatural. Yet the real question is whether "thank" is really a transitive verb that requires someone to be thankful to. It's surprising that the "giving" in "Thanksgiving" isn't the verb fastened upon. But, then, it IS possible to "give" something without anyone's being "given to." As in someone "giving a sh**."

We might also ask: just what is it to be thankful or to feel thankfulness or gratitude? Or, to put it better: what do we mean by these terms? They are subjective feelings, after all. How does Richard Dawkins even know what he's feeling when he perceives or thinks about "these wonders?" Like the rest of us, he was taught by his parents and others to attach certain terms to feelings. For how else would he know what any given feeling "feels like?" Even the people he learned this from couldn't have known what he was feeling when he learned the names of his feelings. It's not as if they could point to something and say "we call that a cloud" or "that color is red." They would have had to rely on his expressions and behavior and even just the circumstances to say things to him like "why are you so sad?" or "you have to control your anger!" or "you should thank your aunt for the money she's given you for your birthday."

Do we really have the exact same emotion when these things happen:

We might describe the feelings we may have in these circumstances as "thankfulness" but it seems unlikely they are the same feelings. That doesn't mean, of course, that it is wrong to call all these feelings thankfulness or gratitude. After all, we use the same words to refer to different things all the time:


Which one of these things is really and truly a chair, for example?

Words don't have essences. They are just what we use to try to express ourselves. It's not always easy to describe an object that is visible, tangible or otherwise the same for everyone. How much more difficult it is to express what one is feeling internally, subjectively. And, again, we learn how to use words to express ourselves from other users of the language, who, in turn, had to learn it from others. It is a huge — an intergenerational — "telephone game." And — especially when it comes to describing our internal states, our emotions — we participate in it not as we learn, say, the words for numbers or how to do arithmetic. It is more like how we learn to "know" what we prefer to eat, including tastes that are "acquired." How DO we "acquire" tastes for things?!

Our family took vacations in Northern Wisconsin when I was growing up. I remember my parents saying the forests and lakes and wildlife and other scenery were beautiful. This puzzled me. What did they mean? I didn't think the mud and the flies and the mosquitoes or the leeches in the water were so great! On one of these trips I was stung by bees! So appreciating natural beauty, at least for me, was something I learned, though not as I learned my ABC's. I suspect that we all learn such things. Not just putting the terms to the feelings but learning to have the feelings themselves. It happens without our even thinking about it. But surely we ought to learn from our feelings too, especially when we grow older and have the perspective to re-examine what we're feeling and, especially, the terms we use to describe our feelings. Remember: that's part of the real, legitimate task of religion: to make some sense of our internal subjective experience.

Feeling, expressing and being the recipient of gratitude all have obvious benefits in social interactions for a species like ours. And what can be objectively observed about emotions can be studied scientifically. But having the ability to experience subjective emotion means being able to use such feelings outside of the situations they evolved to address. It is well-known in biology that traits that arise to do one thing often create opportunities to do other things as well. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is that feathers did not evolve to allow flight but to aid in body temperature regulation. But once certain dinosaurs had feathers, it was possible for (some of) their descendants to put them to use in flying.

We can think of gratitude or thankfulness as being like feathers. Once we can feel — and know how to evoke — such feelings towards others, it is possible to have such feelings and direct them towards people who are not present, who may not be alive anymore, towards other people generally, towards imaginary beings (!), towards our general circumstances, impersonal forces and influences and even "luck." It certainly wasn't atheists who came up with the idiom of "thank my lucky stars!" It might have been astrologers, I suppose. But we don't hear Christian apologists going after such idioms.

Now we could all agree, if we liked, that when people say they feel thankful that it isn't really gratitude unless such feelings are directed towards someone in particular. We could even insist that such feelings have to be directed towards someone who is actually present. But now we're in the realm of semantics. And we would have to come up with other words to describe feelings that don't measure up to being "thankfulness." If Richard Dawkins does not feel gratitude about being alive, then perhaps we could convince him to call it appreciation or pleasure or satisfaction. We can call it feeling GRATIFIED — a word which has the same Latin root of gratus, meaning "thankful." Of course, we don't really know just what Richard Dawkins is feeling. Maybe he doesn't express what he's feeling very well. But there is no reason not to take him at his word. Perhaps we need more words to describe our feelings! Lots of new words have come into use in the last 100 years — are there any that refer to emotional states? The only one that comes to mind is schadenfreude — borrowed from German, meaning a kind of satisfaction at someone else's misfortune. Or perhaps we need to learn how to express ourselves more poetically! Maybe schools should teach that!

It's just playing with words to insist that one cannot be thankful unless there is someone to be thankful to. People who think they can prove things with words are simply misusing words.

Meanwhile, it is seldom if ever asked what the supposed Christian deity is expected to get out of people being grateful to it. For that matter, why does this God want people to love him or praise him? We have such needs and desires because of how our species evolved. They have to do with humanity's highly-developed social and cooperative nature which is important to our survival. Why and how would a deity have such needs and desires? An eternal all-powerful all-knowing being that is sufficient unto itself would have no needs or desires of any kind. It would be a serious defect for such a being to be, in addition, emotionally needy or even some sort of emotional vampire that craves love, praise, gratitude, and so on and/or would be offended by not getting "what it deserves" with respect to these things. Right?

Sea Turtle

Think of it. I'm no expert on sea turtles. I am confident that sea turtles can experience something like pain when they are hurt and pleasure when they are hungry and get a good meal. But they are solitary animals. They are on their own from the time they hatch out. All the emotions that are part of the life of humans mean nothing to a sea turtle. They don't fall in love, they don't make friends and they don't help each other out and so on. It's not just that sea turtles don't feel gratitude, it's that they have no need of it. Their way of life excludes it. In this way, a sea turtle is more godlike than the Christian deity!

If the Christian deity has emotions, much less a need for love and praise, what did it do to satisfy this need for the eons of eternity before it ever thought to make other beings? Did it just finally, one day, say to itself: "Hey, I'll make this emotion of love … and now that I've made it I see that it requires someone else to love and be loved by, and so, there being nobody else I will now go ahead and make them?" Isn't this more silly than the idea of having a feeling of gratitude towards no one and nothing in particular, of simply being gratified, for no other reason than that one has that ability thanks to the legacy of one's evolutionary history and the particular circumstances in which one finds oneself?

There is some reason to suppose that feeling thankful and receiving thanks has mental health benefits. Again, for people, not deities! Try it out — try in the coming days and weeks, if not lifelong, to thank others for what they do. You'll be helping them and helping yourself, at absolutely no cost. And if having such positive feelings is like smiling in that it does things in our brains that are good for us, why not just choose to experience those feelings? Think more about your "glass" being half full instead of half empty. If you managed to make it safely here today you have something to feel grateful — or gratified — about. Like smiling, you don't need a reason to do it beyond the fact that it feels good. (And this is connected to the article in this month's bulletin about how so many people wrongly claim that sex should only be for making babies and never for enjoyment and pleasure!)

But back to our Christian evangelist:

"One atheist has practically made a hobby of writing articles to explain why atheists feel the need to be thankful and to answer the question of whom they might thank. His best answer? He says atheists can be grateful to farmers for the food we eat, to doctors for the health we enjoy, to engineers for the advantages of modern technology, to city workers for keeping our environment clean and orderly — and so on. Here's the problem with that: Tipping the waitress or tipping one's hat to sanitation workers doesn't even come close to resolving the problem of whom Mr. Dawkins should thank when he looks at the stars, stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or studies the world of countless wonders his microscope reveals in a single drop of pond water."

Apparently this man doesn't know his Bible as well as he thinks he does. For in the Gospel of Luke (and Mark) it says that Jesus:

"saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and he saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So he said, 'Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had." [Luke 21 and Mark 12]

Doesn't this also mean that the tired, overworked and underpaid store clerk who helps you find what you need has done more for you than an alleged Creator-Deity of the universe? For the one acted with an effort when they could easily have not and been better off, while "God" can supposedly do anything effortlessly with no trouble and is not affected by doing it or not. Of course, it was George Carlin who famously pointed out:

"[God] loves you, and he needs money! He always needs money! He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can't handle money!"

Some things never change!

The theologian goes on to slam atheists with more of the usual charges and adds:

"Proof of their internal angst is seen in the fact that so many of them are not content merely to disbelieve. They are militant in their opposition to God. They hate the very thought of God and would love to have every mention of Him removed from public discourse — as if that would somehow remove the burden of their own ingratitude and relieve the pangs of a guilty conscience."

It's a bit like accusing astronomers of hating astrology or mathematicians of hating numerologists! Oh those militant mathematicians and militant astronomers! But here are his last lines:

"He graciously compels us to thank Him, and He himself should top the list of things we are thankful for."

It would take much more time than we have to fully unpack this one. But if this man's deity has no problem with compulsion, then why doesn't this "God" make his existence as obvious as that of things like rocks, trees and clouds? And as for who ought to be at the "top of the list," I think again that "the widow's mite" parable shows that it ought to be other people who actually deserve our gratitude and benefit from it and not an imagined super-powerful extraterrestrial whose "mysterious purposes" cannot even be guessed at.

Please, think about it - and, I THANK YOU!

I will THANK YOU even more for making a generous DONATION to the North Texas Church of Freethought!