Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Can Atheists Be Thankful?

Here we are at the end of the year 2020 and the beginning of the year 2021. Is there anyone besides me who is glad to see 2020 gone? Wow, what a crazy and abnormal year. I, for one, am very thankful that we are turning the page to another, and hopefully better, year.

The word “thankful” reminds me of a blog post I read back during the Thanksgiving holiday. One of my favorite writers, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, wrote an essay that pondered how atheists approach that particular holiday. Here is an excerpt:

"I wonder on this Thanksgiving Day what the atheist does. I admit that he may nurture a simple attitude of gratitude for the good things in his life, but does he stop to ask why he should feel grateful in the first place? Stop and think. Why celebrate Thanksgiving if there is no one to thank? One of the simplest bits of evidence for the existence of God is the human instinct to give thanks."
Fr. Longenecker’s point is that in order to be thankful, there has to be another person to whom your feelings of thanksgiving are directed. Now, of course, atheists can be thankful. For example, if a neighbor shovels snow off the sidewalk in front of an atheist’s home, the atheist expresses thanks toward that person.

However, the origin and purpose of the Thanksgiving holiday is to express gratitude and thanks to Almighty God for the good things He has provided to us, both individually and as a nation. If a person does not believe in God, then at best he or she can feel happy and fortunate about living in a prosperous and free country, but not thankful. I mean, think about it: thankful to whom or what? Fate? A lucky cosmic roll of the dice? After all, if you’re an atheist, you believe all life on earth came into existence by purely random chance.
Even though it’s been 35 years since I stopped being an atheist (or as I like to put it, “When I lost my faith in nothingness”), I still vividly remember my thought processes. I was certain life was a random accident, the result of a long, meandering evolutionary journey, where swirling chemicals just happened to arrange themselves into an interesting pattern, and then over countless millions of years mutated into all the forms of life currently on our planet.

Back in those days, I believed all the emotions humans experienced — love, joy, sadness, hope, fear, etc. — were simply the electro-chemical reactions our brains were programmed to produce depending on the situation. So, as an atheist, I felt gratitude and thanksgiving quite a lot: to my loving wife, to our parents who helped us often during those years, to my good friends who did me favors. But when it came to those things that I now would call “blessings,” such as good health, employment opportunities, a safe and prosperous community in which to live, I never used the word “thanks.” That’s because I was certain there was no one to thank. The facts of my particular situation were just good luck. I knew very well if the cosmic dice had resulted in a different roll, I could’ve been born in a different time and place and with different physical health and abilities. 

Please don’t misunderstand my motives here. I’m not trying to provoke anger in non-believers. (Although I’m pretty sure when my atheist friend Ruth reads this, she’ll get her Irish up and send me a passionate eight or nine page essay explaining how I got it all wrong and that I don’t know what I’m talking about.) I just thought it was an interesting point Fr. Longenecker raised: feelings of thanksgiving can only be directed toward another person. When we feel thankful because of our overall circumstances or while viewing a gorgeous sunset or when we get an unexpectedly good medical test report, those feelings need to be directed toward a person. But if there is no personal Creator God in existence, then those thankful impulses we feel are completely misguided. At best we should feel lucky, not thankful.
Maybe I’m just quibbling over word definitions. However, I think there is something to Fr. Longenecker’s observation: “One of the simplest bits of evidence for the existence of God is the human instinct to give thanks.”

I am thankful the year 2020 is over. And my thanks is directed right where it belongs: to the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. 

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