With the possible exception of Christmas, Thanksgiving is perhaps our most overtly religious holiday. It began with an official imprimatur to undertake a religious act, by our first President George Washington:
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 to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. – George Washington Thanksgiving Proclamation, New York, 3 October 1789
It is a tradition which continues with us to this day with little change to its religious character in description if not in practice. Considering the movement to secularize our society, it causes me to wonder if Thanksgiving could exist apart a belief in the existence of God?
At first blush it would seem obvious that such an event wouldn’t exist apart from a belief in God because the act of thanksgiving implies that there is someone to whom one can give thanks. From a purely materialistic and naturalistic vantage point such a notion is nonsense. If naturalism is true we are at best the result of the incidental processes of a mindless universe. That we ended up where we are is merely the outcome of a series of events set in motion from the beginning of time; it would no more make sense to give thanks for this than it would to curse the universe for not giving us wings. It simply is as it is no matter what condition one might find oneself in. Even if we are grateful for the place we ended up due to a lack of pain or suffering or because we have material wealth, such gratefulness is limited to a small fortunate portion of humanity – it certainly isn’t something a nation could celebrate together. One might suggest we be thankful for to those who made the choices they did to allow us to experience whatever fortune we have – our parents, our forefathers, those who serve in the military, etc. However, from the materialistic mindset giving thanks for the acts of others is nonsensical as well; those persons were merely acting in accordance with the same mindless process that produced them and their circumstances. They could no more choose to bless us with good fortune than they could choose that we might have pleasant weather.
It is quite different for the believer. With God in the picture our thankfulness doesn’t have to be a matter of pretense or good fortune. All people have first and foremost the greatest gift of all – life, and with it the opportunity to experience the purposes for which we created. We have creation itself, in all its vastness and glory – a place where we are the crowning jewel of God’s achievement, the only part that is self-aware and able to have a relationship with both our Creator and our fellow creatures. And though our present condition is corrupted by human choices and shortcomings, we can have the hope of eternity, a conscious experience where we have direct knowledge and the optimal experience of the love and purpose that comes from knowing God. As a Christian I am confident this comes through Christ alone.
So I am thankful then most of all that I can give thanks, and that I know the only One who that it makes sense to give thanks to. Happy Thanksgiving.