Joho the Blog » Thanksgiving without a Giver

Thanksgiving without a Giver

I very much liked James Carroll’s reflections on how the sense of gratitude occurs in those who do not believe there is a Giver of the gifts we have received.

When it comes to atheism, I am agnostic: I’m not sure if I believe that there isn’t a Giver. But that’s about as close as I come to believing there is one. As a result, I have no One to thank. And even if I did believe, I don’t think I would be grateful for anything except what we all share: Lives on a planet we can make into a home. If I were to thank the Giver for the particularities of my health, my family, and the fact that I was born in a country that enjoys (and squanders) abundance, I’d also have to blame the Giver for withholding these gifts from most of my sisters, brothers, and other fellow creatures. How do you thank the Giver for your good fortune without either blaming the Giver for not granting it to all, or thinking that you are especially deserving of favors? Gratitude without a Giver doesn’t have that problem. We non-believers obviously can’t accomplish the social act of acknowledging the good qualities of the Giver, but does G-d really care about the thank-you note?

Gratitude for believers and the rest of us is, of course, more than a social act. It’s a way of dwelling on the fragile boon you’ve been granted. If there is no Giver to thank, then our gratitude — as an appreciation of the gifts we have — can embrace the shared and unshared boons without equivocation or hesitation, remembering how unearned and unfairly-shared they are. (Happiness is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

7 Responses to “Thanksgiving without a Giver”

  1. While I agree that gratitude might be less problematic for atheists, but as a believer myself, I don’t know if I would cite uneven distribution of material blessings as a problem. For me, from a Christian perspective, injustice in the world only serves to underscore the incredibly high value placed on individual freedom.

    It seems to me that from God’s perspective, it is more acceptable to permit all manner of evil human behavior than to intervene and restrain a single person from choosing a particular action. As bad as some of my choices are, I am thankful that they are mine to make.

  2. Thoughtful post, gave me a lot to think about. Perhaps if the believer’s gratitude was imbued with a sense of responsibility, it would be less of a problem? Rather than saying “I’m really glad you gave me this, sure wish everyone else had this too” you could say “I’m really glad I have this, I understand now that I should use it to bless my brothers and sisters”. Isn’t that Christianity? Letting us participate in the Giver’s work?

    I do agree that merely being grateful without considering those that go without is repulsive. But I don’t think that’s the only way to be grateful.

  3. Jonathan, just one comment on your excellent comment: It’s also Judaism, Islam, etc. etc.

  4. […] Thanksgiving without a Giver […]

  5. “If animals can show gratitude, surely man can do the same” Dogen Zenji (1200–1253)

  6. Thanks for the link. I too am agnostic and find it inappropriate to celebrate my personal good fortune without a concern for the less fortunate. Could this be a virtually universal part of being human, as evidenced by the almost universal dictate to care for the poor in all religions?

    I live in a region dominated by conservative Christians who vehemently value personal freedom, as described by Michael in the first post above, and its logical extension into free market economic principles such as Rand’s “philosophy.” At its worst, this belief system seems to imply that the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor.

    But somewhat to my surprise, this second holiday season of a deep recession with local unemployment at 10 percent has prompted an extraordinary outpouring of spontaneous projects to address the basic needs of those suffering due to joblessness, homelessness, hunger, and cold. These efforts have somewhat restored my faith in the basic goodness of most of my neighbors, despite their wrong-headed political beliefs that too often parrot Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

  7. Loving it very much.

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