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November 26, 2009

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.

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November 26, 2008

Thanking whom?

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite national holiday. Family, food, gratitude…what’s not to like?

Just as the meal is slightly more complicated for those of us who don’t eat meat, the holiday is a little more gnarly for those who don’t believe in G-d. We agnostics and atheists have all of the believers’ joy in what we have, as well as the simultaneous sad remembering of those who do not, but we don’t have anyone to thank. That’s a loss; religion as I’ve seen it practiced — my wife is an Orthodox Jew — sanctifies the everyday, which leads us to care ever more for the world we’ve been given and our companions in it.

I don’t have that sense of sanctity because I lack the sense of a Sanctifier. I am left believing that while the Renaissance distinction between Fortuna and Virtus is useful in some instances, in the final accounting when you’re stripped down to bare wood, even your virtues are accidents. If you hadn’t been born to those particular parents, in that particular time and place, with a body that can do this but not that, with the set of experiences that happened to form you, you wouldn’t have the virtues you claim as your own. It’s all Fortuna. I happened to have won the lottery: I have a healthy family, work I love, water, and a roof. I have no One to thank, but that does not make me less appreciative of what is spread on my table and aware that it could be overturned tomorrow.

I’m fine with that, especially since without Anyone to thank for singling me out for a happy life, I also don’t have Anyone to blame for leaving so many behind. That’s a more gnarly question than how to make a good vegetarian stuffing.

Happy Thanksgiving to us all.

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