While the Thanksgiving holiday is over, I must bring up an issue I’ve noted before during this time of year and that is: Can an atheist be thankful? Now, the answer is, of course she can. I doubt there is an atheist alive who is not thankful for something. But is a sense of “thankfulness” reasonable or rational given the premises of most atheists? What happens if we dig deeper?
A sense of “thankfulness” requires a certain perspective toward the universe as a purposeful economy of meaningful gift and giver, that escapes a selfish motivation (the giver) and demands a humility on the part of the receiver (I did not do this nor do I necessarily deserve it).
If we believe that the ontological core of life and the universe itself is founded upon a “selfish” disposition, gene, or that such is the prevailing feature or driving force, then no motive can escape this taint. Even if we were to posit the notion we had “evolved” to move beyond selfishness, one would then wonder how we knew this was a move “beyond” or forward and not a move “backward” or a regress. Unless one assumes some objective standard for what “forward” and “backward” meant in this context, then how would he know this was an “evolution” and not simply a meaningless change or devolution? No matter how we might “psychologize” our way to thinking we were giving or receiving without a selfish motivation, we would simply be kidding ourselves, whence “thankfulness” then?
Further, if we believe the universe and life to be a deterministic iron cage of cause and effect, then whether we believe we are solely responsible for our station in life and what has come our way, or if we believe it is simply the determined end result of matter-in-motion, then to whom or what are we thankful? To ourselves? To an impersonal chance universe? To other humans who share this same fate and whose founding feature is selfishness? The very idea of being thankful becomes meaningless with such a view.
Being thankful means assuming a gift and a giver of gifts. Being thankful comes from a sense of the gratuitous part of life that bestows something called a “blessing” which is something we did not do ourselves and is done for us without any expectation of return. We normally don’t envision the good things in life as accidents, but as gifts given by something other than a roulette wheel like universe.
What does it say about a world-view that can make no sense of, or has no place for, this sense we call “thankfulness”? But never mind. The atheist can believe whatever she wants, but since she has to live in this reality, in this world, she must live (and she does) being thankful (which she is), and believing all the other things she has a hard time accounting for like free-will, grace, redemption, and what is meant by the “good” and the place of “evil” in the world. The atheist will always actually live his life as if those qualities and ideas mean something and truly matter, even if he then decides to spill much ink telling us they are cultural imaginings no more real or factual than our ideation regarding dragons and fairies; and, if we had imagined the very opposite, that would be “true” also. The atheist must talk and his talk reduces everything away and into nothing but he must live as well. And it is in the living that the game is given away. The atheist is thankful, loves, forgives, receives redemption, and is acutely aware of good and evil.
Let us be thankful for the atheist. What better testament or evidence could we ask for as to the strength of the Judeo-Christian world-view, than a contrary world-view that posits a view of life one cannot truly live, only talk about?