Forgive me for the somewhat ominous title on this blessed holiday. My point of this post is not to hamper the holiday spirit, but rather pose a logical problem that one is faced with when one rejects the existence of God. I call it the Thanksgiving Problem.
Before I even present the problem, let me deal with a caveat that should assuage the likely first response from most atheists. The thanksgiving problem is not to conclude that the atheist is incapable of giving thanks or being thankful, rather, that the atheist cannot account for the who or the why of thankfulness. The former is nonsensical by clear evidence I have witnessed myself. The latter is a logical extension of the First Cause problem. So please do not misunderstand, I merely write this as a challenge to give an accounting for thankfulness, rather than to say that the theist has a monopoly on thankfulness (or more, the Thanksgiving holiday).
With that caveat aside, I ask the following three questions to pose the Thanksgiving problem.
What are you thankful for?
This first question is mostly necessary to distinguish itself from the second question. The distinction is that of object vs subject in giving thanks. An illustration is as follows – say you are at work and a co-worker holds open a door for you, and you rightly reply “thank you” to your co-worker. The “thank you” has as its object the holding open of the door, and its subject the co-worker. Said differently, you are thankful that your co-worker (subject) has held the door open for you (object).
So what objects are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? I submit the atheist can account just as well if not better than the theist. Thankful for family? Thankful for dear friends? Thankful for a steady job? Thankful for a reliable car and a roof to live under? Thankful for a constant supply of food? Thankful for X, Y or Z? Good! Give thanks, a thousand times I say, give thanks. But to whom should your thanks be given?
Who are you thankful to?
This second question is where the rubber begins to meet the road. Who are you thankful to for having X, Y or Z in your life? Perhaps this might seem like an odd question, but ask yourself for a moment, who is the subject of your thankfulness? It is merely a question of causation. If you are thankful for X, Y or Z, ask yourself why X, Y or Z are in your life in the first place. Let’s take as one example of many, thankfulness for your family. If your thankfulness is for brothers and sisters (object) then the subject could be your parents. But where did your parents come from? And your grandparents? Ad nauseum this chain of causes goes, until you reach a first cause that is, in itself, both un-causable and uncaused.
Note that this problem exists even if you reject young earth creationism, just follow the chain of cause to the primordial goo that somehow evolved itself into the first man and first woman to procreate. Where did the goo come from? Etc. The chain of causes can go ad infinitum until one gives an account for the first cause. I submit to you that the first cause is the subject of your thankfulness. For it is this first cause that caused your objects of thankfulness to be in your life.
Why are you thankful?
This last question is intended to ask the reader to give an account for why thankfulness is an emotion worth having, or giving thanks (even once a year on this holiday) is a worthwhile activity. I submit the following for your consideration – the giving of thanks is done by a person who realizes they do not deserve the object of their thankfulness. Thanksgiving is ultimately an act of humility. It is nonsensical to give thanks for an object that is owed you. For example, every other Friday, my company deposits a paycheck into my bank account as part of a contract where I provide my daily service. I am owed that money, and thus I don’t go and write a thank you note to my CEO every other Friday for the paycheck he owed me.
If humans are all randomly re-arranged cosmic matter that are interacting with each other, then thankfulness is irrational. If humans are simply agents of survival, doing things in the interest of ensuring their DNA survives to the next generation as natural selection would have, then thankfulness is an irrational emotion. Thankfulness and the giving of thanks does not add an iota to your chances of survival, and is at best a waste of your time and breath. What’s more, is that if these two things are true, then there is also no rational reason to do things that are worthy of others thanks. In the example earlier, why hold the door open for someone else if we are simply trying to look out for number one – me myself and I.
As you gather with friends or family today, in addition to considering what you are thankful for, consider who you are thankful to for these things in your life. I proclaim to you that the God of the bible has provided you every good and thanks-worthy thing in your life. In addition, He has given you the pinnacle of things to be thankful for – eternal life in Christ Jesus. God so loved us, that even though we broke His holy laws, He sent His only begotten Son to take the punishment of our sin on the cross. If you repent of your sin and place your faith in Christ, you too can be forgiven of your sins in Christ and live eternally in the presence of God as opposed to the eternal torment that awaits those who die in their sin. What greater gift is more worthy of your thanks?