Thanksgiving is a tough holiday for the thoughtful non-theist. For a non-theist with progressive values, it’s difficult not to view it with utter disdain. It is at once a distillation of the privilege of religious insinuation into public life, and the glorification of materialism and selfishness. Despite this fact, Thanksgiving has become for me a symbol of hope for the future. It is the embodiment of what American society could become if compassion and comeraderie became synonymous with culture.
“Dear Lord, Thank you for this thanksgiving holiday, and for all the material possessions that we have and enjoy, and for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.” — Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) in The Ice Storm (1997)
This little snippet from a rather obscure movie embodies just about everything many progressive atheists despise about Thanksgiving. First, there is an assumption that if someone is giving thanks, they are giving it to Jesus. Like so many of the “non-sectarian” prayers addressed to one god ending with “Amen” (narrowing them down to very few gods indeed!), Thanksgiving is the epitome of Christianity insinuated into American culture. Christians have convinced many Americans that this is a Christian nation (It is most certainly not), and by default, Thanksgiving has become a Christian Holiday. (Be honest: How many times have you imagined a Hindu family gathered around a turkey and dressing?)
Perhaps more importantly, for progressives, Thanksgiving represents a time when we revel in our excesses, ignoring atrocity in our back yard and all over the earth. We prepare a feast fit for thirty to feed our six relatives. With our bellies full and our Ford Explorers littering the yard, we embrace our tryptophan fueled lethargy, cheering through antacid belches for football teams who pay their players enough to balance a Third World national deficit.
Historically, Thanksgiving reminds us of the worst aspects of human imperialism. It is a testament to genocide, greed, and religious zealotry — the worst kinds of atrocity committed with a prayer on the lips and avarice in the mind. The traditional Thanksgiving feast is a stark reminder of the things we craved — turkey, waterfowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash — and the natives who to this day live destitute in the reservations we drove them to while feasting on their land’s bounty.
Thankfully, it need not be so. Our past is unchangeable, but the future is ours to create. What Thanksgiving represents is as old as culture itself, and much less philosophically troubling. It is simply the outward expression of joy at the end of a harvest. It is the last celebration of plenty before hunkering down for the icy tribulations to come. It is the recognition that life is precious, and each year that passes is one year we are lucky to have seen.