An Atheist Expresses Gratitude
An Atheist Gives Thanks Expresses Gratitude
(To whom, exactly, would an atheist “give thanks?”)
There are four calendric events – the equinoxes and solstices – that have meaning for me because of what they reveal about our planet’s relationship to the star it orbits and of what they meant to the ancients. On those occasions I always spend some time thinking about the Earth’s axial tilt and Newton’s laws of planetary motion; I usually take the time to look at some diagrams of the solar system while meandering through some photos of Stonehenge and other ancient calendars.
There are also national holidays that I hold in high regard, Labor Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day foremost among them. To me, those holidays speak of justice formerly denied my brothers and sisters but later hard-won by courageous men and women who laid their lives on the line; of a country wise enough for all its failings to recognize value in the struggle for fairness and to commemorate it. Those days occasion my watching of Matewan and reading of Letter from Birmingham Jail respectively.
There are national and religious holidays for which I have mixed feelings yet observe nevertheless in a way that lends them meaning; these include Independence Day (which for me involves the reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights), Veterans’ Day (when I read the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon), and the Christian holiday Good Friday – an occasion for auditing J.S. Bach’s Matthäus-Passion. The holiday we are about to confront (celebrate? enjoy? endure?) in our various ways is another; I speak, of course, of that holiday known colloquially as Turkey Day, when I usually make a list.
I’m making my list early this year, for publication in this blog.
I’m thankful that my life stretches over portions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and not the tenth and eleventh. A wave of gratitude washes over my white self as I consider the striking contrasts between my condition and that of virtually any of my medieval European forebears. If you think life in the twenty-first century sucks, just imagine living a thousand years ago. (It might not have been all that bad, however, for most Native Americans or for citizens of the Zulu Kingdom, who at that time knew nothing of the flea-bitten, plague-ridden Europeans and their superstitions and cruelties.)
I’m thankful that I live at a time when we know that the universe is some 13.7 billion years old and that the planet we live on has been around for about a third of that time. That the great, glowing arc of light that spans the night sky, visible in those few places where the view of it is not yet obscured by aurora commercialis is actually made up of billions of stars in our galaxy seen edge-on, and that the incomprehensibly vast universe it drifts through includes hundreds of billions of such galaxies each populated by countless suns more or less like ours plus so much more that we will never know… what a breathtaking view of the cosmos that is, vouchsafed to those of us who live at this time and no other.
I’m glad to be living at a time when solar and lunar eclipses are seen not as fearsome portents but as clues (like the tides that Bill O’Reilly apparently does not understand) to the relationship between Earth and her rocky satellite, and when comets are not regarded as signs of divine displeasure but as dirty snowballs falling towards the sun. (Well, at least most of us recognize that about them; I don’t presume to speak for John Hagee or his flock.)
By Dan Etherington from London, UK [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Five hundred years ago, people didn’t even know the right questions to ask. Now, thanks to that remarkable human achievement known as science (did I mention that I’m thankful for science?), we know the answers to many of those previously unasked questions and are learning more every day, even as further unforeseen questions rise up before us in a continuing journey of discovery that with luck will endure as long as our species manages to avoid exterminating itself. As far as the retrograde, know-nothing crowd is concerned – those mental giants who believe that a sky-genii poofed it all into existence about six millennia ago and whose understanding of the universe approximates that of Plan 9 from Outer Space – screw ‘em. They have no idea what they’re missing. Let them waste their lives and their minds: there’s no law against it, and I’m thankful for that too. (I’m also grateful that, thanks largely to the internet, I can have a hand in persuading a few of their children to make an intellectual journey that their parents never bothered to make.)
I’m thankful that, owing to the assiduous researches of geologists and scientists working in fields that turn out to be related, and the synthetic gifts of those who manage to piece it all together and deliver it in a form that I more or less understand, I know something about the composition of the planet I live on, all the way down to the nickel-iron core that lies some four thousand miles beneath my feet. I’m filled with gratitude when I contemplate geology’s proudest achievement, the Grand Unified Theory known as plate tectonics which was brought to life during my early teenage years: an elegant account of the slow, gliding dance of continents across the Earth’s surface driven by powerful convection currents in the mantle, raising towering mountain ranges and puking magma, cinders, and greenhouse gases out onto the surface at convergent boundaries, opening ever-widening ocean basins at the places where they diverge, shaping the chemistry of atmosphere and ocean, and helping drive the evolution of life. I’m absolutely overwhelmed by the majesty and beauty of all that. My ancestors had no idea. What a time to be alive!
I’m thankful for the insights of paleontologists, who have taught me that the fossils I collect were not placed in the ground by Satan to destroy my faith, or by God to test my faith, or deposited by Noah’s geologically-impossible Flood, as the authority figures of my early years told me.
I’m thankful that I live at a time when, owing to the pioneering Darwin and his many successors, the kinship of all living things is understood: a kinship due not to a common creator but to common ancestry. The awareness of that kinship fills me with appreciation, love and concern for all kinds of things that people who haven’t thought about it find unlovable, including the family of skunks that live under my deck, the copperheads, rattlesnakes, and scorpions that I occasionally encounter on my fossil-collecting expeditions, and the many birds, mammals and insects that avail themselves of the bowls of cat food that I set out each morning for strays and foragers. I’m even thankful for the ethical struggle that arises on account of that awareness – a struggle that is a uniquely human experience and which I owe to a brain that is also unique in the animal kingdom.
I’m thankful that I’m no longer the fundamentalist Christian I was raised to be.
I’m thankful that I live in a country where I cannot legally be tortured or put to death for my heretical opinions (which is not to say that sooner or later some mouth-breathing, flag-waving, Jesus-loving redneck with the courage of his convictions won’t beat the living shit out of me for believing the wrong things about God or America or some other abstraction: this is Oklahoma, after all). Some of our antecedents did not fare so well. Some of our fellows in other countries do not fare so well. I’m thankful for the First Amendment. I think many of our god-intoxicated countrymen have no idea how much they’ve benefited from it, and how precious a thing it is that some of them treat so lightly, read so wrongly and would like so very much to see abolished where we nonbelievers are concerned.
I’m thankful that I wasn’t born in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. I’m thankful that in my country it’s not against the law to realize that God is a delusion and religion a scourge, and to say so.
I’m thankful that in my country, human beings cannot legally own other human beings – at least, not any more. I’m thankful that women cannot be denied the right to vote or to promotion within the ranks of the academy – at least, not any more. I’m thankful that my darker-skinned brothers and sisters cannot be barred from the lunch counter or the front of the bus or full enfranchisement in the Mormon Church (should they be so misguided as to wish it) – at least, not any more. I’m thankful that my gay, lesbian and transgender friends can no longer legally be denied the rights that the “straight” majority enjoy, at least in some states, and I’m thankful for the turning of that tide that I see in my own time: I’m glad I lived to see it. For all my country’s faults, over which I kvetch and wring my hands, there have been some positive changes and I’m grateful for them.
I’m thankful that despite the fact that he will be sworn into office come January, Gordon Klingenschmitt will not be able to push through some of the “reforms” he’d like to see, because the U.S. Constitution prohibits those “reforms” and the appellate court system will slap him down at every turn. I’m thankful for the fact that he’ll be laughed at for the risible spectacle that he is, and that his very presence in that office will only serve to make people more aware of how dangerous the Religious Right is and will galvanize them increasingly against it.
I’m thankful for the fundamentalist Christians who smear their hateful, delusional nonsense all over Facebook and YouTube for the whole world to wonder at. They’re doing far more to promote disbelief and apostasy than anything any of us atheists could ever dream of doing. God bless them!
I’m thankful for the Satanists who challenged the unconstitutionality of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State House by suing for the right to erect their own monument alongside it. For the mentally-ill man who ran his car over said Ten Commandments and urinated on them, however, I’m not so thankful – although I do see a certain humor in it, given the back story. To paraphrase some of the more fevered, knee-jerk outbursts of certain Christian commentators in response to that unfortunate bit of vandalism, “Granite is under attack in America!”
I’m thankful that an ever-increasing number of young people in my country are walking away from religion, whatever their motivation. I’m thankful for the role that the internet is playing in that phenomenon. The internet will doubtless drive the final nail into the long-overdue coffin of religion in those societies where access is unrestricted; and those societies that restrict that access will be increasingly marginalized, just as cannibals are and for much the same reason. I’m really thankful for that.
I’m thankful for the United Nations and for the unofficial but very powerful “court of world opinion” that keeps the reptilian element in the U.S. – you know who I mean, don’t you? – from realizing some of its grandest, most sinister designs. Someone has to play the role of responsible adult, and if the American political system no longer allows us to play that role because the banksters and corporate overlords have a stranglehold on said system, I’m glad the people of Bolivia and Kiribati are willing to play it.
I’m thankful for the music of Joseph Haydn, even though I realize that his career and his music were made possible only by an aristocratic system that I despise. I’m thankful for the best compositions of Jean Sibelius, who painted in orchestral sounds a portrait of this precious planet far finer than any achieved by any other composer known to me: listen to his Tapiola for the best example of what I’m talking about. I’m thankful for the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi and Rainer Maria Rilke, and the lyrical prose of Barbara Kingsolver and Annie Dillard.
I’m really, really thankful for Wildwood Claire. If it weren’t for her periodic injections of keen insight and good humor on YouTube, I’d probably be even more morose than I am and would know less about geology than I do.
This frigid week, I’m thankful for natural gas and the means to deliver it, even while being fully aware that its procurement is causing unprecedented swarms of earthquakes in the state where I live and poisoning the aquifers that we all depend on, and that its use is helping turn this planet into an extinction zone. As they say where I hail from, no matter how flat the pancake, it still has two sides.
I’m thankful for that uniquely human endowment: a brain large and sophisticated enough to recognize paradox, and to wrestle – even dance – with it.
I’m thankful for an electronic community where atheists like me can find the comradeship that is otherwise largely missing from my part of the country.
I’m thankful for people like Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who have encouraged me to question everything I think I know. I’m thankful for Garrison Keillor and Greta Christina, who make me laugh and cry at the same time. I’m thankful for the insights and courage of people like Mike Ruppert, Gail Zawacki and Guy McPherson, and on those occasions when the courage of such clear-sighted individuals fails them and they collapse into tears of despair, I’m grateful to know that I’m not alone in that.
More than I will ever be able to express, I’m thankful for my son Jim, whose presence on this ruined planet is the greatest conceivable justification for my having lived.
I’m thankful for people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Russell Means, who have helped me see through some of the more fraudulent and hypocritical dimensions of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Odd as it may seem to some, I’m thankful that life is a temporary condition.
And this week, I’m especially thankful for the fact that I’m not a turkey.
Happy Thanksgiving. May vengeful Yahweh become disoriented on his way to rain brimstone on your godless feast.
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