The Thanksgiving Paradox

Tree“Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”

–Job 1:21

Several years ago, I was invited to represent the local atheist community at an interpath event held at the Unity Church of Dallas. There were all manners of religious traditions present, including several liberal forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a few dozen or so eclectic individuals who had adopted a kind of a mix-n-match approach to their religious worldview, blending certain aspects of Hinduism with various other aspects of Paganism, for example. It was an interesting cohort, to be sure, and I felt unexpectedly comfortable among this metaphysical diversity.

As the event drew to a close, the organizers announced that there would be a circular prayer, in which each of the invited participants would give a culminating invocation to their respective gods or goddesses to bring the proceedings to a close. As the circle drew around to my seat, I briefly considered remaining silent, but then at the last minute offered this supplication:

“Dear God in Heaven, thank you for giving me the intellectual capacity to disbelieve in You.”

After the event had ended, one of the younger Ahmadiyya Muslims in attendance approached me with a wry grin. “That was a funny prayer you offered,” he said. “I totally got the joke.”

I flashed him a smile in return, and said, “Thanks. But I was also being quite serious.”

As a child, the religious character of the Thanksgiving holiday was an obvious example of the manifest destiny concept with which most American history is colloquially taught. And the narrative most of us absorbed is full of justification for such gratitude: after fleeing religious persecution in England, the Separatist Dissenters sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, landed and founded Plymouth Colony, starved through their first winter, and then were contacted by Samoset of the Native Abenaki tribe, who introduced them to Squanto, the last of the Native Patuxet tribe. According to the English Separtists’ accounts, Squanto not only provided them with crucial guidance in survival techniques, but he also negotiated a political treaty between them and Massasoit of the Wampanoag, culminating in a Thanksgiving feast that we memorialize each year on the fourth Thursday in November.

Except that’s not exactly all there is to the story.

The Separatists or “Pilgrims” as we call them were not the last English settlers to come, but neither were they the first. Squanto, the Pilgrims’ benefactor, had previously been kidnapped and enslaved by English explorers, taught their language, and trained as an interpreter. Upon returning to his homeland, he was kidnapped and enslaved again, to eventually be set free by kindly Spanish monks. When he finally did return home a second time, he found that the entire population of his tribe had been wiped out by disease just the year before, leaving him as the sole survivor. Indeed, the very reason why the Pilgrims chose the Patuxet’s former territory for Plymouth Colony was because the land had obviously been cleared and tended but was abandoned, precisely because of this plague, part of the legacy of the introduction of European pathogens to the Americas.

And following the happy Thanksgiving feast, things did not go so well for the Wampanoag. More English settlers, primarily Puritans, arrived in what they were calling “New England,” to the point where the Native Americans were now in the minority. Not all of these settlers were as interested in cohabitation as the original Pilgrims had been, and between recurrent disease outbreaks, pressure to covert Natives to Christianity and English culture, and also the violent retribution against Native attempts to reassert their sovereignty, their participation in America’s history was reduced to a mere footnote.

So looking back at the history of the event we celebrate every year, I have to wonder… is the gratitude of the Pilgrims enough to make up for the calamity of the Wamapoag? To say nothing of the utter disaster that characterized European/Native relations over the following four centuries?

And I feel much the same way about expressing gratitude to the divine.

Author J. Daniel Sawyer has remarked, though he doesn’t believe in God, he’d “like to have someone to say thanks to.” And that desire resonates with me, especially in the middle of an autumn walk through some particularly spectacular foliage. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I sometimes think to myself on these occasions, “to know that someone was responsible for all of this natural beauty, and be able to thank them for the joy that I feel in this moment.”

But it’s a sentiment with strict demarcation.

Because I know too much about the natural world, and I know that for every fiery leaf that catches my eye, there is an innocent creature caught in an inferno and turned to ash. For every streaming cataract that captures my imagination, there is a pool of deadly water that imprisons a drowned child. For every soft breeze that tousles my hair and caresses my cheeks, there is a person smashed into oblivion by a raging tempest.

Consider perhaps, a painting so beautifully transcendent that its subject seems to connect right through into the center of your being, its composition so balanced and harmonious that it evokes an immediate and deep sense of peace and satisfaction, its colors so brilliant and textures so ideal that real life is dull and hazy by comparison. Such a work of art would demand the highest degree of respect and appreciation for the artist, would it not?

But then consider that the canvas for this magnum opus was cut, slowly and with the maximum possible amount of suffering, from the skin of a still-living person. And the pigments used to create the artwork were cunningly crafted from blood, drawn slowly from the same person, while she looked on in full conscious horror. And the brushes used to apply the paints to the canvas were fashioned from bones, cracked and wrenched violently from that same person’s fingers.

Would you still be able to enjoy that painting as you had originally?

What pains me most about offering gratitude to God is not simply reconciling the good things that happen with the bad. Even in a Godless Cosmos, there will be things that humans regard as good and evil; there is no inconsistency there. Because in a world without God, the existence of evil is either a failing of humanity or a happenstance of the apathetic Cosmos; two sources which I have no trouble reconciling and accepting. Instead, what I find myself unable to morally assent to is the prevalence of evil acts which no God worth the name could be inconvenienced to prevent, and yet which occur nonetheless. It would, for example, have been trivial for God to have introduced a strong genetic resistance to the smallpox virus in the Native peoples of the Americas. Such a small change would have had tremendous ramifications on the European colonization of this continent, and would have reduced the death and suffering of Squanto’s people by several orders of magnitude.

Now, theistic philosophers explain why this incrementally better God is not possible, citing any number of theodicies which almost-but-not-quite cover the entire range of natural and human evils we observe. But the same range of evils are consistent with a Godless existence as well; theists and atheists alike can agree that the worst of all human traits would manifest with or without a personal deity, and an impersonal Cosmos would hurl just as many bolts of destruction. So the paradox is that, it is only upon invocation of God that prayers of thanksgiving have any sense, but the tendency of that same God to balance the ledgers with calamity renders that thanksgiving senseless. That is to say, for every event God allows which inspire tears of joy, He also allows those which cause tears of despair. It is not necessarily the case that God has to play a zero-sum game, but it happens nonetheless. Would the Pilgrims have had as much to be thankful for in 1621 if the Patuxet were still living on their land, and if the larger Wampanoag confederation had not been decimated by European disease? Would America have risen to its level of prominence without centuries of slavery bolstering its national economy? Would I be able to enjoy the current privilege and safety I now have without the dripping blood of countless soldiers who are sent into warfare on my behalf?

As long as the God of classical theism cannot resolve this paradox any better than He did for His suffering servant Job, He is no God worth believing in. And yet still I wonder, is there not a God who could accomplish everything that inspires our gratitude without also allowing everything that provokes our pain? Such a God would, if He existed, be much more likely to earn my admiration, and certainly a much different prayer.