Thanksgiving would seem to be a perplexing concept for one who has rejected any possibility of there being something beyond the here-and-now of daily experience that presents itself to our sense impressions. Of course the question is: to whom would I be giving thanks?
The idea of gratitude – motivating thanks-giving – is closely tied to humility. We don’t thank ourselves, after all. We recognize that what we are and who we are and what we have are attributable to something outside ourselves. A person who believes that the material universe is all there is could certainly say that he is the product of forces outside of himself, just as can the theist. So perhaps the materialist could have the gratitude that would motivate him to thanks-giving too?
We could suppose that a truly materialist individual would have a sense of humility, because man is not self-made, after all. Even for the materialist, the forces of the universe have operated such that they culminate in this person in this moment of reflection, contemplating that but for those forces, he would not be here to experience gratitude. The materialist might contemplate the awesome majesty and mystery of the material mechanisms that operated to bring him into being. We are composed of star-dust, after all!
But those forces are mindless, unguided, and purposeless. The materialist would have to consider himself purely an accident. There is no softer spin to put on it, because the atheist point of view is that there was no single driving force that had man as its object. Man is not a “creation,” even if we use the word while excluding the possibility of a sentient creator, because the purpose of creating man, or a man, is still missing. There is no one before whom to have humility. This emotion of humility concerning one’s own existence is completely wasted, for the atheist.
Genuine humility, and therefore thanksgiving, is impossible for an atheist. Now that’s not to say that an atheist doesn’t still experience it. But if he does, it must mean that in the background of his profession of non-faith, there is an unacknowledged awareness of One before whom we really should have humility; to Whom we should be grateful; and to Whom we should give thanks.