Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks to Whom?

By Mike Dorf

Is it possible to be thankful without being thankful to anyone or anything in particular?  That question might be thought to bear on the appropriateness of official celebrations of Thanksgiving in a secular country.  Judges and scholars who argue that the Establishment Clause permits a fair degree of official religious exercise often point to the tradition of Presidents' Thanksgiving Proclamations.  George Washington's 1789 Proclamation pretty much set the standard, and while its invocation of the Divine is non-denominationally monotheistic, it nonetheless has religious content.  Thus, modern separationists who say that the Thanksgiving holiday is merely a secular occasion may be right about what the holiday has become, but it seems they are wrong about the origins.

Well, so what?  If the holiday has become secular, then, under the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause precedents, there's nothing with the govt recognizing the holiday's secular aspects.  Of course, modern Presidential proclamations often have as much religious content as the first one.  (For the complete set, click here.)  They tend to vary in the degree to which they directly invoke God versus recognizing how past and present Americans have thanked God.

Still, one might think that there inherently cannot be a secular holiday of "Thanksgiving," because the whole concept indicates thanks to God.  This is plainly not true, both in a trivial and a less trivial sense.  Obviously, one can be thankful to other people--and President Obama's proclamation makes just this point.  It talks of
Americans coming together "to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own."  But beyond gratitude to others, one can meaningfully be grateful "in the air," as it were (to borrow and pervert a line of then-Judge Cardozo).  Perhaps this is just a linguistic point, so that people in these circumstances, if they are not thankful to the Divine, aren't technically "grateful" for, say, good weather on a wedding day; perhaps they feel lucky or relieved or something similar.  Still, I think it meaningful to talk about being grateful in general, or perhaps grateful to the universe, even if one thinks it a Godless, soulless place.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, whomever, Whomever, or whatever you are thankful to.


  1. For an interesting take on the concept of "holiday" itself, you might want to read "The Perfect Gift" at
    Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for the provocative post.

  2. Michael,

    Thank you for posting this item!

  3. Thanks for *this,* Mike. An anecdote here might be apt for the occasion:

    Since my early 20s at least, I've often felt what seems initially to be an objectless, but overwhelming, sense of gratitude. I've not been immediately aware, in these cases, of just what it is for which I am grateful, or to whom I am grateful. Almost the moment such a feeling has come upon me, however, I quickly find myself casting about for some 'objects' of the sort I've just implicated -- that for which, and she, he, it or those to whom, I suddenly find myself to *be* grateful. (It now reminds me a bit of my dog housemate, Atticus, who is so excited when you get home that he immediately looks around for something to pick up in his mouth before officially jumping on you in greeting -- I suppose to prevent himself from licking you too much.)

    By age 23 I had been noticing this tendency of mine for a while and sort of puzzling over it. Then one day (I was walking up the High Street in Oxford) it sort of hit me, that for some people, the Deity her-, him-, or it-self might be, perhaps entirely or perhaps among other things, a sort of 'postulate of gratitude,' if I may put it this way by way of a sort of analogy to Kant's idea of the Deity's being a 'postulate of reason' and of 'the moral law.' Perhaps another variation, this, on the old Voltairian saw that 'if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.'

    I hasten to add that I simply toyed with this thought way back then at age 23 just as I toy with it now. My own faith and/or joy and/or hope and/or gratitude and/or what ever seems to stem from and reinforce and in other ways interconnect with too many considerations to pin down or list or put into Euclidian order. (Here too I'm like joyful Atticus.) But I find this 'postulate of gratitude' idea a fun one to play with nevertheless. And now suddenly I find myself feeling that same lovely gratitude again. So thanks! And thanks to the object of gratitude here known as 'Mike' for the object of gratitude that is this post!

    Happy Thanksgiving, All,

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