"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." -- Romans 1:21
Nearly everyone expresses gratitude on Thanksgiving. Regardless of your beliefs or your situation in life, all of us can find someone or something for which to be thankful. Giving thanks is a natural response to kindness or good fortune. People do it reflexively, without considering the implication of such an act. But if one does consider the implication, he will come to the realization that it is showing appreciation to God.
On its face, this may sound like a stretch. After all, an atheist can be grateful for the people and things in his life without believing in God. But where did those people and things come from? Who gave him breath? Did he and the loved ones in his life self-generate? What of the material world? Did it come from nothing? The only logical answer is that all has been created and sustained by a transcendent and omnipotent being, the God described in Scripture.
An atheist, by definition, must reject this answer and hold fast to the belief that we did self-generate, that everyone and everything came from nothing. In doing so, they can choose to give thanks for only who and what they can see, the people and things in their life that bring them joy and comfort. While it does not make sense to give thanks to non-sentient things, they can be thankful to the people in their life who have shown love and kindness to them. And their gratitude can end there. This position, however, is problematic for another reason.
If everyone is simply the byproduct of an undirected material process, then everyone is controlled by that process. This includes our thoughts and actions. In a materialist worldview, free will does not exist. Human beings are randomly hardwired organisms that have no say in the matter (no pun intended). And if one believes this, it makes no sense to be thankful to the people in your life. They are who they are and have done nothing as individuals to be kind or benevolent or courageous. None of their desirable qualities originate from a rational calculus and they could just as easily be sociopaths if the laws of nature had operated differently.
Atheism contradicts itself on its fundamental assumptions and is therefore invalid. Nevertheless it has grown in popularity as modern man seeks complete autonomy from nature and God. In a sad and pathetic irony, this has led to the embrace of a materialistic determinism that denies all freedom and eliminates any reason to give thanks. Of course, no one can live like this. An ideology that is at odds with reality cannot be sustained. Atheists cannot help but be thankful for the beauty and goodness in their life. This gratefulness arises involuntarily. But the sentiment is stillborn, severed from its source and suppressed by their ideology, leaving them confused and cynical. It is not a coincidence that secular culture is increasingly defined by sarcasm, ingratitude, and despair.
In perfect contrast, Christianity contains none of this contradiction or confusion. The Christian can logically be grateful for both the people and things in his life because everyone and everything is created by God, “from whom all things came and for whom we live.” Man is made in the image of God, endowed with the freedom to give thanks to the creator and to choose good over evil (which is merely the negation of good). As the Psalmist declares, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD.” Doing so acknowledges the source of all goodness and, in turn, helps one find his proper place in the created order. Giving thanks to God is conforming to reality, which is the only way to find lasting happiness.
Unlike an atheist’s involuntary and fleeting expressions of gratitude, Christian thanksgiving is a conscious action that is not dependent on circumstance. It is an outpouring of gratefulness that the dreadful suffering of our fallen world cannot destroy because Christ has overcome the world. The victory is won. He has conquered death. Being truly thankful is an immutable state of mind that is grounded in eternal truth. It is a joy that atheists cannot share or understand.