The future of religion in the United States is increasingly secular. Numerous surveys, including a recent one conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), have identified a shift in America’s religious landscape: fewer Americans than ever profess a specific religious faith. Moreover, the number of people formally affiliated with a religious congregation is smaller than those unaffiliated. More than half the population claims no house of worship as their own.
Yet, this week Americans will gather to celebrate a national holiday set aside to express gratitude for the bounty we enjoy in general if not always in particular. Thanksgiving has unmistakable religious roots. The story of its origin we have told ourselves for centuries is viewed with deep historical skepticism, yet we cling to the form and purpose even as we question the substance.
It is important not to extend the lessons of these statistics beyond what they indicate. The lack of formal affiliation or acceptance of denominational labels does not mean that more than half of America has no religious belief or sympathy. Indeed, “spiritual, not religious” is a frequent answer among people still seeking a place within the tent of belief. It is a phrase that offers comfort and hope to faith communities worried about declining numbers that imagine an eventual return to the fold of people who need community and structure at pivotal moments in their lives.
At the same time, the increasing number of Americans who are resolutely not religious is an indication that a significant minority – a designation with lots of company – has chosen secularism and/or atheism over the familiar faith-based values long presumed to be the default belief system of most Americans.
There has been much discussion about the diversity of politics and cultural values represented around family tables, but the diversity of faith and philosophy is likewise a dilemma for the contemporary American Thanksgiving gathering. To whom or to what does one give thanks when those who have gathered are not of a single mind about the source of the blessings they celebrate?
Certainly, there are few among us who object to pausing in appreciation of the sustaining aspects of their lives. What one person considers the gift of a beneficent God, another may consider the result of devoted work and a third may consider the motivation to extend their good fortune to others. But the holiday is not called Reflection Day – by history and proclamation, it calls on us to offer thanks.
Does an expression of thanksgiving released into the ether have meaning without a specific object of appreciation?
The common ground Thanksgiving Day establishes for believers of all kinds and non-believers of equal diversity is a consciousness that nothing exists on our tables (and, as a matter of fact, anywhere else in our lives) without both cause and chain of custody. Whether it be turkey or pumpkin pie or a plate of vegetables, everything comes from somewhere. A person of faith may consider a creator as the source of the life-sustaining blessings while a secularist may understand farmers, truckers, and merchants as essential to the meal before them. A prayer of gratitude may acknowledge the mysteries of life’s origins and varieties, or an expressed appreciation may serve to remind everyone of their mutual dependency that is independent of the private meditations of the heart. And everyone ought to be gracious to the person who provides dessert.
On the Fourth of July, we rejoice in our independence. On Thanksgiving, we embrace our interdependence. The statistics may show us scattered among familiar and unfamiliar communities of belief, but our experience of the fourth Thursday in November shows that in collectives large and small, we are grateful we have each other’s gifts to sustain us.
Learn about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to advance true religious freedom.