23 November 2006


I called a friend in England and reflexively greeted him with "Happy Thanksgiving" when he picked up the phone. "Thanksgiving?" he responded. "Oh, is it Thanksgiving over there?"

He was playing dumb, of course; he's been to America a couple times, even has a brother who emigrated here several years ago. He knows perfectly well what and when Thanksgiving is. But he still had to go through the requisite harrumphing and tutting and mild drollery that roughly translates as, "You wacky Americans!"

I don't mean to suggest that English people are any less grateful than Americans, merely that they're much less inclined to make a special occasion of it. The more cynical might also suggest that by condensing all their gratitude down to a single daylong orgy (mostly devoted to rapaciously consuming all the things they are allegedly grateful for), the Americans have given themselves a pass to abandon any pretense of it for the rest of the year.

I'm not one of those cynics; in fact I think one of America's great redeeming features is that by and large its people - even those who might appear not to be having the best time of it - have a pretty good sense of just how fortunate they are. True, they have funny ways of showing it at times, and maybe the holiday glow has caused me to over-romanticize or idealize my fellow Americans, but I think on balance they're a pretty grateful lot, and perhaps as a consequence, a fairly generous one as well.

Whether you agree or not, there's no doubt that declarations of thanksgiving will be winging their way effulgently about the land for the rest of this day and well into the night. And it occurred to me to ask: just where do they all go? Put another way, when all these people say "thanks," to whom or what are they saying it?

The majority of Americans espouse some form of religious or spiritual faith, so presumably they're thanking God or one of his intermediaries. But what about the millions of agnostics, or their fundamentalist cousins, the atheists? Are they any less grateful for want of some specific entity to be grateful to?

Obviously a fair number of them - especially here in California - will be addressing their praises to Gaia or "the force" or whoever/whatever it is that Wiccans revere. And still more of them will reserve their gratitude to friends or loved ones or the aged relatives who endowed them with substantial trust funds. But what of the truly hardcore fanatics - the Richard Dawkinses of the world, shall we say - who steadfastly refuse to accept that there is any power extant beyond the bounds of their own keenly honed powers of reason? Can they be truly thankful, if indeed there is nothing out there worthy of being thanked?

I was reminded of this question - one which periodically, but not too periodically occurs to me - by Dr. Frank's mention of an intellectual/theological spat among the above-mentioned Dawkins, the post-structural obscurantist Terry Eagleton, the rather-a-bit-too-full-of-himself commentator/philosopher A.C. Grayling, and the fairly astute professor and blogger Norm Geras.

I will say right from the start that I've never had much use for Richard Dawkins. I think of him as a more obtrusive and obnoxious Noam Chomsky, i.e., someone who by virtue of having achieved modest success in one field proceeded to appoint himself an unrivaled expert in a completely unrelated field. My own personal experience with Dawkins is limited to having heard him on the radio, where he would snap, "That's a completely stupid question" or the like at anyone who showed the temerity to question his theories. But a journalist friend who interviewed him confirms my impression of him as someone completely obsessed with his own idiosyncratic view of the life and the universe, to the exclusion of anyone or anything else. "He [Dawkins] was in a bit of a state," my friend reported, "as if he were having a spiritual crisis," which could be terribly disconcerting for the man who believes there is no such thing.

But what surprised me was Eagleton's commentary, because Eagleton, one of those products of the 1960s who has pledged unswerving allegiance to Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, et al., in other words, a roll call of some of the past century and a half's most spectacularly wrong individuals, provided a very well-reasoned and (in light of everything I've seen by Eagleton in the past) astoundingly readable evisceration of Dawkins's half-baked adolescent temper tantrum-cum-best selling novel, er, screed, The God Delusion.

I'd just heard the old proverb about my enemy's enemy being my friend on some radio talk show, and wondered if I would now have to find new tolerance for the previously intolerable Eagleton. In his defense, he does at times show signs of having a sense of humor, which puts him streets ahead of Dawkins, whose idea of a good joke doesn't seem to extend beyond, "There's no God and you think there is, so you're stupid, ha ha ha." And equally ahead of A.C. Grayling, who I'm most accustomed to reading in the Guardian, where his doleful and lugubrious commentaries have unsurprisingly found a ready home.

But as long as Eagleton clings to his discredited Marxism as tenaciously as Dawkins does to his teenage atheism (or Grayling to his mumbly-jumbly Grauniadism), I can't take any of them too seriously. Still, it's disconcerting to find myself - on this issue, anyway - largely in agreement with Eagleton, who has previously been unable to string two sentences together without either annoying or stupefying me. Professor Geras, who of the four I'm least familiar with, had by far the best of the exchange.

Enough of such intellectual dither, though. I started out to express my own thanks, and shall do so now, before this dispatch reaches thoroughly unwieldy lengths. The past couple months, what with my medical difficulties and being marooned in sad old Berkeley, have not been easy, but the year overall, and the several years previous, have been outstanding. I've been privileged to spend time with wonderful people, both new acquaintances and old, to see a good deal of my family, to travel to some of my favorite places on earth, to enjoy (again except for this brief interval) really good health and and a joyous disposition. Life's been very good to me, and with any luck, I will continue to learn how in turn to be good to life.

In my own case, I don't have any problem with giving my thanks directly to a higher power that I personally call God. I equally have no problem with people - and this includes most of my friends - who can't get their heads around the concept of any such thing as God. The only reason I get so exercised about Dawkins and similar extremists is that - like Christian or Muslim fundamentalists - they cling so ferociously to a single-pointed ideology that is as joyless as it is lifeless. Worse, not with darkening only their own enjoyment and understanding of existence, they loudly insist that anyone else who does not embrace it with them is a heretic or an idiot or both. Granted, at least Dawkins hasn't yet taken up the fatwa or the suicide bombing campaign, which gives me, I suppose, yet another thing to be grateful for.

It's interesting, though, how I can happily interact with many agnostics on an ongoing basis without the subject of God or religion even needing to be discussed. I suspect this is because whatever name or voice we give to our beliefs (or lack thereof), we're not really very far apart on the essentials. Neither they nor I have any particular ax to grind when it comes to spiritual matters; I don't feel compelled (nor able, for that matter) to demonstrate the existence of God to them, and they similarly are quite content to let me think and believe, even worship and pray, the way I do.

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," it says at the beginning of the Lao tzu, which was a close to a bible as I'd allow myself back in hippie days, but it strikes me now that the identical words could be said about God in whatever form we (attempt to) understand him. Anyone who claims to know the nature of God (or to be able to prove his absence) has already missed the point, and anyone capable of keeping an open mind, especially when coupled with reverence and gratitude, is well on his or her way to understanding exactly what they need to know to live a long and fruitful life.

Well, that's the way it looks at the moment, on this Thanksgiving Day, 2006. I'm very happy and grateful just to be alive and well, here and now, and I hope very much that the same is true for you and yours.


Anna said...

Although trying not to sound completeley ignorant about other countries celebrations etc but what are the origins of Thanksgiving.

drydock said...

Geras is a marxist, too. Though he lined up on the wrong side of the Iraq war.

Larry Livermore said...

I'm aware that Geras is or was a Marxist, but he appears to be an unaccountably sensible one. If that's not too much of an oxymoron.

Actually, that sounds a bit uncharitable of me. These days Marxism is more of a religious faith than an ideology, and I suppose I should show the same tolerance for its adherents as I try to do for the various spiritual creeds of the world, to wit: so long as you're not trying to blow me up, you can believe any old thing you please.

Matt said...

I just ordered Dawkins' "The God Delusion" yesterday from Amazon on the strength of a 70 minute YouTube video of him speaking and doing a Q&A at an American university. It's not so much that I took his words as gospel (couldn't resist) but his argument was interesting and I'd heard the book mentioned before. As the offspring of Christian parents I'd find it quite interesting to read some literature that might challenge their beliefs (since I pretty much stopped following it once I became a teen). I feel a bit less excited about reading it when it arrives now, I didn't realise he had a reputation for being like a childish atheist or whatever.

I did some Eagleton stuff last year at university, looking at his theory that literature replaced religion as the upper class's method of control over us serfs, and it did carry some weight for me; although I'd argue that "literature" should encompass all modern media, now that we live in the age of Big Brother (the TV show) and podcasts.

As for Thanksgiving, as a Brit I always found it to appear as just a pre-Christmas, where you guys essentially just exude a similar mindset for the period. It's a nice concept to have a day set aside to be 'thankful', but that could easily be criticised in the same way people mock Valentine's Day, saying you should love your partner all year round rather than just show it on one calendar day.

drydock said...

"so long as you're not trying to blow me up, you can believe any old thing you please."

Maybe we can apply that idea to western "cruise missile" liberals who have seem to have a lot of faith in the superiority of their ideas.