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An Atheist's Thanksgiving Day Thoughts On The Question, "Why Are You Here?"
I get the impression, at times, that the question as to why I’m here, or as to why I think my life has any meaning or purpose, is a bit intrusive. It strikes me as similar to someone entering an owner’s home and demanding to know why the owner is there. This space I take up in my 5’ 9” frame is my own; I don’t have to rationalize my existence to you. And so, a part of my psyche takes offense at the question.
Most of the time, though, if you don't answer the “why are you here” question satisfactorily, you give people the impression that I am trapped in a kind of nihilistic meaninglessness and am therefore depressed. To some extent, this concern makes sense -- there could, I suppose, be enormous satisfaction in knowing exactly what your life is for without question. And some religions – we’ll take Christianity as an example, since I know it best – seem to provide that. While some of us on the outside might think the assigned purpose a Christian often accepts as a tad oppressive (because you’re not really allowed to ask, much of the time, if the prescribed purpose makes any sense), many religious people do, in fact, feel a certain peace in confidently choosing their path in life without having to entertain an intimidating array of options. It can, at times, be somewhat bewildering to realize that where you go and what you decide to think is important is largely up to you.
I think, however, that the concept of “you” – the way you think about yourself – is not something that happens all by itself. When someone thinks about who they are, it’s fairly common for them to come up with a list of qualities that, largely, have to do with relationships or interactions with other people. So even though there’s a basic deep-down “you” that exists and that you have a right to, the way you express yourself in the world often reveals and constructs situations that give you a sense of identity, and your attitude towards this sense of identity can help you determine your next steps as you seek to preserve or change it..
Right now I’m a decent typist as my fingers type the keys, and I’m a decent eater as I showed in eating Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m a brother to several sisters, and I’m a son of mom and dad, and I’m fairly passionate, and also can be fairly rational most qhwn trying to come up with solutions to problems in my field of study. Like, all these qualities and many others come together as I define the place I hold in the world. I exist and I own my existence, but, in addition to that, the results from the expression of this existence, as well as the situations this expression occur in, helps me make choices in day to day life. But no matter what choices I make, I belong here; I have a right to be here.
There’s plenty of talk going around in atheist circles as to the Christians concept of gratitude, and it seems that atheists are – rightfully – hesitant to say what they are thankful for (outside of the intentional actions of some human beings) because it implies gratitude to God. Far better, for some, to simply say they are fortunate.
That's a good point, but in addition to that thought I’d like to say that I think that what Christians are expressing when they say they are thankful for something is, much of the time, the evidence that God is planting direction and positive reinforcement of that direction in their lives so that they can say their lives matter. I think that, for myself as an atheist, I don’t need that insecurity satisfied. I belong here, and my direction is a product of my surroundings and my choices. As long as we are in the world, we belong here; we don’t have to be embarrassed at the fact of our existence, no matter how dim things may seem or how little you have or what you’ve done; even if you die, the space your body is taking up on earth is going to be used and recycled and thus exist, still, in one form or another. We can, however, choose our direction by taking stock of our surroundings, choices, and desires – the things that complete the sentence “I am ____.”
And these characteristics of my expression of my existence and my environment of existence not only help me feel that I exist without apology, but also that I’m connected to and am an unimpeachable part of the world. The thanks Christians give to God for giving them positive direction in their lives – I see myself as not having to give. I am worthy of existence in my own right, but the environment I am in, the place I am located – this can give me access to direction, it can be my way to make choices, it constructs a place that makes me laugh and cry and live.
And I’m it. Like, I don’t have to give any of this joy in the fact that I belong and that I am in the environment I am in – I don’t have to give it away to a nonexistent being, and I don’t have to feel embarrassed at my bare existence, no matter how the environment of my existence looks. I can keep it all for myself, and thank individuals not for my existence (because that’s something that’s my own anyway), but for being a part of the environment that allows me to express it and makes me able to make decisions and choose direction in life with the confidence that, again, I belong here. I’m not some alien looking in; I’m as much a part of the universe as the stars above me right now in this dark night sky.
Now that this thought is yours, it’s true that one of the individuals who has helped construct this environment is you, dear reader. So I’d like to take some time, on this Thanksgiving Day, to say thanks.