Emma Green contemplates why “secular, Thanksgiving-flavored gratitude seems so fuzzy”:
Religions from Christianity to Hinduism to Wicca all emphasize the importance of thankfulness, especially as a form of prayer. This is because they rely on the premise of an other, some sort of non-human being that has some sort of control or influence in the world who you can thank for the world and the good things in it.“One of the things that’s really interesting about the human mind is that we seem to want to see agency in the world, almost intuitively,” said Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami. “The mind really craves an explanation for the good and the bad, in terms of agency.” By “agency,” McCullough means something along the lines of “a force that can act in the world and cause events to happen.” In crude sociological terms, people give thanks to the forces that act in the universe—God, or god, or gods—as a bid for cosmic benevolence, whether that means making it rain or preserving a loved one’s health or bringing a baby into the world. But these thanks are also an implicit metaphysical claim: Humans owe their existence, their longevity, and perhaps even their daily fortunes to a being beyond ourselves.
While expressing gratitude for the good in her life, Kate Cohen confesses that “as an atheist, I don’t ever ascribe these gracious gifts to God; I never believed a supernatural being to be the source of the bounties that I enjoy”: