The religious tradition of saying grace before meals becomes especially popular around the holidays, when we all are reminded of how fortunate we are to have an abundance of life-sustaining goods and services at our disposal. But there is a grave injustice involved in this tradition. It is the injustice of thanking an alleged God for the productive accomplishments of actual men.
Where do the ideas, principles, constitutions, governments, and laws that protect our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness come from? What is the source of the meals, medicines, homes, automobiles, and fighter jets that keep us alive and enable us to flourish? Who is responsible for our freedom, prosperity, and well-being?
Is freedom a gift from God? It is not. Freedom, the absence of physical coercion, is a political condition resulting from the rational, principled thought and action of men—men such as Aristotle, John Locke, the Founding Fathers, Frederick Douglass, and American soldiers.
Did God make the ambrosia that melts in your mouth, or the asthma medicine that keeps your child alive, or the plush recliner in which you relax, or the plasma TV on which you watch your favorite show? Did God create the jetliners that bring friends and family from afar, or the stealth bombers that keep the barbarians at bay, or the music that warms your heart and fuels your soul?
Since God is responsible for none of the goods on which human life and happiness depend, why thank him for any such goods? More to the point: Why not thank those who actually are responsible for them? What would a just man do?
Justice is the virtue of judging people rationally—according to what they say, do, and produce—and treating them accordingly, granting to each man that which he deserves. If someone spends the day preparing a wonderful meal, justice demands that he, not God, be thanked for doing so. If someone provides his family with a warm, safe, comfortable home, justice demands that he, not God, be thanked for providing it. If a policeman or fireman or doctor saves someone’s life, justice demands that he, not God, be thanked. If a loving spouse or child or parent or friend provides you with great joy, justice demands that he, not God, be acknowledged accordingly. If a philosopher discovers the principles on which freedom depends—and if others put those principles into practice—justice demands that they, not God, be given credit.
To say grace is to give credit where none is due—and, worse, it is to withhold credit where it is due. To say grace is to commit an act of injustice.
Rational, productive people—whether philosophers, scientists, inventors, artists, businessmen, military strategists, friends, family, or yourself—are who deserve to be thanked for the goods on which your life, liberty, and happiness depend. This holiday season—and from now on—don’t say grace; say justice. Thank or acknowledge the people who actually provide the goods. Some of them may be sitting right there at the table with you. And if you find yourself at a table where people insist on saying grace, politely insist on saying justice when they’re through. It’s the right thing to do.