Gratitude - Only for Theists?

Reposted from the Freethought Café by J.C. Samuelson

Scanning the Internet for news and views on a variety of topics, and for how they relate to secularism, I frequently find myself shaking my head at the smörgåsbord of absurdity issuing from the keyboards of religionists. Both the ignorant and the educated get in on the act, the latter merely couching their vituperation in more sophisticated language. During the holiday season especially, their frequency and variety seems to increase. There are so many, in fact, I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony - it's hard to know where to begin. Today, I'll be focusing on just one ridiculous idea - that non-theists literally have nothing to be thankful to. This particular chestnut makes the rounds every year around Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday with no basis in religious dogma or scripture, but with a culturally religious origin.

Many theists profess to believe, of course, that gratitude and appreciation are contingent upon the existence and providence of God. More specifically, they profess the belief that without an object to express those feelings to, somehow these things have less value. Because atheists do not have a deity to give thanks to, feelings of gratitude or appreciation are allegedly unfocused and meaningless, helping to deepen the existential and intellectual morass within which atheists are supposed to dwell, leading ultimately to despair. Though vexing (and vaguely insulting), I don't believe this constitutes any sort of meaningful attack on an atheistic worldview.

Ken Connor, an attorney and founder of the Center for a Just Society, is just one of many who've asserted something about secular gratitude this year. He asks, almost rhetorically, "[w]e know what we are thankful for, but to whom do we owe our thanks? What is the meaning of Thanksgiving without God?" The answer is, of course, a confusing mix of nothing. According to Connor, that is.

Some atheists argue that it is inappropriate to thank a "God" who does not exist. And, they acknowledge that it is less than satisfying to thank the Law of Gravity or the Second Law of Thermodynamics for all they have made possible for us. Hence, they argue, we should thank "goodness—the wonderful fabric of excellence created by individuals working together in human civilization to make this planet a better place." But does this really make sense? If the world is merely a product of random chance, if there is no Creator and no transcendent morality, can there be such a thing as "good"? And if this "wonderful fabric of excellence" is simply the result of cosmic accident, then is any thanks owed?

The sad reality of our secular society is that, while we retain many of our traditions, they are increasingly losing their meaning. Many "feel" thankful, but they have nothing to thank. Over time, as they continue to live out the logic of their position, they will eventually stare blankly into the abyss, their only feeling being one of despair.

Albert Mohler expressed similar sentiments, saying the secular vision of Thanksgiving feels "empty and false" to him. But since Mr. Connor goes into more detail, it makes more sense to address them both through this one article.

It's difficult to know to whom Mr. Connor is referring in the first sentence from the quote. Most atheists I know, myself included, would likely regard thanking a non-existent (or extremely improbable) God no more or less appropriate (or silly) than thanking the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or any other abstraction. If a person derives some feeling of comfort from having expressed gratitude to one or more principles or concepts perceived as benevolent in some way, that's just dandy. In fact, if it helps a person focus on their feelings of gratitude in a way that helps them direct its expression, so much the better. What I would object to, if anything, is the idea that like Mr. Connor, I should be thanking that same extremely improbable God, or that currying favor with this God is more important than thanking the people that actually have (or have had) an influence on my life in some way, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

What I've just alluded to is the idea that it may be more appropriate to thank one or more of the many human agents involved in actually delivering whatever one is grateful for. This isn't always technically practical, but can certainly be more immediate and meaningful. At least the recipients inhabit the physical realm, and in that sense are more accessible. If one is grateful for one's fiscal success, for example, it's certainly reasonable to thank whoever it was who taught what was needed to succeed, be it parents, teachers, friends, or previous employers. One might also thank a current employer, or more broadly those who demand the employer's services, thereby creating the need for one's position. If one is thankful for children, there's no reason not to thank the person who helped with conception, or those involved in helping with labor and delivery.

But what if those to whom one is grateful are no longer living, or have moved on to other relationships? What if one is thankful to an animal, such as Binta Jua, that deserves appreciation for some reason? What if one or more of these potential recipients hurt you or someone you love deeply in some way, physically or emotionally? It doesn't seem impossible to be grateful to these recipients, even under these difficult circumstances. One can, for example, still be grateful to deceased loved ones, whose contributions to your life helped shape it. It's also possible to be thankful to a creature that perhaps saved a life. And, when it comes to those who've hurt us, gratitude isn't necessarily appropriate or easy to come by. Yet maybe we can be thankful to them also, if only on a limited scale, for what they've done also helped to mold our character, or otherwise provided us with at least something of lasting value. One personal example would be my ex-wife, without whom I would not have had the opportunity to experience fatherhood or know my daughter, and who, through her faults, helped me find (and correct some of) my own.

Is it also possible to be grateful for something widely viewed as negative or bad? Of course it is. One can be thankful for a divorce, a missed flight, an illness, an addictive drug, and even death on a massive scale. A victim of domestic violence - which is not expressly prohibited by scripture, by the way - might be thankful to the judge who grants a restraining order and later a divorce. Someone who misses a flight, or suffers from an illness that prevents the fulfillment of a binding obligation may later be grateful if it turns out that going on that flight would've meant certain doom, or that fulfilling that obligation would've required odious moral decisions. An addict might thank God for the existence of certain plants from which a drug of choice is extracted, or more immediately to those that provided the refined drug. A criminal can be grateful to those that provided functional tools or the skills required to commit crimes. Finally, it's possible to be thankful to and for those who have died fighting a war to preserve a particular way of life.

As for how our gratitude may be expressed, in an age of instant communication, it's not really that difficult to express one's gratitude. If it can't be directed to the intended recipient for whatever reason, then perhaps to someone close to or involved somehow with the recipient. An email may be all it takes. Alternatively, it's possible to express it in ways that don't involve the original parties at all. The principle of serial reciprocity (i.e., paying something forward), in which a person repays an initial good by directing future acts of kindness and generosity toward someone other than the original benefactor, is probably the best example of an alternative expression of gratitude or giving.

It seems that the list of potential candidates is virtually limitless, as are the possible reasons to feel gratitude and the ways it might be expressed.

At this point, we might infer a few things about gratitude. First, gratitude is most meaningful to the one feeling or expressing it. That is, a recipient is clearly not the primary beneficiary. This becomes all the more apparent when one considers that those who offer thankful prayers to God do not (usually) expect a response, and would likely scoff at the notion that God has an emotional need to feel appreciated. Second, gratitude isn't fixed to a specific morality. A tyrant or criminal can feel and express gratitude just as easily as a philanthropist or missionary, even if it offends the rest of us. Third (and perhaps last), it can be more satisfying to express our gratitude personally. Although a specific recipient is not a necessity (e.g., recipients aren't the primary beneficiary anyway, and abstractions can serve in place of material recipients), it is sometimes more gratifying to see our feelings acknowledged by our benefactor. A simple smile, or a note saying "You're welcome," may be all it takes for us to feel we've completed the cycle, or at least a part of it. This isn't really possible with an abstraction, of course, since it doesn't (or more likely, can't) say or do anything in acknowledgement. With this in mind, we return to Mr. Connor.

Once again, one wonders to whom he's referring when he mentions that atheists argue that we should thank "goodness" for our fortunes. From my perspective, thanking an abstraction is less useful and meaningful than thanking tangible agents, and I suspect that he's fabricated this model of atheism from his own twisted perceptions, even though I admit that there may be some who might offer the answer he suggests. Be that as it may, I'll take this at face value. Continuing, he extrapolates a ridiculous conclusion from the idea that the universe may be the product of chance (which, of course, it may not be, even in the absence of deity), in that a "wonderful fabric of excellence" can only be good if there's a God to declare it so. In other words, the absence of a purposeful Creator and a transcendent morality, he reasons, precludes any kind of "goodness." In another context, this assertion might be worth something. Yet in the context of gratitude, it amounts to confusing the estimation of value with the continuum of moral virtue. In either case, however, Mr. Connor hasn't considered the implications very deeply, and so may not like where this line of reasoning leads.

Essentially, Mr. Connor has just declared humanity devoid of the capacity to judge something as valuable or moral on their own. In this massive character assassination, Mr. Connor implicitly declares himself incapable of discerning what is moral from what is immoral, or of determining value, without a God to tell him what to think. That is, he only does what is right because God tells him to, rather than for the sake of others. He only loves, for example, because God says he should. The only reason to show compassion or kindness is because he read about it in the Bible. It's painfully obvious that Mr. Connor has but an immature conception of morality and value - perhaps he's merely a puppet - and should not be trusted in any position of responsibility.

One might hope that Mr. Connor would find the above deeply insulting, if he were ever to read it. One also hopes it is very far from the truth, but the plain fact is that we are on our own when it comes to judging worth and morality, and he would do well to acknowledge this and grant the same dignity to all of us. Even if we assume that there is a God, and a transcendent morality given from on high, we are left to our own devices to determine which course to take in any given situation. Turning to scripture, we do not see examples that tell us when lying might be appropriate, or when killing is justified, that slavery is wrong, or even that rape is always a punishable offense. Yet we celebrate those who lie to protect the innocent as heroes. We kill both the innocent and the guilty while prosecuting a war, calling those who got in the way "collateral damage." Homosexuals are to be executed, as are girls whose hymens are torn or missing, but we don't do those things either, having found scriptural Law wanting. We judged slavery itself to be wrong, even though scripture approves of the practice. And we find the idea that a man who rapes a woman should only suffer a small fine - paid to the girl's father, of course - to be repugnant. Clearly, we do not rely on scripture to make our moral judgments or assign things as valuable. To my mind, it's a good thing we don't.

Returning to the question of gratitude, as was hinted at before, it does not require a functional moral compass. A criminal, whose moral compass is presumably on the fritz, can still feel and express gratitude. So can a brutal tyrant, executioner, a narcissist or anyone else one considers lacking in moral judgment. Hitler, for example, publicly gave thanks to God on more than one occasion. Though his sincerity might be questioned, we cannot know he was insincere. What we do know is that he expressed gratitude. Presumably, he at least understood the concept. My grandfather might be another example. A deeply religious man, he fervently thanked God many hundreds of times, yet was later informally diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, a condition in which gratitude (along with many other sympathetic emotions) is suppressed. Because of his condition, was he perhaps less sincere in his expressions of gratitude? Was he really thankful only to and for himself? We'll never know, but what's important is that the gratitude these men expressed did not depend on a transcendent concept of universal "good."

Turning now to the question of whether any thanks is owed for existence, Mr. Connor does have a point, although it's not as important as he thinks it is. Mr. Connor's assertion here touches the fringes of the cosmological argument, but it's not necessary to dwell on that topic. Although an atheist does not assume a prime mover for existence (giving his point the minimal validity it has), this does not preclude the appreciation of life, or giving thanks to appropriate agency. Parents, doctors, peers, and even strangers are all potential benefactors that may deserve our gratitude. It's not remotely necessary to regress back to the beginning of life, the universe, and everything to find something or someone to give thanks to.

By now we have hopefully dispensed with the notion that, for atheists, there can be no meaningful expressions of gratitude. When we look around us, there are many things we might be grateful for, and people we might be grateful to. We must all eventually stare into that abyss, but feelings of despair needn't trouble us if we've led a full life, meaningful at least to us if not someone else. As I lay on my death bed, I do not intend to look forward. Rather, I intend to look back on the people, places, and things that helped make my life what it was, and whisper a final thank you to all of them. It was a wonderful life.

So, while Mr. Connor reserves his Thanksgiving wishes for those who agree with him, without reservation I offer a belated "Happy Thanksgiving" to him, his friends and family, and all those I may have missed last Thursday.


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