On Gratitude

This Thursday, November 22, is – at least for my American readers – the holiday of Thanksgiving. Despite the religious connotations that have been attached to this day since the beginning, I think this is a good holiday for atheists. It’s one of the few whose message can be rendered in entirely secular terms. Thanksgiving as traditionally practiced is a time to come together with family and friends, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life’s abundance, and to give thanks for all the good that has come to us. All of these are things that an atheist should be able to do just as well as anyone else.

Sadly, atheists still face misunderstanding from a hostile religious public. Around this time last year, a Christian visitor left the following comment in the thread “An Atheist Dinner Benediction“:

What’s the point in thanking people that you don’t know? Will your niceness somehow come back to you by some psychic force of the cosmos?

An atheist’s answer to the latter question is no, of course. We do not give thanks because, by some cosmic law of karma, our gratitude finds its way back to the giver and magically influences their life. Nor do we do it to earn merit points in some unseen deity’s gradebook. Instead, we give thanks for the most basic and humanist of reasons: because it teaches us to be mindful of the contributions others have made to ease our lives, and encourages us to show others that same consideration in turn. A person who’s aware of how greatly their well-being depends on the good will of others, and whose actions reflect that understanding, is apt to be kinder, more generous and more moral than a person who selfishly and wrongly imagines that they owe nothing to anyone.

On the other hand, while I think humans should be grateful to each other for the good we’ve received at others’ hands, I don’t think it serves any useful purpose to thank God. After all, there’s no evidence whatsoever of a deity intervening in our lives to grant us good fortune. As far as the evidence shows, the natural world contains no external consciousness, only the winds of chance that sometimes blow in our favor and sometimes against. There’s no reason to believe that there is any higher power to whom we owe a debt.

Worse, when religious believers get in the habit of thanking God for every good that comes their way, I think it tends to make them less compassionate than their fellow human beings. For those who believe that God ultimately directs every action that unfolds in accordance with his hidden plan, there’s little reason to believe that human beings played any role in getting us to where we are in life. God made it happen because he wanted it that way, and humans are at best his tools, his puppets. The ingratitude shown by those who give God the credit for every good thing that happens to them leads to an attitude that’s disrespectful and dismissive toward the effort of human beings.

There’s a classic guest essay on Ebon Musings, “The Work Gods Are Too Busy to Tend To“, written by an atheist and former member of the U.S. Coast Guard who performed dangerous rescues for eight years in the treacherous waters off New England:

In contrast, I have heard a number of people exclaim, “Thank God you came.” I wanted to puke every time I heard that. A god had nothing to do with my crew and me being there. A god was not helping us save them at the risk of our own lives. Our skill, training and luck is what saved them, not some mythical being.

The other classic example of this phenomenon is those who go in for some risky surgery or medical procedure, pull through, and then give all the credit to God for their survival, rather than thanking the human beings who made it possible: the hard work and skill of their doctors, the dedication of those who trained them, and the painstaking labor of scientific research carried out by thousands of human beings over hundreds of years to learn how the body functions so that we can better repair it. At no step of the way did a god assist in this process. The labor and the effort were ours, and the credit should be ours as well. In this season of thanksgiving, if more people recognized that, it might bring about a change for the better in our world.

Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • B.C. Lack

    Perfectly said, Ebon, Thank You!

    I’ve heard similar comments from theists I’ve talked with on the subject of Thanksgiving. The strangest question I have ever been confronted with was, “If you’re not giving thanks to God, then what’s the point of Thanksgiving?”
    I was stunned, so I couldn’t think of a good answer to her question. All I could do was answer her with another question, “Really?…so there is no one else in your life you could thank for something?”
    My friend affirmed this, but insisted that Thanksgiving was for thanking God and God only. I gave up.

    On the subject of genuine gratitude, mindlessly thanking an abstract ‘God’ seems so shallow to me.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

  • Angie

    Nice post, Ebon.

    Thanksgiving was originally about thanking God. At this point I think most people just know it’s a day off work. I have a friend who was talking to a co-worker last year about Thanksgiving. Literally all her coworker could tell her was that it’s a day for eating turkey. When gently prompted about what else it was about, she couldn’t think of anything. I guess the compound word was a bit complex for her.

    I’m stunned, though I probably shoudn’t be, by the comment by the Christian last year. “What’s the point of thanking people you don’t know?” That’s one of those things that just leaves you with your mouth hanging open or your head shaking. “Will your niceness somehow come back to you by some psychic force of the cosmos?” This is mostly just a snarky throw-away, but you have to ask – what’s the point of dedicating a whole day to thanking your god? Do you think your thanks and supplication will come back to by gaining you entry into heaven? We all have our motivations.

    I agree that not believing in a god redirects your attention to those around you who have an affect on your life. I’m thankful that there are forums like this one where we can discuss such things. Thank you Ebon and everyone who comes here for debate and discussion. Have a relaxing, thoughtful day!

  • Steve Bowen

    Very thoughtful post
    Obviously here in the UK we don’t have Thanksgiving, but it got me thinking about the other imminent holiday, xmas. I do keep xmas, although in my house it is secular celebration and I occasionally “re-brand” it Yule or somesuch to emphasise to my kids that I see no religious significance. However it is still a time for family, friends and contemplation of our shared humanity.
    Incidently although my children are aware that (in my considered opinion) there is no God, we still manage to pretend to each other there’s a Santa.
    How do others deal with the big religious holidays?

  • jack

    I must echo Angie’s sentiment: Thank you, Ebon, for this blog and for Ebonmusings. It has been a source of pleasure, enlightenment and companionship for me. Its creation and maintenance are acts of great generosity on your part. I look forward to seeing some of your writings in print.

    How do others deal with the big religious holidays?

    My wife and I have no kids so that simplifies things for us. Even so, we usually put up Xmas decorations. My elderly parents were living with us for the last 2 Xmases, so we put more effort into it for their benefit.

    Xmas decorations for us are mainly a way of evoking childhood nostalgia. The holiday has a pagan origin, anyway.

  • Karen

    I’ll add my thanks also, Ebon. I’m a fairly new visitor but your site has become a must-visit for me and I very much enjoy your thoughtful writing.

    The other classic example of this phenomenon is those who go in for some risky surgery or medical procedure, pull through, and then give all the credit to God for their survival, rather than thanking the human beings who made it possible: the hard work and skill of their doctors, the dedication of those who trained them, and the painstaking labor of scientific research carried out by thousands of human beings over hundreds of years to learn how the body functions so that we can better repair it.

    To take this excellent point a step further: The “thank god, not people” mentality often leads to a lack of enthusiastic support for public policies such as government funding for science and medical research. After all, if god’s in charge and he uses his human puppets to carry out his will, why do we need to make such effort to “help him out”? This is a dangerous mindset and all too common unfortunately.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Thank you for yet another great post. I’m not sure if I’ve ever commented here before, but your blog is one that I must read every day. Thanks for all the time and thought you put into your writings. They almost always stretch my mind.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    How do others deal with the big religious holidays? — Steve Bowen

    I honor both Thanksgiving and Christmas as secular holidays we set aside as reminders for matters that are truly important. Thanksgiving obviously covers gratitude and its corollary, humility. Christmas we (my son and I) observe as a season of “peace on earth, good will towards men”, to use the cliché, so that we can rededicate ourselves to another key requirement (IMHO) — forgiveness, in the human and not the divine context.

    Wishing all a safe and happy holiday.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    I hadn’t really thought of it before, even after reading the post, until I read Angie’s comment, but I don’t recall ever thanking Ebon for this site. Obviously, this is a major oversight on my part.

    So: Thank you, Ebon, for this wonderful site, for the wonderful Ebon Musings, and for your wonderful posts, even — or perhaps especially — the ones I disagree with.

    A big thank you is also due to all the regular commenters who provide a fun, occasionally heated (*cough*Libertarian posts*cough*), usually informative, and interesting community. Many of you have, though not interacting with me at all, caused me to rethink — or even examine for the first time — my positions on various topics.

  • Soitgoes

    I’ve said it elsewhere but, it bears repeating. Instead of thanking god, the pilgrims should have been thanking the American Indians without whom there wouldn’t have been this festival!

  • KShep

    May I also chime in with deep gratitude for this blog? My thanks go to all who comment as well—I feel like a member of a vibrant, dynamic community of people of all stripes. I have learned much here, from Ebon as well as all the regulars. This is without a doubt the best place on the web for great information and discussion.

    How do others deal with the big religious holidays?

    Thanksgiving is bigger than xmas at our house. We just started hosting last year, as it became just too much to try and be everywhere at once. My mom and dad, divorced when I was ten, are now both widowed (widowered?) and each live alone so they love coming here and eating for free and being with all the kids. The in-laws aren’t happy about it because they expect us to be wherever they tell us to be but I just don’t give a shit what they think anymore. Hosting has been a great success—-we eat, watch football (Go LIONS!!!!) play music and drink beer. Then cry over how the Lions blew it again.

    Could it be any better?

    Xmas is now just another excuse to be together. My Grandmother decided years ago that she wasn’t going to tolerate no-shows because of other family commitments so she started having gatherings at her house about 2 weeks prior to the big day—with no excuses for not being there. And she further dictated that there would be NO gift-giving. Instead, everyone is expected to bring a wrapped anonymous gift worth no more than $5 which become prizes for a spirited game of BINGO. Sounds goofy, but I have to say this has turned out to be the greatest idea I’ve ever encountered to avoid the crass commercialization of the supposed holy day. It’s a day we all eagerly look forward to each year.

    One more time—thanks, Adam, for bringing this community together, and to all, have a great holiday.


  • Robert Madewell

    Thank you Adam. Your brilliance with words amazes me again.

    Thankgiving is in my opinion a true secular american holiday. It’s funny how some theist want to give the holiday a strict religious bent. Same goes for Independence Day with all the God Bless America going aroud. I love my country. Why do I have to ask god to bless it. To me that’s as funny as asking Odin, Zues, or Rudolf the red nose reindeer to bless America. I don’t want to cheapen my love for the land I was born in, by asking it to be blessed by …hmmm (what was that word I was looking for?) ….oh yeah! Nothing. Blessed by Nothing! That would be a shame to say “Nothing Bless America”. But that’s what I hear when people say “God Bless America.”

  • yoyo

    http://jonswift.blogspot.com/ A very funny article on the rebranding of thanksgiving as thankstaking xx enjoy

  • James Bradbury

    I’d like to add my thanks and congratulations on a great and well-maintained blog.

    Don’t let it go to your head! ;)

  • Mrnaglfar

    If people want to bring religion into thanksgiving, they can thank the religious persecution that drove most of the original people to america to the first place. Of course, that also ment they would eventually kill off almost all the natives already in america, but hey, that makes it sound a little less perky. Call me a cynic, but at least it would be consistent with history ;)

    Personally, I think people should be thankful and grateful every day of the year, same way I think earth day should come around more often.

    All that said, I do love thanksgiving dinner. Can’t beat those turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sandwiches

  • terrence

    “Bless us, oh farmer and rancher and fisherman and truck driver and brewer and vineyard owner, for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounties, through reason and compassion, amen.”

    Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

  • shifty

    Ebon, I, too, would like to give thanks to you for this erudite and compassionate site. As befits the time of year, it’s a breath of clean, fresh air when all around is choke d and congested. It’s funny, but I’ve always thought thanksgiving’s origins were pagan in nature. Many cultures have fall harvest festivals and I thought this was just another iteration of those. We thank…..whomever (mother nature)…. for our bountiful harvest. Now, if only we could see fit to share our good fortune more readily with others………

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    By the time I log into this site to read the latest blog, the thread of comments will already be closing, thanks to the time differential between India, where I live, and the USA. Many of the commentators would already have said what I wanted to say. Sometimes what you wanted to say would appear so silly compared to the wise comments of others, that you feel it is best to keep quiet. Still, I would like to say, “Ebon, I am grateful to you for showing me how wonderful life can be even without God”. So, in keeping with the Thanksgiving-convention of the christians, let me say, ” Thank you Ebon”.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    My friends, I’m truly humbled by all your gracious words. No matter what I may write, I’m only one person, and this blog wouldn’t be anything like what it is without so many thoughtful, intelligent commenters. The way I see it, if I can attract commenters and discussion of this caliber, I must be doing something right.

    I wish I could repay these kind comments as they deserve, but I don’t know how I could. (I’m open to suggestions!) The best I can do is to express my sincere gratitude to all of you, for the time and energy you’re willing to invest in participating here. I strive to continue to be worthy of it, and never to take your presence or your attention for granted.

    Daylight Atheism’s second anniversary is fast approaching, and monthly traffic continues to grow. The sky’s the limit, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m thankful for everyone who’s willing to be part of it!

  • Becky

    I worked in a medical office for over ten years and it never ceased to amaze me the christians who came in who spouted they knew god would heal them, yet they made a bee-line for the secular doctors office as fast as they could get there. Also, the NT says that if there be any sick among you(believers), have them call for the elders and annoint you with oil and pray the prayer of faith and you will be healed. Apparently, few believe that or take it at face value. Still christians preach faith and expect the world to do what they themselves don’t do. Once their illness has been cured, you are correct, they give god the thanks and not the ones who did the work. What a bunch of silly hypocrites. They don’t trust their own god to do what he said he would do. Could that be because they know it is all a lie? If not, why do christians bother going to a doctor? Wouldn’t it be much easier and cost effective to just have some holy joe slap a handful of crisco on your head, mubble the good ole prayer of faith and be done with it? Hmmm, invasive medical procedures by man or a wonderful instant miracle from god, the choice seems simple to me if I believed this nonsense. What is the excuse from the christians? See you at the doctors…

  • Tomas S

    One of the lessons I try to keep with me from my past as a Jesus Freak is to constantly live my life with a Spirit of Thanksgiving — not that I always succeed, mind you, but it is something to aim for. Someone questioned what I might mean by this, seeing that I’m an Atheist. If you’re not thanking God, who are you thanking? Would it not be beter to say that I am trying to live my life with a Spirit of being glad that things aren’t worse? I don’t think so.

    I haven’t been able to put my finger on the difference, but there is one, and it isn’t God. An Atheist can count his blessings and name them one by one (and even think of them as blessings without being amazed at what the “Lord has done”.