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.

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