Atheists: To Whom (If Anyone) Are You Ultimately Grateful?

Atheists: To Whom (If Anyone) Are You Ultimately Grateful? January 21, 2009

A while ago I posted An Honest Question: Atheists, How Do You Process Your Guilt?. The question I asked in that piece has been on my mind, because I’ve lately had occasion to feel truly overwhelming happiness as a result of some stuff happening in my personal life.

We often reference and feel the succor that God offers us in times of grief and pain, but I can honestly say that I’m as grateful for my belief in God when I’m experiencing extreme joy as when crippled by pain. And I mean really grateful, because if I didn’t have a God to whom I could send up my gratitude that is so far beyond my ability to comprehend or grasp, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with the intensity of that emotion. It feels like I would just explode.

You know how that is. Your children form a tableau in which it’s evident they’re at perfect peace with the world. Or you’re watching your spouse as he or she sleeps, and have that moment where it moves through you what a wonderful choice you made, what a superb man or woman you’re spending your life with. Or you work really hard at something for a very long time, and it produces tangible results beyond anything you ever dared imagine it might.

All those sorts of moments, you know, where you feel that sheer, crazy, almost immobilizing joy.

And right then, when I feel that feeling, I am sooooo glad that I believe in God. Otherwise, I just can’t imagine what I would do with that emotion—which, for me, so quickly turns into gratitude.

So atheists/agnostics! Tell me what you do with your extreme joy and happiness. Does joy of that turn for you into gratitude? I am truly and seriously wondering. I’m not trying to trap you, or any of that nonsense. I genuinely want to know. I’m Considerably Dense, but I’m not so slow that I think that only people who believe in God ever feel so joyful and grateful that crying is basically the only response to it.

And I know that when I feel grateful in that way, everything in me seems to naturally and spontaneously . . .  pour skyward.

Anyway, if you see what I’m asking: When you feel the kind of  joy and happiness that I’m here (so lamely) trying to articulate, what do you do with it? Does it fly upwards for you, too? Or does it stay inside you, and sort of … I don’t know … bounce around in there, making your insides ring and light up like a pinball machine? Does joy of that sort become gratitude for you—and, if so, what do you do with it?

C’mon. We Christians are always telling you how you can experience Extreme Joy with God. Share with us, if you would, how you experience it without God.


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  • Olma Madrid

    Great post. During such times of extreme joy or pain, I turn my energies towards those I love. I express it through words and action towards those that are worth my emotional investment.

    – A "kathenotheist (!)"

  • Awesome question.

    Inexpressible joy and happiness does indeed, at least for me, turn to gratitude.

    Let's use the "watching your partner sleep" as an example to illuminate who/what this gratitude is for.

    Looking at her, feeling that joy and happiness, I am grateful.

    Grateful to her for choosing me.

    Grateful to her parents, for raising such a strong and intelligent woman.

    Grateful to her for putting up with me.

    Grateful to our schools, which brought us both from our hometowns to the same city.

    Grateful to her for not hitting me when I say something stupid.

    Grateful to the American culture, which has (mostly) embraced the idea of matches based on love.

    And grateful, just a bit, to myself for successfully avoiding being an idiot long enough for her to be interested in me.

    And now that I think about it, there is even a little bit of gratefulness towards the random nature of the universe. Not grateful that it's random, as that does kind of suck sometimes. Grateful that the random bumps and hitches of the universe happened to lead both me and her to this point in time.

    When I'm grateful, I try to be grateful to those who have caused it.

  • Morse: Yeah, see, that's so interesting!. (And thanks so much for your thoughtful, thorough answer.) And this is true? When you feel this joy, you begin, almost (I assume) right away, to begin to parse it into segments—to break it down into its component parts? You get the sum, and then start looking at the numbers by which you arrived at it? And then, with what's left over after you've done that, you turn to what I would basically call or identify as God—to, as you put it, "the random nature of the universe"? That's how all that goes for you? Amazing. Man, people sure can be different from one another. Lovely. Thank you.

  • "to break it down into its component parts?"

    Not at all. It breaks into those parts by itself.

    If I don't think about it, I just feel this wonderful overwhelming gratitude. But when I inspect it, like that first scientist looking at a cork underneath the first microscope, I see that it isn't one lump, it's already split amongst countless things.

    Or better yet, think of gratitude like a galaxy. From earth, it is a single bright point in the sky. But the closer you get the more you realize that it is made up of myriad other points, all huge by themselves and all contributing to the whole.

  • But you don’t really try to fully share it with them, right? Not because you don’t want to or anything, but because it’s virtually impossible to even begin to express something so absolutely unexpressible—and because you know that, going in? You can’t communicate to another person anywhere near the totality of the feeling you’re then experiencing, right? I mean … of course not; there’s no language for that sort of thing. But don’t you feel like you HAVE to share it with someone with whom you KNOW you can actually share all of it? It sound crazy, but almost the main reason I’m so glad to have a God during a time like that is so that I can RELIEVE myself of the almost unbearable intensity of the joy.

    Anyway. Right. Thank you! And thanks for the “great post.”

  • There you go asking a question that I ‘can’t not’ answer! I don’t really have time for the essay that it would take to properly elucidate my thoughts on the matter. So here are a number of scattershot thoughts on the matter:

    What jumped out at me immediately was the apparent presupposition that there must be a ‘whom’ to be grateful toward…and I hate presuppositions. God, in this context, seems to be a catch-all. While a catch-all satisfies many, it does not satisfy me. Indeed, often I am grateful to an individual or individuals at times of joy, but those individuals vary depending on who deserves credit. Typically, I don’t credit myself with my good choices or successes but, like Morse, I often credit my parents for instilling a work ethic and moral ethic that led me to that point (I have often told them that I have no success that they didn’t give me). In your example of hard work paying off; I recognize that it may have been my effort that produced the result and provided my joy, but it is my mother and father (primarily) that instilled in me the values and ethics that allowed me to achieve any successes that I have. No God needed and joy is not diminished.

    The recent news of the water landing in New York where an airliner ditched in the Hudson River without a single fatality spawned so much ‘miracle’ talk it was annoying. Miracle, here, is fine as a metaphor, but those passengers should not credit God (or Allah or Krishna) with saving their lives. They should be grateful to the scientists and engineers for designing that aircraft to handle such impacts and designed the redundancies that made the plane flyable under those conditions. They should be grateful to the U.S. aviation industry for the rigorous training of their pilots. They should be grateful to Captain ‘Scully’ who had the skill and experience to navigate that near-dead aircraft. They should be grateful to all the individuals that influenced Captain ‘Scully’ and made him the kind of guy that that would walk the length of a sinking aircraft TWICE looking for stranded/injured passengers. They should be grateful to the ferry captains that didn’t wait for orders to go rescue those passengers. They should also recognize the blind, dispassionate, random events that made it possible. They should recognize the good fortune of having the wind blowing the direction that it was. Had they, because of wind, used a different runway, their options might not have been as good. They should recognize the good fortune that the bird event didn’t happen at a slightly lower or slightly higher altitude. They should recognize their good fortune that they had the glass-smooth river to land on (in?) as opposed to the chop of open water. It was good, capable people and random chance that saved those lives. In an event like this; being grateful to God steals credit from those truly deserving of it.

    Now…to get all Socratic…why MUST we be grateful toward someone or something? Why MUST joy be diminished without an actor behind it? Why can’t joy actually be ENHANCED without crediting an actor? A situation comes to mind…My wife and I are on our honeymoon at a wonderful 200 year-old inn in rural, coastal Maine. It is our last day and we are up just past dawn to catch a flight back home. My bride is upstairs packing and I go down to the kitchen, get a cup of coffee and stroll out back to a bench out back. The bench is next to a working herb garden and faces an unremarkable salt-water inlet. The air is still, the water is glass-smooth, a morning fog hangs over the surface of the water. I hear the soft call of the loons. A heron glides silently through the fog. [give me a moment…..ahhhhhh…I’m back] In that moment everything is perfect. I see the purity, the simplicity, the complexity, and the ancient history of our primordial planet. I feel a contemplative joy and, while I wasn’t thinking this at the time, I have no need to credit a god. I know the geological history, the atmospheric science, and the evolutionary processes that created that moment for me. As near as I can tell, there was no person or god that created that moment. My vernacular makes me want to say that I am ‘thankful’ for the experience. But I have nobody to credit and, I think, that might even enhance my experience. Crediting others, in this situation, might have been something akin to giving parts of it away. It was just there, for me and me alone.

    In short; I am thankful to the people that deserve credit and revel in the joys that just ‘are’.

  • John, this really is the most frustrating, infuriating question you've ever asked. You seem to be implying that WITHOUT faith in God, all human emotion is futile and illogical. This really pisses me off.

  • "Tell me what you do with your extreme joy and happiness. Does joy of that turn for you into gratitude?"

    I just enjoy it while it lasts. It turns into a sort-of-gratitude – I kind of doubt that you might call it that. It feels to me like a responsibility not to take such things for granted.

  • ransom33

    What a brilliant question and a formidable way of engaging fair debate with non believers.

    Good luck with it!


    ransom33 @

  • Chuck: I know you to be a sensitive and thoughtful reader. So I apologize for so poorly expressing my thoughts here that you ended up thinking I was saying nothing more interesting than that all human emotions without God are futile.

    Benj: Nice concluding sentence/thought. Thank you.

  • Well, I'm sorry I snapped, John. But I just don't really know how to answer the question. The way some self-professed Christians express it, you would think they were physically taken up to Heaven and given some sort of electronic brain implant with which they forever kept their personal relationship with God. The rest of us are just left to stew in our own emotional juices.

  • Chuck: Yeah. But … you know I've never written anything like that. You know that ain't me. I do, of course, sometimes—as I did here—try to express something of my personal experience relative to Things Divine, but you know I've got zero agenda around trying to tell anyone else how or who they should be. I'm often CURIOUS about how other people operate and see the world—again, as I was here—but that's just because I don't get out much and forget how people are. But you know me: I'm an equal opportunity offender. Christians. Non-Christians. Atheists. Muslims. Jews. Buddhists. Hindus. I know that when push comes to shove, we're all just hoping no one shoves us out in front of a truck that day.

  • Cheryl

    I wonder if you don't know part of the answer to this already: what did you do with your gratitude before you became a Christian?

  • Mike: I finally just now had time to carefully read your whole answer. Very good! (And very well written!) Thanks for taking the time to write it. I'm sure everyone got a lot out of it. (One thing, for the "record," or whatever: A (normal, sane) Christians would also very consciously give thanks to all the "secular" things you mentioned, too. We see a–what we think of as THE–big picture, but that doesn't mean we don't also see and appreciate its component parts. You know what I mean.

    Cheryl: Yeah, I was wondering if anyone was going to ask that. I do of course (what with it being ME, and all), have an answer to the question of how I processed my gratitude for the 38 years before I was a Xtian, but … I'm not so comfortable saying it, really. But thanks for asking!

  • J.S. said

    I do of course (what with it being ME, and all), have an answer to the question of how I processed my gratitude for the 38 years before I was a Xtian, but … I’m not so comfortable saying it, really.

    And you think we will let you walk away that easily?!? At this point, I think you are somewhat obliged to share your perspective from your former life.

    As far as 'THE Big Picture'…. don't bait me (it doesn't take much as you know) 🙂

  • Mike: I'm doing you a favor. If I told you my real response to that question, you'd hate it so much you'd experience it as physical pain. You would HATE it. And Chuck Z. would hunt me down and kill me. The whole thing would just be ugly–and I wouldn't say it right, and … no good.

  • Oh, yeah, of course–I think it's fundamentally absurd (not to mention profoundly counterproductive) to suggest that anyone's full religious experience is any less "valid" than is anyone else's. There may be only one true God–but everyone's personal relationship or experiences with their God/religion is just as "valid" as anyone else's to theirs. A full human heart's a full human heart.

  • Conversely, I could say that my gratitude is more pure, from a certain point of view, because it isn't split as much.

    For any event, a believer has to have gratitude for the people involved, the event, for themselves, and for god. By not needing a god, I have more gratitude to spread around to the other things.

  • Yeah, Dueling Gratitudes is exactly the game I wanted to avoid playing.

  • Sorry.

    *Sheathes his gratitude.*

  • Sheesh! What did you do John? …drown puppies or something when you felt were grateful?

  • No, Mike, I didn’t respond to my feelings of overwhelming gratitude by drowning puppies. It was cats. I drowned cats. Even today, when I feel good, I toss a little water on cats. I still like to see that look on their face.

  • No, but seriously. All I was not saying is that, before I moved from a General Feeling that there’s a God/divine presence/Oprah-style Overseeing Being/Benevolent Force in the Universe to the understanding that the Christ/God story is true (leaving behind for now—and forever, probably, because who needs that trouble?—the role of the Bible in capturing that truth), I never felt gratitude to the depth and degree I now sometimes experience. It was always breaking up in exactly the way you and Chris and others here have expressed that phenomenon.

  • Cheryl

    That makes sense … the idea that gratitude is multiplied by a belief in God because it gives you two things to be thankful for — the happy event and (to a believer) the existence of the source of it. I could almost even see that gratitude towards something with an unknown cause (like finding $20 on the street or a loved one getting better if he/she has been sick) might even exist only in the context of a belief in a higher power. (Athiests: I know there are proximate causes for all these things; I mean gratitude for what a Christian would consider to be the ultimate cause.) But do you think such gratitude … what moves through you as “Christian-level gratitude” … is valid for followers of other faiths? I belong to a Mainstream Denomination of a Revealed Deist Religion that is Not Christianity, and my experience is that I often get a heartswell that I can hardly describe or contain when I consider the works of God in my life.

  • That’s a gracious answer, Morse. Thanks.

  • Ever read "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut? This topic makes me think of Bokononist last rites:

    "God made mud,

    God got lonesome,

    So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!",

    "See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars."

    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.

    Lucky me, lucky mud.

    I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.

    Nice going, God!

    Nobody but You could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have.

    I feel very unimportant compared to You.

    The only way that I can feel the least bit important is to think

    of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and look around.

    I got so much, and most mud got so little.

    Thank you for the honour!

    Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.

    What memories for mud to have!

    What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!

    I loved everything I saw!

    Good night.

    I will go to heaven now.

    I can hardly wait …

    To find out for certain what my wampeter was …

    And who was in my karass …

    And all the good things our karass did for you.


  • Yes, I've read Cat's Cradle a zillion times: I'm a massive Vonnegut freak. And I love this passage you've quoted. It's perfect.

  • The beautiful expressions of joy here, from the whole spectrum of theism, remind me of a wonderful essay I encountered from the "other side" of things:

    Not that I mean to earn any points for the secularists in Dueling Gratitudes, of course…

  • Matthew Helm

    Reading your thing here made me feel happy =)

    You must be a fun person to be around!

    There are so many cool things to be happy about. If something like one of those things you mentioned happens, I just feel so good! I don't feel a need for something specific to thank for it.

    If someone specifically gives me happiness, that is who I am thankful towards. But if no one but fate (or god as you would see it) gives me happiness, I just feel happy!

    As for being thankful about life in general, I don't know why I exist so I really have no one to thank for that.

    Anyways, thanks for a very fun-to-read question! It made me happy and since I have no god to thank I thank you!

  • Hey, it’s a good question, and one I am happy to answer.

    As an atheist, I do not believe in deities or other such beings, but I have faith in the things I know to be real: love, truth, mystery, and the ultimate order of the universe. These are the things that fill me with wonder, and make me glad to be alive. Even though I have no deity to thank, that doesn’t make me any less grateful.