Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World


If you don’t believe in God, what does gratitude mean?

I don’t mean specific gratitude towards specific people for specific benevolent acts. I mean that more broad, general, sweeping sense of gratitude: gratitude for things like good health, having food to eat, having friends and family, the mere fact of being alive at all.

I started thinking about this when I was watching the “Thanks for Skepticon” video that the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas put together, where they asked participants at Skepticon 4 to say what they were thankful for. Most of the folks in the video — myself included — took the question at face value, and spoke of our intense gratitude: for science and medicine, for friends and family, for jobs in an unstable economy, for trees, for the very fact that we exist at all.

But some participants — specifically PZ Myers and American Atheists president David Silverman — questioned the entire assumption behind the project. Silverman simply reframed the question: instead of saying what he was thankful for, he spoke about who he was thankful to. And Myers took on the entire enterprise directly. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

Hm. Interesting point.

So this video — and the subsequent discussion of it on my blog — got me thinking: If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff? Not to specific people who did specific nice things — that kind of gratitude makes sense, obviously — but just general gratitude for the good things in our lives? Does the emotion of gratitude have to have a specific object, a conscious actor who made choices that affected our lives in positive ways? Or can we feel grateful without an object?

Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude?

My friend Rebecca Hensler (founder of the Grief Beyond Belief support network) once said that one of the hardest things for her about becoming an atheist was figuring out what to do with feelings of gratitude. She used to express these feelings through spiritual practices… but when she let go of her spiritual beliefs, those feelings were left without an object. And that left her feeling oddly uncomfortable.

Until she said this, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. But I immediately knew what she meant. I have a strong awareness of having good things in my life that I haven’t worked for… or that I have worked for, but that are also largely the result of plain dumb luck. In fact, I’d argue that most of the good things in my life are, at least partly, the result of plain dumb luck. Sure, I have some good things because I’m smart — but I was lucky enough to be born into a family that valued intelligence and made education a priority. Sure, I have some good things because I work hard and have a certain amount of self-discipline — but I was lucky enough to be born into a relatively privileged race and economic class, in which I’ve had a good number of opportunities for my hard work and self-discipline to pay off, and in which I’ve had enough slack that I could occasionally be disorganized or lazy or make dumb mistakes without it screwing up the rest of my life. Sure, I have some good things because I’m a reasonably good person — but I was lucky enough to be born into a life with a relatively low level of emotional trauma, a life that didn’t bludgeon the kindness and empathy and generosity out of me at an impossibly early age.

I have a strong awareness of having good things in my life that I didn’t earn. Including, most importantly, my very existence. And it feels wrong to not express this awareness in some way. It feels churlish, or entitled, or self-absorbed. I don’t like treating my good fortune as if it’s just my due. I think gratitude is a good thing. Gratitude is intimately connected with one of our central ethical values — our sense of fairness and justice. As Richard Dawkins pointed out in the talk he gave at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne in 2010: Gratitude works in a social species as a sort of emotional accounting of our debts and favors. It’s how we know that the scales of fairness have tipped in our direction… and it’s what inspires us to balance that scale, and give others their due. That’s a good thing. I would never want to talk people out of it.

But PZ does have a point. When our gratitude doesn’t have an appropriate target — when there’s no person who took conscious action that made our lives better — it leads us to anthropomorphize the universe: to act as if random chance has some intention behind it. Dawkins even argued in his talk that this sense of intransitive gratitude — and its flipside cousin, the sense of intransitive resentment — may be one of the urges that led early humans towards the massive, destructive error that is religion: that religion is, in part, an attempt to find an object for our feelings of gratitude and resentment, in circumstances where it’s wildly inappropriate.

Our sense that the world should be fair — that we should repay the good things that come our way, and be compensated for the bad things — makes sense in the human world of social interaction. But when it’s taken outside that context, when that feeling doesn’t have an object, it can get very twisted. It can lead us to make pointless sacrifices to non-existent gods, killing animals or cutting off our foreskins as a way of saying “Thanks” to our imaginary friends in the sky. It can lead us to think that the vagaries of our lives are divine punishment or reward: torturing ourselves trying to figure out why we’re being punished, or feeling smugly entitled to our good fortune and assuming that if we have it, we must have earned it. It can lead us to think that the vagaries of other people’s lives are divine punishment or reward: accepting gross inequalities as God’s will (the divine right of kings and all that), or making us callous and even judgmental about the suffering of others.

So intransitive gratitude might not be such a good idea.

Maybe “grateful” isn’t even the right word here.

Maybe a better word would be “fortunate.”

That’s a useful distinction, I think. When people consciously act to make our lives better, it makes sense to feel grateful. But when good things happen that make our lives better — and there’s no conscious intention behind it — it might make more sense to say that we feel fortunate.

For instance: I feel grateful to medical researchers for finding cures and treatments and vaccines for terrible illnesses. I feel grateful to my bosses at my job for being flexible about my travel schedule. I feel grateful to Ed Brayton and PZ Myers for starting the Freethought Blogs network. I feel grateful to Ingrid for… oh, just about everything that she does every day.

By contrast: I feel fortunate that I was born with reasonably good health. I feel fortunate that, in a time of widespread economic distress, I live in a reasonable degree of comfort and security. I feel wildly, astronomically fortunate that I even got born at all.

I feel grateful to people. I feel fortunate for good luck.

Now, there are places where these feelings of gratitude and good fortune overlap and mingle. I feel grateful to the scientists who discovered vaccines and cures and treatments for many terrible illnesses… and I feel fortunate to have been born in a time and place where these vaccines and cures and treatments are available. I feel grateful to people who have fought — and continue to fight — against sexism and homophobia… and I feel fortunate that I was born in a time and place where women and queers are treated with something that vaguely approximates equality and respect. I feel grateful to Ingrid for (to give just one example among so very many) supporting and encouraging me in my demanding career as a writer and speaker… and I feel fortunate for the fact that Ingrid and I met, and for the happy accidents and currents of life that brought us together. Etc.

So it’s not always an easy distinction to make. But I think it’s coherent. I think it’s useful. And very importantly, I think this concept of good fortune preserves the moral and social value inherent in the concept of gratitude. After all, when I feel fortunate, I don’t feel churlish, or entitled, or self-absorbed. When I feel fortunate, I feel much the same sense of appreciation, much the same sense of obligation, much the same urge to balance the scales of fairness and justice, that I do when I feel grateful. When I’m conscious of how lucky I am — when I’m conscious of how much of the good stuff in my life just landed in my lap without me earning it — it makes me appreciate my life, and want to make the most of it. It makes me want to pay it forward. It makes me want to help others who didn’t get the breaks that I got.

It’s a little weird to have nobody to say “Thank you” to. It’s a deeply ingrained instinct, and one that’s intimately intertwined with our most central moral values. It’s a little weird to think of gratitude as — at least sometimes — a cognitive bias. It’s a little weird to think that, just as we have a tendency to see patterns even where no pattern is there, and a tendency to see intentions even where no intention exists, we also have a tendency to feel grateful even when there’s nobody doing us a favor.

But I think it might be more accurate. And I think making this distinction — the distinction between feeling grateful to people, and feeling fortunate about good luck — might help us preserve the good things about intransitive gratitude, the sense of appreciation and the avoidance of smug entitlement and the urge to use our good fortune to help others… while helping us avoid its more twisted pitfalls.

I dunno. I’m still thinking this one through. Thoughts?

Comments

  1. Gordon says

    The idea that thankfulness *needs* an entity to be thankful too seems counterintuitive to me.

    I’m thankful I’m not being eaten by a tiger. I guess the recipient of my thanks is technically every person who has not put a hungry tiger in my house.

  2. Caz fans says

    I have to disagree with PZ on this one. I can’t disagree with you, Greta, because you’ve side stepped the issue, by adding feeling fortunate which just changes the name of the emotional circuits firing in my brain. I don’t think my neurons will change much when I change its label, although it is possible.

    I think PZ is mimicking the priests who say you can’t reach orgasm except with officially sanctioned positions, partners or purposes. Sorry guys, I do gratitude and orgasm all on my own. Ideally, when I am grateful to _someone_ I have the decency to express that and thereby keep my social nature functional. But there are times when the lights all go my way on the way home that I feel grateful for my good fortune. I am not about to start worshiping traffic lights. I feel gratitude for my situation and if that means to someone that I need to sacrifice something(or risk pregnancy) because of this transient neuronal firing, I call bullshit, and I won’t do it.

  3. says

    Indeed, you can’t say “thank you” to the universe. You can’t return it any favors.

    I’d say you could probably be grateful to society, though. While it’s not a distinct entity that you can address directly, you can still try and repay the advantages it gave you by contributing to society in various ways, or help advance those features of society that helped you.

  4. Greta Christina says

    Caz fans @ #3: Do you think the way your neurons fire is always reflective of reality? Do you think (for instance) that when your neurons fire in a way that recognizes a pattern, there’s always a pattern there?

    And if not — if you know that you have cognitive biases — then why do you think this particular form of neuron firing is accurate? Why do you think it reflects reality to put the experience of a friend doing something nice for you in the same category as the experience of all the traffic lights going in your direction… just because they feel the same?

  5. says

    I don’t necessarily agree that you have to have someone to feel grateful to/for, since you can feel grateful FOR something and it doesn’t have to be “to” something.
    But, I guess I do like the distinction or grateful and fortunate.

  6. Grammar Merchant says

    The distinction between “grateful” and “fortunate” is a useful one, and perhaps I should pay more attention to that. When asked recently what I was thankful for, I told my questioner that my existence, however brief, also verges on the impossible. My short life — in a universe as suddenly and terribly hostile as this one, to be born into a species capable of abstract thought at a time when abstract thought has so much to explore — is nothing short of a statistical miracle.

    I can look at it in two ways: if I were a theist, I could look at my existence as an act of special creation which carries a necessary note of destiny or obligation; or as an atheist, I can look at my existence as something more akin to winning several Lotto jackpots in a row while living in a robust economy crammed with ways to spend my winnings in a useful and fulfilling way.

    So perhaps what I feel when I say “grateful” is really closer to “fortunate,” but my ethics urges me in another direction. I didn’t have to exist, but I do exist; and because I exist, I feel a kinship with other existing beings. Gratitude is often accompanied by the desire to do good works, to help out where we can, and never to take anything or anyone for granted. “Good fortune” doesn’t quite cover that ground so well.

    On balance, I guess I’ll stick with “grateful” for the time being, but this blog has got me thinking. Thanks for that; you have my (transitive) gratitude.

  7. fullyladenswallow says

    To me, gratitude partly seems to be more of an emotional currency that seems to go beyond good manners and niceties (“thanks for holding the door”) and may even act as a deposit on a good deed in return (“thank you for saving my life, I owe you one”).

    There’s also the receiver-of-the-gratitude’s point of view. Expressing to someone your gratitude for helping you with a problem, say; that person is rewarded emotionally from your expressed sentiments.

    On the other hand, what effect does saying, “thank god, goodness, my lucky stars, whatever for helping me pass this test”- have on ones own psyche? Is there any particular payoff at all for thanking a non-entity?

  8. Steve Jeffers says

    “If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff?”

    I don’t think many Christians would blame hurricanes on God. The ones that see them as God punishing the people of New Orleans for being tolerant of lesbianism, or whatever, are seen by most Christians, even, as nutjobs.

    But how is that different from thanking God for the nice house and your health, seeing your prosperity as God working on your behalf? It isn’t. It’s exactly the same mechanism. It’s just a dishonest version, where God gets the credit for the new babies, but off the hook for the deaths and cancers.

    Being grateful ‘to the universe’ is just a rebranding of the same concept, the same way ‘intelligent designer’ is used instead of ‘God’.

    A friend of mine is a Christian because he once walked on a beach and felt a moment of transcendental beauty that he thought could only be down to God. I’m not joking when I say I feel that beauty *every time I look up at the night’s sky* and try to imagine the scale of what I’m looking at – the size of those stars, their distance, their composition. I am in awe of that, and I think any attempt to add gods to that picture is futile. We *can’t* imagine the universe, so how dare we try to imagine some big beardy bloke encompassing it?

    The universe is awesome. It doesn’t need us to sing it songs and doesn’t hear them when we do.

  9. says

    I was wrestling with just this question a couple of days before Thanksgiving. I considered “fortunate” as a better descriptor, but was still struggling with whether “fortune” still implied an agency (a al the Fortunes or Fates). Even “lucky” didn’t feel quite reality-based enough. To be completely accurate, I guess what I feel is “Happy that good things I didn’t earn have happened to me.” But that’s hard to put on the front of a Hallmark card.

    Then I discussed it with my wife, who told me I was overthinking it, and I could be thankful without necessarily thanking anyone (or any deity). So we all shared things around the dinner table that we were thankful for, and thanked each other, and ate a great meal.

  10. NewEnglandBob says

    Thank you for this analysis where you carefully separated the object-oriented grateful from the beneficial, sometimes random, fortunate.

    As noted, the feeling of fortunate can be a mix of random luck, the outcome of societal norms (customs and education), scientific progress, as well as one’s own efforts.

  11. Brad says

    I think it’s a useful distinction, but it’s still pretty easy to use language that personifies fortune, like “fortune smiled upon me”.

  12. says

    On a related note, in an audio lecture with Jack Kornfeld and Daniel Siegel, they claimed that there’s research suggesting that meditating on gratitude increases one’s capacity to experience joy. I haven’t had that chance to track down the source for that, though, so YMMV.

  13. teh_faust says

    Thank you for this. I’ve been pondering that question. I’ve felt somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of gratitude without a person as a target but kind of mentally substituted “grateful for” with “happy about”.

  14. says

    I recall reading some sort of C.S. Lewis argument once, probably in Mere Christianity, wherein he argued that God exists just by the fact that we have these innate parts of ourselves that essentially reach out to some figure God. The fact is that even if this were a valid proof, it still does not define who or what God actually is besides a filled hole for the things we’ve yet to figure out.

    People can be spiritual without believing in God. I think this perceived transitive gratitude is what helps us preserve ourselves and the world. It makes sense that these feelings of wide-scale gratitude and purpose would motivate us to keep on and “pay it foward,” if you will. What difference does it make whether we are grateful to Mother Earth or God or Allah or Krishna? We will perform the same deeds regardless by the sheer fact of our gratefulness.

    I prefer the idea of feeling fortunate, because it doesn’t leave me feeling like a little puppy wagging its tail whenever the supernatural “blesses” me.

  15. Azkyroth says

    I think “appreciative” might be a better word than “fortunate” for the emotional state you’re trying to convey. (Not thrilled with that since it has a bit of baggage for me, but…)

  16. Georgia Sam says

    > Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude?

    If we decide there is, then there is. People invented the concept of gratitude, and we can define it any way we want or invent any type or form of it we want.

  17. idonotknow says

    I never really thought about it, but before this I would have said I could be grateful without needing to be grateful to someone or something. But turning to my dictionary it does seem that I am supposed to be grateful to someone, so that doesn’t seem right. On the other hand, my dictionary defines fortunate as being favoured by fortune and that strikes me as just as likely to lead to problems with anthropomorphizing “fortune” and imbuing it with some sort of consciousness or intent. So either feeling gratitude or fortunate seem to require some sort of external force or being to be involved.

    Maybe this is over-complicating things. Maybe we should just focus on what it is that makes us happy; which my dictionary defines as feeling or showing pleasure or contentment, and that sounds about right to me. I can be happy because of the actions of others and acknowledge them when that is the case, but I can also be happy for no particular reason with no need to feel grateful to a specific external agency. I’m happy that it was sunny today (but I don’t feel either grateful or fortunate about that), happy that I have a supportive and loving family (grateful and fortunate), and happy that I was born into a relatively privileged place within a privileged society (fortunate but not grateful).

    So instead of asking people “What are you grateful for?” maybe we should ask them “What makes you happy?” Some of those things will involve being grateful/thankful to someone and some won’t.

  18. Ivorybill says

    I get your distinction between ‘gratitude’ toward someone with agency, and a sense of good fortune when the impersonal universe throws us a bone.

    We atheists have to walk a fine line between the dictates of logic and allowing ourselves full expression of the emotions that are part of being human. You can ask me to give up God, and accept that the vast materialistic universe doesn’t deeply care what happens to little insignificant me. No problem. I’m already there. You can tell me that religions manipulate my inherent sense of gratitude to serve their ends. OK, got it. No argument.

    But when I experience profound beauty or wonder, or fully realize that I’m alive, don’t ask me to substitute watered down satisfaction at “good fortune” for the emotion of intense gratitude. That’s weak tea. That’s like scratching an itch and pretending one just had an orgasm. Give me my capacity for full uninhibited gratitude and accept a paradox – one can be deeply grateful without directing that gratitude toward a god or a spirit or some metaphysical construct. Not every sentence needs an object, subject and verb.

    Religious people say that they ‘just know God exists’ or ‘just have faith’ and maybe that is their way of saying ‘I am grateful, so don’t fuck with me over that’. Maybe I’m the sort of atheist who essentially says the same thing, only doesn’t ascribe it to faith in a god or some higher power. I’m grateful for this incredible world and I’m grateful for being alive. And I don’t feel the need to justify or excuse it.

  19. john fox says

    I think this anecdote is relevant.
    For a long time I worked in a (very tolerant) philosophy department most of whom were atheists. We had a priest as a visiting speaker, who was fairly clearly terrified of playing on the devil’s home ground, and more or less in passing he spoke of such gratitude as a natural religious feeling. In the discussion, trying to find as much common ground as possible, I said that I agreed that very often I felt what, phenomenologically, could not be distinguished from reverence, or from gratitude, in contexts where there seemed no person around responsible for what provoked the feeling; and that this seemed to be totally appropriate human response. I saw no strong argument that it would only be appropriate if there were a God to direct this response towards. But I was so convinced that it was appropriate that if I did find such an argument strong, I thought I would more readily accept that there were a God than reject the appropriateness of the feelings.
    To my surprise, my fellow atheists all applauded. And alas, the speaker did not recognize my remarks as intended as friendly or looking for common ground; just as a sneaky way of trying to undermine an obvious argument for God.

  20. says

    I think of it as recognizing privilege. Instead of saying “thank you” to the universe, I think more in terms of, “thank goodness.” As in, thank goodness I didn’t get sick during the 2+ years I had no health coverage. Thank goodness I happen to live with no chronic health problems and a strong immune system.

    We can discuss whether “thank goodness” means anything substantively different from “thank God,” but in my case, it means recognizing that in many ways, I am the beneficiary of having landed on the right side of a coin toss. It’s about maintaining perspective in matters of probability. I feel privileged to have been on the right side of probability in so many cases.

  21. crayzz says

    I would be willing to bet massive amounts of money on the fact that millions of atheists use the phrase “thank god”. We also tend to use “god dammit” and “for Christ’s sake”. At no point to these uses of religious phrases indicate positive belief. We use them because they are useful. People understand what we mean when we say, “Thank god I landed on that cushion after falling.” People understand what we mean when we say were thankful to have all the things we do, all the knowledge we have, all the friends and loved ones we cherish, and the 70+ years we have to spend with all of it.

    Yes, we’re personifying the universe by doing so. So what? We personify things all the time. We often say things like, “My computer hates me today.” Do we literally mean that the chunk of plastic and silicone on our desks hate us? No, we mean it’s acting in a manner allegorical to the manner it would behave if it did hate us. When we say were thankful, at least in my experience, we’re saying that if thanks and gratitude we’re appropriate to give, should there be a being to whom to give them, we would. We’re using a hypothetical model to demonstrate our emotions.

  22. iluca says

    Interesting piece, although I dislike the use of the word, “fortune”, as I dislike, “fate” and “destiny”, for implying there is an external agent acting on the universe. I prefer to use the word “luck”, although that still has theistic connotations.

    I think those feelings of gratitude are learned, and are not innate. We pick them up non-religiously, through people saying, “be thankful for your food; there are children starving in Africa”, or, “thank goodness I didn’t get hit by that looney bus driver”. These feelings are cultural and language paradoxes, not theological.

    We are thankful to someone who has done a nice thing for us, so when the universe seems to be working in our favour, we apply the guilt/gratitude feelings we learned as children, and try to put them somewhere which, as atheists, is impossible. We feel thankful, because we have learned to associate feelings of gratitude with good things happening, and have bound those feelings up in an inadequate language.

    I’m not sure if this is making sense, so my points are:
    1. We learn to feel thankful as children
    2. We learn to associate those feelings with words like “thank you”.
    3. When we have a good thing happen to us, like nice weather when we have a picnic planned, we automatically feel thankful, because that’s what we’ve been taught.
    4. Because those feelings have been learned, we can unlearn them. There is nothing to be thankful for, just as there is nothing to blame for the random bad things that happen to us.

    /rant

  23. mossy says

    I think the idea of “intransitive gratitude” is a better solution than making a distinction between “grateful” and “fortunate”. According to my own experience, they are essentially the same emotion. The only difference is that one has an object and the other does not. Also, as you point out, there are many situations where the two are impossible to separate. I am grateful for many things. sometimes I am grateful to someone or something, but sometimes I am just grateful.

    As Dan Dennett says, “I can’t thank God, so I just thank goodness… eliminate the middle man, just thank goodness itself”

  24. says

    I think it’s just a linguistic reflection of our superstitious heritage. Since thus far in the history of human civilization, more people have held supernatural beliefs than not, it makes sense that we’re still lacking many terms for appreciation that don’t presume an agency or entity to whom (or which) such expressions be directed.

  25. Reese M says

    I personally “understand” that I am fortunate and therefore “feel” grateful because of it My thought process is as follows: my life is statistically unlikely and I am very fortunate to have the benefits that I do, therefore I feel grateful because I have so much, and it could be much worse. This gratitude is expressed as feeling calm, at peace and very excited over the circumstances of my life and the possibilities of the future. It is not directed to anyone, but rather it serves as a positive directive to appreciate what I have.

  26. Steve Jeffers says

    “At no point to these uses of religious phrases indicate positive belief.”

    Absolutely. We can call the day ‘Thursday’ without any of the ceremonies we’re meant to perform on Thor’s Day.

    And I guess we can call the feeling ‘gratitude’ without being grateful to a specific being. If I have to go out and it’s raining, then it stops raining, I feel thankful. I know it wasn’t one of the gods turning off the sprinkler.

    The idea that is absurd is the CS Lewis one that because we feel that, there has to be a being to be grateful to (and he piles another absurdity on by assuming it’s his god, another by being a vocal member of one subset of that religion … it’s the Anglican God, no other). What about the times we feel the world’s against us, is that God being an asshole? No, of course not, the good stuff’s God, the bad stuff’s coincidence.

    If Lewis’ logic works, then by the same mechanism the traffic lights *were* against me yesterday.

  27. Caz fans says

    I’m late back to the party. I do pattern recognize and I recognize that I pattern recognize. The pattern I recognized was a pleasant feeling of gratitude, which I feel is healthful and personal. By some accounts I am eebil for masturbating, by others I am stupid? projecting? misinformed? for feeling thankful toward something in the wrong orientation. Meh

  28. Karellen says

    What’s wrong with anthropomorphising the universe?

    Providing you do it with your eyes open, knowing you’re using it as a convenient metaphor, and not trying to pass it off to anyone (including yourself) as a “truth”, what’s the harm?

    Fiction is OK. Not all literary works have to be factual. It’s OK to tell each other stories which are untrue (like Romeo and Juliet), providing we are truthful about which stories are true.

  29. Karellen says

    Oops. Hit “submit” early. Final paragraph:

    I’m an atheist, and I choose to anthropomorphise the universe for my own enjoyment and convenience. And fuck anyone who says I “can’t” or “shouldn’t”.

  30. Steven Taylor says

    Great piece (and I absolutely loved Dawkins’ talk that you provided) I am an atheist, but of late, with all the “blessings” that have accumulated in my over 43 years, I have begun to feel the gratitude you discuss. But I think that it is a feeling more profound and pervasive than a sense of thankfulness to others or an acknowledgement of luck. It is because I am godless that my deep sense of gratitude feels so misplaced. I can understand how some might interpret this feeling as being of some divine origin. Ultimately I don’t care–the feeling is a good one.

  31. KG says

    Looking through the responses, I think there may be a psychological difference between atheists who do feel something best labelled as “intransitive gratitude”, and those who do not – but do feel “fortunate” or “appreciative”. I’m definitely one of the latter – the feelings I get when I reflect on my good fortune are nothing like those of gratitude to specific individuals, or even, for example (I’m writing in the wake of a very recent health scare), to those many, mostly unknown individuals who fought for us Brits to have a National Health Service, so that while worrying about my health, I at least didn’t have to worry about paying for the tests and any necessary treatment. I wonder whether the difference (if I’m right) has to do with whether one was ever taught to be “grateful to God” – which although brought up as a Christian in typically lukewarm British fashion, I never was.

  32. Steven Taylor says

    I think that, for theists, gratitude comes of fear–if they fail to appreciate our blessings, they may lose favour with God. Lack of gratitude may invite ill fortune. But why then would an atheist like me have such strong feelings of gratitude? It is certainly not tinged with fear or adulterated by notions of reciprocation.

  33. fester60613 says

    Gratitude is one thing, feeling fortunate is another, but I think they both miss the mark. Just being alive requires no gratitude and no feeling of being fortunate. It is merely the joy of existing. Just. Being. Alive.

  34. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I would be willing to bet massive amounts of money on the fact that millions of atheists use the phrase “thank god”.

    It’s easier to say than “thank random fluctuations of the space-time continuum.”

  35. Celeste says

    I just read this, and now I’m thankful to PZ and to you, Greta, for putting into words something I have struggled to understand my whole life. Even as a child I hated the question “What are you thankful for?” and I could never explain why, even to myself. Just this morning, as I was driving my daughter to the incredible charter school that I was lucky enough to get her into, I was thinking about how fortunate I feel, but only the word “grateful” would come to mind as an alternative to “thankful” and it was driving me nuts because it’s the WRONG word. I’ve always known this, but I guess I never put quite enough effort into defining why. I’ve simply pushed the concept away as something that I was, perhaps, ill-equipped to feel. Now I feel like it’s not a problem with me, but rather something that is RIGHT with me.

    Thank you!

  36. says

    I dismissed my faith about 4 or 5 years ago. I was a christian music record producer my whole career and founder of one of its seminal bands. Lots of successes there, and I had a chance to tell my story recently at the Freedom From Religion Convention in Hartford.

    I am “grateful” to the girl I happened to be going out with at the time who midwifed me through my deconversion, so to speak. But this question of gratitude is the one question I asked her about and it stumped her. I didn’t care much about questions of the resurrection of Jesus or why the apostles would have died for a lie or any of that drivel, but the gratitude question was a good one for me. I still wonder about it.

    I think we (unbelievers) are not there yet. Changing semantics for me doesn’t do it. It feels very much the same when I consider gifts of kindness and love from others, being alive and healthy, and considering the cosmos. That there is or is not an object doesn’t change my feeling. Admitting that though, does not mean for me that there must be a god. We make the same cases all the time about things we don’t yet fully know or understand. It’s a damned good question and I haven’t seen a good answer for it yet, and that doesn’t mean anything more than that to me. In fact, being ok with not having an answer has allowed my gratitude to manifest fully without worry or concern that I am somehow anthropomorphizing the universe, imputing an object or anything else. I am grateful, I am considering the question, I don’t have a good answer yet, and that’s all fine. If it turns out that there is in fact some neurological distinction between gratitude to people and a sense of good fortune for the rest, then I will gladly evolve. But until then, gratitude just seems a lot like being appreciative to me and I don’t need an object to feel that. Thank you for the post and your blog. I have linked to it a number of times in my own. Cheers!

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