Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

I first published this on Thanksgiving 2011, and have decided to make it a Thanksgiving tradition.

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 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?

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

10 thoughts on “Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

  1. 1

    Intransitive gratitude is simply the recognition that the universe is full of stuff you don’t control and that some of it is good. No gods required for that. And there’s no need to have a universe capable of reciprocating the appreciation. I think PZ is over-thinking it.

  2. 3

    I think that the distinction between being grateful to someone for having done something that you appreciated, versus feeling fortunate for those things in life over which no one had any ability to help or direct is important myself.

    I think that people who express thanks to the universe (or god) often both fail to recognize the human involvement (e.g. good health thanks to your cancer doctor), and misplace the reality of where those benefits come from. For instance I know I am extremely fortunate to have been born in the place and time I was. But to feel grateful to the wider world in general suggests that in some way that I earned it, the way you often hear the children of the very rich believe that they earned what their fathers/mothers left them. There was no reason I was born when, where, and to the parents I was born to. That was simply luck.

    Recognizing that in these ways I’m lucky helps me to also recognize that not everyone else is as lucky. I guess feeling grateful for those things would feel a lot like thanking god that my sports team (if I had such) won their game. The universe had nothing to do with it, nor did god, nor for that matter did I.

    In other words, I agree with you Greta.

  3. 4

    I like the idea of having a “thankful” disposition, a “thankful” relationship with others; of “being thankful” in the abstract. I suspect, though, that this idea comes from somewhere outside of myself.

    I am immersed in a culture that fetishizes all sorts of emotional expressions. I mean to say that we hold up the expressions as ends in themselves, separated from the cause or objects of those expressions: We fetishize “humility” as a disposition; we fetishize “luck” as an abstraction; we fetishize even gratitude, even when we aren’t particularly inclined toward thanking anyone. Just three examples.

    The smugness comes from separation, not from a lack in one’s disposition.

    Alienation is seen in the lack of specific actions and particular deeds. Even if the actions and deeds are merely ritualized forms — holding a door open for someone, allowing someone else first pick before you, yielding the floor — they are nevertheless actions and deeds, not merely feelings.

    In two paragraphs, I see that it looks like I am arguing against intransitive gratitude. But I’m not really. I think I would only be against the pure abstraction. Just as language and ethics cannot exist in a world of one, and keeping mind that all information is physical, so gratitude cannot remain in its own form without reciprocal physical expression: Not just “being thankful” but thanking someone.

  4. 7

    Can’t the gratitude simply be directed at other people collectively, if not specifically? Your existence and the context in which you find yourself is largely a function of human activity, and the rest is the inevitable result of the action of physical laws of the universe (including the development of proton gradients that probably gave rise to the precursors of living systems, and also ‘natural selection’). The only real fortuitous event was the formation of the universe with its particular physical properties and energy/matter distribution. Go ahead and feel grateful to all the existing agents (both human and otherwise) on Earth – they are why things are as they are.

  5. 8

    To further clarify, I think the sense of feeling fortunate is itself a misconception, and that it actually is appropriate to feel gratitude. It’s just that gratitude (or rancor) directed at a god figure is misdirected – it should instead be directed to all other people collectively.

  6. 9

    “…I was lucky enough to be born into [various things]…”

    Maybe part of the problem (if problem’s what it is) is that of course there wasn’t a ‘preformed’ you to be born into anything.
    Whatever you is was formed by all those things so maybe that’s why it seems odd to be grateful??

  7. 10

    One of the key problems with faith-based ‘gratitude’ is that it misappropriates the target. Instead of being thankful to the doctors who treated my mom’s back directly, I’m expected to be thankful to God FOR the doctors–and so on. So I would prefer to harness the impulse to gratitude and work it back to the collective group that provided whatever it is I’m grateful for, and not worry about the bit where I got a bit lucky in my space-time-sperm-ovum co-ordinates.

    I’m honestly not even sure what the ‘feeling’ of ‘fortunate’ is supposed to be like. I know what I mean when I say “I feel lucky”, but that’s specifically about things that ain’t done happened yet.

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