Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

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

thank you
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. 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. And this can contribute to the massive, destructive error that is religion.

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.

royal flush
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?

Coming Out Atheist
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Greta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

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

  1. 1

    It’s funny I was reading this to my dude, pausing every few paragraphs to discuss & then when we read on his thought were similar to what you got around to saying after our resume point. He characterized feelings of “intransitive gratitude” ranging from negative (griefing people for eating at all with children in Africa as the excuse) to positive (recognizing one’s privilege). –If I’m not misrepresenting him by trying to distill what he said to a few words.

    My thought was that maybe this is just a matter of language, that our use of the language of gratitude to express feeling fortunate is a cultural habit. Maybe that doesn’t happen in Algonquin or Mandarin, wouldn’t know, and it could be there’s cultures where it’s so far to the opposite that they have difficulty associating gratitude with people at all. Like, instead of “thank you” their words are more “I’m lucky you did that,” which could have a different feel emotionally.

  2. 2

    First, on a completely frivolous point, I did not know that “vagaries” is a word and I read it as “vaginas.” That really changed the meaning of things.

    To the main point, I really think it’s part of innate human psychology to look for patterns and reasons behind things, even where they do not necessarily exist. It’s one of the things that separates humans from other organisms. We look for patterns and reasons, and then transmit these ideas to other humans across generations. In this sense, I think the same psychology that led us to science led us to religion.

    It takes hard work to really figure out which patterns are probably real and which ones are probably false. And many people will believe things they think make them feel good, as if truth has anything to do with how we personally feel about it.

    It’s weird to me that the same sense of freedom a chaotic and random world gives me causes other people to despair…

  3. 3

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


    “If you don’t believe in ‘a god’, what does gratitude mean?”

    This is a bit off topic but it’s a question that has long puzzled me. Why give the monotheists their framing, a particular god that merits a proper noun.

  4. 4

    I don’t think the dead goats and cut genitals really express anything like gratitude. They appear to be attempts to bribe a capricious and potentially hostile deity. I haven’t checked the bible lately, but I don’t remember any ‘gratitude’ in the covenant of circumcision.

    To me, it seems like a fairly simple distinction to be grateful FOR things without having some niggling sense of owing gratitude TO an imaginary benefactor. Being alive, having self-reflective intelligence, being in reasonable health etc. are not ‘gifts’ any more than they are ‘achievements.’

    Dawkins’ oft quoted paragraph, about the trade-off between the certainty of mortality versus the extraordinary unlikeliness of Being in the first place, seems like a pretty good expression of the idea.

  5. 5

    re ludicrous #3
    Why cap the noun?
    1) While this post is preaching to the choir as they say, you never really know who is going to end up reading it. If a fundie theist reads it, they will immediately upon seeing the lowercase “g” go into a rant mode and will pay absolutely no attention to whatever else you have to say if they even continue reading.
    2) It is simply polite to do so and gives you the high ground.

  6. 6

    I think I agree with some of the other posters that it might be overreaching to make such a distinction between ‘gratitude’ and general appreciation for good fortune. Even non-religious people can interpret good fortune or bad fortune in a self judging way. A child may feel guilt when there is trouble at home; a person who is lucky in life may fail to appreciate the significance of his good fortune and may claim the less fortunate to be lazy or undeserving. Also, gratitude towards people can be dangerous when it turns into devotion or blind loyalty; even if the object is a human being or group of human beings (tribe). So, like any emotion, gratitude is important to social structures, but can also be taken too far.

  7. 7

    Hi Greta, thanks for this interesting and useful article. Like you I’m still thinking this through, but I’m reluctant to limit my use of the language of thankfulness to cases where there is an agent responsible for my happy circumstances. Ultimately I think that where we differ is that I feel like the concept of good fortune leaves out some of the important stuff that I want to express when I say that I’m thankful: I feel like it doesn’t express the ‘warm glow’ of thankfulness, the feelings of appreciation, humility, inspiration, altruism. This is the sense in which one can say “I am thankful for my good fortune” without it being an empty tautology.

    Since I feel that way, I need some alternative way to express my thankfulness without presupposing the existence of invisible sky monsters. Fortunately I think that the language of thanks is up to the job. I think we just need to recognize that our feelings of thankfulness need not attach to an agent who is responsible for the happy circumstances in question, but could attach instead to the happy circumstances themselves. For example, I can be thankful for my good health, or the strength of my aesthetic appreciation of nature, without these warm feelings attaching to a specific person who I deem responsible. One way to express this distinction is in terms of ‘thankful-for’ versus ‘thankful-to’. I am thankful to my parents for being so awesome, and I am thankful for having had such awesome parents.

    There is some potential for confusion here, especially with people who are used to thanks always being implicitly directed to their favorite sky monster. So there might be cases where I’d err on the side of the more-unambiguously-agent-free language of good fortune that you propose. But I’m fortunate, and thankful, to be mostly surrounded by friends and family who will mostly know that my thankful-for’s aren’t also thankful-to’s. 🙂

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