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?

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Coming Out Atheist
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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

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

  1. 1

    I mainly give gratitude to the people who support me, and I acknowledge people I don’t know and will never meet who do things on my behalf. Yes, the universe gives us life, but it’s us the people who must take care of one another.

  2. 3

    I can see why you make this distinction, but I have to gently disagree. It all hinges on the definition of gratitude: Merriam-Webster says: “feeling or showing thanks”. Your definition emphasizes the “showing” part, but I think the “feeling” part is more important.
    To me being grateful is a feeling; being fortunate is a fact. And I think it is very important to distinguish between facts and feelings. Religion comes from magical thinking, where facts and feelings and wishes are mixed and confused. We shouldn’t make the same mistake and instead use language that makes clear distinctions.
    Feelings don’t need an objects that can return the feeling. We express love towards things that are incapable of loving us back, but there is nothing wrong with that. So I can feel grateful for something without being grateful to someone. I feel grateful for being fortunate.
    Also, as a first-time commenter I want to say thank you for your insightful blog.

  3. 4

    I take the opposite view. This world is a nightmare into which we were thrown without any consultation. Given the suffering required simply to perpetuate our dreary existences, I think that given the choice any reasonable person would decline the offer of life on this planet.

    Instead of “Thank you!” we should be asking the question: “What did I do to deserve this?”

  4. 5

    @ 4 polishsalami

    Makes no sense to me, I find that contradictory.

    If you don’t think life precious, there’s no reason to think suffering “bad”. Or to put it another way, suffering is only “bad” if joy is “good”, so if we condemn suffering we must also celebrate joy. And no life, no joy.

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