For those who live without a God to thank, some kinds of gratitude might seem an awkward concept. So, whom do atheists thank for the world around them? Where is gratitude concentrated when benevolent events occur from what non-believers would accredit to random chance? Well, here are two ways people without a god express their thanks.
First, intransitive gratitude, as it’s become known, is a broad, indirect, sense of thankfulness. The beneficiary is thankful in general for life, health, flowers, bugs, whatever, but the gratitude is directed toward nothing specific.
From a practical standpoint, the concept of intransitive gratitude falls apart upon deeper analysis because it leaves people to a perception that random chance has some kind of purpose behind it, which might as well be called “supernatural” in nature. Suddenly, it becomes something akin to religion.
Perhaps then, a more tangible and less unbalanced concept of gratitude is preferable for those who would rather have it more focused. Most “non believers” direct their gratitude at those individuals they consider responsible for the positive events.
Say, for example, atheist Bob has a great meal at a friend’s house one evening. Obviously, he wouldn’t pray over it, but instead thanks his friend who worked for the money that paid for the food that she then cooked. From Bob’s point of view, there was no deity or other supernatural involvement.
Bob could trace that gratitude all the way back to the friend’s parents, who decided to have a child, and on and on. It’s more of a cause and effect concept but with some level of human direction.
For someone like Bob, directing the gratitude at some invisible, supernatural force seems illogical and improper. Instead, he prefers to honor the people directly responsible for the events or their subsequent results. It might not be accurate, however, to call this type of gratitude a “belief” because it has tangible beneficiaries – Bob’s friend, her employer, her parents, and so on.
The devout likely see this practice as sacrilegious, to say the least. For them the only “one” responsible for all the good in the world is the god they worship. He or She or It is responsible for everything, and nothing is random.
But is someone like Bob wrong or is his gratitude misplaced? Is he evil? Is he a heathen? Therein hangs the question, and one that can only be answered by the individual affected. Any prejudice or personal judgment, however, should be left out of the equation.
Indeed, it would be hard to argue against the idea, in the case of Bob’s meal, that the people who grow, package, ship, prepare and serve food, share a fair portion of the responsibility in his enjoyment of it, godly intervention not withstanding. So being grateful to those people would be highly appropriate.
On the other hand, to the logical eye, and without context, someone clench-eyed, bowing over the dinner plate with clasped hands and appearing to be talking to his or herself would seem quite silly. As with so many concepts, it’s all a matter of personal perception.
Gratitude must be measured and delivered by the grateful in his or her own way. If someone is religious, they’ll likely pray in thanks. For the less rigidly devout, it may be something more informal. Atheists or agnostics may thank the people directly, as Bob did in the example.
Religious or not, it’s important to keep in mind that nothing happens without some human intervention, somewhere down the line, even if not readily apparent. Every decision made by each person has some kind of an effect on the lives of countless others. So directly thanking people for their participation in some good fortune is always a kindness.
Regardless of where gratitude is directed – God, the grocer, a famer, an employer – being generally appreciative of the goodness in life will never be misplaced, even if it’s just within one’s own thoughts.
Remember that good things happen, not to those who wait, but who act. Recognizing good fortune and taking action is just as important as thanks given to those believed responsible.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. Deer In Headlines is distributed by GLD Enterprises Communications. More at gerydeer.com