Atheism and gratitude

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John MacArthur wrote in article entitled The atheist’s Thanksgiving dilemma:

Thankfulness is one of the distinguishing traits of the human spirit. We sense the need to say thanks, and we realize we ought to be more grateful than we are. We furthermore perceive that we are indebted to (and accountable to) a higher power than ourselves — the God who made us. According to Scripture, everyone has this knowledge, including those who refuse to honor God or thank Him.

Ingratitude is dishonorable by anyone’s reckoning, but to be willfully ungrateful toward the Creator is to deny an essential aspect of our own humanity. The shame of such ingratitude is inscribed on the human conscience, and even the most dogmatic atheists are not immune from the knowledge that they ought to give thanks to God. Try as they might to suppress or deny the impulse, “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them,” according to Romans 1:19.

During a November 2009 debate in England sponsored by a rationalist group known as Intelligence Squared, Richard Dawkins admitted that when he looks at the Milky Way or the Grand Canyon, he is overcome by a profound feeling of thankfulness. “It’s a feeling of sort of an abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders,” he said. “When I look down a microscope it’s the same feeling. I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.”

To whom does an atheist like Mr. Dawkins express such gratitude?

I’m by no means the first person to point out this conundrum. In fact, the Internet is peppered with failed attempts to justify an atheistic celebration of Thanksgiving. Atheists insist they are not ungrateful. They confess that they feel thankful, and they clearly sense a need to avoid the ignominy of brazen ingratitude on a cosmic scale — especially at Thanksgiving.[1]

The Christian apologist John Spiegel wrote in his book The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief:

From the dynamic intricacy of a single living cell to the mind-boggling immensity of a galaxy — or, for that matter, the hundreds of billions of galaxies — every aspect of the cosmos displays a certain excellence and warrants praise. No wonder most people erupt in praise of the Creator, even when they know little about whom they praise. For the atheist, however, this impulse is frustrated. Their worldview does not permit them this privilege.[2]

Thomas Aquinas and God as the ultimate cause of gratitude

Alma Acevedo wrote in the First Things essay Gratitude: An Atheist’s Dissonance

Unlike “being comfortable,” which requires the preposition with (as in “I feel comfortable with these shoes”), if any, “being grateful” calls for a to another person . Gratitude is not a self-enclosed or self-sufficient feeling but a human person’s response to another person or persons”whether human or divine”for benefits, gifts, or favors received from them, such as the gratitude due to caring parents, loving friends, and dedicated teachers or mentors. As Kant succinctly observes, “The duty of gratitude consists in honoring a person because of a benefit he has rendered us” (italics added). When gratitude is due to a country, an organization ( e.g. , a school, a hospital, a shelter), or some other collective, it is owed to them as communities of human persons, not as impersonal institutions.

Dawkins might reply that he is grateful for the Milky Way and the Grand Canyon. Being grateful for a good, an event, or a state, however, presupposes a gift-giver. Those grateful for a promotion or applause, their health or their sufferings, are, albeit implicitly, grateful to the persons who brought about the event or state. “Abstract” gratitude, therefore, is as meaningless as abstract piety, as oxymoronic as abstract repayment. Gratitude without a benefactor is as incongruous as a refund without a payer...

According to Aquinas, since “every effect turns naturally to its cause,” and a benefactor “is cause of the beneficiary, . . . the natural order requires that he who has received a favor should, by repaying the favor, turn to his benefactor according to the mode of each.” That is, the virtue of gratitude entails that the recipient ought to repay the giver with spontaneous “affection of the heart” in a manner commensurate with the gift received.

Since the nature of the “debt” depends on its causes, the gratitude owed to God (“the first principle of all our goods”) is the greatest, followed by that owed our parents, persons “excelling in dignity,” and other benefactors. The response to these human persons can be disproportionate, degenerating into vices such as flattery or exhibitionism, besides ingratitude. Excessive gratitude to God, however, is inconceivable. To the Gift-giver, the Giver of all being, a worshipful “grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders” is called for.[3]

Argument from evil and gratitude

See also: Atheism and the Problem of Evil

The book Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy which was edited by William Dembski and Michael R. Licona declares:

The real power of the argument from evil is that it can destroy a person’s gratitude. If we focus all of our attention on the bad things in our world, we come to see it as a place of nothing but misery, disease, and bloodshed. (I’ve read many atheistic writings that describe the world in such terms.) When we become, as G. K. Chesterton would put it, “Cosmic Pessimists,” our gratitude doesn’t shift from God to something else. Our gratitude simply dies.

How we view the world, then, can have a massive impact on our religious views. I would say that a person who looks at the world and sees nothing but pain and death has missed out on a truly amazing place. As a blissful young pagan, Chesterton set out to found his own religion. He eventually became a theist and a Christian, a process which had much to do with his sense of gratitude...

Theists see a universe full of gifts under the Christmas tree. Until atheists offer a reasonable explanation for our marvelous world, it was always seem to theists that atheists have much to be thankful for..."[4]

Albert Mohler Jr. on atheists, Thanksgiving and gratitude

Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler Jr. wrote:

Thanksgiving is a deeply theological act, rightly understood. As a matter of fact, thankfulness is a theology in microcosm — a key to understanding what we really believe about God, ourselves, and the world we experience.

A haunting question is this: How do atheists observe Thanksgiving? I can easily understand what an atheist or agnostic would think of fellow human beings and feel led to express thankfulness and gratitude to all those who, both directly and indirectly, have contributed to their lives. But what about the blessings that cannot be ascribed to human agency? Those are both more numerous and more significant, ranging from the universe we experience to the gift of life itself.

Can one really be thankful without being thankful to someone? It makes no sense to express thankfulness to a purely naturalistic system. The late Stephen Jay Gould, an atheist and one of the foremost paleontologists and evolutionists of his day, described human life as “but a tiny, late-arising twig on life’s enormously arborescent bush.” Gould was a clear-headed evolutionist who took the theory of evolution to its ultimate conclusion — human life is merely an accident, though a very happy accident for us. Within that worldview, how does thankfulness work?

The Apostle Paul points to a central insight about thankfulness when he instructs the Christians in Rome about the reality and consequences of unbelief. After making clear that God has revealed himself to all humanity through the created order, Paul asserts that we are all without excuse when it comes to our responsibility to know and worship the Creator.

He wrote:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.[5]

Quotes

"The worst moment for an atheist is when he feels a profound sense of gratitude and has no one to thank.” - G.K. Chesterton

See also

Notes

  1. MACARTHUR: The atheist’s Thanksgiving dilemma, John MacArthur, Washington Times
  2. The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief by John Spiegel, page 125
  3. Gratitude: An Atheist’s Dissonance by Alma Acevedo, First Things
  4. Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy edited by William Dembski and Michael R. Licona. pages 46-47
  5. They did not honor Him or give thanks. Why Thanksgiving is inescapeably theological by Albert Mohler, Jr.