Gratitude: An Atheist’s Dissonance 

by Alma Acevedo

“When I lie on my back and look up at the Milky Way on a clear night and see the vast distances of space and reflect that these are also vast differences of time as well, when I look at the Grand Canyon and see the strata going down, down, down, through periods of time which the human mind can’t comprehend . . . it’s a feeling of sort of an abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders, when I look down a microscope it’s the same feeling, I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.”

These moving, and ostensibly sincere, words were pronounced by Richard Dawkins at the “Atheism is the new fundamentalism” debate staged by the U.K.-based organization Intelligence Squared in November 2009. Spoken in a deliberate tone and convinced demeanor, these words interjected a dissonant note to Dawkins’ otherwise fairly consistently crafted atheistic and anti-religious presentation. Elsewhere, the evolutionary biologist has described his feeling of “exultation,” and the “overwhelming feeling of being” elicited by his experience of the natural world. Wonder, exultation, overwhelmed—all empirically appropriate and logically suitable responses to the magnificence of the universe. But, gratitude?

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.

The recipients of gratitude are not abstract, but concrete persons who, even if no longer physically with us, live on in our thankful memories. Gratitude that is not deliberately aimed at a person—human or divine—whose gifts or favors deserve it is not gratitude at all, but complacency, conceit, pride, pleasure, or wonder and awe at best.

Nor can Dawkins claim to be grateful to himself. Thanking oneself is hardly reasonable. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “In things that one does for oneself, there is no place for gratitude or ingratitude, since a man cannot deny himself a thing except by keeping it” (Summa Theologica, 2a2ae, 106). One may feel surprised, satisfied, joyful, happy, proud, even self-congratulatory, but “self-thankful” is, plainly, inconsistent…


Gratitude: An Atheist’s Dissonance | First Things

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