Culture At Large

Gratitude without God?

Andy Rau

Can you be thankful--for life, for your family, for a beautiful sunrise--without believing in God? That's the question explored in an article by Ronald Aronson at The Philosopher's Magazine. As he notes near the beginning of the piece:

Gratitude, central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is virtually absent from our secular culture, except in relation to the “oughts” of individual interactions. But this deprives living without God of much of its coherence and meaning.

Aronson observes that humans seem to have an impulse, however vague and unfocused, to "give thanks" when we are confronted by something beautiful, serendipitous, or soul-stirring. As a Christian, my instinctive reply to this observation is "Well, of course we do!" But it's a harder thing to understand if you don't believe in a God who hears and blesses us. Gratitude is an admission of our dependence on outside forces--a concept that religion is comfortable with but which is harder for the non-religious to face.

Aronson is looking for "an alternative to thanking God on the one hand and seeing the universe as a 'cosmic lottery' or as absurd on the other"--a way to express gratitude without actually expressing it specifically to God. He seems to find this in simply acknowledging the depth of our dependence on impersonal forces of nature, the course of history, and the shape of society:

It is as if we live in a profound series of dependencies that dominate our existence but which, outside of religion, we more and more manage to hide from ourselves: dependence on the cosmos, the sun, nature, past generations of people, and human society. Living without God, we should for the first time become intensely clear about all that we do, in fact, rely on.

He makes some good points about our dependence on both nature and our fellow man, but it still feels to me as if he's just trying to give vent to his sense of gratitude without having to acknowledge a specific Being to whom he feels grateful. Nevertheless, it's a thought-provoking piece about why, for what, and to whom we ought to give thanks.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith