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Mariah's avatar

Atheists: What does it mean to you, to be thankful?

Asked by Mariah (20477 points ) December 12th, 2012

I find I’m thankful for a lot of things in life. I’m thankful that my surgeries went well, but for that I am thankful to my surgeon and the years of hard work he put in to develop those skills.

I’m thankful for other things too. For being born into a loving and reasonably well-off family, which alone makes me much luckier than most – and for this, I don’t know who to thank. Whose fault is it that I’m me and I’m not somebody else? Nobody’s, not from my atheist point of view, at least. Yet I’m thankful. Who am I thanking? What does it mean?

I guess for me, I am just appreciating that I got lucky. It’s a lesson in humility, really – recognizing that I did nothing to deserve it, that I just got lucky.

What does it mean to you?

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29 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

I thank those who deserve thanks.
If I healed from an illness, I thank the doctor. You get the idea.
As for where I was born, that is pure coincidence. And if it was not, and there was a god that chose the place, then I would not thank this god either, because it would have been the same god that chose to let the african child be born in a shithole and then die from hunger or malaria shortly after.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I am with you.
When I am served a dinner I thank the person who prepared the meal and was willing to share it with me.
I thank the doc who took care of me. (He also got thanked by the insurance company who paid him well.)
I say “Thank you” to people who say “You’re welcome” or its equivalent.

One of my pet peeves is going to a dinner at the house of a “religious” friend who always says grace. He thanks the lord for the bounty, and friendship, and blah, blah, blah, but he does not thank his wife for all the hard work she put in preparing the meal. That is what is going through my mind as I sit there, head bowed respectfully, while he proselytizes.

I always make sure to thank her.

DigitalBlue's avatar

I have a hard time understanding the question… what does my atheism have to do with being grateful? I’m thankful for a lot of things, thankful to people, thankful for my circumstances… is that… not typical? I’ve never tied thankfulness to religion, so I guess that’s throwing me off. I don’t “thank god/s,” but I still appreciate people and circumstances.

I guess, not unlike @LuckyGuy‘s perspective, I do put value in thanking people. Sort of in the cliche example, if I were in a life threatening car accident, I wouldn’t thank god/s for saving my life, I would be grateful to the EMTs and/or doctors or whoever actually did something to save me.

Seek's avatar

Of course I’m grateful for things. I just extend thanks to the people who acted toward my interests.

I don’t thank God that my surgery went well, I write cards to the nurses who took care of me, and to the doctor who used his skill to heal my illness, and to the office staff who pulled strings to get me in, even though I couldn’t pay the copayment right away.

It makes me happy that I have a son who is healthy and intelligent, but I don’t feel necessarily “thankful” for that. I was a healthy host body for him as a fetus, and I’ve worked damn hard to teach him the things he knows today.

JLeslie's avatar

It means to me appreciate the good things in my life and don’t take them for granted.

Crashsequence2012's avatar

Knowing that some day, after a great struggle all evidence of belief systems that brings comfort to billions around the world will be locked up, hidden away from public view.

tinyfaery's avatar

I see no reason why being thankful is different, because of the god (or lack thereof) you believe in.

Mariah's avatar

To clarify, I guess it just occurred to me that “thank you” is usually something we say to somebody. Who is the “you” in “thank you”? To me it’s different because the religious are often thanking god. We might thank….luck? I don’t know! I was just hoping to hear some perspectives on this. I agree it’s not much different.

Thank YOU all for your answers!

thorninmud's avatar

For me, it comes down to a recognition of interdependence. I’m carried along on the shoulders of countless beings—present and past, human and non-human—who’ve contributed in some way to making my life easier. Being mindful of those deep strata of support makes me feel indebted. It makes me want to be less of a burden on the world. It makes me want to help shoulder some of the burden for others.

I think about the London design student who undertook to build an electric pop-up toaster from scratch, mining and smelting all of the metals himself, casting the plastic casing using a hollowed tree trunk, etc. His attempt to independently recreate a device that sold for £3.99 at the store anded up taking 9 months and costing thousands of pounds. It looked like this and lasted about 5 seconds after plugging it in.

It’s just too easy to forget how much we depend on others.

digitalimpression's avatar

Thank God I don’t have to ask myself this question.

DigitalBlue's avatar

@Mariah when I’m not actually thanking someone, I’m not really thanking “luck” or “god,” I think it’s just an expression in that case. Appreciating what we have doesn’t necessarily mean someone else (spiritual or otherwise) gave that to us and needs to be thanked, just appreciating good circumstances gets filed under “thankfulness” for me. But, maybe it’s an entirely different emotion altogether? Maybe we just don’t have a word for being grateful for things that there is “no one” to thank for. (This is assuming that you aren’t thanking god/s, in which case it might explain why we don’t have a different expression for that particular state.)

burntbonez's avatar

To be thankful is different from thanking someone. Thankfulness is about appreciating that which you have—most particularly life. It is about not taking things for granted. When we are thankful, we change our relationship to that which we are thankful for. We pause a moment. We remind ourselves this doesn’t have to be this way. We could be much worse off. We think that this is something worth noticing, because an attitude of thankfulness allows us to be happier about our world.

Ron_C's avatar

I am thankful to a lot of people and organizations and not one of them involves believing in an irrational being that lives in the sky and needs my money.

flutherother's avatar

I think it is a sign of how detached we have become from the natural world that we give thanks to people and organisations that give us things and forget that we are just a part of creation. If we feel thankful for medical treatment we should also feel thankful for good health and if we feel grateful for electricity we should also feel grateful for rain. Who we should be grateful to for these things I cannot say but it isn’t us.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I am not sure, as well, why this question is asked as such. My thankfulness is unconnected from my atheism…except when I’m thankful I don’t have to rely on god or words of god to denounce others, like so many do. I am glad my parents didn’t raise me with a religion.

Mariah's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I get that it’s not consciously connected, I feel there is a relationship though. Many religious people will thank God for whatever they’re happy about. We might feel that same feeling of thankfulness but it’s not directed at any entity (at times). I agree there doesn’t have to be “someone” to thank in order to feel thankful. But sometimes I feel I need to do something to earn my good fortune, to say thanks, and I don’t know how. At those times I guess I just try to pay it forward.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Mariah Well the problem is that we haven’t developed enough language around being thankful that goes beyond the god thing.

ninjacolin's avatar

Some stray thoughts, not sure what to do with them:
To use a hanger to hang a coat is to thank a hanger for its existence.
To be thankful alone in your room when there’s no one to thank, is merely to be conscious about the things you are content to have… like hangers.

Unbroken's avatar

Coming from a Christain environment I hear this a lot Thank God for this that and the other. Sometimes I say it. What am I saying that I’m happy and relieved and just merely putting a positive emphasis on my thankfullness.

I find I have all too much to be thankful for and maybe I will one day come up with a replacement word.. But until then this will do just fine.

PeppermintBiscuit's avatar

I agree that it’s a language thing. You don’t hear “thank luck” or “thank circumstance”, even if that’s your true sentiment. You hear phrases like “thank my lucky stars” or “thank god”. Maybe someday things will change.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I don’t really see the two things as mutually exclusive….

Blackberry's avatar

Dude…we’re animals that freaking exist, man. Just sitting here, typing this to you is mind blowing.

augustlan's avatar

Similar to the atheist/prayer question, I do tend to ‘send out’ my thanks, kind of to the universe. I mean, I don’t say, “Thank you, universe”, but you know what I mean. Right?

Mariah's avatar

@augustlan I do that too, but then I kinda wonder, ‘what am I doing?’

augustlan's avatar

Me, too. I have no clue. ;)

ninjacolin's avatar

Hey, sometimes I whistle out loud when no one can hear me. It’s just where the cursor of your brain happens to be at the moment, so you act on it.

Jeruba's avatar

Nearly three years have elapsed since this question was posted, and I’m still thinking about it. I didn’t know the answer then, and I don’t know it now.

However, I reflect on it just about every time I find myself feeling grateful, or feeling whatever it is that I feel when the label “gratitude” comes to mind. I guess that staying power makes it a great question, so, belatedly, I just GQ’d it.

But I emphatically agree with Mariah’s post above, where she says that gratitude implies a feeling of thankfulness to someone or something. And I too am an atheist who doesn’t believe that there’s some power or entity bestowing grace and favor on me; nor would it be anything but a cop-out (for me) to say that I’m experiencing a sort of generalized indebtedness to the universe or the life process or something.

So what’s going on, then? Well, I think it’s probably a semantic thing as much as anything else. One of the earliest expressions that so many of us are taught is “thank you,” and with that we are taught to recognize and acknowledge the actions of others when they show a kindness, perform a service, present a gift, or enact any number of other large and small positive behaviors toward us. It’s one of the first rituals of social interchange that we learn. And when we know who it is that’s doing something for us, we know to whom we’re grateful (or at least to whom we’re expected to say the words).

When there isn’t an obvious doer, sometimes we feel the same—or perhaps an even stronger—emotion, a blend, it may be, of pleasure, relief, awareness of an unlooked-for success or an unpredicted but welcome outcome (what we might call good fortune); and we call it gratitude because we don’t have another name for it. When my husband’s surgery eliminated a serious life-threatening condition, for example, I felt that—not just toward the surgeon (to whom credit was certainly due) but in an overwhelming nonspecific way. I don’t think that feeling is actually gratitude, precisely because it doesn’t have an object. Maybe it’s simply joy, coupled with a drilled-in sense that any joy we experience has been received from somewhere outside us and comes with an obligation, which we discharge by expressing something like “thanks.”

In other words, I am thinking now—as I write this—that if I feel “grateful” (other than to a known person or source for some specific reason), I am misguided and ought to simply acknowledge a feeling of joy for which I don’t owe anything to anyone. It comes from inside me and doesn’t need any other validation.

Maybe now I’ve answered it after all.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I agree there doesn’t have to be “someone” to thank in order to feel thankful. But sometimes I feel I need to do something to earn my good fortune, to say thanks,…]
In your Godless world why have the need to feel thankful or do anything to earn your good fortune? If there is no being that can cause your good fortune or not, then it was consequence; you had good or favorable ones for you, someone else did not have favorable circumstances for them. Just enjoy that circumstances worked well for you, bygones.

JLeslie's avatar

I’m glad this Q woke up.

@Mariah I sometimes thank the universe. I think we have influence over what happens to us. Some of it is random, but when we do good things, our world is usually good to us. Acknowledging the goodness emphasizes the good that is happening and provides for us more time in the blissful moments.

If we think about it as luck, I define luck as being prepared to receive an opportunity. Someone who gets a great job, usually they worked hard to prepare for the opportunity. They went to school, or maintained relationships with people who could help them, or worked very hard to get recognized, etc. it’s not just random that they landed a great job, but their appreciation might be expressed as good luck, or the universe giving a great opportunity, or God lining things up for this moment.

Someone who is surrounded by friends who support them can be grateful for the friendships, but probably they themselves worked at the relationship and they took the opportunity to build a relationship when the person crossed their path.

I feel strongly about pay it forward, and that has to do with acknowledging help, being grateful, and passing on to someone else something they can be grateful for. It is very earthly, but the theists certainly can get behind it to. In my religion God says we need to do charitable acts. It’s to please God and satisfy the obligations required of us by God, not to get something back from someone. I think in a practical sense it is to create a better world for ourselves. There is selfishness in altruism. The writers of the Torah might have used God as the reason to follow these rules, but their are self motivating reasons for the behavior. God is like a parent. You need to follow what your parent says, because they are older and wiser, and know what will help society and you as an individual. Eventually, you grow up and you don’t do the behaviors because a parent is ordering you to; you do the behaviors because you begin to see the intrinsic value in them.

It makes sense to me that people thank God for the goodness in their life, or the universe, but I think it’s acknowledging random things happen in our life and seizing the opportunities to build on them and acknowledge them are important for happiness.

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