By L. Alfred James
I have observed a very strange thing under the sun. Many agnostics and outright atheists regularly talk about how “grateful” they feel for their lives, their career, or their family. They say things like, “I feel very thankful for this,” or “I’m extremely grateful.” I’ve seen numerous interviews with Hollywood celebrities who openly profess atheism but who, at the same time, use this kind of language. In fact, the arch-atheist himself, Richard Dawkins, has done the exact same thing:
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.1
Richard Dawkins is grateful. He is an atheist; but he is grateful.
It is very odd that atheists feel this kind of gratitude. Who are they expressing gratitude toward? Who are they thanking? Does it even make sense to be thankful when there is no person to thank?
It is about as sensible as paying, when there is no one to receive your payment. It is about as sensible as smelling sounds or hearing smells. In other words, it is logically nonsense.
Can We Thank The Universe?
It is popular these days for people to publicly “thank the universe.” But when they do so they are assuming that the universe is somehow conscious and that it chose to bestow some blessings upon them. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any more sense to thank the universe than it does to thank a pile of rocks.
However, there is no reason to think that the universe (or a pile of rocks) is conscious. Matthew Becklo explains why:
The universe doesn’t “do” or “think” anything, precisely because it lacks what philosophers call “intentionality.” Intentionality – which comes from the Latin “intendere,” which means “to aim (at)” – refers to capacity of consciousness to “aim” at, represent, and be “about” an object.2
Thus, it is no surprise that many atheists frankly admit that the universe is not conscious, and that is why they do not thank it. Dawkins says the universe is “indifferent to human preoccupations.”3 P.Z. Myers says, “The universe doesn’t care what you do.”4 Dawkins and Myers are being consistent with their commitments to rational thought. Logically speaking, one can’t justify believing that the universe is conscious.
It is easy to understand why so many people think that the universe is somehow personal. Human beings have a tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, to think of impersonal things as being personal. We do this with our cars when we say, “Poor car. I’ve been running her ragged.” We do this with our computers when we say, “This computer hates me.” We do it with objects that bump into us or fall on us. I once witnessed a boy – who was not paying close attention – get bonked in the head with a swing. He was so angry at that swing (as if it acted intentionally) that he punched it as hard as he could, hurting his hand in the process. Why would he punch it? He was ascribing personhood to it. By the same token, we easily do this with the universe. Indeed, since it is so big and so mysterious, it is far easier to anthropomorphize the whole universe than a car, a computer, or a swing.
But that isn’t the only reason for this trendy talk of thanking the universe. Becklo points out another reason for its popularity:
…these sentiments about the universe take what are essentially descriptions of a transcendent agent and apply them to the imminent material universe of quasars, pulsars, and black holes that constitute the over 100 billion galaxies of which our solar system is a mere fraction of a sliver of a hair. The impulse behind this metaphysical bait-and-switch is not difficult to decipher; it reaps all the “magic” of classical theism – meaning, purpose, and value – without the high social or personal cost of believing in or even mentioning God.
In other words, if you have an inner urge to thank God, but don’t want to obey his commands, you can express that pent-up gratitude by thanking the universe. The benefit is that the universe does not lay upon you any moral duties or obligations. You can behave and believe however you please.
You Can Only Thank A Person
What makes more sense, to be thankful to the God who made the universe, and is clearly personal, or to be thankful to the universe, which is clearly not personal?
The truth is obvious: you can only be thankful to a person.
So, who should you thank? God. He is the obvious choice, hands down.
GK Chesterton explains how he arrived at this conclusion when he was an atheist:
The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
There are two conclusions we can draw from the foregoing.
First, human beings have an internal urge to express gratitude to someone. If atheism is true, this is a very odd phenomenon. It makes sense on theism. It makes no sense on atheism.
Second, we should express our gratitude to God, not the universe.
Feelings of gratitude are a reality. All psychologically healthy human beings feel this gratitude from time to time—even atheists.
These feelings of gratitude are signposts, pointing us to God. Don’t stifle these feelings. Express this gratitude. But make sure you don’t get derailed with unjustifiable notions about the universe being somehow personal.
1. Richard Dawkins, “Atheism is the new fundamentalism” November 2009. See https://youtu.be/W_3d0q1LDa0
2. Matthew Becklo, “This Thanksgiving, Don’t Thank the Universe…It Doesn’t Care,” Aleteia (November 21. 2014), https://aleteia.org/2014/11/21/this-thanksgiving-dont-thank-the-universe-it-doesnt-care/
3. Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), xi.
4. P.Z. Myers, The Happy Atheist (New York: Random House, 2013), 56.
5. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 98.