Gratitude was the subject of our Thanksgiving post, naturally enough, but more needs to be said.
Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot
It’s time to start looking at some characteristics of human nature from an atheist perspective. It happens all the time that debates over atheism and theism quickly boil down to evaluation of proofs for the existence of God. Theists point to some characteristic of the theistic paradigm, and then atheists pounce on the same subject, from the other side. The theist says that something can’t come from nothing. Atheists say that there may have always been some sort of something, and anyhow, the phenomenon must be physical and as yet merely unexplained.
But notice what’s happening here. The debate always occurs on the theist’s propositions. Atheists argue why the theist’s point of view can’t be right; never over whether the atheist’s point of view makes sense on its own merits. Imagine that you’re playing a football game, and you manage to keep the whole game on the other side’s half of the field. Improves your chances of winning, doesn’t it? That’s what atheists do, when they argue over the proofs for the truth of God’s existence. For once, we ought to evaluate the proofs for the atheist view of reality. Let’s take what the atheists suppose to be true about reality, and evaluate it on its own merits.
Well, the most obvious feature of the atheist view of reality is that it is absent any God. Or for that matter, any supernatural existence at all. No “fairies at the bottom of the garden,” in Richard Dawkins’ memorable phrase. There are quite a few implications of this atheist belief, but today we touch on one: gratitude.
What is Gratitude?
Well, it’s the quality or feeling of being grateful, of course. But for our purposes, we must ask: grateful to whom? And for what? Atheists tell us that there is no God to be grateful to, and it makes no sense to be grateful to an inanimate object, so to what or whom is the gratitude to be directed?
We could suppose that it is other people. Who would not be grateful to their parents, for example, if they were loved and well cared-for in childhood? How churlish not to be. But if, as good materialists, we consider that our parents, like we ourselves, only behave in the way they do because of the innumerable influences upon them from their respective pasts, then why be grateful? They were just doing what they were pre-determined to do. Our care for others is the product of mindless, directionless, biological impulses, in turn derived from purposeless, directionless evolution. Our parents weren’t behaving in a way for which they deserve our thanks. They were behaving in the way their biology directed them.
Love is not a thing they shared in and in turn shared with us. Love is just a fuzzy word we attach to nice feelings we get with some people. They’re just feelings that our biology engenders in us to advance our survival imperatives.
Closely tied to the concept of gratitude is that of humility. We are grateful for the love and time and attention and things that are given to us precisely because we did not generate those things for ourselves. In the case of love, or the feeling behind gifts, or the teaching, or the instilling of discipline, these are things we are grateful for in part because they cannot be self-generated. We get these things from others because we are incapable of developing them on our own. You can have self-discipline, but someone else has to demonstrate self-discipline to you. You can have learning, but someone must teach you. You can love, but someone must first show you love. We may be grateful for what we get, but what makes us grateful is the fact that it comes from someone else rather than being something we generate on our own. To place ourself in a position to be taught, or to love, means showing humility. The humility of receiving.
We generally think that humility is a positive character trait. Not hang-dog “I’m a worm” humility, but a humility by which a person demonstrates self-awareness that the superlative of every good quality does not rest with him.
But why would we consider humility a virtue if we hold to an atheist, materialist point of view? If I encounter someone who is faster, smarter, stronger, better-looking, more talented, or more kind than me, so what? Nature made him that way. Nature made me this way. He has some traits that help him survive and reproduce; so do I. Both sets of traits are just accidents of biology—the combination of influences on us in our lifetimes, and the combination of influences on all our ancestors going back to the first life. There is no purpose or direction for those developments in our respective lives. Why would I have humility before someone with another combination of traits, or he before me?
Gratitude, Humility, and God
The origin of humility is a recognition that we are created beings, and so the origin of all humility is humility before our Creator. Likewise with gratitude. The origin of all gratitude is gratitude for that creation, and again, it is expressed to our Creator. We feel humility and gratitude in our daily lives, and celebrate these as virtues, because there is a God. If there weren’t, they would make no sense.