Grace, Gratitude, and Who should we thank for civilization?

I am grateful for so many things. A Christian thanks God for everything, but the atheist doesn’t know who to thank. In fact, there is no “who” to thank.

But in recent years I’ve been rethinking my attitude toward gratitude. All the self-help gurus tell us that we should have an attitude of gratitude. I first heard this from Anthony Robbins, on his Personal Power tapes, and later I read it in his book “Awaken The Giant Within”. But he will admit that many of his ideas come from others, and after reading dozens of self-help books, I’m convinced that the lineage of the attitude of gratitude idea can be traced back to “Think And Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, published early in the 20th century. And the ideas certainly go further back, probably all the way to the Bible.

When we say Grace at meal time, we are expressing our gratitude for the food, and often for other good things in our life. What is grace? The New World Dictionary (2nd Edition) says of grace: from the Latin, gratia, pleasing, quality, favor, thanks. I’m reminded of the Spanish “gracias” meaning “thanks”, which shares the same root.

As an atheist, I have refrained from saying Grace at meal time because of its religious connotations. “Bless us Oh Lord for these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive,” or something like that. An atheist doesn’t believe in God, and therefore it seems inappropriate to thank God for the food. Shouldn’t we be thanking the farmer, the grocer, the breadwinner, the cook? What’s all this about thanking God?

But who does the farmer thank? What if the weather is bad that year and the crops don’t grow or can’t be harvested? Should we just take the good weather for granted? You can’t thank the weather; that doesn’t make sense! The direct object of the verb “to thank” is a person, or being. Linguistically, then, and perhaps psychologically, we need God in order to have an object to thank, for at least some of those things that we are grateful for.

The hard-core atheist (of which I am one) argues that we shouldn’t be grateful for the good weather. Our gratitude can’t change the weather. For even if we are grateful, our gratitude will not increase the likelihood that the weather will be good in the future. I believe that’s true, but it doesn’t *feel* right. I *feel* that we should be grateful for the good in our lives, even if there is no scientific basis for thinking that the gratitude will keep the good weather coming.

What about the things that gratitude *can* facilitate? For example, when someone invites me to attend the Journey IFC social “FRED” group meeting and provides snacks, shouldn’t I be grateful for that? Of course! Absolutely! There is clearly an identifiable object of my gratitude, namely the person who hosted the meeting and the person who provided the snacks.

Sometimes, however, the object of our gratitude isn’t as obvious, or the chain of gratitude isn’t clear. For example, should I be grateful for the sewer system in our neighborhood? And who in society should I thank for the sewer system? The worker who dug the trenches, the worker who installed the pipes, the worker who mans the sewage processing plant, the vast organization that provides electricity to the sewage processing plant, the plumber who connected the sewer system to my house, the vast network of people who create metal pipes and PVC, the politician who created the legislation which begat the sewer system, the bond holders who bought the bonds that built the system, the tax payer who paid for it. And perhaps dozens of other individuals and groups or organizations that made all of these things possible.

It seems that just about everyone, all of civilization, is responsible for my sewer system.

Who should I thank for civilization?