Friday, September 12, 2014

An Atheist Issues a Serious "Gratitude Challenge"

Warning: I am an atheist. If you are "a believer", gird your loins before proceeding! Continuing to read this post won't hurt [really!]. It won't even challenge your faith. Not a bit. Really! But it might offend you if you're not prepared and if you're insecure or way too sensitive. Why? Because I think your religion is nonsense, especially if it's an organized religion, and I don't pretend otherwise. Take a second, get prepared, and read on!

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About a month ago, I was tagged to do this "Gratitude Challenge" that's been going around on Facebook. I took it seriously, mostly. Instead of rattling off three sentences a day, I wrote a bunch of little essays. I have a tendency to get wordy when I write. That's sort of a general trend. I don't expect that all of my Friends read all of it. I think that would be unreasonable. But I do always hope that a good number of them read at least a good amount. In case you want to read what I wrote during the five days of my Gratitude Challenge, I've posted a concatenated version here.

A week ago, I went on a twenty mile bike ride. During the ride, I was listening to the "Believers and Doubters" episode of the TED Radio Hour podcast. My mind kept going back to this Gratitude Challenge. Specifically I was thinking about one specific entry that I made [number 4.3 on my list], and even more specifically to a little note I put at the bottom of that entry. And I kept thinking about how few of my Friends had, in the intervening three weeks, chosen to do their Gratitude Challenges to any degree in the way I suggested there. Maybe that's all attributable to them not having read my entries. Maybe not. But it bothers me.

So I got it into my head to write this blog post in order to issue a serious Gratitude Challenge to everyone, regardless of whether they're my Facebook Friends or not.

I understand that lots of people believe in gods and magic and higher powers and guardian angels and ghosts and devils. Still, I've always been absolutely dumbfounded when I've heard people express the idea that "if there's no God, life has no meaning". I've heard it a lot. Frankly, I've heard it mostly from Christians, usually, I guess, stated as "without the love of Jesus, life would have no meaning" or something very similar. It seems insane to me! But I've thought about it a lot and I think this is the crux of why it bothers me:

If you can say, with a straight face, that belief in God [or Jesus or Allah or unicorns or karma or the magical power of feng shui or crystals or whatever] is THE THING that imbues your life with meaning and goodness and makes it all worthwhile, then what you're really saying is that you believe that your natural state is as a sociopath. You believe that THE THING that makes you behave in a way that is decent and ethical and acceptable in a society is that you have an imaginary friend! Maybe that's true. If it is, then please, please, please hold on to your superstitions! Do whatever it takes to keep you from snapping and turning into a mass murderer or rapist or sidewalk shitter or arsonist or serial eye-poker-outer or whatever sociopathic monster you think you'd be without those superstitions. Frankly, if your imaginary friend is what's keeping you from offing yourself, hold on to that! There are people who love you and will be devastated if you off yourself. You may not know it, but it's true.

Anyway, I've just gone off on one of my tangents. So, back to business:

Whether you are a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist or a Buddhist or a Wiccan or something else, I want to seriously issue you a Gratitude Challenge of my own:

If you have already done a Gratitude Challenge, go back and take a look at what you came up with. Take a good look, with an analytical eye. Did you actually express gratitude to somebody/somebodies [not a god or a guiding force] for something that he/she/they did or do with intent? If not, try—seriously try—to rephrase your statements of gratitude in such a way that you're expressing the kind of gratitude that I'm talking about. If they can't be rephrased, think of new statements of gratitude that fit the bill.

If you haven't already done a Gratitude Challenge, try it. Try to come up with somewhere between five and fifteen statements of the kind of honest gratitude that I'm talking about.

You can choose to share your results with me or not. If you don't want to, that's fine. If you do, I'd be honored. Either way, I'd be very interested in having you report back to me whether there are any surprising results. That's really what interests me here.

I may not have been clear about what I'm hoping you can come up with in terms of your statements of gratitude. So here are some examples:


  • Expressing gratitude to a cow for giving you milk is nonsense! Don't do it! The cow produces milk as a biological process. If you take the milk, you are happy to get milk, but you are not truly grateful to the cow for giving it to you. I hope you can understand this difference.
  • You CAN express gratitude to the dairy farmer for bringing milk to market.
  • If you actually milk a cow yourself, you CAN express gratitude to the cow for not kicking you in the head. Producing milk is not a decision the cow can make. Not kicking you in the head is.
  • Don't express gratitude "for my wife", "for my baby", "for my masseuse", "for my barber". Instead, consider expressing gratitude "to my wife for making me laugh", "to the woman who gave my baby up for adoption so that I could adopt said baby and let it fill that big spot in my heart", "to my masseuse for working out that kink in my neck on Tuesday", "to my barber for making me look like a million bucks". See the difference? If you say "I'm grateful for janitors", what you're implying is that you believe that janitors are put here by your god for your benefit. You're denying janitors' contribution. You're denying their agency. You're dehumanizing them even if you think you're praising them! If, on the other hand, you say "I'm grateful to the janitors of the world for keeping my workplace [or school or city] clean and pleasant smelling", you're actually giving them credit for their contribution. You're acknowledging that on some level they're actually your equals, not your playthings.
I think this may turn out to be a difficult task for some people, but I believe it will be doable for all! I really believe that you are capable of finding people in your experience who you think deserve gratitude because they choose to do what they choose to do that somehow enriches your life. If you can't manage it, I especially want to know! That would qualify as a surprising result.

This Gratitude Challenge is issued by an atheist. It is mainly geared towards non-atheists. But it is not at all about trying to convince you that your non-atheism is senseless. It is, instead, about exploring your connection to humanity.

If you think sunsets are a gift from God, okay. You can be grateful to God for sunsets—though I think it's disingenuous if you're not equally grateful to God for dementia and ebola and the incessant noise when the cicadas emerge every 17 years. But if you're truly grateful to God for sunsets, that's simply outside of the scope of this challenge. You're welcome to it, but it's not part of the exercise. If you tell me "I'm grateful for sunsets", I'm going to assume what you really mean is "I feel lucky that I get to enjoy the beauty of sunsets". Congratulations! Me too! But it's irrelevant. Take a  minute and think of someone who has done something that makes you feel grateful to that person for that something. It's much more meaningful to be grateful to your cat for snuggling with you when you came home from a hard day at work than it is to be grateful for your cat.

See if you can experience the difference!