Atheist Church. Seriously. (Part 3) Dear Nothing, Thanks For Something.

* Do people have an innate sense of thankfulness?  Can we be thankful to nothing?*


(This continues my response to an article titled “Church without God – by Design” about the Humanist Community at Harvard University, an “atheist church.”  Read Part 1Part 2, and Part 2.5)

(If this is your first time reading something here, please first read a short explanation about the purpose of this blog.)

Perhaps the most ironic part from the article “Church without God – by Design” is the section about a Sunday morning song performed at the Humanist Community written and performed by Shelley Segal from her recording “An Atheist Album.”  Segal sings a song named “Gratitude” (but not the Beastie Boys song of the same name) in which she sings the following lyrics:

I don’t believe in a great power to say thank you to.  But that won’t take away from my gratitude.”

Go ahead and accuse me of being overly nitpicky, and I realize this is only one line of the entire song, but in order to show gratitude there has to be someone to receive that gratitude.  Someone may play with the wording and say she isn’t showing gratitude, but she only has gratitude, yet that changes nothing.  To have gratitude also clearly implies a recipient.  So, Segal says she has gratitude.  But to whom?

Once when I was young, I was in a wooded park outside Philadelphia, and I came too close to the edge of a long drop overlooking a river and I slipped on some loose stones.  I fell on my back and started sliding towards the edge.  Luckily, I had the good sense to flatten out, and I stopped.  I stood up, looked at how close I’d come to going over that edge and falling hundreds of feet.  You bet I was thankful.  But to whom?

Gratitude is a personal feeling, but it implies someone receives those feelings, which also implies that same someone has  first done something to bring about those feelings.  It’s similar with remorse.  I can’t say I’m sorry to no one, nor can I feel sorry for no reason.  Likewise, I can’t feel love without a recipient, nor can I feel loved without reason.

Witness this conversation:

Me: “I’m in love.”

You: “With whom?”

Me: “No one.”

You: “Huh?”

Me: “I feel loved.”

You: “By whom?”

Me: “No one.”

You: “I’m leaving.”

A similar conversation about gratitude would be equally absurd:

Me: “I’m thankful for this beautiful day.”

You: “Thankful to whom?”

Me: “No one.”

You: “Uh…”

Me: “I feel grateful for my good health.”

You: “Grateful to whom?”

Me: “No one.”

You: “I’m not talking to you anymore.”

You thank someone.  You are grateful towards someone.  You receive gratitude from someone because you did something to warrant that response.

I suppose we could argue that a person can be thankful towards nonliving objects in some fashion, but I would disagree there too.  I could say I’m thankful my clunker car started on a cold morning, but when you get down to it, it’s the creators of my car — the engineers, the people on the assembly line — or the mechanics who keep it running smoothly — to whom I’m thankful, not the car itself.

I once heard a woman who was into some New Age thought thank the universe for a narrowly avoided car accident.  When I was an atheist, this would’ve seemed sillier to me than thanking God since at least a person thanking God is thanking something they believe is a someone – a someone that has some sort of mind.  The universe, on the other hand, is a vast, primarily empty thing.  And what did the mindless universe do to deserve thanks?  Moreover, can you imagine how goofy we’d sound if we started thanking all nonliving things that assist us?  “Thank you, bookshelf, for holding my books.”  “Thank you, computer, for diligently saving all my Word documents.  You have my utmost gratitude.”

So, no, I don’t think we can show true gratitude to nonliving things, but even if I agree that we can, Segal is not even grateful to the universe.  She is grateful to nothing.  And nothing is nothing.  The dictionary on my laptop defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.  How can you show appreciation and return kindness to nothing?  And how can nothing show you kindness in the first place?


Perhaps the next time an secular humanist finds him- or herself wanting to thank someone for something even though there’s really no one to thank (according to their atheist worldview), perhaps relieved would serve as a better word.  I was relieved my car started.  I was relieved I didn’t fall off that cliff.  I’m relieved I have good health and not bad health.  Shelley Segal can sing:

I don’t believe in a great power to say thank you to.  But that won’t take away from my relief.”

But wait.  Relief from what?  Maybe Segal should just say she feels lucky.  But, then again, believing in luck is silly.

Clearly, what I’m writing here isn’t as weighty as the other issues I’ve addressed in this series, and, really, it’s just me being an overly-analytical English teacher and pointing out the problem with the language in Segal’s lyrics with (what I hope comes across as) some tongue-in-cheek, good-natured humor.  But perhaps there is a higher message we can get from this.  Does our innate sense of gratitude — even when there’s no appropriate human to give that gratitude to — point us to some higher truth?

NEXT:  Atheist Church. Seriously.  (Part 4) Atheism’s Favorite Myth


9 thoughts on “Atheist Church. Seriously. (Part 3) Dear Nothing, Thanks For Something.

  1. Pingback: Atheist Church. Serious. (Part 4) Atheism’s Favorite Myth & “Idol Worship” | god from the machine

  2. “Does our innate sense of gratitude — even when there’s no appropriate human to give that gratitude to — point us to some higher truth?”

    Why assume we have one? Some think they do. I, for example, don’t. I have a sense of gratitude towards other people who have earned that gratitude. That’s it.

    • Thanks for your comment. I would reply that I’m not assuming anything. But it does appear that many people have an innate sense of gratitude, or at least, a misdirected sense of gratitude. I don’t know if I’d be able to support this any further than what I wrote in the post, so I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on the subject.

      • You might not intend this, but to me ‘innate’ implies that everybody has it.

        Some people have a sense of gratitude that, for any number of reasons, they feel the need to extend beyond other people.

      • I think it’s safe to say, some–maybe even many–people have this internal (I’ll use “internal” if you think I’m implying “everyone” if I use “innate”) sense of thankfulness not directed towards anyone particular, unless that individual believes in God. So, I’m asking, Why is this so? Where does this come from? Can you clarify for me what you mean by “the need to extend beyond other people”? Also, can you give me an example or 2 of “any number of reasons”? Thanks, I appreciate your thoughts and feedback

      • “Why is this so?”

        Because some things happen randomly. Or they happen due to a complicated series of events that is difficult to pin down as the responsibility of one or even a group of people.

        So someone might call themselves ‘thankful’ if they find a 5 dollar bill on the ground. Really, I think they’re just using ‘thankful’ when they mean ‘fortunate’.

      • That was the main point of the post. I added the question you addressed because I wanted to hear people’s thoughts on it. I’ve never heard anything more concrete than what we both offered, so I was curious if anyone had anything else to say about it one way or another. I know what I feel, and Segal seems pretty clear about what she feels, but it would be difficult to argue that everyone has an innate sense of gratefulness. I appreciate your thoughts contribution to my blog.

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