Living without God ... Who's an athiest to thank?
- September 3, 2006
Who's an athiest to thank?Living without God today means facing life and death as no generation before us has done. It entails giving meaning to our lives not only in the absence of a supreme being, but without the forces and trends that gave hope to the past several generations of secularists.We who live after progress, after Marxism and after the Holocaust have stopped believing that the world is being transformed by reason and democracy. By the beginning of the 21st century, the modern faith that human life is heading in a positive direction has been undone, giving way to the earlier religious faith it replaced, or to no faith at all. Alone as never before, in a universe scientifically better understood than ever, we find little in its almost-infinite vastness to guide us toward what our lives mean and how we should live them.To answer these questions anew, agnostics, atheists and secularists must absorb the experience of the 20th century and the issues of the 21st. We must face today's concerns about forces beyond our control and our responsibility; shape a satisfying way of living in relation to what we can know and what we cannot know; affirm a secular basis for morality even while, especially in the United States, religion is being trumpeted as essential to living ethically; formulate new ways of coming to terms with death; and explore what hope can mean after the collapse of Enlightenment anticipations.The first step of such a project concerns, paradoxically, the issue of giving thanks. Gratitude, central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is virtually absent from our secular culture, except in relation to the "oughts" of individual interactions. But this deprives living without God of much of its coherence and meaning.My thesis is that there is much to be grateful for. Exploring this feeling and idea, so little noticed from a secular point of view, opens a new way of experiencing our relationship with forces and beings beyond our individual selves.Hiking through a nearby woods on a late summer day, I followed the turning path and suddenly saw a pristine lake, then walked down a hill to its edge as birds chirped and darted about, stopping at a clearing to register the warmth of the sun against my face. Feelings welled up: physical pleasure, delight in the sounds and sights, gladness to be out here on this day. But something else as well, curious and less distinct, a vague feeling more like gratitude than anything else but not toward any being or person I could recognize. Only half-formed, this feeling didn't fit into any easily discernable category, evading my usual lenses and language of perception.The one immediately available way of experiencing my incipient feeling begins with thanking God. For many, religion provides a ready stock of lenses and language to identify such experiences, because much of religion is about gratitude. Orthodox Jews, for example, thank God dozens of times a day, both in formal prayer and in common expressions: for the sunrise, for waking up alive, for food and drink, for going and coming safely, for every pleasure great and small, for health, for completing the day's activities, for nightfall, for sleep.This way of relating to our lives and world has undeniable power. Thanking God out here on the trail would tie together everything I see and experience, direct me toward its source, and give me a personal relationship with that being. It would, moreover, unite my feeling of pleasure with my understanding and fill me with a sense of gratitude that points toward my life's meaning and purpose.But living without a supernatural being seems to rule out such feelings of gratitude. In a godless universe, wasn't Camus right to begin The Myth of Sisyphus under the silence, emptiness, and absurdity of a universe without God? He demanded that we confront our utter aloneness in a world where there is no divine being to pray to, to be guided by, to confide in, to seek consolation from, to be judged by, or to place our hopes in. In this disenchanted world, we are on our own, for better and for worse, even if, in the words of molecular biologist Robert Pollack, we become no "more than numbers in a cosmic lottery with no paymaster."Perhaps Camus tolerated the emptiness only because, like the character Meursault in The Stranger, he could stretch out on the beach and feel the sun's heat on his body. Camus's writing brings these experiences of nature home with a power equal to his descriptions of absurdity.Warmed by the sun, feeling no intention and no being behind it, seems to leave us with momentary pleasure but no basis for a feeling of gratitude. After all, how can we be grateful to what has no mind and no will; say, the sun itself?Aside from our holy books, writings on gratitude are few and far between in Western society. A few scattered writers have clarified it over the years Seneca, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Simmel mostly by focusing on person-to-person encounters with gift-givers and benefactors, perhaps generalizing a bit from these to society as a whole. In the words of Robert Emmons and Cheryl Crumpler in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, gratitude is "profoundly interpersonal," focusing us on "the intentions of the benefactor."And so, discerning no intention behind the sun, the trail, and the lake, perhaps my quasi-feeling deserves to stay mute, a vestige of what Julian Baggini, drawing on Freud's analysis of religion, aptly calls the time before "we cast off the innocence of supernatural world views." Once we have given up projecting "benevolent parents who will look after us" to the world writ large, perhaps we should also stop anthropomorphizing natural processes. Accordingly, in keeping with Baggini's notion of humans growing up, aren't the kinds of gratitude so central to religion inessential to secular culture?But there is an alternative to thanking God on the one hand and seeing the universe as a "cosmic lottery" on the other; an alternative to being grateful to a deity or to ignoring such feelings altogether.
And if we fully liveour belonging?It is just possible thatwe will sense the world as alive, brimming over, and demanding of us the oppositeof empty and muteThink of the sun's warmth. After all, the sun is one of those forces that make possible the natural world, plant life, indeed our very existence. It may not mean anything to us personally, but the warmth on our face means, tells us, and gives us a great deal. All of life on Earth has evolved in relation to this source of heat and light, we human beings included. We are because of, and in our own millennial adaptation to, the sun and other fundamental forces. My moment of gratitude was far more than a moment's pleasure. It was a way of acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible.As philosopher Robert Solomon has neatly pointed out, we have much to learn by abandoning the interpersonal model of gratitude and thinking not of God and other people's intentions but of our gratitude to larger and impersonal forces. The moment we do, he correctly notes, one of the first experiences we confront is our dependence. It is as if we live in a profound series of dependencies that dominate our existence but which, outside of religion, we more and more manage to hide from ourselves: dependence on the cosmos, the sun, nature, past generations of people, and human society. Living without God, we should for the first time become intensely clear about all that we do, in fact, rely on.The problem in trying to grasp this is that the usual language of dependence and gratitude tends toward the religious on the one hand or the vague and fuzzy on the other, leaving few alternative ways of expressing ourselves. For the vague and fuzzy we might read, for example, M.J. Ryan, author and co-creator of the best-selling Random Acts of Kindness series, who in Attitudes of Gratitude promotes gratitude as a form of self-help. A grateful attitude cures perfectionism, makes us feel good about ourselves, makes us healthier, eliminates worry, allows us to live in the present and accept what we have, and attracts people to ourselves."As we give thanks, our spirits join with the Great Spirit in the dance of life that is the interplay between giver and receiver." The cloying self-satisfaction of this book is matched only by its lack of clarity, even though it does strongly assert our links to the rest of the universe.To talk about gratitude more precisely, however, means looking specifically at the facts of human dependence on forces beyond our control. We derive our existence from, and belong to, both natural forces and the generations that preceded us, from the big bang that created the sun, to the microbes in the soil, to proto-humans developing skills in relation to the natural world around them. They have bequeathed us air and water and arable soil, habitat and language, and networks of tools and technologies.Each generation is rooted also in its inheritance of consciousness, including literatures, expectations, and even, of course, debilities and limitations. Whoever and wherever we are, we start from where those who came before left off, our lineage of development stretching all the way from early humans learning to use fire and migrating from Africa and then forward to particular peoples, nations, religious and ethnic groups, classes, and families, with their collective and individual struggles to be treated and live more decently. It is no less profound for being a truism: All of this history is indeed our story.We also belong to people in the present, not only family but also the networks of those whose work daily makes us and our lives possible, just as our work in some small way makes them and their lives possible. Today, more than ever, such belonging is global just notice our food from Peru and Mexico and South Africa and Australia and a dozen regions of the United States, and our clothing from Macau and Mauritius and Honduras and Poland and Sri Lanka. The far-flung division of labour puts all these people in our lives as never before, just as it puts us in their lives.Another truism, also no less profound for this: We are utterly dependent on people everywhere in world.Now, these ways of belonging to nature, to the generations, to the world of working humans obviously do not necessarily inspire love or respect or even awareness they have scarcely restrained abusing the environment, slavery, exploitation, or inequality. But our blindness and indifference and even brutality do not erase our relationships of dependency. As writer and essayist Albert Memmi has pointed out, oppression and dependency often occur together, but they are distinctly different.A map of our dependency reaches out to the cosmos and back to our solar system and planet, includes the physical features of the Earth that make life possible, and the physical, chemical, and biological processes that have evolved in a way that made human history possible. And the map of our dependency stretches across all of this history that has taken place as a struggle for survival, as human evolution and development, as endless conflict and migration, and also as family, local, regional, national, and ethnic histories. We are part of, belong to, are shaped by and, eventually, may even contribute to, all of these. Many of them are rich with meaning.For historical, social, or personal reasons, we may find ourselves unwilling or unable to experience these belongings to nature, history, and other humans. But to pretend that these links do not exist or to minimize them is in a deep sense to be alienated from our very selves.And if we fully live our belonging? It is just possible that we will sense the world as alive, brimming over, and demanding of us the opposite of empty and mute. It is just possible that we will often feel connected in these various ways, and often grateful. Feelings of dependence and belonging are appropriate attitudes of response by the secular person. So are feelings of reverence and awe. None of these need be vague or fuzzy; if their worldly sources are not ignored and they are not projected beyond our universe, they become specific modes of living and experiencing our actual situation.When we gather with friends and family for a holiday, feelings of gratitude come spontaneously. A warm, joyous, comfortable feeling, even a moment of well-being. We are grateful, but to whom or what?Obviously, to natural forces and processes that have made our life, and this reunion, possible. Less obviously, to our ancestors distant and recent, and their struggles. And perhaps even less obviously, to other people's labour, which has helped to set the table at which we feast and rejoice. Gratitude, when it is clear-eyed, acknowledges some part of the fullness of our dependency. It is called "giving thanks." If we try to do this and speak fulsomely, without the various evasions to which we have been accustomed, what will we say?I returned to the hiking trail in winter, when the trees were bare, only a few birds chirped, the ground was hard and spotted with snow, and the day was unremittingly grey. I hiked vigorously and felt not even a moment of sun on my face. But it was still a happy day, a vacation day, and I realized that my being here depended on much more than I had ever imagined, including the labour of generations to which I laid claim by my own training and work to obtain the wherewithal to come there. So much and many to thank: my parents, people on the other side of the world, those who set aside and today preserve this area as a state park, and on and on.One's map of dependence stretches in every possible direction and across every possible plane, but it is always real and it is always concrete. And it sketches the paths for one's gratitude. It tells, after all, the story of our connections with the world and the universe, and it gives us a core of obligations and a core of meaning. To give thanks is to honour this.----------------------------------Ronald Aronson is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Wayne State University.Reflect on this quote; it's an insight into the true agenda of Islamists for Canada"There is no definable Canadian culture, merely competing versions; one from 'white, middle-class Canada,' another from orthodox Islam."- Kathy Bullock, VP, Islamic Society of North America