Thursday, July 04, 2013

An Atheist Tries to be Thankful to Something

Flowers in my front yard

Ronald Aronson, Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University, wrote an essay called "Thank Who Very Much?" The reason for the question mark is that, as an atheist, Aronson feels "thankful." But because for him God does not exist he wonders just who or what he should thank.

Aronson believes a person can be legitimately thankful without either a) belief in a God; or b) falling into existentialist absurdity. What's his alternative?

He writes: "Think of the sun's warmth. After all, the sun is one of those forces that make possible the natural world, plant life, even our very existence. It may not mean anything to us personally, but the warmth on our face means, tells 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."

So? For Aronson, one can feel gratitude by "acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible." An atheist can show gratitude "to larger and impersonal forces." Because "we derive our existence from, and belong to, both natural forces and generations that preceded us, ... it is just possible that we will often feel connected [to such forces and generations], and often grateful."

Aronson adds, when we gather together with friends on one of those snuggly holiday night, we are overcome by "a warm, joyous, comfortable feeling, even a moment of well-being - but to whom or to what?" The answer is: "Obviously, to natural forces and processes that have made our own life, and this reunion, possible."

Well, I'll take the following dichotomy: either God, or Camus-ian absurdity. Aronson's idea sounds like some kind of spiritless animism (which is, of course, a contradiction). Thankfulness, if it is to have any meaning at all, requires inter-personality. I have felt innumerable moments of gratitude, but have never felt like thanking the wall of my house for holding up the roof. Thanking "impersonal forces," no matter how "large" they are, is no different than walking outside and thanking your lawn for still being green. Conversely, one might scold the lawn for turning brown. See again Camus, Sartre, and a host of atheistic existentialists who write on the absurdity of moral feelings, purposive feelings, and so on.

To say "Thank you" only makes sense if there is, at least in principle, someone who can or could have responded "You are welcome."

Aronson the atheist feels thankful. I do not doubt this. As an atheist, he doesn't want his thankful feelings to be absurd. But thanking impersonal forces strikes me as immensely absurd and even sad, like thanking one's stuffed teddy bear for loving you. The raw truth remains: No God = no ultimate meaning. Such is the logic of atheism, on which there is no one out there to thank.