“When I lie on my back and look up at the Milky Way on a clear night and see the vast distances of space and reflect that these are also vast differences of time as well, when I look at the Grand Canyon and see the strata going down, down, down, through periods of time which the human mind can’t comprehend . . . it’s a feeling of sort of an abstract gratitude that I am alive to appreciate these wonders, when I look down a microscope it’s the same feeling, I am grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders.”

These moving, and ostensibly sincere, words were pronounced by Richard Dawkins at the “Atheism is the new fundamentalism” debate staged by the U.K.-based organization Intelligence Squared in November 2009. Spoken in a deliberate tone and convinced demeanor, these words interjected a dissonant note to Dawkins’ otherwise fairly consistently crafted atheistic and anti-religious presentation. Elsewhere, the evolutionary biologist has described his feeling of “exultation,” and the “overwhelming feeling of being” elicited by his experience of the natural world. Wonder , exultation , overwhelmed” all empirically appropriate and logically suitable responses to the magnificence of the universe. But, gratitude ?

Unlike “being comfortable,” which requires the preposition with (as in “I feel comfortable with these shoes”), if any, “being grateful” calls for a to another person . Gratitude is not a self-enclosed or self-sufficient feeling but a human person’s response to another person or persons”whether human or divine”for benefits, gifts, or favors received from them, such as the gratitude due to caring parents, loving friends, and dedicated teachers or mentors. As Kant succinctly observes, “The duty of gratitude consists in honoring a person because of a benefit he has rendered us” (italics added). When gratitude is due to a country, an organization ( e.g. , a school, a hospital, a shelter), or some other collective, it is owed to them as communities of human persons, not as impersonal institutions.

Dawkins might reply that he is grateful for the Milky Way and the Grand Canyon. Being grateful for a good, an event, or a state, however, presupposes a gift-giver. Those grateful for a promotion or applause, their health or their sufferings, are, albeit implicitly, grateful to the persons who brought about the event or state. “Abstract” gratitude, therefore, is as meaningless as abstract piety, as oxymoronic as abstract repayment. Gratitude without a benefactor is as incongruous as a refund without a payer.

The recipients of gratitude are not abstract, but concrete persons who, even if no longer physically with us, live on in our thankful memories. Gratitude that is not deliberately aimed at a person”human or divine”whose gifts or favors deserve it is not gratitude at all, but complacency, conceit, pride, pleasure, or wonder and awe at best.

Nor can Dawkins claim to be grateful to himself. Thanking oneself is hardly reasonable. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “In things that one does for oneself, there is no place for gratitude or ingratitude, since a man cannot deny himself a thing except by keeping it” ( Summa Theologica , 2a2ae, 106). One may feel surprised, satisfied, joyful, happy, proud, even self-congratulatory, but “self-thankful” is, plainly, inconsistent. Thanks are reserved to the other ”to the parents for their understanding and support, to the special friends for their encouragement, to the mentors for their patience, to the boss who granted the unique opportunity.

We may be happy to be alive; but if also grateful to be so, it must necessarily be to the Giver of that gift. If “nature” is “thanked,” it is, in reality, in an anthropomorphic or personalized guise. If natural selection or sheer luck developed the Milky Way and the Grand Canyon, why should gratitude be felt at all? An impersonal, inevitable, or chance benefit is not a fitting recipient of gratitude. Gratitude entails humbly reaching out, acknowledging, appreciating, and even honoring the benefactor by means of thankful words, gestures, deeds, goodwill, or material signs”a card, memento, or some token of heartfelt recognition.

According to Aquinas, since “every effect turns naturally to its cause,” and a benefactor “is cause of the beneficiary, . . . the natural order requires that he who has received a favor should, by repaying the favor, turn to his benefactor according to the mode of each.” That is, the virtue of gratitude entails that the recipient ought to repay the giver with spontaneous “affection of the heart” in a manner commensurate with the gift received.

Since the nature of the “debt” depends on its causes, the gratitude owed to God (“the first principle of all our goods”) is the greatest, followed by that owed our parents, persons “excelling in dignity,” and other benefactors. The response to these human persons can be disproportionate, degenerating into vices such as flattery or exhibitionism, besides ingratitude. Excessive gratitude to God, however, is inconceivable. To the Gift-giver, the Giver of all being, a worshipful “grateful to be alive to appreciate these wonders” is called for.

In his outburst of gratitude, the famous atheist was not thanking his parents, his family, his teachers, his friends, his followers, nor even an anthropomorphous nature. He certainly was not irrationally thanking himself. In Orthodoxy , G. K. Chesterton tellingly confided his own experience of gratitude: “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom.” Does Dawkins know?

Alma Acevedo teaches courses in applied ethics.

Articles by Alma Acevedo

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