I very much liked James Carroll’s reflections on how the sense of gratitude occurs in those who do not believe there is a Giver of the gifts we have received.
When it comes to atheism, I am agnostic: I’m not sure if I believe that there isn’t a Giver. But that’s about as close as I come to believing there is one. As a result, I have no One to thank. And even if I did believe, I don’t think I would be grateful for anything except what we all share: Lives on a planet we can make into a home. If I were to thank the Giver for the particularities of my health, my family, and the fact that I was born in a country that enjoys (and squanders) abundance, I’d also have to blame the Giver for withholding these gifts from most of my sisters, brothers, and other fellow creatures. How do you thank the Giver for your good fortune without either blaming the Giver for not granting it to all, or thinking that you are especially deserving of favors? Gratitude without a Giver doesn’t have that problem. We non-believers obviously can’t accomplish the social act of acknowledging the good qualities of the Giver, but does G-d really care about the thank-you note?
Gratitude for believers and the rest of us is, of course, more than a social act. It’s a way of dwelling on the fragile boon you’ve been granted. If there is no Giver to thank, then our gratitude â€” as an appreciation of the gifts we have â€” can embrace the shared and unshared boons without equivocation or hesitation, remembering how unearned and unfairly-shared they are. (Happiness is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.)