Sunday, June 29, 2008

Giving thanks (part 1): decisions and actions

As an atheist, who do I thank for the good things that happen in my life? This is an interesting question a Christian friend of mine recently asked me. At first, I thought the question was rather irrelevant, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise what a good question it actually is, as it can show how differently an atheist and a theist view the source of good fortune.

I guess there are different types of good fortune: the type brought about by the decisions and actions of people, and the type that occurs through pure luck. In this post, I will cover the first kind.

When I used to be a Christian, I used to thank God when I achieved excellent marks for an exam, or if I was promoted at work. But when I pondered the question of who actually spent many nights sweating over books in intense study, or many hours trying to perfect skills in the workplace, I slowly realised that good fortune was often the result of my own actions and hard work, or the result of other people’s actions and decisions. There never seemed to be a clear indication that God intervened in anything at all. After all, how does God make it easier for me to pass an exam, or to get a promotion? Where, in the chain of events that lead to good fortune, does he interfere

I covered a similar question in an earlier post regarding saying grace before a meal. Even if I was some sort of theist, I think I would hesitate to thank a god for my food. This is not because I don’t appreciate food, or that I take food for granted. Rather, it is because I don’t see any evidence of supernatural intervention in the chain of events that results in food getting to my table.

There is the crop scientist who is trained to increase wheat yield; the farmer who has laboured many hours to cultivate crops; the engineer who designs better harvesting equipment; the food specialist who employs her knowledge to keep the food fresh during transport; and the chain store manager who deals with complex logistics to ensure that her shelves are constantly stocked. The food reached my table because of human ingenuity and hard work. Where is God in all this? So as an atheist, I don’t give thanks to God. Rather, I thank all these people for my daily bread; without them, I would starve.

Of course, I would imagine that many people thank God not so much for good fortune that has resulted from human intervention, but for good fortune that seems to happen by pure luck. Can we thank God for good luck? I will cover this in my next post.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. If I may, I will offer a current Christian's perspective on giving thanks (these are my own thoughts, and of course are therefore not necessarily representative of all Christians).

I personally do not feel the need to witness or observe supernatural, divine intervention from God to ascribe Him thanks, because I believe that He implemented and sustains the natural order whereby I am blessed. God's providence often includes the actions of myself and others, and I therefore believe it is appropriate for thanks to be given to people as well as to God. In 1 Corinthians 3:5-6, the Apostle Paul uses the illustration of agriculture (as you also did) to describe how the gospel was brought to the Corinthians. In this example, he provides a very simple description of how food is grown: someone plants the seeds, another waters the crops, but God provides the increase. How does He do this? Not by any magical or mysterious phenomenon, but by upholding His own laws of nature which were instituted at creation. I believe God's plan involves the work of others, but He is ultimately due thanks because any yielded crop comes as a result of His divine order.

I look forward to your next installment on the issue of giving thanks. Again, my thanks to you for such an interesting topic.


Stephen said...

Hi Kevin. My reaction to grace was similar to yours for a long time. I also do the typical atheist eyes open holding hands vibe. I recently have been thinking about grace a little differently though. The last few christian graces I have been at have taken on a distinctly secular tone. I realise that this may be the exception but the grace gave thanks to the people who cooked for us, to our host for having us over and to the importance of friends and family. While the tradition may be irrevocably linked to the christian faith it is one, that if slightly modified, I would find quite a charming position. I have no time for thanking God though.