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Christians, Atheists, and Gratitude

Former Homicide Detective, Jim Warner Wallace teaches children how to use the tools of a detective to analyze evidence for Christianity.

Gratitude and Mental Health

"Gratitude never came easily to us human beings, and is a diminishing virtue in modern times. In our consumerist society, we focus on what we lack, or what other people have that we don’t, whereas gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for what we already have."

-Neel Burton M.D., "The Psychology of Gratitude"

When one considers various states of mind – happiness, sadness, anger and so forth, these seem like such common parts of human experience that it rarely occurs to folks that there are whole psychological conditions and brain states upon which these emotions rest, and there are significant changes which these emotions bring about in a person's mind and body.

One such state of mind is Gratitude. The Psychology Today article titled "The Benefits of Gratitude" begins this way:

"Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for example, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants. Gratitude is getting a great deal of attention as a facet of positive psychology: Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In addition, gratefulness—and especially expression of it to others—is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy."

Based on this quote, it may be seen as appropriate that Thanksgiving precedes Christmas, as "appreciation for what one has" supersedes "a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants."

The positive psychological benefits of Gratitude are well-documented and far reaching. As a few examples, a study conducted in 2003 by Dr. Robert Emmons of The University of California concluded that students who wrote down 5 things for which they were grateful each week for 10 weeks experienced a 25% increase in their levels of happiness, and ended up improving their regular exercise.

In his book The Upward Spiral, neuroscience researcher Alex Korb noted that a focus on gratitude "...activates the brainstem region that produces dopamine, and can also boost our serotonin levels as gratitude forces us to focus on the positive aspects of our life and in turn, increases the production of serotonin and creates a sense of happiness within us." ("The Science of Gratitude", Spirit Science Central)

An especially significant study was one conducted at Indiana University by Prathik Kini. In this study, 43 people suffering from anxiety and depression were tested. Half were given the task of writing thank-you letters to various people in their lives.

After three months of this, all 43 people were subjected to brain scans. While being scanned, the 43 people were told they would receive some money for doing the testing, but they were given the option of donating it to a charity instead of receiving it. The ones who demonstrated more gratitude largely volunteered to donate their money.

Follow-up studies on these groups concluded that, even months after the fact, the ones who had undergone the gratitude exercises demonstrated more ongoing gratitude both self-reported and in brain activity.

Religion and Gratitude

In light of the extensive positive benefits of gratitude, it is significant to note how extensively religiosity correlates to gratitude. This correlation was shown in a 2005 study conducted by Robert A. Emmons and Teresa T. Kneezel of the University of California. In this study, 199 people with neuromuscular diseases were given extensive tests to rate their spirituality and their levels of gratitude. The study found that the correlation between gratitude and spirituality was statistically significant.

Similarly, a study in 2004 found that people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis who offered prayers of thanksgiving were much less likely to be experiencing depression and anxiety, and much more likely to be experiencing to feelings of hope.

Given the significant evidence that religiosity is closely related to thankfulness, where does this leave atheists?

Atheism and Gratitude

In his article "Gratitude Without God," psychologist Clay Routledge responds to a Christian article titled, "Can Those Without God be Grateful Guests?" The Christian article in question was clearly not written from the perspective of a psychologist, but Dr. Routledge was nonetheless irritated by the author's assertion – not backed by any evidence – that Atheists do not have the capacity to truly experience gratitude.

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Dr. Routledge responds by saying:

"...many atheists I talk to believe that their lack of faith makes them especially grateful for their lives. For instance, the belief that there is no afterlife inspires many atheists to truly appreciate the natural beauty of the world and to not take for granted the limited time they have on this planet. And since atheists tend to believe that the Earth is our only home, many of them are also deeply concerned about making it a better place for themselves and future generations and this concern benefits everyone."

In this respect, Dr. Routledge is using anecdotal evidence to respond to religious speculation. Nevertheless, Dr. Routledge is a psychologist of religion, who specifically deals with the conflict between religion and atheism, so his experience speaking to and understanding atheist is arguably significant, if anecdotal.

Of course, Christian or not, Gratitude, as a state of mind, is accessible to anyone with a mind. But atheists still have one hurdle in terms of gratitude: to whom are they grateful?

In his 2006 article of the same-titled, Albert Mohler quotes from an atheist, Dr. Aronson, Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Wayne State University, who describes a sense of wonder he felt while walking through a beautiful forest and lake area. He describes the sense wonder as having the flavor of gratitude, but he had no one to whom he could be grateful.

Mohler points out that this is quite a dilemma for the atheist. Says Mohler:

"He further admits that a proper sense of gratitude would tie together his experience, uniting his pleasure with his understanding. But, if one rejects belief in a supernatural being from the outset, gratitude is awkward, to say the least.

"In the end. Aronson wants to express gratitude in the face of nihilism. He wants to find the kind of meaning in the cosmos rejected by figures such as Albert Camus."

Dr. Aronson attempts to resolve the dilemma by rooting his gratitude in the cosmos, itself. One "thanks the universe", so to speak, for whatever good things come into their lives. Says Aronson:

“Feelings of dependence and of belonging are appropriate attitudes of response by the secular person,” he argues. “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.”

Mohler therefore concludes that, "The inevitable conflict (what James Orr called the “antagonism”) between the Christian view of the world and the secular view comes down to gratitude as much as anything else."

One's lack of religion, however, demonstrably has an effect on one's level of gratitude. Most indicative of this, perhaps, is the 2004 survey by Hargrove & Stempel, which showed that people who have no religious preference, or have not attended any recent church services, are twice as likely to skip out on the Thanksgiving Day celebration.


Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on November 22, 2017:

Great article.

You are correct about the ultimate focus of gratitude. The practice and genesis of gratitude has always been religion, even if it's a religious awe of the universe.

Atheism dulls the ethical senses surprisingly quickly. It causes illogical specious thinking that is eggshell thin. Historically atheism has led rapidly to bizarre eugenics philosphies, anarchy in politics, the cult of the individual etc.

It is often rootless as it tries to decouple from the entire history of ethics which is rooted in religion.

Gratitude evolved as a specifically religious phenomena. Gratitude to parents for example is rooted in such philosophy as Taoism, Hinduism etc and of course Christianity and it's historical connection to ancient Judaism.

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