Tag Archives: gratitude

A Reading by Richard Dawkins

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Every few months I seem to go back to this YouTube video of Richard Dawkins reading from his book, Unweaving the Rainbow.  It’s one of those things that inspires in me a sense of wonder, gratitude, and delight.  My only gripe is the title, which might suggest morbidity to the fainter of heart–I promise you, this is not morbid, nor is it about death.  The transcript is below the video, but please do watch the video—the musical accompaniment combined with the video clips truly enhances Dawkins’ words.  Enjoy, and do share if you’re so inclined.   ~Valerie

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.

Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats; scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random would have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation would put it at less than one in a million.

Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.

But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures darting through alien green felicity. Our travelers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck. The story asks for too much luck; it would never happen.

And yet isn’t that what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born; and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we slowly apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discover it, should not subtract from its wonder.

It is no accident that our kind of life finds itself on a planet whose temperature, rainfall and everything else are exactly right. If the planet were suitable for another kind of life, it is that other kind of life that would have evolved here. But we as individuals are stil hugely blessed; privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.”

~Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow)

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“Val…do you pray?”

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 That question was posed by a coworker who’d picked me up while I was walking to work.  I wouldn’t normally hesitate in replying, but I did. I’m not close to this person, she’s a coworker, and her motive was unclear. After a pause, I said, No ma’am, I don’t.  I saw no need to continue beyond what was directly asked.  My coworker paused as well. She then said, The reason I asked is because I need prayers real bad.  I expressed my condolences for whatever was going on in her life, told her I’d keep her in my thoughts.  I meant it, and I did.

My coworker wanted intercession on her behalf.  I’m stumped reflecting on my theist days.  Did I think that God would change his mind and act in my favor if more people prayed for me?  I don’t recall having that mindset.  I don’t know my coworker’s beliefs, but my experience shows that not everyone asking for prayer actually believes it’ll change God’s mind.  Perhaps she simply draws comfort from knowing that others are praying for her?  The request for prayer is, in its most basic form, a reaching out. It’s saying,  I need help.  Or support, or guidance, what have you–the key word here is need

 In a funny scenario this past February, I found myself out to dinner with friends I hadn’t seen since before becoming an atheist.  Last they knew, I was a believer.  My friend had lost his voice and said before we ate, Well why don’t you pray tonight, Val?  I stuttered and sputtered and looked at my plate.  I hemmed and hawed.  Finally I looked at my friend and said, Um…ah…I don’t think I can!  I’m sure he attributed it to a fear of public speaking.  I didn’t see this short meal as a proper time to announce my atheism.  Graciously, and with gusto, my friend said, Well we’ll just be thankful and eat then!

My friend is accustomed to praying before meals.  To him, ‘saying grace’ or however one phrases it, is a form of giving credit where credit is due.  He’s acknowledging that this meal didn’t come from his own efforts.  There’s something, someone, behind it all, and by golly, he owes that someone his gratitude. 

 Both of these people were hoping for something that I wasn’t able to give–not on their terms, anyway.  I don’t talk to deities, not out of insolence, but because I simply don’t think they’re real.  (I don’t talk to Winnie-the-Pooh, either…at least, I don’t expect him to actually hear and respond.)  But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to offer.  Nor does it mean that I lack human qualities such as sympathy and gratitude.  Quite the contrary. 

So if you don’t pray, what do you do? 

 Ah, good question, and I think I have a good answer.  I care.  I give.  I hold people close in thought, mentally embrace them.  I offer a listening ear, a hug, advice, a distraction, humor, a beautiful (and relevant) quotation, ideas, a helping hand…whatever the other person needs that I’m able to provide, I do.  Read that last bit again, with emphasis on the final word, whatever the other person needs that I’m able to provide, I do

 Remember the question, if you don’t pray, what do you do?  The question implies that prayer does something…and maybe it does, to the individual praying, but surely not to the person being prayed for (unless they know you’re praying and that knowledge comforts them).  All of you, believer and nonbeliever alike, know this.  How many of you religious folk reading this hear of someone’s hardship and pray, and stop there?  My guess is that very few of you think your prayer is all that a person needs, and if you do think so, shame on you.  Most people, religious included, understand that real acts of help are what’s needed. 

Copyright ApostateXP

Copyright ApostateXP. This FaceBook image prompted me to write this post.

What about gratitude?  Who do you thank if you don’t thank God?

Oh, but I’m a very thankful person, and hope to become more so.  Chiefly you should know that when atheists are thankful, we are thankful for things and thankful to people.  No deity required.  ‘Giving credit where credit is due’ is rendered to real people who do real things every day (as many atheists rightly point out, I wouldn’t thank God but thank my surgeon for her skill, hard work and determination after a successful surgery).  Now I don’t have a person to thank for, say, honeybees, but that doesn’t detract from the wonderful feeling I have when appreciating them.  Being thankful in itself spreads joy to others, and you can be certain that while the sweet little bees have no idea of my gratitude, I’m certainly going to be kind to them.   

Where mealtime is concerned, I like to consider everything it took for my meal to reach me.  Try doing that for a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich and you’ll see how mind-boggling it is, especially if you’re packing it for lunch and have to figure in how the little flip-top plastic baggies are made and distributed.  There are hundreds of people and processes to be thankful for just for one little sandwich.  The same applies to everything around us.  Not one of us gets by without reliance on the contributions of others, and somewhat unnerving is the little detail reminding us that this includes people to whom we are diametrically opposed.  Shall we be thankful for them?  At least to some degree, yes.  Oh look, there’s more gratitude to make the world a better place!

But back to prayer.  Most simply stated, isn’t it a longing, a desire for something to change, or stay the same?  And isn’t a prayer of thanks a way to channel our gratitude?  If I’m right, then anyone can be said to ‘pray.’  I know my atheist readers will balk at that, but we’re humans before we are anything else, and these basic instincts are inherent in us all.  The answer is, no, I don’t ‘pray.’  But I recognize and share with those who do pray the instinct that causes people to do so. 

Annnd…..I’m open to a little creative interpretation of the word; poetic license, if you will.  So I pray this little blogpost was helpful to you in some form or fashion.   ;O]

~Valerie