Thank God or Thank Goodness?

There are many religious ceremonies and prayers giving thanks to a god. I often think these are rude on two grounds:

  • I many case these are imposed on people who don’t share the belief in a god (consider our parliamentary prayers, Christian prayers and “grace” in a mixed social situations);
  • Thanks are directed at a mythical being while the real people responsible for theDan Dennett goodness in the world are ignored.

The later point was made by Daniel C. Dennett in his article THANK GOODNESS! In this he expressed his thanks for recovery from nine hours of serious heart surgery. It’s worth reading the full article but consider this extract:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

What a wonderful approach! It really does show how inadequate the religious ceremonies of thanks are. Next time someone tries to impose a religious prayer to “Thank God” for a meal I suggest replacing it with thanks to the people responsible for the meal, the production and transport of the food, the researchers who made this production possible and society in general for all the goodness that is out there.

See also
Daniel C. Dennett: Thank Goodness not God on Thanksgiving
‘In honour of Dan Dennett’ by Richard Dawkins

Related Articles:
“Let us pray . . . “
What do we teach our children?
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity
Discrimination at school
Christian prayer problems
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Religious Diversity Statement

10 responses to “Thank God or Thank Goodness?

  1. I agree 150% with the notion of thanking humans and goodness…

    However, I think to suggest that the presence of 1-2 atheists in a group of 20-30 ‘theists’ should keep one of the theists from offering thanks to the ‘theos’ they believe in, is silly. It’s letting (in the 1-2/20-30 example) the minority dictate the actions of the majority…

    The logic of this suggestion would lead to a cancellation of all Maori karakias… It’s back to the respect issue. We’ve simply got to respect each others differences. I think we can do this positively, not negatively. Negatively means (to me) subtracting every point of difference. You might call this ‘secularisation’, where everything that has the slightest ‘religious’ tinge to it is purged from everything public… just in case there might be some sensitive non-religious people present, who would have to laboriously endure the torture of hearing words they don’t agree with… shock! Horror! The positive way to respect each other is to allow these ‘religious’ elements their right to exist – and not just privately in my own prayer closet, but publicly, where we all live our lives.

    I do think, (and others may disagree) however, that if someone’s public expression (religious or non-religious) infringes on one’s basic human rights, then that expression should not be ‘allowed’.

    Surely atheists can cope with having to hear a theist prayer. Geez. I can certainly cope with having to hear prayers I don’t agree with.

    There’s a word that everyone says (typically) at the end of many prayers. It’s the word ‘Amen’ (or similar). It means ‘So be it’, or ‘I agree’, or ‘Yep, me too.’ No one is being forced to say ‘Amen.’

    These are my thoughts…



  2. Dale, statistically in NZ a group of 20 may contain 10 Christians and 6 non-religious (based on Census results which I know are quite inadequate). And the trend shows the non-religious proportion increasing.

    Imposition of a sectarian ceremony is a violation of others’ human rights. I certainly am offended when it happens. And I believe it degrades the beliefs of the perpetrators to impose their ceremony. I can’t respect the perpetrators in such cases. Perhaps in future more and more of us will show that disrespect, at the time.

    I actually enjoy an honest karakia. But I am offended when this is used to push a sectarian Christian ceremony. This is capture of Maori tradition and its use to promote a colonial religion. I think this is a problem Maori have to confront (capture of their culture which occurs in other ways too) and NZ society in general has to come to terms with (not allowing respect for the indigenous culture to be used this dishonest way).

    Perhaps this whole respect and traditional ceremony problem could be alleviated if there is a pluralistic approach more representative of our society. If we must have a ceremony lets ensure that the traditions of us all are represented. And I mean all (not just the religious traditions present as is sometimes done). I think a non-religious ceremony of genuine thanks for food, etc., along the lines proposed by Daniel Dennett, would put the Christian “grace” to shame every time.


  3. Wow Ken,

    I’ve got more than a couple problems…

    First, the act of praying a public Christian prayer is no more an ‘imposition’ on anyone than any other kind of expression of belief. The ‘imposition’ language is extreme.

    Then, you emphasise how ‘rude’ this ‘imposition’ is, but then you are completely OK (even encouraging it) with showing disrespect! I’m all for standing up for your rights, even if it’s not the ‘nicest’ thing to do, but precisely because I don’t see the ‘imposition’, I can’t justify the ‘disrespect.’

    Next, you make some false distinctions… You polarise the nature of ‘Maori tradition’ and ‘colonial religion’… (i.e. an ‘honest karakia’ and ‘sectarian Christian ceremony’)… It’s not so simple, Ken.

    The Maori and Christian traditions are a part of NZ history/culture. Some would say an integral part, but I’m not arguing the degree to which it is, but that it is… Do you agree with the worldview behind ‘honest karakia’? If not, why are you not offended by it?

    I suggest the respect which you graciously extend to the Maori ceremony could be extended to the Christian prayer. It’s called living among people that are different to you, respectfully. Are you forced to say or agree with the karakia? Heck no. It is the same with Christian public prayer.

    Am I saying that Christian public prayer is always respectful? Some would say yes, but I would say that no, there is a time when it is more respectful (and more ‘Christian’) not to offend others, if you know that your praying will offend them… However, I’m not interested in some dry, uniform, ‘religion-free’ reality. That is not representative. Why should the non-religion crowd have a monopoly on public ceremony?

    Public/national ceremonies should be repsectful and representative… I fear that your idea of making them ‘pluralistic’ not only contradicts the idea of getting rid of Christian prayer, but is also bound to exclude many smaller, less-known religions.

    Further, the idea of giving representation in public meetings to every possible worldview in NZ makes me tired just thinking about it…

    You’re just not making much realistic sense…




  4. Pingback: Liberia » Blog Archives » Thank God or Thank Goodness? Open Parachute

  5. Imposition of a sectarian ceremony is a violation of others’ human rights. Ouch. In what way? I think you’re implying that there is a human right not to be offended. In the immortal words of SGT Hulka, “Lighten up, Francis.”

    In any reasonable pluralistic society, the wishes of the many will outweigh the wishes of the few. That doesn’t imply that ‘the many’ may run roughshod over ‘the few’. If you want to create new rights, work toward that goal, but don’t begrudge anyone else their rights in the process.


  6. Besides, Mr Dennett is wishing in the dark when he says, ‘thank goodness.’ He should rightly thank the doctors and everyone involved, and he does, but to say ‘thank goodness’ is an empty prayer in the air. How do you literally thank goodness? Maybe it’s just semantics. He can say “I am thankful that people have goodness and that I am lucky enough to be the recipient of it.” Anything else is a prayer, any way you choose to define it, and I thought atheists were against that.


  7. Pingback: How Atheists Pray « Careful Thought

  8. This issue of imposition of Christian ceremony really seems to get some people going. I have found some Christians are really quite happy not to impose, whereas others are passionate that they have to. I think it’s got something to do with the proselytising role some Christians have.

    Steve – our last census (2006)showed Christians amounted to just over 50% of our population – it may already be below 50% if we extrapolate trends for the last 20 years. It’s not a case of the “many” imposing on others. It’s a case of precedence and tradition – society is always changing to recognise new realities. Lot’s of changes have occurred with such ceremonies. We are no longer pressured to proclaim oaths on the Christian bible, for example. These sort of changes will naturally continue. And that is why such imposition of prayers occurs far less frequently than it used to. Very much in the same way that there are far fewer occasion where smokers impose their habit on others. And in the same way we are more likely to protest when it happens.

    My point is that many Christians will concede and accommodate, include, ceremonies of other religions. But in NZ these are minute (Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim amounted in total to 3.8% in the last census). Meanwhile ignoring, and excluding, the large non-religious group.

    Dale: “Why should the non-religion crowd have a monopoly on public ceremony? Try just removing the “non” and you will see (or should see if you can step back) the offense in the current situation. Let’s be democratic, recognise our plurality, and have ceremonies which are inclusive rather than exclusive. Yes, it could be clumsy to give separate space to every belief. So what about adopting Dan Dennett’s approach, or the last paragraph of my post. I can see no way that this could offend anyone.


  9. Contra my other recent comment, your comment above at least shows signs that you actually do have an appreciation of the complexity of this (and other?) issues…

    Again, surely you know me enough to know that I wasn’t suggesting that the ‘religion’ crowd should have a monopoly on public ceremony, while the ‘non-religion’ crowd should not… I was, of course, making a point…

    The topic is huge and complex. Idealistic and unrealistic notions of ‘secular’ or ‘religion-free’ public ceremonies won’t help… Trying to sharply divide the ‘religious’ from the ‘non-religious’ won’t help… Complaining about having to be around others that not only believe different things, but have the audacity to dare to vocalise these beliefs – this won’t help either…

    What will help?

    Respect and Dialogue – or maybe that’s idealistic?



  10. Pingback: Careful Thought » Blog Archive » How Atheists Pray

Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s