Gratitude is similar to a gift. Without a recipient, it ceases to be. I cannot give a gift to “no one.” The very act of calling it a gift presupposes that it has an intended recipient. The same is true for gratitude. If there is no one to direct the gratitude to, it must be something other than gratitude, for gratitude requires someone to be a recipient.
An atheist can experience and express gratitude, but only on a limited basis. For example, an atheist can be grateful to the gardener for planting flowers, but not for the flowers themselves. Why? Because the gardener did not create the flowers, she merely manipulated what was already in existence, even if she planted the seeds. It is folly to direct gratitude towards “nature” because nature is not capable of receiving gratitude. Whatever the atheist may feel about the existence of the flowers, it is not true gratitude until it can be directed at “someone.” Nature is not “someone” although attempts have been made to personify it (Mother Nature). It is also useless to thank “the universe” because the universe is not “someone,” either.
An atheist can be grateful to a spouse, but not for a spouse. It is one thing to say, “Thank you for loving me and for marrying me,” but quite another to say, “Thank you for existing.” One might thank one’s in-laws by saying, “Thank you for conceiving my spouse,” but that also falls short. The in-laws did not create the life within one’s spouse, they were merely instruments used in the process.
An atheist can say to a doctor, “Thank you for saving my life.” But there is no one an atheist can thank for life itself. Once the atheist begins to express gratitude for life itself, the atheist has consciously or subconsciously acknowledged that there is “someone” able to receive that gratitude. Until we imagine there is someone we might give something to, we do not call that thing a “gift.” Until we imagine there must be someone to thank, we do not call it “gratitude.”
If one is truly grateful for life itself, there is no point in calling oneself an atheist, for one has already, to some degree, yielded to the One who transcends us.