Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Thanksgiving Prayer

20 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 November 2008 04:17AM

At tonight's Thanksgiving, Erin remarked on how this was her first real Thanksgiving dinner away from her family, and that it was an odd feeling to just sit down and eat without any prayer beforehand.  (Yes, she's a solid atheist in no danger whatsoever, thank you for asking.)

And as she said this, it reminded me of how wrong it is to give gratitude to God for blessings that actually come from our fellow human beings putting in a great deal of work.

So I at once put my hands together and said,

"Dear Global Economy, we thank thee for thy economies of scale, thy professional specialization, and thy international networks of trade under Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage, without which we would all starve to death while trying to assemble the ingredients for such a dinner as this.  Amen."

Comments (56)

Sort By: Old
Comment author: jsalvati 28 November 2008 06:24:17AM 0 points [-]

haha, that's great!

Comment author: chesh 28 November 2008 06:42:47AM 8 points [-]

I had Thanksgiving dinner with friends, rather than family, as I like to do that every few years. Hours after we'd eaten, and had decided it was time to start toasting, one of our hosts offered up a retroactive prayer: "Dear God, we made this food ourselves, with no help from you. Go to hell and die."

Comment author: lowly_undergrad4 28 November 2008 07:56:31AM 0 points [-]

rock on.

Comment author: botogol2 28 November 2008 08:56:34AM 0 points [-]

"Yes, she's a solid atheist in no danger whatsoever, thank you for asking"

Eliezer I have never heard you make atheism sound so much like a religion.

I'll put it down to too much turkey and pecan pie :-)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 November 2008 09:57:43AM 13 points [-]

Your opinions have been noted and completely disregarded. I've seen attempted atheists lapse back into their childhood religions, and it's a horrible thing to see, a train wreck that you should be able to prevent but can't.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister2 28 November 2008 10:13:53AM 0 points [-]

Maybe it was the categorical nature of "no danger whatsoever" that led to the comparisons to religion. Given the difficulty of predicting anyone's psychological development, and given that you yourself say that you've seen multiple lapses before, what rational reason could you have for such complete confidence? Of course, it's true that there are things besides religion that cause people to make predictions with probability 1 (which, you must concede, is a plausible reading of "no danger whatsoever"). But, in human affairs, with our present state of knowledge, can such predictions ever be entirely reasonable?

Comment author: Abigail 28 November 2008 10:26:44AM 0 points [-]

Religion might be more understandable to atheists if they thought of "God" as a representation of humanity. Jesus was a sacrifice propitiating the wrath of humankind, not the wrath of God. The individual human, unable to be in control of his surroundings, nevertheless sees Society supporting him, providing food and DVD players from the other side of the world, and adopts attitudes of thankfulness and worship.

Comment author: Felix3 28 November 2008 12:09:05PM -1 points [-]

"to make predictions with probability 1 (which, you must concede, is a plausible reading of "no danger whatsoever")"

I don't know what Eliezer will concede, but in fact it is more than a plausible reading. It's what the phrase means. Actually, "no danger" means "probability 1 of no conversion", and "whatsoever" means "for real, folks, I mean probability 1 exactly". And I don't see anything religious about it. Hyperbolic perhaps, but not religious.

Nice post, Eliezer.

Comment author: luzr 28 November 2008 12:47:26PM 2 points [-]

Abigail:

"Religion might be more understandable to atheists"

What makes you think religion is not understandable to atheists?

As for your explanation, yeah, nice, but do you really think this is what most christians really believe in? (You can try - find some and ask if he thinks that God equals to Society).

Also, what is a use for such abstraction?

Comment author: Ian_C. 28 November 2008 01:31:32PM 4 points [-]

While I totally agree with the sentiment of Eliezer's prayer, I don't think saying a prayer on Thanksgiving makes you religious or even implies a belief in God - it's just tradition. It's harmless to follow traditions as long as you are epistemologically strong enough not to be in any danger of confusing reality and myth. Just like it's safe for a person with very strong reason to read a lot of fiction.

Comment author: Yvain2 28 November 2008 02:08:47PM 11 points [-]

"O changeless and aeternal physical constants, we give thanks to thee for existing at values such that the Universe, upon being set in motion and allowed to run for thirteen billion years, give or take an eon, naturally tends toward a state in which we are seated here tonight with turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce in front of us."

Or "O natural selection, thou hast adapted turkeys to a mostly predation-free environment, making them slow, weak, and full of meat. In contrast, thou hast adapted us humans to an environment full of dangers and a need for complex decisions, giving us cognitive abilities that we could eventually use to discover things like iron working. Therefore we thank thee, o natural selection, that we may slaughter and consume arbitrary numbers of turkeys at our pleasure without fear of harm or retribution. Furthermore, we thank thee for giving us an instinctual sense of morality strong enough that we feel compelled to ceremonially express our gratitude to all those who have helped us over the past year, yet not so strong that we dwell too much on what's happening to the turkey when we do so. Amen."

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 November 2008 02:10:27PM 5 points [-]

I don't think Eliezer's wording necessarily implies "probability 1". I occasionally say that thing X is impossible, meaning that the probability of not-X is close-but-not-quite 1. I don't specifically say that I don't mean probability 1 exactly, because it should go without saying that nothing has probability 1, and I can't be bothered with tacking on the extra words.

Comment author: Kenny 13 July 2013 07:55:18PM 1 point [-]

It'd be nice if things like that indeed did go without saying, especially on this site.

Comment author: Richard9 28 November 2008 04:00:13PM 0 points [-]

Short prayers before meals encourage humility and in-group bonding. Eliezer's version is an assertion of his own cleverness which mocks the Other. Nobody actually feels gratitude towards things like "economies of scale" and "comparative advantage", so the only purpose of Eliezer's remark is to demonstrate his superiority over theists.

In other words, Eliezer's quip is just like saying grace, only the exact opposite. I think this what happens when clever people try to imitate something which they don't understand.

Comment author: Pseudonymous3 28 November 2008 04:10:57PM 3 points [-]

"Nobody actually feels gratitude towards things like "economies of scale" and "comparative advantage", so the only purpose of Eliezer's remark is to demonstrate his superiority over theists."

Some people, such as myself, find them aesthetically inspiring, and are happy to live in a world where they enjoy such benefits, which they did not create.

Comment author: Noumenon 28 November 2008 04:55:07PM 4 points [-]

Last year I went to St. Andrew's church in Madison with my mom. The pastor read a letter to the editor where someone wrote, "Instead of giving thanks to God, we should praise our hard work and the economy that brings us all these gifts -- which God certainly never brought to us before we helped ourselves."

The pastor finished reading and ripped the newspaper in half. "Good for lining your bird cage," he said. "Not much else."

Comment author: Ben_Jones 28 November 2008 05:08:51PM 4 points [-]

Know the feeling. I'm a fully qualified ex-Catholic atheist, but when my girlfriend told me that her family generally just has a pasta dish on Christmas day I was shocked. Anything but turkey makes baby Jesus cry!

Those childhood priors sure get burnt in deeply.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister2 28 November 2008 05:37:30PM 2 points [-]

Here's a Daniel Dennett essay that seems appropriate:

THANK GOODNESS!

Comment author: billswift 28 November 2008 06:39:40PM -1 points [-]

Eliezer, I really liked your prayer.

The obviously religious ones like Abigail and Richard aren't really worth responding to except with general disdain.

To the ones complaining atheism is religious, if you want to see religous atheism read "In Defense of Secular Humanism" by Paul Kurtz, especially "Secular Humanist Manifesto". I had read it because I liked Kurtz's skeptical stuff, but it was awful. The Manifesto writers basically just changed their faith from God to faith in the Government. I have seen similar things since, mainly from academics.

The argument about probability 1 and so forth - I use the words certain and impossible regularly to mean the likelihood of something not being true or of being true to be so low as not being worth consideration. I will repeat what I've said before, putting arbitrary (spurious) numbers to likelihoods is more likely to result in contradictions than not.

Comment author: Michael_G.R. 28 November 2008 09:04:34PM 2 points [-]

Personally this year I'm thankful for the Earth's molten interior:

http://michaelgr.com/2008/11/28/be-thankful-for-the-earths-molten-interior/

Comment author: Allan_Crossman 28 November 2008 11:46:14PM 1 point [-]

... how isn't atheism a religion? It has to be accepted on faith, because we can't prove there isn't a magical space god that created everything.

I think there's a post somewhere on this site that makes the reasonable point that "is atheism a religion?" is not an interesting question. The interesting question is "what reasons do we have to believe or disbelieve in the supernatural?"

Comment author: Z._M._Davis 29 November 2008 12:17:14AM 3 points [-]

"Nobody actually feels gratitude towards things like 'economies of scale' and 'comparative advantage' [...]"

Maybe not, but they really ought to.

Comment author: Andrew_Hay 29 November 2008 12:48:00AM 3 points [-]

I think there's a post somewhere on this site that makes the reasonable point that "is atheism a religion?" is not an interesting question

Both Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable and Beyond the Reach of God should be useful. If you show that the hypothesis "God(s) do exist" is most likely untrue then, correct me if I am wrong, the opposite hypothesis "God(s) do NOT exist" is most likely true.

As long as you don't use the word "faith" in the first hypothesis, then I hardly see how atheism needs faith to back it up.

Comment author: MugaSofer 04 September 2013 08:58:07PM 0 points [-]

Is "faith" (whatever that means) the operative feature of "religions", though? Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable would suggest not.

Comment author: billswift 29 November 2008 03:26:04AM 2 points [-]

No. An atheist sees no evidence for for the existence of a "God" that is not explained better by scientific, naturalistic reasons. Those arguing for the existence of something are obliged to provide evidence, every bit of evidence that has been advanced for "God" has been shot down, usually easily. For a scientific (and readable) view see Dawkin's "The God Delusion". For a fuller, philsophical, and harder to read view see Martin's "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification". One more comment, when I read Martin's book I was a little concerned that he was attacking arguments theists weren't really making, so I borrowed one of Plantinga's books. Martin had actually cleaned up and improved Plantinga's sloppy arguments before he killed them. I have also read some Kierkegaard because a man I worked for thought highly of him. All I can say is apparently philsophers who advance pro-religious arguments aren't held to a very high standard.

Comment author: Unknown2 29 November 2008 04:22:45AM -2 points [-]

As far as I can tell, atheists and theists don't even disagree, for the most part. Ask an atheist, "What do you understand the word 'God' to mean?" Then ask a theist if he thinks that this thing exists, giving the definition of the word given by the atheist. The theist will say, "No."

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 29 November 2008 06:18:07AM 3 points [-]

Unknown: I disagree. Consider this definition: "An ontologically fundamental unique entity that has, in some sense something resembling desire/will, further, this entity deliberately, as an act of will, created the reality we experience."

Further, barring the case of, say, a deists, additional things could be noted: "An entity that in some sense directly orchestrates all of reality, even though it may seem otherwise."

I'm pretty sure most theists (at least monotheists) would agree that this is the thing they believe in, no?

So no, I don't think the disagreement between atheists and theists can be properly represented as a definitional dispute.

Comment author: Abigail 29 November 2008 08:54:30AM -1 points [-]

Billswift: I am not sure that I am "Obviously religious".

Luzr asked me "What makes you think religion is not understandable to atheists?"

Dawkins' concept of the meme. No, religion is not like a virus. Religion has great benefits for a society and for individuals, even if there is no creator God. Overcoming bias may have great benefits- if we can retain the benefits of religion for those who need it.

Comment author: Unknown2 29 November 2008 10:09:39AM -1 points [-]

Psy-Kosh, your new definition doesn't help. For example Eliezer Yudkowsky believes in God according to the definition you have just given, both according to the deist part, and according to theist part. Let's take those one at a time, to illustrate the point:

First part of the definition:

"An ontologically fundamental unique entity that has, in some sense something resembling desire/will, further, this entity deliberately, as an act of will, created the reality we experience."

Does Eliezer believe in ontologically fundamental entities? Yes. So that's one element. Does Eliezer believe in an ontologically fundamental unique entity? Yes, he believes in at least one: he has stated that the universe consists of one unique mathematical object, and as far as I can tell, he thinks it is fundamental. This is clear from the fact that he denies the fundamental nature of anything else. An electron, for example, is not fundamental, since it is simply a part of a larger wave function. It is really the wave function, the whole of it, which is fundamental, and unique.

Does this unique being have something resembling will, by which it created the world? First it is clear that it created the world. I shouldn't have to argue for this point, it follows directly from Eliezer's ideas. But does it have anything resembling will? Well, one thing that will does is that it tends to produce something definite, namely the thing that you will. So anything that produces definite results, rather than random results, resembles will in at least one way. And this wave function produces definite results: according to Eliezer all of reality is totally deterministic. Thus, Eliezer believes in a fundamental, unique entity, which created the world by means of something resembling will or desire, i.e. by your definition, he believes in God.

Next question: does this entity directly orchestrate all of reality? It should be obvious that according to Eliezer, yes.

So Eliezer is a theist.

Comment author: luzr 29 November 2008 10:57:49AM 3 points [-]

Abigail:

"Religion has great benefits for a society and for individuals, even if there is no creator God."

And these are?

Well, where I live, there is about 70% atheists and 30% believers. I have a couple of believers as friends. From my experience, no, they are not better people than we are.

Grant:

"I'm not sure if this has been discussed here before, but how isn't atheism as religion? It has to be accepted on faith, because we can't prove there isn't a magical space god that created everything. I happen to have more faith in atheism than Christianity, but ultimately its still faith."

I also believe there isn't a 1000km wide pink doughnut orbiting Alpha Centauri. Is that a religion too?

BTW, "magical space god that created everything". How was HE created?

All that said, universe, its beginning, human mind and consciousness and self-awarnes, these all are very fascinating mysteries and "God" is a very tempting and easy answer. But it is pretty much likely wrong.

Comment author: komponisto2 29 November 2008 11:16:11AM 1 point [-]

Unknown, how about this:

God: a conscious entity capable of controlling the weather.

(At least, I propose these as necessary attributes of a deity.)

Under this definition, I'm pretty sure Eliezer is an atheist. On the other hand, do you dare assert that a typical theist doesn't believe their god could make it rain tomorrow?

Comment author: Unknown2 29 November 2008 11:40:14AM 0 points [-]

Komponisto: that definition includes human beings, so Eliezer is not an atheist according to that.

Comment author: Emile 29 November 2008 01:50:11PM 0 points [-]

What's the point of discussing whether atheism is a religion? There must be something about that back in the discussion of Rube and Bleggs.

Same for discussion of whether someone is an atheist or a theist by using different definitions for "god" or "universe" or whatever ... once you know Elizier's beliefs, addind a label isn't useful information.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 29 November 2008 06:15:32PM 4 points [-]

Unknown: uh... no. That's a bit of word games nonsense. Playing word games is not a way to resolve the dispute, since you know very well that what you said was not what was intended by the definition I gave.

First, the mathematical object didn't "create" the world, it _is_ the world.

Second, no way no how could one justifiably consider it to be doing it as a "deliberate act of will to achieve _desired_ ends" To simply say "it has structure/order, therefor will" and claim that "by definition" is absurd.

Its nature may cause/be reality, but it certainly isn't doing it with goals/desires/will. That is, this in no way is anywhere near the cluster of things that I'd consider "will"

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 29 November 2008 06:26:51PM 3 points [-]

Unknown: sorry, my reply came off a bit less polite than it should have. But my point of "that's not the meaning I intended to convey with those words and you know it" stands. I would not consider mathematical structures to be a being of will. They may encode some, though. But to simply _define_ "has definite results rather than random" = "will" seems to be to be shaky at best.

Besides, you seemed to be doing this: "Things acting on will cause definite results rather than random, therefore anything that causes definite results rather than random is acting on will", which is clearly a bit of an error, no?

Comment author: botogol2 29 November 2008 06:33:40PM 0 points [-]

"Your opinions have been noted and completely disregarded"

Ouch!

I think perhaps my opinion wasn't clear: - I don't think atheism is a religion - I don't believe you think atheism is a religion But I think your post sure made it sound like one :-)

Comment author: Aron 29 November 2008 07:31:44PM -1 points [-]

While awaiting my productivity to reemerge from chaos I stumbled upon an old interview with Ayn Rand and Tom Snyder in which she concludes with 'Thank God for America'. So there ya go.

Comment author: komponisto2 29 November 2008 08:25:39PM 0 points [-]

Unknown:

Komponisto: that definition includes human beings

No it doesn't. I said controlling the weather, not affecting it or influencing it.

Comment author: Alan5 30 November 2008 01:21:31AM 1 point [-]

Bow your heads. Close your eyes. Hold hands. Feel the pleasurable effects of oxytocin. Amen.

Comment author: John_Maxwell 30 November 2008 02:58:59AM 0 points [-]

@billswift:

The obviously religious ones like Abigail and Richard aren't really worth responding to except with general disdain.

Unless you care about atheism's reputation.

The fact is that religious belief, if fully attained, can be an enormously useful psychological crutch. As a firm atheist, I am fully open to the possibility that much of the world should stay religious, unless they're doing some sort of important work that necessitates them to value truth over happiness.

And if you decide that someone would be better off as an atheist, you shouldn't try to grab their psychological crutch all at once. They'll just grip tighter.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith2 30 November 2008 04:43:20AM 2 points [-]

So, John Maxwell, is electing officials important work that necessitates valuing truth over happiness? Going to school-board meetings? Raising children?

Comment author: John_Maxwell 30 November 2008 05:06:47AM 0 points [-]

To a degree, it is useful to value truth over happiness in each of the occupations you mention. But humans have the ability to restrict their critical analysis to certain domains. Allow me to rewrite my comment:

>As a firm atheist, I am fully open to the possibility that much of the world should stay religious, unless they're doing some sort of important work that's tangentially related to the question of God's existence (like studying humanity's origins), or they are doing some sort of work that requires them to make sure they don't compartmentalize their critical analysis.

Comment author: Abigail 03 December 2008 01:52:45PM -1 points [-]

Luzr asked, "Abigail: 'Religion has great benefits for a society and for individuals, even if there is no creator God.' And these are?"

Too many to list here. For example, people think religions cause wars, such as the Crusades. But what if humans would have the wars anyway, because we form tribal groups, but religion mitigates the worst effects of these wars, by just war theory?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 July 2009 07:32:05PM 13 points [-]

Another fine atheist Thanksgiving prayer:

We thank our ancestors for dodging the meteors and the volcanos, the eukaryotes and the prokarytes, the dinosaurs and the ice ages, the locusts, the plague, religion, wars, taxes and the draft, to bring us to this table and this turkey, who is not as good at dodging as we are. Neener neener neener.

Comment author: juliawise 25 September 2011 11:41:08PM 0 points [-]

A favorite at my house (sung as a round) was "Thank you for this food, this food, This glorious, glorious food!
And the animals and the vegetables and the minerals that made it possible." (Debatably theist, depending on who you think the initial "thank you" is addressing.)

Comment author: TraderJoe 26 April 2012 11:04:43AM 6 points [-]

“Dear God. We paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

-Bart Simpson

Comment author: TimS 26 April 2012 01:22:20PM *  2 points [-]

Other than the atheism applause light, what is rationalist about this quote?

Edit: In other words, Bart Simpson has plenty to be thankful for, even if God is not the appropriate receiver of thanks.

Edit2: Oops. I withdraw my objection.

Comment author: thomblake 26 April 2012 03:39:03PM 1 point [-]

Well, Bart's is basically a simplified version of Eliezer's prayer, and preceded it by quite a number of years.

And it's also a "Hey, I saw that cartoon!" applause light.

Comment author: TimS 26 April 2012 03:41:10PM 3 points [-]

Somehow, I thought this was in Rationality Quotes. My criticism is based on that erroneous context. D'oh!