Since I’m elaborately nonreligious I don’t consider saying grace before a meal to be for me. But I’m not entirely rejecting the idea, since we in the western world today take our fabulous wealth for granted — especially when it comes to food1. We really should take a minute to be thankful, and even if our gratitude is not appropriately aimed at a deity it should still, I suppose, be aimed at something.
This isn’t a new problem. Googling “secular grace” brings up a lot of examples of how to give thanks without invoking religion. This page has a few decent ones (some are from religious traditions but nothing explicitly supernatural).
For the meal we are about to eat,
for those that made it possible,
and for those with whom we are about to share it,
we are thankful.
– From the humanist benediction
We receive this food in gratitude to all beings
Who have helped to bring it to our table,
And vow to respond in turn to those in need
With wisdom and compassion.
– Buddhist Meal Gatha
Dear earth who gives to us this food,
Dear sun who makes it ripe and good,
Sun above and earth below,
Our loving thanks to you we show.
Blessings on our meal.
– Secular mealtime prayer
In this plate of food, I see the entire universe supporting my existence.
– Zen blessing from Thich Nhat Hanh
I especially like the last one. Short but with a certain attractive completeness. Here are more suggestions.
“We give thanks for to the earth and sun and rain that grew and nourished this food, for the many hands that brought it to our table, and for our togetherness as a family.” If you want to make it more interactive, you could ask: “What helped to grow this food?” and kids call out: “The sun!”, “The rain!”, “People who watered the ground!”, “People who fed the animals!” etc.
In this home all are one, as are the earth, the stars and the sun. With head and heart and hands be blessed. That each with all may do their best. The sun, the earth, the rains and the work of many hands have brought us this food. We say “thank you”. Blessings on this meal and peace upon the earth.
Earth who gives to us this food, Sun that makes it ripe and good. Dear Earth, Dear Sun, by you we live, to you our loving thanks we give. For the food before us, For the friends beside us, for the love that surrounds us, we are truly grateful. This food is a gift from the Earth, the Sun, the rain, the whole universe. It comes to us through the hard work of many people.
Note the themes. Natural elements get thanked: The Earth and the sun and rain and so forth. Human labor gets thanked. If you click through and read all of it you’ll also find some acknowledgement that not all are as lucky and have as much food, and that us getting to eat means that other organisms have to die. But there it tends to stop. This article in the Washington Post sums it all up:
Secular grace typically recognizes the animals who gave their lives for the feast2, the people who prepared the meal and even the elements of nature that contributed to it — earth, water, fire and air.
I’m not satisfied.
I live a very safe, very comfortable life in a wealthy country and the thought of starvation has never been anywhere near my radar, but it was a significant danger to my ancestors not that many generations ago. I and others like me don’t just have food, we have by historical standards unimaginably plentiful, affordable, and appealing food.
Who do we have to thank? What do we have that our ancestors didn’t? They had the Earth, the Sun and the rain too, and I’m quite sure they labored at least as hard. Nature and labor are valuable and necessary but they’re not the crucial factor that makes us rich. Technology and organization does that. What we should thank is technical infrastructure in the form of physical machinery and information processing systems, and the legal, social and economic institutions that make prosperity possible.
Once you start thinking about it, the absence of technology and organization in secular graces becomes more and more and more striking. Grace is:
These few moments dedicated to acknowledging the gods, elements, animals and people who make our food possible brings us into the present moment and reminds us of our complete reliance on Mother Earth and all that is within her to sustain our life.
Gods, elements, animals, and people. Full stop. In all those graces I see nice sentiments, but I also see how they inadvertently render the actually load-bearing stuff invisible. Yes, there’s Mother Earth, plus…? Aren’t you forgetting something when listing things we’re completely reliant on?
Schools do something like it. My kids are in primary school and in addition to learning standard skills (reading, writing, counting, music, athletics) they have “orientation” classes that teaches general knowledge of the world. They’re divided into two subjects: NO (“natural orientation”) and SO (“social orientation”). In NO they study physical sciences and in SO they study social sciences, hopefully becoming literate in both.
Implicit is the assumption is that the natural world is understood in physical terms, while the human world is understood in social terms. Something’s getting lost in that scheme. Like secular graces it has a huge blind spot, namely the aspects of the human world that’s properly understood in physical terms. In other words, technology.
Jason Crawford at Roots of Progress uses the phrase “industrial literacy” for this basic comprehension of the technological systems carrying our society, an understanding he argues is much rarer than it should be. He lists examples of how extremely dependent we are on specific technologies and follows it with:
When you know these facts of history—which many schools do not teach—you understand what “industrial civilization” is and why it is the benefactor of everyone who is lucky enough to live in it. You understand that the electric generator, the automobile, the chemical plant, the cargo container ship, and the microprocessor are essential to our health and happiness.
This doesn’t require a deep or specialized knowledge. It only requires knowing the basics, the same way every citizen should know the outlines of history and the essentials of how government works.
Lack of widespread industrial literacy means we don’t fully appreciate how it’s the machine that is the global industrial economy that brings food to our tables. We’re positively eager to thank nature and people, but reluctant to grant industry the same courtesy. Instead “The Machine” gets raged against, sneered at, and incessantly problematized3 because we take all that it gives us for granted, like whiny children yelling at their parents.
“Technology also does a lot of bad things and is responsible for a lot of injustice, that’s why.”
Oh really. Have you met nature? Have you met people? We have no problem thanking them for the good that they do. If I was The Machine I’d be more than a little peeved over not getting the credit I’m owed4.
Maybe that’s the key: I’m not. Nobody is, and our mental architectures simply aren’t set up to thank (and therefore not to even feel thankful towards) inanimate objects. And why would we? They don’t care. Unlike people they don’t demand gratitude to keep delivering, day after day. Before you know it we forget how much we depend on them.
Why do we thank nature, then? Nature isn’t people and doesn’t demand gratitude or payment. Ah, but that’s not obvious to us. The natural forces that’ve played important parts in our lives throughout history — growth and decay, disease, weather and climate, are mysterious — more specifically they’re opaque, fickle, and capricious. They’re nothing like the simple objects we use as tools. They behave predictably and obviously so, which is what makes them possible to use as tools in the first place. Nature is complex and inscrutable enough for us to confuse it for an agent — one that has to be thanked, placated, and repaid to keep providing for us.
There’s a word for that sort of agent.
The function of gods
By conceptualizing complex, unpredictable systems of forces as gods we suddenly become perfectly capable of feeling gratitude towards them. Isn’t that funny? We value them, even love them, no matter how much suffering they’re also responsible for. Maybe framing The Machine as a god is the way to make us show systems of physical and social technologies the respect they deserve5.
People do this sort of thing. It’s a cottage industry to invent new gods and demons to illustrate complex or abstract phenomena that aren’t literally agents nor display the simple predictable behaviors of inanimate objects. Aaron Lewis discusses some of them in this interesting article, including The Stack (the layered network of software that increasingly runs our world), The Uruk Machine (the cultural engine of modernity and market economy that destroys traditional ways of life), and Egregores (collective entities of people coordinating indirectly through shared goals or ideologies). Hardcore traditionalists also speak of Gnon (“Nature or Nature’s God”, which represents harsh natural forces or principles of competition that destroy those that venture too far away from tradition). Some adopt a term from HP Lovecraft and call evolution Azathoth, “the blind idiot god”, and then of course there’s Moloch, the god/demon of coordination failures.
Is The Machine a god among these? I don’t see why not. It’s vastly powerful, and way too large and complex for any one of us to comprehend.
Like other gods it gives and it takes. Modern civilization makes us richer than people in the preindustrial world could have ever dreamed of, but it comes at a price. To serve The Machine we must become parts in it — cogs, we lament — and adopt the characteristics of machine parts: regularity, predictability, and replaceability. It costs us autonomy, spontaneity and self-respect, and it alienates us from the products of our labor. We hate it6 and have to be, with some success, socialized into accepting it for our whole lives7.
I don’t remember exactly where I first read it but the phrase “we’ve become replaceable parts in a machine producing replaceable parts” has stuck with me ever since. I hate submitting just as much as anyone, but at the same time I can’t deny that The Machine keeps us alive and more comfortable that we have any right to expect.
At least it delivers, more and better than any other god ever did.
To finish this off I wrote a new secular grace, one that gives proper thanks to the industrial civilization actually responsible for fully stocked pantries. It’s full of wordplay and rhyming so it looks like a joke8 but it’s not. Not really. It’s just impossible to play this thing straight, because trying to apply romanticism to industry and the market economy — two things fundamentally based on disenchantment — is just so incongruous that it tickles our humor nerves by default. We shouldn’t have to fool ourselves that The Machine is a god to feel sincerely thankful towards it. But since we do, and the god illusion isn’t going to stick well enough, maybe just enjoy this cheesy, partially rhyming prayer.
As a joke.
We thank the Machine for the food we’re about to enjoy,
more plentiful and delicious than our ancestors ever had.
We thank massive fields and the swarming fleets,
the big and the small — the nets, the boats, the fish farms, modified genes and milk machines,
factories, batteries, and hatcheries.
We thank irrigation,
and tools of transportation
— planes, trains, trucks and ports, asphalt and the internal combustion engine,
makers and buyers of rubber tires and copper wires.
Thanks to greenhouses, warehouses, and yes — to slaughterhouses
We thank well-managed grocery stores,
just-in-time deliveries, forklifts, and enterprise software — of course
We thank the tools of complex coordination
— contracts and currencies, corn futures, credit cards and container ships;
the much maligned
— pesticides and preservatives, plastics and petroleum;
and the expertly designed
— generators and refrigerators, tractors and nuclear reactors
Between and behind, all the contraptions,
lie implicit trust, and arms-length transactions.
We enjoy selective breeding’s delectable creations,
due to stable international relations, and food safety regulations.
We thank the working supply chain for our daily grain,
and artificial fertilizer for the occasional appetizer.
For fresh fruits, spices, and meat,
we thank fossil fuels, uranium, and reinforced concrete.
For this affordable salami, smoothie, and kale,
we thank automation and economies of scale.
For ruthlessly efficient use of labor and land,
we thank our old frenemy, the invisible hand.
For the food on our table, we pay thanks to The Machine
– to mechanized agriculture and the scarcity it fought,
– to the industrial revolution and the capacity it brought,
– to a specialized economy, for this plenty we bought.
And to the rule of law, or it would all be for naught.
A little too much?
Maybe, but this is not the proper time for restraint.
Merry Christmas! (Or whatever you observe).
Eat! And appreciate it.
- Perhaps about as much with clothes, light, and hygiene. ↩︎
- It is extra hard to celebrate industrialization when it comes to meat. Acknowledgement that animals have died for us to eat is part of other secular graces too (although thanking the animals for having “given” their lives is a little rich), but it’s easier to acknowledge it when hunting and small scale farming supplies our meat. Factory farming isn’t anything we want to think about when at the dinner table, and this is perhaps the strongest example of us owing something thanks but really not wanting to thank it. ↩︎
- We should definitely work and keep working on improving how the system works, because it is by no means perfect, but a lot of ingratitude reads more like profound distaste than a healthy, pragmatic corrective to me. ↩︎
- There are a few places I could find a glimmer of recognition for industry, like here:
To whom are we thankful? To the parents who work, the employers who employ, the growers, the animals who give their lives, the people who prepare our food, to the people who made the plates and utensils we use, to the people running the water treatment centers… we are thankful to everyone involved in nourishing our bodies.
Water treatment centers! Ok, specifically the people running them, but at least their importance is recognized.
As we come together at this special time, let us pause a moment to appreciate the opportunity for good company and to thank all those past and present whose efforts have made this event possible. We reap the fruits of our society, our country, and our civilization, and take joy in the bounties of nature on this happy occasion. Let us also wish that, some day, all people on Earth may enjoy the same good fortune that we share.
Here we actually get thanks to society and civilization (in the broadest of generalities) but this is very much the exception. ↩︎
- Honestly I doubt it, because we know they’re built by people out of base matter and we can’t un-know it. We know we built The Machine and that there’s no ghost in there. It can never have the mystique of nature that makes it look like a God. ↩︎
- Many of us, at least, I’m sure there are some who didn’t and don’t mind living a regimented existence and being told what to do. ↩︎
- To elaborate a little: On a number of occasions I’ve seen it mentioned that historically, and in ~premodern/preindustrial societies today, it’s surprisingly hard to get people to do things we consider normal parts of being employed, like showing up on time and doing what you’re told. For example:
When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. Related complaints are often made about the poorest workers in rich societies; they just won’t consistently do what they are told. It seems pride is a big barrier to material wealth.
Some would feel this description is prejudicial but I have no trouble believing it and I don’t find it disparaging, partially because I recognize myself in it. We in the industrialized world put up with the demands of employment partly because we have to, but we typically don’t like it. We think it’s normal from having been socialized into it in school. Up until my late teens I was repeatedly told by teachers that my habitual insubordination was a problem, and I accepted performing obedience only gradually and partially. I can feel that habituation slowly wearing off as I get older and again find myself tolerating ever lower levels of infringement on my autonomy. Rather than think of the workers described as unprofessional or hopeless, part of me think they’re just more in touch with their humanity. ↩︎
- As everything that rhymes has for a hundred years, for some unclear reason. ↩︎
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