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Column implying atheists can't be grateful spurs a torrent of reaction

FARGO - Forum columnist Roxane Salonen's most recent piece on the relationship between gratitude and faith spurred a steady drumbeat of discussion through social media, letters to the editor and a reaction from a North Dakota State University psy...

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FARGO - Forum columnist Roxane Salonen’s most recent piece on the relationship between gratitude and faith spurred a steady drumbeat of discussion through social media, letters to the editor and a reaction from a North Dakota State University psychologist.

Salonen used her bi-weekly “Living Faith” column to discuss an experience of gratitude she felt while staying in the home of a host family during recent travels. She thanked God for the experience, she wrote, then pondered whether those who have no belief in God feel the same gratitude.

“Moving about this big, beautiful world, we all have a chance to enjoy the thoughtful gestures of God. And yet lack of recognizing the true giver misplaces our gratitude, makes it incomplete.

“As a grateful guest, I concluded that those without God would by default be capable only of being an ungrateful guest, or at best, one half-hearted in appreciation,” Salonen continued.

The column set off  a torrent of comments on The Forum’s Facebook page .


“How do the godless respond to grace? We say ‘thank you,’ ” Nicole Mattson wrote on Facebook. “And then we continue to do our best to be good people without anyone telling us to.”

Letters to the editor soon followed. One noted a lack of an atheist or agnostic viewpoint in the column and warned that it hints at a larger problem.

“I also think we need to be alert to the danger of assuming that people we strongly disagree with are soooo very different from us that they would react in completely alien ways – that’s where the dehumanization of the ‘other’ begins,” Kelly Cameron of Fargo wrote in a letter to the editor from Tuesday, April 19.

The column was also addressed by Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University specializing in the psychology of religion,  in a blog post for Psychology Today .


Routledge wrote that it’s an “interesting question but, unfortunately, Salonen did not provide a very interesting answer.”

“Believers and atheists have a lot more similarities than they have differences,” he continues.

In a clarification of the column posted to Salonen’s blog , she said that wording of her headline may have led readers to conclude “right off that I was giving an emphatic ‘No.’ ”


“The truth of the matter is that I actually believe the answer is ‘Yes.’ On a natural level, I believe that everyone, without exception, has the capacity to love and feel love, to be generous, to be kind, to be a gracious guest and a hospitable host.”

She goes on to write that she meant to include a distinction between “natural” gratitude, felt by everyone including those with no belief in God, and a “supernatural” gratitude toward God felt only by believers.

“What I also tried saying, unsuccessfully it appears, is that on a supernatural level, there is another answer: No. Because when one does not believe in God, one cannot thank God, and so in the supernatural sense, gratitude is impossible, and incomplete.”

Salonen added in an interview Wednesday that it was never her intention to drive a wedge between believers and non-believers, a larger issue of “growing animosity” that caught her unawares within the context of her column but will be on her mind for future writing.

“I look at all of this as a lesson, now I’m aware of something that I’ve never been aware of before,” she said.

She said she encourages discussion and reaction to her writing and that her ultimate goal is to “have difficult conversations and then come back to being together.”

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