I do my best to live consistently with my principles and to stand up for atheism in my personal life, as well as on the Web. But sometimes, even I fall short. I had one of those experiences this past weekend, and I’m still not sure how I should have handled it. I’m posting this to gather advice, in the hope that I’ll do better if this happens again – or, if it’s still not too late to stand up for myself, to figure out what the best response would be.
My wife’s godparents came over to our house for dinner last Sunday, for the first time since we moved in two years ago. They’re an older couple, the same age as our parents. My wife’s godfather is Catholic, like most of her extended family, while his wife is Jewish.
They’d run into traffic and arrived about an hour late, and since we were all hungry, I wanted to sit down and eat as soon as possible. Dinner was served, and we were all sitting around the table – when, completely out of the blue, my wife’s godfather announced that this was a special occasion for him, and that he wanted us to hold hands while he said grace.
In that split second, I’m ashamed to admit, I couldn’t think of any way to object that wouldn’t sound incredibly rude. I let him take my hand, though I didn’t bow my head or close my eyes, while he said out loud a brief, generic prayer of thanks that we could all be together (there was, at least, nothing offensive like thanking God for the existence of the meal my wife and I had spent several hours cooking).
I badly wanted to object at the time, and I still wish I had, but I don’t know what I should have said. I have no desire to make a scene or to start a family feud. My wife’s godfather is a sweet, well-meaning old man who didn’t mean to proselytize or to offend, and who probably doesn’t know (or had forgotten, if he ever did know) that I’m an atheist. Nevertheless, I object to the automatic assumption that I shared those beliefs and wanted to participate. It’s just that kind of reflexive prejudice toward religion that I want to dispel.
Daniel Dennett has said that religion has contrived to organize things so that you can’t object without being rude, and I personally felt the truth of that this weekend. But I’m convinced there must have been a more graceful way to deal with this, short of launching into a lengthy justification of my beliefs at the dinner table. Even now, I think, it’s not too late for me to contact them and explain some things. What would you have done in my place?