A Personal Dilemma

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?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • David

    It isn’t like praying MADE you into a theist. If it was a nice moment, and it made them happy, then that is all there is.

  • Camus Dude

    I admit that in a similar situation I probably wouldn’t have come up with anything except mute surprise myself, but I don’t think it would be rude to politely demure, perhaps even silently, say by just withdrawing your hands to your lap while those who wish continue their prayer.

  • Chet

    I think this is a case where your responsibility to your family is more important than your personal beliefs, and that in this case your responsibility is not to disrupt the religious observances they find important and central.

    You did what I usually do – if grace is being said, I don’t bow or close my eyes, but I don’t disrupt the ritual. It’s important to them to do it, and I feel that outweighs any need on my part to combat religion right then and there. After the grace, though, if someone said “thank god for this meal” or the like, I very pointedly thank the actual person who made the meal.

  • Camus Dude

    *demur /slow pedant

    Also, what Chet said (especially the pointed thanks to the cook instead of god, if that’s the situation).

    My parents always pray before every meal. I simply sit and wait quietly until they are done to start eating.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    I would have done exactly the same thing you did, in your position. With the benefit of time to think about it, I’m not sure it’s the perfect course of action, but I don’t think it was a bad one. We have to pick our battles.

    I don’t know if this is a good idea or not — other commenters can weigh in on it, of course — but one thing that popped into my head was the idea of proposing your own “grace.” In the mostly-secular household I grew up in, we sometimes held hands around the table and said some words before eating … upon reflection this was maybe a good tactic to get small children to calm down and be still, with a pinch of familiar religious tradition mixed in. We never addressed a deity, though. It was more like, “Let’s go around the table and each say something nice that happened to us today,” or “Let’s each say one thing that we’re thankful for.” Maybe when the dinner guest says, “I’d like for us to join hands and say grace before we begin,” an atheist could answer, “That’s a nice idea; why don’t we go around the table and say [insert nice reflection of your choice].”

    Rereading your post, it sounds like your wife’s godfather asked to say something himself. So I don’t know if this kind of segue would have been possible. But, that’s my two cents.

  • http://www.twosixteen.com/fivetoedsloth/ Scott Loveless

    Next time say a prayer to the earth, to the cow you’re about to eat, to Brighid, whomever. Sing a song praising the chef if that floats your boat. I’d never prevent a friend or family member from saying grace in my home if they wanted to, but they might think twice about doing so again if I followed up with a prayer of my own.

  • http://teaspoonactivist.tumblr.com hourlily

    Don’t feel bad, Ebon. Group prayer situations are awkward, especially if you haven’t planned a response in advance. I’ve been there, and I’ve also panicked and gone along with it. You can’t change what happened, but you can make a plan for next time.

    I’ll be in a group prayer situation when I visit my evangelical family for Thanksgiving this year. I plan to politely say ‘no thank you’ to the people extending their hands and sit quietly while they pray. I expect a few looks but I’m hoping no one will make a scene.

  • http://devinjohnston.ca Devin Johnston

    I used to date an Anglican whose family would regularly hold hands and say grace before dinner. While I don’t agree that there is anyone outside the room listening to those prayers, I can’t say that I find the practice particularly dangerous or offensive. My practice was to show the same level of respect an deference to the beliefs of others and I would expect them to show mine. I would hold hands, not say anything, and let the family have their moment.

    Your point about the “automatic assumption” that everyone wants to participate is well-taken. However, there is a time and a place to highlight one’s differences of opinion and there is a time and place where those differences don’t make a difference. I think that grace is one of those times and places. I feel no obligation to actually participate, but neither do I feel any obligation to object to the ten second delay in eating.

  • Julien

    We have a ritual of our own in my family:
    When we sit down at the table, we all say one thing we’re grateful for, one thing we’re working on, one thing we’re proud of, and one thing we’re pissed off at. It’s a great way to get the dinner conversation going, especially when teenagers are involved.

    When people come over and ask “shall we pray?”, we can very politely say “actually, we do this instead, would you like to join in?”, and I find that most guests greatly enjoy the experience.

    I think for many people, it’s the ritual or habit of doing something at the start of the meal that is most important. Maybe you could chat with your wife about coming up with a quick family ritual of your own – even if it’s only something you offer up around guests. After all, if they’re putting you in the position of having to feel rude for turning down a simple request, there’s no reason you can’t turn it right back on them.

  • Demonhype

    People think it’s just the atheist getting hysterical because someone in the vicinity is praying “OMG, NO MENTION INVISIBLE MAN IN MY PRESENCE!!!1!!!” Or the annoying clamor of “so is a prayer going to hurt/convert you? just SUCK IT UP!”

    That’s not it at all. It’s not the prayer, in and of itself. It’s the method.

    It’s the assumption that everyone around you automatically agrees with you about the invisible man in the sky, to the point where they don’t ask, “Would you mind if I offered a short grace before we eat?”, the way a polite and sensitive guest might.

    No, they assert the grace, tell you that it will happen, and on top of that add the whole hand-holding thing, which is designed specifically IMO to force any non-believing or alternatively-believing lurkers into active participation in something they might otherwise at best tolerate passively. It’s not enough that you quietly stand by and allow them to do their prayer, you are also required to take part in it. As if it’s a meaningless prayer unless there is a certain number in the cabal, or perhaps as if God won’t even listen if he glances in and sees someone in the room not seeming to be involved.

    And it is designed to back the unbeliever into a corner from which, if they dare to *GASP* refuse, they look like the bad guys. They are forcing you to pray, to feed their delusions in both God and the idea that everyone agrees with them about God, while cutting off your avenues of escape or refusal by making you the Evil Villain for politely correcting the assumption that you are a believer.

    I, for one, absolutely DESPISE being forced into a situation where I must either actively participate in prayer or look like a bad guy for bruising the tender feelings of a religious person. I don’t appreciate being essentially victimized as it is, and I especially don’t appreciate being victimized in such a way that defending myself (however gently) will make me look like the victimizer. For me, it’s a form of psychological abuse, though I realize that in many believers’ cases they don’t realize how abusive it is. Perhaps if I stood up in their house before dinner and started reading some atheist manifesto or something, they’d get the idea. Not likely, though–at least, not until the overwhelming sense of religious entitlement is stripped from society.

    Now if, as I mentioned above, they asked permission to say a grace and did not require that I take part in any way, then I would be perfectly happy to wait quietly for them to finish what is, for me, meaningless chatter. It’s the discourtesy, and the way they arrange for me to look like the discourteous one for objecting to it, that infuriates me.

    Of course, it’s hard to do. It’s supposed to be hard to object to this sort of thing. It’s Intelligently Designed to essentially serve as a bludgeon for religious compliance. Whether you challenge it, or how, is entirely dependent on you and on who is involved–how are they related to you, how close are you (or your wife) to them, how often do you have to deal with this, how religious are they, how pissy do they get if anyone questions their religious privilege, etc.

    But I hardly see how Ebon’s conflict is just a matter of him overreacting to the proximity of praying people.

  • trikepilot

    I’ve been in that situation many times before. Not participating in the hand holding sends the message that you don’t believe in any of the woo. Holding hands and silently participating sends the message that you concur with their rituals and beliefs.

    I hold my hands in my lap until the prayers are finished. If someone asks for my hand, I say, “I’ll just observe, thank you” and sit there quietly looking around at the spread to see what I want to put on my plate. Sometimes I get asked follow up questions at the table and can defer them with a simple “I don’t believe as you do” followed up with a “Lets talk about that subject some other time, one on one.”

    There is a time and place for making a scene but I don’t think the dinner table with guests is the best place to do that.

  • Hermes

    I’ve encountered that with immediate family before. There’s nothing wrong with holding hands, but I don’t bow my head or recite the prayers either. While I don’t make a point of not following some of my family’s Christian practices, I don’t hide that I’m not a Christian either. That said, simply not bowing seems to be enough to allow my nieces and nephews to get it that I’m not a Christian. I suspect that one or two of my nieces aren’t theists.

    The distinction I make is between being with them as people and being untrue to myself. Holding hands, I’m with them. Anything more is me not being honest to them. In either case, prayer of any sort during a meal is a strange intrusion of superstition into normal life.

  • http://prinzler@calpoly.edu Paul

    Demonhype, what would it look like if you were not actively participating in their grace? Would that be different from what Ebon actually did?

  • exrelayman

    I agree with how you acted. It is not necessary to make a stand everwhere. These people are going to be a part of your life, and there is no second chance to make a first impression. In all likelyhood the elderly gentleman believed this was a gesture of friendship and inclusiveness that it was his place (as the elder) to make. I would think that now that this episode is in the past, that your wife would be the best one to tactfully bring this topic up with her godfather, as they already have an established relationship. You repeatedly show restraint and tact in dealing with troll types here, so I have confidence that you will handle this deftly. BTW, sometimes even the best and wisest action is not necessarily comfortable. Do the best you can and let the chips fall where they may. My 2 cents worth.

  • http://prinzler@calpoly.edu Paul

    What if you got up from the table and walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water, wash your hands, rummage for a different steak knife, whatever?

    “Why did you get up?”

    “I went into the kitchen to A, B, C, or D.”

    “But we were saying grace.”

    “Yes, I know. Could you pass the potatoes?”

  • James

    Simple. It was your house. As soon as he started:

    “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t do that here. Can you pass the salt?”

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    Usually, I don’t think the person saying grace is trying to compel others to participate in a religious observance. It seems more likely that it’s just a habit, one that with repetition has probably become as meaningless as school children uncomprehendingly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. If your guests meant anything at all by it, they were probably showing respect to you and your wife (however inappropriate it felt). When this sort of thing happens around here, I don’t take it as a power play or put-down, despite how glaringly out of place the gesture is in our house.

    Were your guests simply unaware that you are one of the most prominent atheist bloggers in the world? There could have been some illuminating dinner conversations!

    A more serious dilemma would be if there were something really offensive in the prayer — a condemnation of gays or something. I don’t think I could just let that go without comment. Although I think it would be rude to interrupt the prayer, I would have to confront it in conversation afterward. It might make for a chilly evening, but I try to have the courage to stand up and confront hateful speech whenever I hear it!

    Among the comments above, I really like Julien’s idea of coming up with your own, secular and humanist-based ritual that you could deftly substitute when this happens the next time!

  • Dave

    I think humoring others’ harmless eccentricities is… harmless. Keep silent while they champion “teaching the controversy”? Hell no! Quietly give them a moment to say something generic and well-wishing? Sure, why not. I don’t bow my head or close my eyes if they were so inclined to check, but I see no reason to take offense, leave, or talk.

    If they started using the prayer as a preaching pulpit I’d probably feel differently, but at least in my family they’re usually pretty generic platitudes.

    As Thanksgiving draws close, I’d like to start a tradition of going around and stating what we’re thankful for, and maybe what real person/entity we have to thank for it. I can’t really think of a way of asking my (equally secular) friends to do this that doesn’t make it feel like “substitute for prayer” though. Ah well.

  • other scott

    It’s a tough one. I’m sure each and every one of us has run into a situation at least once that would allow us to empathize with Ebon. I personally feel uncomfortable whenver anybody says a prayer. Even at my Grandmother’s(who was not religious in any way shape or form) funeral her brother insisted on thanking God and talking about heaven and all that jazz, of course I felt talk about imaginary father in the sky to be ridiculous whilst trying to commiserate and/or celebrate her life. But then, there are certain times when it’s just best to bite your tongue. I know we shouldn’t have to keep our mouths shut, but sometimes it is just the easier option.

    If the choice is between you feeling uncomfortable for the duration of a prayer or you effectively ruining the night for everybody else by objecting like a jerk, surely it’s alright to let the prayer slide?

  • Maria

    I think you did it right. old people, especially our family generation doesn’t need to be insulted. I told my mom that I am no in the church anymore but I didn’t comment on her musing about how I can still go to church.

  • DSimon

    I’m seconding the hands-in-lap and polite demurement strategy; it’s worked for me plenty of times.

  • Naked Ape

    I have been in similar situations many times. I will ‘hold hands for the magic spell’, but I don’t bow or close my eyes. When everyone says ‘amen’ at the end, I say ‘abra-cadabra’ or ‘shazam’ with a smile and a wink at anyone else who I caught peeking.

    I find that engaging in the pointless tribal ritual this way is about as accommodating as I wish to be.

  • Petrucio

    I have planned something along these lines for when the situation arrives, in increasing order of confrontation-ness:

    1. As suggested by hourlily, politely say ‘No thank you’, and taking a step back if not already sat down, or putting my hands on my lap, leaving enough room for the people around me to join hands (if they can handle having their arms so close to the spawn on evil!)

    2. If that gets disapproving comments (beyond the disapproving looks), I’d try to answer in the lines of “I have respectfully allowed everyone to exercise their beliefs, all I ask in return is to be offered the same courtesy”.

    3. If objections continue: “Matthew chapter 6, verses 5-6: When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (edited for brevity)

    These responses are intentionally canned and hopefully can be provided in that order somewhat regardless of what objections are raised by the religious, since it could get ugly real fast otherwise. Response 3 is final and should probably be met with silence if objections continue – let them digest those verses.

    It seems good on paper, I have no idea if I’ll ever have the guts to put it on practice. I’d love to hear from anyone that does it.

  • Richard P.

    It’s important to pick your battles, in your time, on your grounds. What your wife’s godfather did, was open up a topic for conversation at a later time. Best to be a time of your choosing. I think that a certain level of tact is called for in most circumstances. There is an impression created when a person can exercise forbearance in difficult situations and an impact when you pick the time of your choosing to address it.

  • Frank

    A Scouter here, I think that the 12th point of the Scout Law “Reverence” is underrated. Personally, I believe in some kind of energy-force of the universe and immensely dislike religion of all sorts. But, when it comes to respect, it is always better to take the road of respect of other people and their belief. Don’t feel bad, you did the kind thing.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    I think this isn’t “hard” at all. It is one of those instances where you really shouldn’t make trouble, because it simply is so insignificant it isn’t worth the time and bad kickoff to an otherwise lovely time together. I know it offends our frail Atheist sensibilities. I’ve been there.

  • Bunny

    Polite tolerance is all fine and good, but if it’s your occasion, your meal, your home and your table where does anyone get off insisting you comply with their traditions? I would have said ‘thank you, but I’d really rather not’ and started eating. Courtesy does not require us to submit to the thoughtlessness of others, however well-meaning. He’d be more than welcome to say a quiet, private grace, and asking others to join in wouldn’t be unreasonable, but insisting everyone participate is rude and boorish.

  • Quester

    My family does this all the time. I hold hands, but no longer recite along. Now that I’m silent, I realize that only my father and I had been praying aloud. Everyone else in the family is silent, too.

    But I loathe conflict and see very little as worth fighting for. You may differ. Which of your principles were inconsistent with your behaviour in this situation?

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Friendly neighborhood troll here.

    You should have yelled in their face, screamed “When the Evil Atheist Conspiracy comes to fruition, your head will be first against the wall!” And them run screaming from the house.

    Or, you can do as I do: We never held hands for grace anyways in my family, so it was easier, but just eat a piece of food before grace is said (traditionally a blasphemy, just something as your conscientious objection), just a small thing, one carrot slice or something, just make sure it is seen. Stay silent during the grace, head held high, and after they finish, toss on an addendum like thanking the chef for the food, regardless of whether or not it was mentioned in the grace.

    It keeps a good compromise when with my family, as technically, I am participating at the end, though at no point am I endorsing the practice, and in fact take two swings at it each time it is done to show its pointlessness.

  • Clytia

    I very much like what Petrucio said.

    I think a very important point here is that it happened in your home. If it were someone elses home, i would have done exactly as you did, though perhaps not hold hands. My (very religious) parents have a tradition of singing a (very brief) song of thanksgiving to god before any sit-down meal. Afterwards, we would all hold hands and say “Good appetite and thank you for the food” (rough translation, my family is German). I always, even before I deconverted, thought that thanks was directed at the chef, as we’d already thanked god in song. I no longer participate in the songs. I sit quietly and wait. I hold hands and thank my mother for cooking.

    However, if this is in your home, that’s another matter entirely. I haven’t really had to deal with this situation before (we haven’t had any religious family over for a sit-down meal, save for my little sister and she quietly says grace in her head before she starts eating, while we just dig in, which is very nice of her). If we do one day end up having a dining table again and have religious family/friends over for dinner and someone requests to or announces that they will now say grace, I hope I have the balls to say something. I know such a grace can take very different forms (my wife just said she has no problem with saying a quick thanks to the cook and the earth for preparing and providing the food), so it could be a generic thanks to no one in particular, to a brief, but religious, prayer, to a fundie rant on anything and everything wrong with the world.

    Personally, I think I would like to simply say, “actually, no, let’s eat. we can talk and thank the cook over dinner.” I do not find it appropriate for anyone to parade their religious superstitions in my home, no matter how bland, inoffensive and generic. In their own heads, before they take their first bite is fine with me. Anything more would be as inappropriate as a christian saying (a christian) grace in a wiccan’s home, or in a muslim’s home.

    Then again, it would be highly entertaining to see my mother’s response to a muslim praising allah for the food, etc, at her dinner table, under her roof.

  • keddaw

    I would have said, “If you want to say magic words to your invisible friend then, by all means, do so, but please do not expect me to participate and enable your delusion. This is my house and I allow you the freedom to treat it as your own, but I will not let my food go cold while you placate your apparition of choice.”

    But I’m the type of person who picks people up for subconsciously touching wood when they say something they want to happen.

  • David F.

    Having one’s own personal beliefs is fine, but you don’t have to be a schmuck about it. I think you handled it perfectly. Let yourself off the hook. There are plenty of important battles to fight. This wasn’t one of them.

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    i’m bothered that he ‘announced’ he was going to say grace instead of asking.

    if he had asked, i’d say, be gracious and allow him his little ritual… but, for me, the problem is that he imposed on your hospitality.

    so, because of the imposition — and not because of the beliefs, i like james’ suggestion:

    Simple. It was your house. As soon as he started:
    “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t do that here. Can you pass the salt?”

  • dhagrow

    or along those lines, exclaim “oh it’s a special occasion?!”, ask what it is, offer your congrats in your own way, then proceed as if prayer was never suggested.

    in the end, though I wouldn’t have minded allowing them their ritual since they are family. atheism needs to be promoted, but it doesn’t have to be at every given moment to every single person.

  • Ritchie

    I totally agree with those saying you did the right thing. What good would objecting have done, really? Do you imagine you would have converted them over dinner conversation?
    I know it probably sucks that you feel like you’ve betrayed your principles, but sucking it up for the sake of politeness and cohesion over dinner with new relatives sound mature and liberal.
    That said, I’m sure you’re worried about setting a precedent for next time. If I were in your shoes I imagine I’d mention the fact that I was an atheist in conversation with them and hope they’d take the hint, and chalking it up to a lost cause if they never did, but that’s good old British repression for you.

  • Katie M

    My immediate family doesn’t pray at dinner anymore, but when the entire family gets together for Thanksgiving, one of my uncles usually initiates it. I bow my head like everyone else and just let my mind go blank for a moment.

  • Kaelik

    The problem with this sort of thing is precisely that it manipulates what is considered rude, and forces compliance. Yes, the people weren’t trying to be assholes, but they are still being assholes.

    Everyone talking about how you should just go along is already a slave to the presumption of religious importance that this sort of ritual is designed to create. As was spelled out really well, the holding hands isn’t just a random tack on, it exists for the specific purpose of forcing compliance and shaming outgroup members.

    There are some battles you have to fight, and there are some battles you don’t have to, but should. This is one of them. Everyone talking about how they hold hands but don’t pray along… So what, most religious people hold hands and don’t pray along. As far as they are concerned, you are praying just as much as they are, and your raised head and open eyes go unnoticed because their eyes are closed.


    1) In someone else’s house, they want to pray, but don’t try to clasp hands.

    You can just not pray or clasp hands, and treat it as a personal observance between everyone else. I personally choose to make a point of eating while they pray.

    2) In someone else’s house and they do the hand holding thing.

    Keep your hands away from their reach, don’t hold hands. If anyone pushes the issue beyond holding their hand out imploringly, ie with words, just say “I don’t ask you to pretend to not believe in god when you are in my house. Don’t ask me to pretend to believe in yours.” Again, I eat during prayers to make a point that it’s a personal thing having nothing to do with me.

    3) In your own house, no hand holding.

    You probably can go ahead and ask them to do it silently. But I wouldn’t. But for sure start eating.

    4) In your house, hand holding.

    Again, you can totally shut that down if you want. Or not. But I would let them, while hopefully making it clear to my kids (if they are present) that it’s a voluntary personal activity, and not in any way mandatory.

    More getting the best choice of food because I don’t wait on them.

    Is this “rude”?

    Well, yes. Because these rituals are designed to make people go along like good little theists or feel rude. So everyone just thinks it’s rude to not be a theist when they want to impose their theism.

    But you know, plenty of people find the things Ebon says on his blog rude to theists as well. Fuck that. Do what’s right, and explain why they are wrong to feel bad if they say anything.


    It’s not about what it accomplishes. It’s about challenging the impression of religious normalcy. When you show defiance, they have to think about what they are doing and decide if they really want to exclude everyone at the table who is a non believer, instead of just doing what they always do because they always do it.

    I have friends who apologized to me later, after having thought about it, because they realized that what they did because they had learned to do it, is actually exclusionary and cruel.

  • Grimalkin

    “I don’t pray, thanks. But go ahead without me.”

    I have given this line quite a bit of use over the years and it’s served me well.

  • http://www.ceetar.com Ceetar

    Obviously because you’re not a rude person yourself, sometimes you just have to go with things. It’s still a sticky situation, but in the end harmoneous (excuse my spelling, stupid IE at work doesn’t correct me) family experiences are probably more beneficial than some enlightened situation where everyone respects and understands everyones beliefs. And in the end, the intent was the same. You both are thankful that your life is bountiful enough that you can enjoy food on the table. Whether you credit a god, your hard work, or the mother cow for giving birth to such a tasty specimen.

    Live is full of these situations, whether it’s attending a friend’s wedding in church/temple/etc or someone saying “god bless you” when you sneeze.

  • http://www.amunium.dk Slater

    Grimalkin: That’s probably the best way to handle that.

    Personally I would certainly have said something along the lines of “Sorry, can’t, my bullshit allergy is acting up again”. But I never was much of a diplomat.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    I think all of this is analyzing it at the wrong level. You have to think about this as a general question of etiquette and take religion out of it completely.

    So, imagine this: You’re in the same situation, and someone right before dinner says that since this is such a special occasion they’d like to take a couple of family pictures with the table all set with everything looking so perfect. Is this okay or not okay?

    Now, to relate it to what could be an objection, I’ll take my own personal take on this. I don’t care much for pictures and find taking them pointless and irritating, and I’d find it more irritating if I was waiting to eat. So it would annoy me. Would I protest?

    No. Why? Because, ultimately, that short delay isn’t that important to me, but it is to them. If something is important to someone else but not important to me, why shouldn’t I put my personal preferences aside just for an instant? Why protest or refuse to participate?

    So ultimately, Ebon, the question is “How important is this to me?”. If participating in that “grace”, even passively, is really, really important to you, then you should protest in some way, in line with how important that is to you. Personally, I don’t see it as that important … and I don’t say grace myself, so it’s not like I’m supporting something I actually do to say it isn’t important.

    And I’d feel the same way if it was a different religion. If someone says that they can’t attend a meal where people are drinking, I don’t find it rude to be asked not to drink. Well, I don’t drink anyway, so it isn’t hard, but it doesn’t seem to me to be rude for them to ask, since it’s important to them. Saying grace for a different religion doesn’t bother me either. Nor would being asked to provide a vegetarian option if I held a dinner party or a specific one for other prejudices, religious or otherwise (I have a lot of the “otherwise” in terms of dietary prejudices [grin]).

    I think too often too much of this gets wrapped up in discussions of “religious privilege”, and not enough in terms of basic manners. Really, claims of rudeness are about manners, and that’s where they should start and end.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I think this is tricky: one of those dilemmas where no answer is going to be really good, and an important principle is going to be violated. I can see why some people are saying, “Pick your battles and just let it slide”; I can also see why some people are suggesting that you politely decline to participate. It’s not as if they just wanted to pray themselves — if it had, then that’s their right and you just let them and don’t participate — it’s that they expected you to participate in a ritual that you not only don’t agree with, but have devoted a significant portion of your life to opposing. And the fact that it got sprung on you without giving you a chance to think about it makes it harder.

    But it’s clearly not as if he was ill-meaning — it may not have even occurred to him that this might be a problem. And this is clearly an important relationship for you, with someone you don’t want to alienate.

    I don’t at all blame you for making the choice you did. I probably would have done it as well, especially given the short time you had to make a decision… and I would have felt the same discomfort you did. In the future, if you want to avoid this situation again, you may just have to talk with him about it privately. Let him know that this was a problem and why: let him know that you’re fine with him praying, but ask him to not bring you into it.

  • http://360skeptic.com/ Andrew

    I LOVE the “I think I’ll just observe, thanks” idea.
    1) for the good manners, so to speak
    2) rather than your opposition, the use of the word ‘observe’ shines focus on their observation-worthy behavior . . . almost suggests a scientific attitude. Detachment.
    While it is a small deal, it is also a big deal. Social inertia is a mountain made of many small grains of resistance. Those of us wanting change can’t just complain to each other. We have to actually move the grains ourselves. Yes, it requires effort, and most change doesn’t come without resistance and even conflict. But if you talk the talk . . . .

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    I think if you sacrificed your atheist principles at all it was only to live up to your universal utilitarian ones. You have put yourself through a small amount of angst to please your guests and possibly spare your wife some embarrasment. I would have done exactly the same.

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/ Erika

    About 1/3 of the way through the comments, I see that many of them support the person who was saying the grace. In general, I agree with these people. However, one detail of this situation makes me share the original discomfort: it was in Ebon’s own home. I believe that in our home, we can and should assert the right not to let someone do something which makes us uncomfortable just because it is part of their comfort and tradition. I have been in a similar situation before (except that the prayer was painfully religious and the speaker started without any warning), and it was extremely uncomfortable.

    The advice I would give, and that I wish I had taken myself, was that I had offered to say the grace myself but make it a secular grace. I actually think the idea of giving thanks at the beginning of a meal is a great tradition; it should just be to the cook and the great company, not to some invisible dude in the sky.

  • http://neatshirts.blogspot.com Abeille

    Dave (#18),
    I’d say…

    “As Thanksgiving draws close, I’d like to start a tradition of going around and stating what we’re thankful for, and maybe what real person/entity we have to thank for it.”

    I’m sure I would add, “But lets eat while we do it! It’ll make for an interesting conversation!”

    I think what would make it feel like a prayer is the enforced and trapped feeling if someone didn’t want to participate- Of somehow giving it more importance than the food and company. If everyone is eating, its more of a conversation that someone can choose his/her level of participation.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic


    I agree with you to a point, but the “my house, my rules” argument only goes so far, and ultimately puts it on a confrontational setting. That’s why I’d prefer to simply let it be based on importance to the people.

    In the case you described, the person should have asked unless it was a general assumption of the group. So if I attended a meal with a group of people who said grace, and one person just started leading, it’s okay for them to simply fall into the old patterns, even if it was my house. I would express surprise, but wouldn’t object.

    But in all other cases, the person should ask and should only do so if it’s really important to them to do it. In the case Ebon described, it seems to me that the godfather thought it important to do it as a group, and seems to have expressed that. In the case you described, that may not be the case. My overall view is that, in general, the person really ought to say them privately unless, again, it’s really, really important to them that it not be done that way, which they can convey to all of us. And I’ll make concessions — within reason — to things that someone else thinks really important that I don’t.

  • Andy

    I always like to immediately follow such a situation by leading in a prayer to the dog. In the same room. Licking herself. Who’s uncomfortable now?

  • Izkata

    Since the goal was not to cause friction with the family, I would have probably let slip the question “Why?” or “Why pray?”, to gauge their reaction. What I would say or do after that depends on their level of offense as well as whose house we’re in.

  • Quath

    I think a lot of it comes down to intention of the people praying. If they are pushing their beliefs, then I will push back. If they are just trying to some family bonding, then I may not object. (I may say something afterwards though.) Or if the person says something like, “I know you don’t believe in God, but would you mind sharing in our ritual” then I would be happy to join in. I think it comes down to respect.

  • CSN

    Very good timing on this with Thanksgiving imminent. I’m sure many of us, myself included, will be spending it with religious family and searching for ways to be tactful without sacrificing one’s self-respect. I don’t know if I can add any new substance here but I’ll at least add my voice.

    Outside your own home I have but two words: Civil Disobedience.

    There’s a reason this method is so significant. Merely not submitting sends all of the right messages, retains your self-respect, and anyone whose feathers are ruffled by your actions is the source of their own problems, not you. I love the line from one of the early comments and will probably have occasion to use it next week: “No thanks, I’ll just observe.” If anyone feels alienated or angry about that, good, you’ve made them think and remain completely blameless yourself.

    In your own home I have four words for you, as the parents once said: “My house, my rules!” I find it very weird that someone would come into your home and take it upon themselves to lead the household in prayer. In Ebon’s case I guess it was a special occasion for him. Normally this would be an imposition as you would expect the resident(s) to take the lead. If they don’t know your position they may ask if you want to lead and congratulations you have an interesting dinner topic, or just briefly dismiss it and move on to other things. In my opinion it would be rude to try to prevent them from praying silently to themselves, but YMMV. The important thing is, respect yourself, respect your home, and do not allow anyone to trample either. Unless they are being proselytizing dicks they probably don’t realize they’re being rude but that doesn’t alter the fact that they are and you have every right to calmly point that out. As an atheist you are uniquely positioned as the neutral party to warn them before they go blundering into the home of someone of another religion and really piss someone off!

    Have a good holiday week everyone; we have much to be thankful for and real people to thank for it! Do not forget that all of this submission and tacit approval that has hidden you is probably hiding other non-believers right under your nose! Give your loved ones the gift that keeps on giving this holiday season: The Seeds of Doubt!

  • colluvial

    I would suggest going along with the praying, which doesn’t mean anything anyway, and then calmly mentioning afterwards, “By the way, you know I’m an atheist, right?”, then waiting to see where the conversation goes.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Ebon, you handled the situation exactly as you should have. You were being a polite host to a guest, and nothing more. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

  • jane hay

    My son’s in-laws, and my son, are evangelicals and they always pray before eating, of course. My son was not raised in a religion – we have always been non-believers, so I am sure he has informed the in-laws of our stance. We have eaten at their house often over holidays, and just observe the tactics of Chet, CamusDude, and Hermes. Luckily they don’t ask us to hold hands.
    My son, of course, does not expect grace when he and the wife at our house.
    But, the incident took place at EBON’s house. I probably would have acted as Ebon did, not wanting to make a scene. However, if he comes to dinner again, being forewarned, I would do like NFQ suggested and interrupt gracefully (pardon the pun) before the process got started with a proposal that follows more secular lines.

  • Dan L.

    This situation reminds me of the argument about whether atheists can really celebrate Thanksgiving having no one to thank.

    I think this is the wrong way to think about it. I don’t think atheists should take the miracle (sorry) of being alive for granted just because they don’t think there’s anyone to thank for it. Everyone should take a few minutes once in while to reflect on how lucky they are. Count your blessings even — maybe especially — if you think they’re merely happy accidents. This is one thing that I think theists and atheists can agree on 100%: we’re all lucky to be here.

    That’s how I hope I would interpret your wife’s godfather’s saying grace were I in your shoes. Sitting down to a meal with loved ones inspired him to express his good fortune in life in what he’s learned as the appropriate language for expressing such a sentiment. Maybe you’d say it differently, but I think the source of the expression is a point of commonality rather than difference.

    It occurs to me that I don’t know a word to describe the acknowledgment of good fortune other than “thankfulness” or “gratitude.” Maybe we atheists need a new word for it?

  • Wednesday

    My general approach to other people praying before meals is to sit quietly with my head unbowed and my hands in my lap, so I think I would have done the same as you.

    You’re right that there’s no good way to deal with such a situation without looking bad, even though he was the rude one, being a guest who then demanded everyone pray. (Unless it was an event held in his honor — at which point, I see letting him say magic words as the same sort of thing as letting him get a piece of cake first.)

    It doesn’t make you a bad activist to let it go. But, if you feel you must speak up about this, I think the best thing to do is to speak to him privately, after the fact. Say that while you know he meant just wanted to share his happiness (or whatever his intent seemed to be — the important thing is to make it clear to him that you know he meant well), it made you uncomfortable that he assumed everyone would want to participate. You could request/suggest that next time he _invite_ people to join him in saying grace, instead.

    @ Dan L.
    I always get confused when people say that atheists have no one to thank at Thanksgiving. There’s the whole chain of people that made it possible for the food to be at the table (from farmers to the cook); there’s our parents and/or mentors who allowed us to flourish; going further back there’s the activists and scientists and artists who helped shape the good things about our culture. And it wouldn’t be inappropriate to have a moment of acknowledgment and sorrow for the people who suffered in the course of human history. (At American Thanksgiving, a moment to express sorrow for what European colonization and the US government have done to the indigenous peoples would definitely be appropriate.)

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I’m delighted that you, Ebonmuse, the atheist guru, the one I look up to on the internet, has the same sort of awkward moments as I do. I don’t really have an answer for you but I like Dan L’s take. You don’t have to believe in God to be thankful for the things you have, or be happy to come together as a family.

    Adding God to the mix makes it into a theists-only club, but that isn’t their intension. At least, I choose to believe not. There is an impulse to turn this into a teachable moment about atheism, but whether that’s appropriate depends on your wife’s Godparents.

    My family’s thanksgiving tradition is to go around the table and say what we’re thankful for. I never thought about us actually thanking anyone specifically, just being thankful. Perhaps Grace could be like that for you, just a moment think about how lucky you are instead of awkwardly waiting for the ritual to end.

  • 2-D Man

    When I was a child, my mother told me that it was very rude to ask for things in front of company. I see your wife’s godfather as doing exactly that here.

    At the same time, he probably didn’t realize that that lesson was relevant here; god-belief tends to be a very long exercise in special pleading. I think the correct course of action was the one you took, at the time, but if you want to stop this sort of offence in the future, you need to bring it up with him in private, or a less formal setting with the other dinner guests present. Make sure to tell him that you still enjoy having dinner with him, and I would even invite him out to dinner, at home or a restaurant, once the conversation is done.

    (There’s a chance this conversation might get heated, and as soon as it starts that way, you need to shut it down, while asserting your feelings.)

  • 2-D Man

    And just because I found this hilarious:

    I think all of this is analyzing it at the wrong level. You have to think about this as a general question of etiquette and take religion out of it completely.
    So, imagine this: You’re in the same situation, and someone right before dinner says that since this is such a special occasion they’d like to snort coke as a group with the table all set with everything looking so perfect. Is this okay or not okay?
    Now, to relate it to what could be an objection, I’ll take my own personal take on this. I don’t care much for snorting coke and find taking it pointless and irritating, and I’d find it more irritating if I was waiting to eat. So it would annoy me. Would I protest?
    No. Why? Because, ultimately, that short delay isn’t that important to me, but it is to them, especially if they’re a coke addict. If something is important to someone else but not important to me, why shouldn’t I put my personal preferences aside just for an instant? Why protest or refuse to snort coke?

    I hope that clears up VS’s point.

  • http://www.essentiallightphotography.com Jim Sabiston

    Ebon, I think you handled the situation well – even if only because your were surprised! I note certain observations on your part relevant to the discussion:

    “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”

    Context is important and if this was more a natural, well intentioned ritual for the gentleman as you describe, then be a gentleman yourself and roll with it. You will actually gain greater respect in the long run for doing so, especially if/when your atheism becomes more generally known. I come across this quite often. My reaction is to just play along and enjoy the well intentioned good family and friends vibe. I don’t recite the prayer, and occasionally will offer a poor excuse for a secular one! Here is why:

    Most commentators here seem to have missed the core process being played out in this common family scene: the importance of ritual. Granted, the form often takes on a religious tone, but this is primarily because religious ritual is the only one most are familiar with. Saying grace before the family meal is the single most common form of ritual we are likely to see on a regular basis outside of a church/synogogue/ mosque/etc. The real purpose of the ‘grace’ ritual is not generally religious, it is primarily a bonding ritual, extended only to immediate family and friends – the core and vitally important social circle. The godfather, in this case, was demonstrating his happiness in being able to share this moment with his circle of friends and family. Just accept it for what it is with graciousness and enjoy it. Even better, come up with a secular way to reciprocate.

    To stress over the religious detail is to miss the real point of the exercise.

    Be well, my friend.

  • Dan L.


    I actually agree with the people who confuse you. You can’t thank someone unless they’re in front of you, and if you do need to thank someone, you shouldn’t wait until the fourth Thursday of November to do so. Farmers, shippers, and cooks aren’t doing you a favor, they’re doing their jobs — for themselves, not for you, so there’s no call for thanks there.

    The idea of a particular day of the year set aside for giving thanks only makes sense in the context of thanking God. Real gratitude is expressed in a more timely and face-to-face manner.

  • Hermes

    On the ‘it is your house’ issue, the person forcing the issue of prayer is being rude if they know it is not welcome, or just thoughtless if they are doing it by reflex.

    Like allowing someone to bring up contentious topics like political views, allowing them to bring up prayer is a sign of magnanimity, of flexibility, of tolerance.

    That said, it is your house. You can set the tone and follow a better tradition. NFQ and quite a few others mentioned a few ideas that seem much more thoughtful.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    2-D Man,

    So why do you feel that the comparison to snorting coke is more apt than the one to, say, vegetarianism or not drinking due to someone’s religious beliefs that I actually provided?

  • Mentat

    Several commenters have already suggested something close to my thought: suppose you were to say a “grace” of your own, whether before or after they’ve said theirs. Perhaps something like: “Since there are no gods to care about us, we have only each other to rely on. Let us make the most of the one and only life we will ever have.” Well that may be a bit rough, but you get the general idea.

    What would the reaction be, I wonder? I’ve never had opportunity to conduct such an experiment myself. If they accept it as an expression of your genuine beliefs (as they expect you to do for them) then all is well, as there is balance. If they object, then that opens the path to discussion and hopefully understanding.

  • Dan L.

    @Verbose Stoic:

    Because privately abstaining from meat or alcohol is obviously not the same as publicly praying. When a vegetarian abstains from eating meat, it doesn’t stop other people at the table from eating meat. For the comparison to hold, Ebon’s wife’s godfather would have had to pray silently while leaving the others at the table to eat or pray as they wished.

    Or you could maintain the comparison by having the vegetarian say a few words to everyone before the meal about how horrible and unethical it is to eat meat. But that doesn’t help your case either.

  • javaman

    Hold your nose.. and let it go… this time, caulk it up as a lesson for a future all purpose respond on your part , more of this behavior probability will occur during the upcoming holidays, the old gent’s intent was harmless and he probability felt a formal family bonding ritual was the proper thing to do. However so is equal time for your beliefs in the form of a atheist statement in these situations, perhaps you could write such a statement.

  • http://feralboy12.com feralboy12

    I can think of a couple of responses here.
    One: When everybody starts holding hands, ask if everybody at the table washed their hands before sitting down, with pointed references to the germ theory of disease.
    Two: the Steve Martin approach. “Mind if I fart?”

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Dan L.,

    My actual examples were:

    Someone wanting everyone to pause before eating to take family photos (which was, in fact, the main point that he altered).

    The vegetarian requiring the host to cook a vegetarian option.

    A different religious belief from mine where someone says that no one else can drink alcohol if they attend.

    All of these seem to, in some way, have that “public” thing that you say is the difference, as both would, in fact, force other people to take actions to support the personal preferences of the person. And I have no problem with any of them.

  • Dan L.


    I don’t have a problem with someone requesting the host provide a vegetarian option, and I know very few people who would object to such a request. I have a problem with requiring it — being a vegetarian doesn’t mean you get to start ordering people around.

    I do have a problem with someone demanding no one drink alcohol in his or her presence. That would be ordering people around. If I invited over a bunch of people and one of them said that no one else could drink while he’s there, I would tell him his choices are to deal with it or leave.

    Photos, kind of the same deal. You can take pictures after the meal, or you can take pictures of people while they’re eating, but you can’t demand that people stop what they’re doing so you can take a frickin’ picture of them.

    I do agree with you that saying grace isn’t a big deal, but I don’t agree with your reasoning. I think it’s not a big deal because I think the motivation for thanking God and saying grace and so forth is common to believers and atheists, and that the only difference is the sort of expression each group would use to realize that motivation.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Dan L.,

    I think you’re applying a personal interpretation to the examples and even to Ebon’s case that isn’t really there, as reflected by your focus on “demanding”.

    So, let me expand a bit on the cases. Let me start with the one that actually did happen to me: the alcohol case. Happened twice, actually. The first time was for a farewell lunch for a co-worker, and either the co-worker or someone who was closer to that person than I was had the religious restriction of not being able to be at the same table as people who were drinking. The organizer came around and asked that we not drink so that she could attend. I found nothing wrong with that request, and would have found it inexcusably rude if someone knew that, in advance, and drank anyway. The second case was a group lunch, and someone in the group had the same restriction. He was fine with just not coming, but we felt it reasonable to restrict our alcohol intake so that he could come.

    Take the vegetarian case, then. What will happen is that you would invite someone, and they will politely say “You know I’m a vegetarian, right?”. At that point, all polite people will start to work to see how they can still have an enjoyable meal even if you weren’t planning a vegetarian option, and all good hosts will accomodate, even to the point of preparing a vegetarian option that they might not have otherwise. And it doesn’t just apply to that case. My parents used to host a New Year’s party, and one of my uncles didn’t like turkey, so they made sure to have enough other options so that he could at least go away satisfied.

    Now, take the photo case. Your reaction here, to me, is astounding, because that sort of request is not uncommon. Imagine that the table is all laid out and perfectly arranged, and everyone is sitting at the table about to start, and someone wants a nice family picture with the nice table and everything … and you’d object to them asking you to take a couple of minutes before starting to get some pictures? That seems utterly odd to me, as what harm or faux pas are they committing to ask you to allow them a few minutes to get what they couldn’t get otherwise?

    Ultimately, a lot of this is coming down to you seeing it as a DEMAND, and that seems to be what is getting your back up about it. But I don’t see any of these cases or Ebon’s case as a demand, but a request. And reasonable people should all accomodate reasonable requests that allow someone to do something that they feel is important if the request is within reason and they don’t feel that the specifics of the request matter to them that much. That seems to be basic general respect for others.

    Yes, demanding is out of line. I agree. But the cases are demands, in my view, but requests. If they ask instead of demand, that show of respect should encourage you to accomodate it. Be careful not to attach intent to the request itself when that intent isn’t actually present.

  • Dan L.

    I don’t want to get into a big argument about this trivial bullshit, VS. Vegetarians can make polite requests, but doing so isn’t comparable to this situation. Those with religious edicts against other folks drinking alcohol (!) can certainly request that others don’t drink, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to comply. Besides, religious proscriptions are SUPPOSED to be an imposition on the faithful. Skipping that party was your colleague’s cross to bear, so to speak. There’s nothing rude about giving religious people an opportunity to feel all self-righteous and excluded and put upon. In fact, they seem to love it.

    I don’t like people taking my picture at all, but if people want to take candid shots, that’s my own fricking problem (just like the religious edict was your colleague’s own fricking problem). If someone does that, I won’t scream at them or anything. But demanding that I pose for a photo by doing something other than what I want to do is an imposition and I feel no obligation to comply.

    If the guy had REQUESTED in the sense I mean, he would have asked Ebon beforehand “You mind if I say grace?” That would have obviated the awkward situation described above (perhaps by leading to a different awkward situation). He didn’t do that. I don’t object to what he did, but my reasoning is not the same as yours. Let’s leave it at that.

  • TommyP

    An interesting post, thanks Ebon. This ought to help me out considerably through the holidays coming up. I always have similar things happen. I think I’ll do the joining of hands with other people thing, while not pretending to pray and thus betraying myself in the process. Togetherness with friends and family is great and the worst that could be said is perhaps someone sneezed on their hands prior to the ritual. It’s a great time to eyeball the food, see if anyone peeks during the prayer, make a funny face at them, and watch for pulsing veins and twitchy faces, which always happens with someone. It’s those little things that can fill up the time with something that, if not exactly constructive, is at least amusing. And if anyone chooses to comment on it, well, then you have a conversation!

  • 2-D Man

    So why do you feel that the comparison to snorting coke is more apt than the one to, say, vegetarianism or not drinking due to someone’s religious beliefs that I actually provided?

    That’s a stupid question and the fact that you’re asking it implies that you’d get everyone at your dinner parties doing cocaine if one guest said that they wanted everyone coked up for the meal.

  • Eurekus

    You did well. There are opportunities to attack religion and this wasn’t one of them. Religionists by not giving us the chance voice our opinion are the ones making fools of themselves in front of anyone whom practices even a little rational thought.

  • Yahzi

    That’s what I do; sit quietly (and even lower my gaze) but not hold hands. In other words I am allowing them the right to express themselves, but not agreeing.

    As for assuming he could do it in your house… he was banking far more on common courtesy than religious approval. The rules of being a good host have been around for a long time, and they haven’t changed much.

    I think you did the right thing, Ebon.

    Although if he’d said something racist… well, that’s different. Then you have to object. Not sure what the difference is off the top of my head, but I am sure there is a difference.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    2D, it would make famiy gatherings a lot more interesting. :)

    I would say just have a chat with him at a later date, maybe just toss off a well-worded email or letter asking him to not do it next time, would probably be the most civil approach.

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    My wife’s godparents

    Unless the term “godparent” means something different to you than it does to me (in the US) this implies some sort of religious connection to these people. In the US it generally means they were named as a sort of spiritual caretaker of your wife when she was baptized when she was a child (yes, I’m making a lot of assumptions here). The fact that you refer to them today as “godparents” not “long-time family friends” indicates that some value or recognition continues to be placed on the title of godparent. Aware of this, the couple might even have felt a small bit of obligation to mark the occasion with some sort of spiritual ritual.
    Therefore, I’m not at all surprised that a prayer was offered.
    You handled it just as I would have. But I don’t think you should be surprised.

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    Thank goodness the old man became your wife’s godfather at her baptism and is not the dreaded mafia godfather ! If I were to be in your place, I would have done exactly the same as you. There is a time and place to assert one’s own beliefs but in a family situation like this, it is better to be gracious enough to grant that godfather the freedom to perform the rituals he is used to without drawing too much attention to oneself. You can take it as a family bonding experience if you like.

    It is normally the ego in us which prevents us from doing this. If we feel that we have spent a good portion of our lives in doing a scientific research on Religion, afterlife, God and connected matters, and then only arrived at our present beliefs, we would like to be recognised for this. Unconsciously we feel superior to the people who seem to have the compulsive urge to suck on the pacifier of blind faith and we feel resentful that they are trying to foist their pathetic ignorance onto us.

    But as a secular humanist, you are also a pragmatist and so as not to embarrass your wife, you relented to the ritual. This is enlightened self-interest and you do have your priorities right. What is the point of making a song and dance about this if it offends your dear wife ? You are a good man, ebon. Writing about such embarrassing experiences itself shows your candor, forthrightness and objective appraisal of events. People like you can be good with or without god. For secular humanists like you, it is the interpersonal harmony that is paramount and not the beliefs per se. Isn’t it ? You are not a fundamentalist like many others, theistic or atheistic. So there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  • darlene

    I would have done the same, have done the same.

    The “my house, my rules” thing isn’t quite right…when someone is a guest in my home my duty is to make that guest comfortable. Yes, if they want to do something that I find really unacceptable I will speak up–I have several times asked people to refrain from using racist language, and people are always surprised when I say “Please don’t say that word/phrase”, but I do it politely and they often turn red and get quite while the conversation continues without them, and then they awkwardly rejoin, and after a few moments it passes.

    But someone I’ve invited in gets to pick the game to play after dinner, the show we watch, the toppings on the pizza…my guest, they rule. That is the happy duty of the host, to make his or her guests feel comfortable. Embrassing a guest is not okay. Ever. It needs to be a Big Thing for me to embarrass a guest. A Really Big Thing. A Super Really Big Thing. Something so big that noncompliance would result in me asking them to leave.

    Now, after the guest leaves I can decide to never invite that guest over again. But otherwise, if the guest asks that we eat sitting on the floor around the coffee table, that’s where we will eat. If the guest needs to say grace for their own comfort, than they may, and should. I do not have to participate, but unless it is a Really Big Thing, I’d let it go.

    That’s what a good host does, at least in my view.

  • http://alanoldstudent.wordpress.com/ Alan OldStudent


    I’ve been visiting this site for over a year now but this is my 1st comment.

    Personally, I would’ve just done what you did, held the man’s hand, and thought nothing about it afterwards. People are always saying things to me like “you’re in my prayers,” or “God bless you.” Although I’m an atheist, I never worry about such things or get overly worked up about them. I just take it that people are wishing me well.

    I’m a pretty old guy right now, and I have sort of lost my appetite for debating religion. I’m always happy to explain my ideas to people who are willing to listen and who are interested. I maintain a blog where I express my opinions on various matters, and if people seem to be interested, I just refer them to that.


    Alan OldStudent

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    @2-D Man (#59),
    That’s better than what I had. I was going to talk about how it’s important to me to receive oral sex before dinner, but I like the snorting coke example better.

  • Adele

    I used to face this problem rather a lot when I was living with my Nicaraguan family.

    They aren’t terrifically tolerant of atheism there, especially in the campo – it’s a very Catholic society (pictures of the Pope everywhere, abortion is murder, etc. etc.). My brothers knew I was an atheist because I’d told them one night – they were horrified/fascinated, they’d never met one before, least of all their sister – but my mother didn’t so whenever prayer was involved with something I had to keep it on the down low.

    It’s funny how much it hurts to keep denying yourself that way, though, especially to people you love.

  • http://peyre.sqweebs.org/ Leon

    I think you did just the right thing. There are times to speak up, and times to let something slide–think of it as picking your battles. In this case, speaking up would have started an argument you didn’t really need to have.

  • Wednesday

    @Dan L.:

    I actually agree with the people who confuse you. You can’t thank someone unless they’re in front of you, and if you do need to thank someone, you shouldn’t wait until the fourth Thursday of November to do so. Farmers, shippers, and cooks aren’t doing you a favor, they’re doing their jobs — for themselves, not for you, so there’s no call for thanks there. The idea of a particular day of the year set aside for giving thanks only makes sense in the context of thanking God. Real gratitude is expressed in a more timely and face-to-face manner.

    Cooking a massive meal like Thanksgiving for one’s extended family isn’t usually a _job_ you get paid for, and it usually is a massive hassle. It seems entirely appropriate to thank the cook, and furthermore, thanking them right before eating seems to be very timely.

    I also see nothing strange about thanking people (in person) for doing their jobs, but possibly that’s just a difference in what manners we were taught growing up. (Possibly also I’m influenced by my time in graduate school, where the department secretaries were both indispensable and overworked.)

    I’ll agree that real gratitude for people you know is usually better face-to-face, and yes, all days are holy or none are, but I also don’t see how making it an annual habit to reflect on what people have done that makes our collective lives better requires Goddidit. Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day are explicitly secular holidays set aside for honoring members of our armed forces, after all.

    Edit: Argh, why does the comment form only recognize the deprecated HTML italics tag, and not em?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Well, I’m bowled over by all these responses! Thanks to everyone who took the time to offer their thoughts.

    From reading all these comments, I see the consensus is that I should let this slide. I can accept that, although it’s not the answer I was expecting, to be honest. :)

    I see some people weren’t sure why I was upset. Demonhype clearly understood exactly what I was talking about, and her comment at #10 explains it very well. It wasn’t the prayer itself that offended me – it was as generic as you get – but the presumption, enforced with hand-holding, that everyone wanted to take part. I object to people assuming I’m religious and want to take part in their ritual, even if they had nothing but good intentions in mind, and it backed me into the corner of either participating unwillingly or doing something blatantly rude to opt out. Essentially, it made me keep silent about my own beliefs in the name of politeness, and that’s something I’m very much against. Ritchie (#35) raised the good point, which was also on my mind, that this was setting a precedent for future occasions – and if I don’t object this time, it makes it that much harder to object in the future if this happens again.

    Several people suggested that I could preempt prayer with a secular alternative. If I had been forewarned, I would definitely have done that – I might even have read the atheist dinner benediction I wrote. The only problem is that it was completely unexpected, at least on this occasion. I’m considering if I could volunteer to deliver an invocation the next time we meet for dinner – and then saying something that makes it clear, in a subtle way, that I’m a nonbeliever. It might be a nicely subtle way to give them a hint.

    SuperHappyJen’s comment (#57) also made me grin:

    I’m delighted that you, Ebonmuse, the atheist guru, the one I look up to on the internet, has the same sort of awkward moments as I do.

    Glad to hear it! I’m always happy to tear down icons, even when they’re icons of me. ;) I do have to admit, it’s easier to be eloquent when I’m writing my thoughts down and have unlimited time to edit and revise before posting.

    Also, I wanted to add this postscript: After dinner, my wife’s godfather was looking at our bookshelves. He didn’t comment on any of my books, but if you didn’t already know I was an atheist, it would be hard to miss after seeing their titles. I wonder if he might already have realized what he’d done…

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    Nah, I’m sure the godfather thinks “Wow, all this atheist literature. He must really be an evangelical to need to know so much about potential converts!”

    …I’m only half-joking, it’s happened to me once. I still implore you to send him an email or a letter explaining the situation and your feelings on the matter. Avoiding misinterpretation in the future, while not as good as avoiding it in the present, still keeps it from happening again.

    I suppose my trolling EAC overreaction (#29) was more the response you were expecting? You of all people should know that athesists are generally fairly level-headed people. :) We pick our battles, and fighting ancient friends-of-family doesn’t seem like a worthwhile use of time.

  • James Hafseth

    Yeah, I have to say that this one, for me, boils down to your feelings being the most important – after all, your home. I’d suggest a combination of what’s been suggested before, i.e. answering with “Actually, we don’t do that here, but if you want to say a silent prayer for yourself, please feel free.” And then start piling food on my plate: how could he possibly object or find that rude (unless he’s one of *those* Christians, and it didn’t sound like he was, in which case you’re likely to have a full-on debate/argument sooner or later and may as well get it over with sooner)?

  • Ergo Ratio

    I’m sorry, I don’t have time to read the long comments above, but in case nobody suggested it, here is an option:

    Wait until everyone (except you) says, “Amen”, and then say, “Now if you don’t mind, I’d also like to say a few words,” and then say an atheist/humanist/whatever prayer/whatever of your own.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Tommykey spoke my feelings damned well:

    Ebon, you handled the situation exactly as you should have. You were being a polite host to a guest, and nothing more. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

    … although perhaps a quiet conversation later with him may prevent Ritchie’s point about precedent from arising.

  • http://www.AtheistsUnited.org/ Neil C. Reinhardt

    I once told my in-laws they could say half a prayer.

  • LindaJoy

    Ebon- I was wondering, since these relatives were from your wife’s side of the family, if she said or would consider saying something to them about it? I’ve been in the same situation many times with my husband’s parents, and when in their house, I would hold hands but not speak or bow my head. I felt that when your are in someone’s home, you respect their traditions to the best of your ability. When they were in our house, we did not initiate prayer and sometimes they just went along with that and sometimes they would initiate something, which annoyed me, but, just like you, I didn’t want to start something because I was so fond of them both. Plus they never said a word when we didn’t baptize our children even though I know it was just agonizing to them, so I figured I owed them.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    LindaJoy and Ergo Ratio: Those are two excellent suggestions. I just may do both of those things. Thanks to you both!

  • archimedez


    I think you negotiated it well, considering that you were taken by surprise and had to respond within seconds. There are occasions where one can be the activist or the politician. In that situation, where you and your wife are hosting your wife’s godparents, I think politician was better (or rather, less costly socially).

    That said, I do agree with you and others who feel a sense of unease about this situation. I also have a suspicion that your wife’s godfather did know you were an atheist, and wanted to test to see how you would respond. Someone who takes religion seriously enough to pray probably takes an interest in the religious beliefs of his host and–have I got this right–godson (no pun intended). In any case, at some point in the future I suspect that the issue of religious beliefs will arise, and at that point it might be appropriate to mention that you are an atheist. Based on what I’ve read in your post [November 16, 2010, 9:44 pm], I see no need to address the issue, regarding this particular praying and holding of hands incident, directly and explicitly. Everything in its time and place.

    Daniel Dennett makes an excellent point.

  • archimedez

    Ebonmuse wrote [in Comment #85]: “Also, I wanted to add this postscript: After dinner, my wife’s godfather was looking at our bookshelves. He didn’t comment on any of my books, but if you didn’t already know I was an atheist, it would be hard to miss after seeing their titles. I wonder if he might already have realized what he’d done…”

    Very well. If that is the case, then in the future there may be no need to do any work on this issue. Let him come to the realization indirectly, if he hasn’t already.

    Correction to my comment #93, “have I got this right–godson” should say godson-in-law.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    My mother periodically tries to get me to say the grace at our family holiday dinners. Maybe this year I can get her to understand how rude of her it is to do that.

  • Scotlyn

    Ebon, I sympathise with your feeling of being backed into a corner, I’ve been there. I don’t see what else you could have done, though, without ruining the dinner, which you did not want to do out of consideration for your wife’s relationship to her folks, if nothing else. My feeling is the key person here is your wife, as she has brought the two parties together. She is naturally in a position, therefore, to help the two parties she cares about to understand one another’s “lines” not to be crossed – in this case, specifically yours.

    @ themann1086 – I used to be asked to pray until, in a fit of “devil took me,” I lead with “Dear Heavenly Father and Mother…” I didn’t hear the end of it for a while, but I didn’t get asked again…

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    @ Scotlyn: I think one time I feverishly flipped through our “prayer” mini-book thing and found one without any religious references (something like “enjoy being in the presence of your family members etc” iirc). The next time I was asked I threatened to thank the people actually involved in making the food. Maybe this time I’ll threaten to thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster…

    Or I could pull a Cap’n Reynolds. “Mind if I say grace?” “Only if you say it out loud”

  • Aolis

    Many people like to give thanks at that start of a meal. Some also make it religious.

    If you object to the first situation, simply say that you don’t usually say anything before a meal and that it makes you uncomfortable. Thank him for his understanding.

    In the second case, if you are allowing him to do the pre-meal speech, hospitality suggests that you let him do it however he wants as long as it isn’t overtly offensive.

  • Scotlyn

    So, themann1086, did you get to lead with “Dear FSM, for this annual heresy of turkey, we are thankful, and promise to faithfully return to proper worship of thee with more noodly nourishment by next Saturday, when we’ve thoroughly exhausted the soup, sandwiches and curry potential of the leftovers…amen”?

  • Peter Tibbles

    Several years ago I was at Christmas lunch at my companion’s family’s place. One of those present suggested that as I was the oldest at the table I should say grace. I said to him that as I was the token atheist present (not wishing to out my companion without her consent) it would be inappropriate. He said grace.
    The following year he asked the same thing of me. Once was okay by me, the second I thought was malicious, so I raised my glass for a toast to the most important person in history born on this day, Isaac Newton, and to my own particular favorite, Little Richard.
    We’ve since ceased attending big family Christmas lunches.