Respecting the Atheist at the Table

Usually, when I get an email from an atheist about a group of Christians, it’s rarely positive… but reader Ryan sent along this story that makes you appreciate how tolerant some people can be. It’s about his Catholic friend “Sarah” (emphasis is mine):

Sarah’s birthday celebration was at a restaurant with ten other people in attendance. I guessed that her other friends at the table were also Catholics or Christians, because most of her close associations come through the church and Christian acting groups. But the group at the party was loose and fun, and I didn’t get any sense of an overwhelming “Christian” attitude there; these were young people and good friends having an enjoyable evening out celebrating.

As the food began to arrive, I noticed that the woman seated across from me, one of Sarah’s friends “Ashley” was trying to pull Sarah into saying grace over their food. She was doing it in a small, quiet, and fast way, making it a private moment between her and Sarah. Sarah stopped her and asked, “Why don’t we wait for everyone to get their food before prayer?”

Ashley answered, “I don’t want to exclude anyone who isn’t religious. It would make them uncomfortable.”

Sarah pointed toward me and said, “Don’t worry, he’s the only one at the table who isn’t Christian.”

At this point I spoke up, saying to Ashley, “That’s extremely polite of you to consider others that way. Please go ahead and pray together, I don’t mind.”

“Well, in the city I’m used to being among mixed groups,” Ashley said. “I don’t want anybody to feel excluded.”

“That’s very considerate of you,” I said. “Really, I don’t get that a lot. Thank you.”

Later, everyone except me bowed their heads and said a prayer together. I sat quietly in my chair, my eyes open, until they were done.

Why was this such an important moment for me? Because in my life I have never experienced a Christian checking to make sure that an open prayer among a mixed group won’t make non-Christians uneasy or outcast; in fact, she preferred a tiny private prayer that drew no attention from others. My family, which is mixed with atheists, the vaguely spiritual, and life-long Adventists, makes “saying grace” a central aspect of any gathering, with no consideration for people who might not wish to participate. Someone who wishes to “opt out” becomes a spectacle. I’ve even got ridicule and pressure for it, when it shouldn’t have even been an issue. No one in my family has ever considered behaving in the way that Ashley did at the birthday party. My mother now warns me when “saying grace” is coming up so I can walk away. But still, I am excluded. Instead of the Christians going to their own space on their own to say a prayer, they make it a centerpiece of serving dinner, and those who don’t want to participate are still forced to quietly acquiesce simply so they can avoid drawing attention.

I’ve never seen a Christian show such a kind attitude as Ashley did in that one moment. It reminds me of how much prejudice I’ve faced, how many unprovoked attacks I’ve received for simply mentioning that I am not religious, and how many times I’ve been pushed from social situations because others do not understand the diversity in beliefs in the world.

I want to thank Ashley for her consideration, and I hope that other theists may also learn to follow her example and understand that they are not the only ones at the table, both the dinner table and the global table. If more people followed her example, we would live in a happier world.

It’s such a simple gesture, too — not the specific example at the dinner table, but just acknowledging that there are other people in the world who may believe something different from you, and you don’t have to act like your way is the only way.

I know I’m using a broad stroke here, but atheists are used to fighting for neutrality (like church/state separation) and we’re used to seeing Christians fight only for Christianity. It’s nice to see an example of a Christian respecting the non-believer at the table — and the atheist acknowledging that.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Philbert

    Later, everyone except me bowed their heads and said a prayer together. I sat quietly in my chair, my eyes open, until they were done.

    No one in my family has ever considered behaving in the way that Ashley did at the birthday party. My mother now warns me when “saying grace” is coming up so I can walk away.

    Maybe he should try the sit quietly approach with his family rather than walking away. Or is that not a viable option for some reason? 

    • mysciencecanbeatupyourgod

      None of us have had to sit at his family’s table so I can only conjecture, but I would guess that it is very likely because less enlightened members of his family than his mother probably  pressure him to participate, make smug comments about how he’s “coming around” and want to ask awkward questions that leads to the entire dinner becoming an awkward and likely vicious theological argument. Whoever is saying grace will always make some offhand comment like “and bless those with us who may not yet see your glory” very obviously singling you out as the person sitting quietly while everyone else is praying. (Yes this has all happened to me at one point or another)
      And here’s the simple answer. Because he doesn’t want to and shouldn’t have to.

      • Beth

        Or maybe his family holds hands to pray. In that case, he’d either leave a conspicuous gap in  the prayer circle (which could be uncomfortable for all) or hold hands, implicitly being a part of the blessing.
        Or maybe in his family, each person says a blessing in turn and he doesn’t want to to deal with a family member saying “Ryan?”, expecting/encouraging him to say a prayer. If that was so, it’s entirely possible any other response could be considered disrupting and/or disrespecting the practice and extremely rude.
        Not that it’s necessarily either of those things. If Ryan feels most comfortable leaving at those times, it’s his business. I just described two ways of “saying grace” that would make me prefer to leave the table.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      Maybe they could consider prioritising a real family member over an imaginary friend?

  • EcksLibris

    I work at a Catholic institution, and I have had two instances of consideration of my atheism that I would like to share. One of my colleagues invited me and my husband to her wedding. While working on the seating chart for the reception, she asked me if we would mind being seated at the work-related table, which would include the campus priest and the director of ministry. I dd not mind, but I did appreciate her awareness of and sensitivity to my way of life.

    Secondly, I had another colleague invite me and my husband to her child’s baptism. She likes us, and knows that we love her kids, so she wanted us to be there in the spirit of community, but took me aside to make sure I would not be uncomfortable being invited.

    I am fortunate that the colleagues with whom I work most closely are considerate of my position.

  • http://www.dwnomad.com Dustin Williams

    That sucks that Ryan’s family is like that. My Adventist parent’s stopped vocal prayers at family meals when I left the church since I was the last of their children to leave. My extended family, on the other hand, does continue the communal prayers before meals. It was interesting to note at the most recent family reunion that only have the heads were bowed. 

    Less than a year after leaving the seminary and shortly after admitting to myself I was an atheist my family was gathered for a meal after my grandma’s funeral. Before we started eating my uncle was about to call on me to pray, as he had for several years, but he hesitated when he looked at me then called on my dad instead. He didn’t know I was an atheist, but I greatly appreciated his sensitivity. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/tina.marie.555 Tina Marie

    My beloved dog is very sick and a neighbor who is unaware of my atheism asked me the other day if it was alright for her to pray for him. I was overwhelmed at the request as it’s been a very emotional time for me. I, of course, said yes and thanked her for the support. It was nice. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      You say “of course” but I’d have said “no, it is not alright.”

      My dog died, and to me it is like a slap in the face whenever anyone tries to bring religious “comfort” into it. It literally makes me nauseaus.

      Oddly, people do this more about the dog than about my grandparents.

      • mack

        Her neighbor’s intentions were completely in good manor. Just because you have different beliefs than someone else does not mean you should turn away an act of kindness even though you may not believe in it.

    • Drew M.

      I always react in the spirit the prayer is offered. In a case like yours, I would’ve have thanked her as well.

  • Sagewolf

    If only ALL people could be so considerate of others!  It would be a better world.  This is a great story.  Thanks for the smile!

  • Comfishoes

    We have been having religious wars with my in-laws for years. After many years of not visiting each other a plan was put into place for them to visit us. I told my SIL that they can feel free to pray in our home. Being what I thought was considerate wasn’t recieved as such as she blasted me back saying “thanks so much for allowing us to PRAY! sheesh!” Needless to say that visit never happened nor are any plans in place for the future.

  • Mateo_1387

    I had the same question Philbert.  While my family probably knows by now I’m atheist, I wouldn’t dream of walking out, just because they want to pray.  While I find praying ignorant, walking out would just be , well, detrimental to the “Family” part of a family meal.  While I can be tolerant of religion being an important part of some of my families lives, its not important to mine, and not important enough to just walk out…

  • Anonymous

    Is saying “grace” a big thing in the US then?  I’ve literally never known anyone to say grace in England though I assume that some of the very religious must do.  I don’t even know what’s involved.  I suppose it doesn’t matter really if the people out want to perform a ritual of some kind then it would really be up to them.

    • Annie

      hoverFrog-  It is for many people.  Although not common, it is also not unheard of to see families join hands and bow their heads in a restaurant.  I grew up in a rather relaxed Catholic home.  We only said grace on Thanksgiving… or when the pastor was joining us for dinner.

    • mysciencecanbeatupyourgod

      It’s also generational. My family would say grace when relatives over a certain age visited but never otherwise.

    • Anonymous

      It is where I come from. Even at work when we have lunches, the boss
      leads the prayer for everyone. I live in the south and people here take
      it for granted that not everyone is a believer. I always just go along
      with it. I’ve grown up with prayers before meals, so it’s not
      uncomfortable for me. I would rather be respectful of them and be the
      bigger person than make a big deal out of it and come across as a
      godless asshole.

      • Newavocation

        You are a godless asshole if you don’t participate. Thats the whole problem with a religious display at a secular business luncheon. I would find it hard to believe your boss doesn’t feel closer to employees that share his religious convictions.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      It varies. I would guess location is a big factor. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and “saying grace” in the workplace would be almost unthinkable. Families, too, are a huge part of the equation. I grew up in a secular home, so prayers weren’t something I observed growing up. Even among my loosely-to-moderately religious extended family, it’s not something I witnessed very often.

      I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but I’ve found Catholics to be a lot more “normal” than other kinds of theists. Maybe I just have more relaxed family members, but in my experience Catholics don’t start praying out of the blue or awkwardly insert Jesus into their conversations. Admittedly, their religious rituals are bizarre (and IMO, creepy) but still a lot better than waving arms in the air, shouting about Jesus, or writhing on the floor. Catholics seem to keep their religious stuff in church, where it belongs.

      • http://www.dwnomad.com Dustin Williams

        I have found that to be true with most Catholics. In fact I’ve only come across one exception.

      • Anonymous

        I grew up mildly Catholic and we sometimes had prayers before family dinners when I was little (only at home of course). But even then I found it more empty ritual and tradition than genuine and it eventually stopped. It was just part of my religious indoctrination

    • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

      I am a British atheist and my wife is African and religious. Not as religious as some of her family. Some members do expect to say grace before a meal -it’s what they have always done and I am not going to stop them. I just sit quietly, head up, eyes open. Nobody has ever said anything to me. You could argue that they are being insensitive, but to most of them it is as natural as which hand they use for their knife and which for their fork. See what I did there, I know many Americans put down their knife and use their fork with the dominant hand to actually eat, so maybe I am being culturally insensitive.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1293150240 Kat Hague

    great story, ashley was raised in a considerate household, unfortunately most people are not taught to be that thoughtful of others beliefs. a word to atheists  from an atheist who is a former xtain, arguing with a believer will not change their view of their faith. only by learning about the world and increasing their scientific knowledge can it open their mind to the truth. i never argue about faith with the goal of changing some one’s mind, you know how much you don’t like it when some one tries to change your mind about your non-belief.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      I know what helped me out of religion, and it was being challenged on it. I’m not going to say it works for everyone, but you are wrong to say it does not work.

  • Old fogey

    Just to confirm Hoverfrogs point. In the UK  I have never, in 60 years, heard anybody say grace, at private meals, in restaurants, or at work. On a smaller sample, I have never come across it anywhere else in Europe – though I have not been to any private familly type meals in the south (eg Italy).

  • Paul Little

    Interesting. “Ashley” is the most Christian Christian I have ever heard of. Most so-called Christians completely ignore Christ’s admonition to the apostles to pray in private, not in public.

  • Karen

    We used to have proper family prayers at all my in-law’s family gatherings.  Mom-in-law would say the prayer, and we would all bow our heads.  I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I bowed  my head, too.

    But it’s dawned on Mom-in-law that there are atheists in the family now, and some of them are her own offspring.  We generally get together around a table only once a year, at Thanksgiving; the rest of family get-togethers are buffets.  So on Thanksgiving, rather than leading a prayer, Mom goes around the table and invites everyone to say what they’re thankful for.  One doesn’t have to mention a deity at all.  It’s her way of including everyone, and still having what she sees as an important ritual.  It’s a little awkward, but it gets uber-points for Best Of Intentions.

  • Greisha

    We may have an important lesson here – one can be a decent human being even while being religious.

  • Dan W

    Nice to see some Christians being considerate of others about saying grace. I’ve not experienced that kindness either, though nobody has made any comments when I quietly sit there while they pray before the meal. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky in these situations and they were too busy praying to notice me not joining in.

    My normal procedure for times when I’m at a meal with family or peers and the Christians decide to say grace is to just sit there quietly, head up and eyes open while they do their prayer. I like to look around and see who else isn’t praying as well.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jfinite Justin Bonaparte

    Wow, pretty cool!

  • Sethcchrn6

    My parents are devout Christians and when I, an atheist, visit them they pray while I don’t. In such private settings, I think it’s appropriate for the guest to observe the dining customs of the host. In public settings, however it is nice to see each practice their own ritual, or choose not to, without a spectacle being made.

  • cbc

    A cousin unexpectedly suggested I say the prayer at a family dinner recently. (I think she thought she was bestowing an honor). I was caught in the headlines, all I could do was stammer, “I…I don’t pray.” Luckily someone else quickly started praying. 

  • Steph

    this has come up for me several times.  My response generally depends on how much energy I have.  I get so tired of having to defend what shouldn’t need defense.  Any way, I usually blast  “The Christians and the Pagans” by Dar Williams before any holiday gathering and then quietly sing it to myself while everyone else prays.

  • doureallyneedtoknow?

    That’s awesome I’m atheist and when people are going to give thanks I always pretend I have to go to the bathroom or somthing because only a few people know

  • pimpinweazil

    This should not even be an issue since the concept of prayer is expected to be private. It is demanded as such by the “Combination of books of a certain informationally depraved era considered to be, amongst other things, a social guideline” known to some as the bible. The showing off to others, theme, is not according to the ancient guidelines and would have resulted, in the ancient days, in some sort of scolding of the individuals in question.

  • Russ Jones

    When I was in grade school, fourth grade, this would have been in 1958, the teacher put it to a secret vote whether we would say the lord’s prayer every day. One “no” vote would have been enough, we wouldn’t say it. There weren’t any “no” votes and we did say the prayer, but years later I found out that one of my classmates was Jewish. I asked her if she remembered fourth grade, and she did. She voted “yes” because she figured she didn’t have to actually say the prayer, and it wouldn’t hurt her any, but mostly she voted “yes” because she was so pleased to have been given the choice.

    As a side note, that same teacher was very enlightened in many other ways. She used to read to us for at least a half hour every day. She read us a lot of books, but I can only remember two: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. And she didn’t gloss over the “N” word, she explained it to us.


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