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.