Dear John [a woman wrote me yesterday],
I’m an atheist who was raised in the Bible Belt. I’ve come out as an atheist to most of my family, but many of them are in denial about it; they think it’s just a phase that I’m going through (even though it started when I was a teen, and I’m now forty-two.) My husband is also an atheist. He hasn’t been subjected to this yet, but it’s coming: when we visit my parent’s house (which we’ll be doing soon), everyone is going to stand around the room, holding hands, heads bowed, and start praying. What is appropriate for my husband and I to do? I know my family’s answer would be, “Hold hands; bow your head; be reverent for our religion, which you really need to accept. Don’t make waves.” But bowing my head and praying with the rest of them feels so incredibly hypocritical and disrespectful to me. I wouldn’t make them renounce their faith if they came to my house for a meal. But saying, “I’ll just step outside until ya’ll are done” also feels icky.
Strangely, Miss Manners does not address this in any of her etiquette books.
So, what do YOU say?
Dear Atheist Lady,
I say I fear to tread where Miss Manners won’t go. After all, she’s a professional. I’m a guy who’s about one daily walk to the mailbox away from being a complete shut-in.
Then again, Shore Family Motto.
Okay, so what here and everywhere matters is that you do not betray your ethics. I don’t see how in this case anyone’s asking you to do that. So you hold hands with your family (a lovely thing to do), bow your head (good for neck flexibility; excellent time to make sure your shoes are tied), and, while they’re praying, think to yourself, “I can’t believe these guys still believe this nonsense,” or, “I can’t believe they turned my old bedroom into a mud wrestling venue,” or whatever. And then it’s over. So what? That moment ends; you enjoy (or not) the ensuing time with your family; you and your husband return to your regularly broadcast lives.
Where did you get hurt in that? What did you sacrifice? It’s just a custom they practice. You’re a guest in their home. If I went to someone’s house, and they expected me to take my shoes off before entering, I’d do it. What do I care? Even if their carpet looked like terrorists had been training on it—even if I could see how stupidly useless it was to take off my shoes—I’d still do it.
Now, if they expected me to take off my shoes, and then use one of them to smack myself in the head with, I’d demur. Because that does cost me something. That’s a violation of me, and who I am. But if all they want is for me to leave my shoes at the door? If they think my hairy big toe sticking out of my sock enhances the milieu they’re after? Then I’m happy to help by leaving my shoes at the door. Because I have no vested interest in not doing that.
In that same way, you (should have) no vested interest in not going through the praying motions that mean so much to them. If it makes people whom I care about feel good if along with them I sing a song about how great the people are on the planet Bongelton, why wouldn’t I sing that song? I’d think they were crazy—but so what? I’d just keep that to myself, and sing along. There’s no harm in it.
If your family does, in fact, ask you to “be reverent” toward their religion, then that’s a true issue. But in matters of conviction and conscience, you have to pick your fights. And standing around waiting for them to exercise what you think of as their delusion doesn’t seem at all battle worthy.
It sounds like what you really want (and certainly understandably so) is for your parents and family to respect your atheism. To that end, talk to them about it. Just before the communal family prayer isn’t the right time to open that conversation—but outside of that, ask them if you could sometime sit down and discuss with them this very important, very personal issue. As a member of their family, you have every right to be thoughtfully and respectfully heard. Request an opportunity to exercise that right. They won’t refuse you.
And if they do refuse you something that important? Then Shore Family Motto.