An Atheist (And Her Atheist Husband) Visit Her Evangelical Family

An Atheist (And Her Atheist Husband) Visit Her Evangelical Family August 10, 2010

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.

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  • Wot u sed. It's simply a matter of showing courtesy. I wear a yarmulke when I attend a bar/bat mitzvah or a funeral for a Jewish friend; that's not betraying my beliefs but showing respect for theirs (in fact, technically I'm not even showing respect for their belief but rather for their right to hold a belief contrary to mine).

  • For the record, I pray before meals, too.

    But when I'm in the house of someone who doesn't, I don't need to make a show of it. I either whisper something quick and silent, or let it go. (Knowing, of course, that the before-meal prayer is a custom, not a Biblical command.)

    In her position, I'd give the same advice: Hold hands, bow your head, and be quiet for a moment. It won't cost anything. If you're asked to pray for the group, then bow out — that IS too much for them to ask.

    I have actual experience with this. My wife and I are Evangelical types, my mother-in-law is Catholic, and my wife's two brothers, sister, and father are atheists. Oh, one of the sisters-in-law is Jewish. I almost forgot.

    We make gatherings respectful of all, and figure prayers more or less based on the host, and with consideration for all.

  • Diana

    Great post… another thing I thought while reading was this: If you were visiting a family who practiced another religion (Bhuddist, Hindu, etc.) and they had a small before-meal ritual, would you smile and go along out of courtesy? I think that we often give Christianity and Christians a harder time than we do other faiths, just as we give our families a harder time than other families…

    So yeah, I agree with the "smile and nod" approach, as well as with the talking about the real issue of respect at a later point.

    Good luck to the OP!

  • alison

    Good answer, both of you. You show respect to your parents, not to their belief system.

  • A'isha

    Good response, John.

    Just as she wants them to show her respect regarding her beliefs (atheism is a belief system in itself), she should also respect them regarding their beliefs. I don't think "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a strictly Christian concept.

  • Wonderful John! You made great points.

    I grew up catholic, with my dad catholic and my mom protestant. On occasion she would come to church with us for special events (baptism, 1st communion, etc). At those times, she would sit quietly while everyone around her was kneeling or praying prayers with which she did not agree. She set a wonderful and quiet example in that.

    If this person does not want to join in, they should quietly step back out of the circle of the family and observe a moment of silence. As you said, it won't hurt them to respect the home that they are visiting. Their family is not using the prayer to slam God in their face, but out of their own beliefs and traditions.

    Thank you again for your sensible a well-phrased comments.

  • mm

    Agreed. Just think about something else and move on. The fact they are not respecting your beliefs is the cause of concern, not prayer. Then again, I'll play slight hypocrite here and say as an atheist I can't bring myself to kneel in a church. I'll do everything but that, because to me that's the deal breaker. i feel like I'm disrespecting anyone who kneels before god if i don't believe in it,. i know, probably silly, but hey, I'm allowed to have silly rationales I follow.

  • once again, rightfuckingone

    When i first read the title, my first thought was…just bow your head,

    here is my analogy, if i am at baseball game, in Japan, when they sing their National Anthem, I am just gunna sit in my seat with my arms crossed? No, i will stand in respect.

  • Kara

    I'd hold hands, but I might not close my eyes. (Theoretically, they shouldn't know either way.) Not being confromtational, still not pretending you're doing what they're doing, just being with them. JMO.

  • Velvet

    This was a great read. I think of cultures and religions that require the removal of shoes. When we are in/on someone else's turf, temple or house, we follow their customs and traditions. It is just being polite.

  • Emily

    I'm Jewish, but I see no problem with a quick prayer with my husband's family before dinner. They say what they need to say, and I have a quick moment of reflection for myself. I focus on being thankful for the upcoming meal, which I think is a pretty universal feeling.

  • Brighid Rose

    I have to agree with what you say, John. It doesn't hurt to "participate" in so far as to not be disrespectful to the family's traditions. When I'm in a "Let us pray" situation, I'll be quiet and respectful, but not necessarily "contribute" to the prayer, or I'll make my own little one up in my head that suits how I feel. Given her upbringing, they may never accept that she's an atheist because to do so, in their minds, "condemns her to hell." It's easier for them to believe it's just a phase. I would draw the line at "having to" go to church, participating in family devotions or anything like that. But if it's just a family prayer, that can be navigated without hurt feelings.

    LOVE the Shore family motto too 🙂 Ironically, that's my own personal family motto as well! (we won't talk about my extended family…lol)

  • Old Stuff

    Like Kara, I would hold hands (that's really just a familial thing), but I wouldn't bow my head. They're not looking anyway!! My mother wanted us three boys to go to mass one Mother's day (raised Catholic but now all atheists…who can blame us?!). I stood when the group did only so I could have a good view, but no freakin' way was I kneeling. It was actually kind of fun sitting there…more as a cultural anthropologist than anything. ([in a low voice] And here we see the herd of wild catholics line up for their ritual cannibalism of their deity) Though tempted just for grins…I did not go to receive communion. (fyi: I formally defected from the Catholic Church a few weeks back)

    When I host family events, I allow my mother to say grace prior to the meal, but I sit with my hands in my lap and eyes open.

    My general rule is that I will stay present but to nothing that could be interpreted as participating in or endorsing the ritual.

  • JohnB

    I can't say why mm was in a church, but here's my reason.

    My oldest was very active in the church, and I happily spent the money to send her on a trip to Israel when she was 18. My youngest is a acolyte at the episcopal church we have attended, and may very well eventually believe in this stuff. They are very aware of my position on the subject of religion, and that I have no belief in anything supernatural.

    I have an issue with taking communion (I think it would be hypocritical), but I go up and stand with the kidzos and help instruct them in the tradition.

    I do it for them.

  • Old Stuff

    At 1:40 into this trailer of Analyze This is a clever bit about a Jew not being familiar with a Catholic custom.

  • Mary

    What John Said, Atheist Friend. You're not really giving anything up by going along and holding hands and bowing your head. I once had an athiest boyfriend (for about 2 months tops) who refused to take off work on Good Friday through Easter Monday even though the federal government (he worked for the EPA) gave all employees the time off. I mean….that's going a bit far to make a point…that noone was there to see anyway because everyone (Christian, Jew, Atheists, and Others were all not working on those days). I didn't leave him for this reason, though. Turns out he was a stickler about other things. I had surgery on my arm and he wouldn't come to the hospital to see me because he said that the surgery was elective. I had been hit by a train and I had lost the use of my arm. And after a dozen different treatments over time, surgery was done. But I digress….he was weird. I don't want you to be weird. LOL

  • as a child my grandparents used to visit frequently. They were protestant Christians who insisted on holding hands and saying "grace" before each meal. My parents were devout Catholics who preferred completely silent, individual pre-meal prayers. It drove my dad crazy to go through the ridiculous song and dance of it all especially in his own home, but out of respect for his parents, he bit his tongue, held hands and endured. In the end it was only 30 seconds and after he was afforded the opportunity to silently bow his head and give the sign of the cross while my mom dished out the food. so everyone was happy. The simple gesture of my dad participating was a gesture out of love and respect–not of some deity, but between a child and his parents.

    I know it's not exactly the same considering the gap bw atheism and christianity, but in my experience, the gap bw Catholic and not-Catholic was always noticeable none the same.

  • DR

    I actually agree with this and think it shows integrity. At some point, kneeling does communicate something powerful. I'd be mindful of what I knelt before as well.

  • The subtleties of the situation are not easily gleaned from the original letter.

    For a while (15 years), my family were vegetarians. We would visit the in-laws, and my mother-in-law would always say something like "This chicken is so delicious! Oh, but you don't eat chicken, do you?"

    Now she knew perfectly well we didn't eat chicken, but she had to say something every time.

    When I am with friends and they pray, I bow my head. If it's a communal prayer, I commune. No harm done to either party.

    But I can imagine a situation where I might be with a group, I bow my head, and the prayer begins. "Ohhhh Dear Looorrrrrd. Look down in pity at this sinner in our midst, and shine Christ's love into his soul to burn out the darkness nestled there in his unrepentant breast…." My grandpa used to be pretty good at free form stuff like that, sometimes racist, sometimes fascist, sometimes obliquely critical, using third-person invisible tense (talking about people in the same room but not addressing them directly). I believe that Christ rolls his divine eyes at that sort of prayer, just as I do.

    Mutual respect and consideration are all that are required. If you hold hands and they say a normal prayer as they always have, I'd say don't be so sensitive. If the prayer is yet another in a long, predictable line of sincere attempt to save your soul, there might be justification for taking the icky step outside for a minute.


  • Matthew Tweedell

    No. Atheism is a doctrine of rejection towards belief in the reality/existence of deity, not merely the absence of such a belief, in the same way that an asymmetry is different from a mere absence of a symmetry. Rocks and newborns are not atheists, though they lack theism, since they are in a class of things to which such attributes can't be properly applied, in the same way that instances, value, and red are not asymmetrical as they lack any defined symmetry. This is a matter of common definition, which can be easily verified.

  • No sir, atheism is simply the lack of belief in God. There is no more to it than that.

  • I think is is rude to expect people to participate in your rituals if they are not of your religion. It is perfectly acceptable to opt out of the prayer. I do it every holiday at my grandmother's house. My family respects me enough to not make an issue of it and I in turn respect them by being quiet while they pray.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I see you have some sort of vendetta against the English tongue tonight. jk.

    It's really not up to you to decide, Mr. Ely. This isn't a matter of opinion but a fact of definition. Look it up! Why don't you guys stop wasting our time with silly arguments like these?

  • iowawaltz

    Yeah, that’s also kind of my approach with my parents. Actually, my husband and I are Christians, as are they, but I feel that they have a somewhat heavy-handed approach, especially when they visit our house. As if we aren’t Christian *enough.* So when they pray it makes me very uncomfortable and my reaction is to sit quietly with open eyes and unbowed head and think my own thoughts.

  • Jeanine

    As I read through all of these responses, I am overcome by the fact that all of them deal with either the horizontal person to person relationship or with the self. On one hand, some are concerned with not offending the parents. On the other hand, others are more concerned with being true to themselves and not being hypocritical. Prayer in itself is not a horizontal form of communication. Prayer is a vertical conversation; our prayer ascending to God, the creator of the universe. We may be in a group of fellow believers, but our prayers are directed toward somebody transcendant who hears them. We are commanded to pray as believers not out of a ritual or custom or religious display; but because the Lord knows it is imperative to for us to communicate with Him in order to have spiritual life. If I were these parents, under no circumstances would I forgo giving praise to Him who provides our food. But neither would I be insulted if my son or daughter opted out of the prayer. Their unbelief is between them and God. I was once just like them, every single Christian was. It was the Lord’s grace that lead us to know Him; and it is His grace that will lead them. Pray Christian Pray, for your unbelieving friends and relatives! They need us to pray for them. But do not be insulted by their own lack of prayer; God knows their hearts, and God is a God of Truth. He does not desire for an unbeliever to live a lie and go through the motions. Jesus called the Pharasees hypocrites because they acted the part, but their hearts were far from Him. God wants only the REAL thing – a real, true God to Man relationship, not a phoney religious one. Christian, don’t stand in the way of God’s love with your ‘hurt feelings’ and pronounced judgements. Pray because you need to for yourself and keep loving the unbeliever.

  • DR

    Matthew, don't you think it wise to let someone who is an actual atheist have the last word on describing what it is she or he believes? What actual harm is there in allowing that to occur? You're not an atheist – they are – they've corrected you. Why do you need to have the last word on this? It's an honest question, I'm having a difficult time understanding.

  • DR

    Given a lot of atheists believe that Christianity actually harms the world, it seems like a fairly difficult thing for them to ask to go along. I don't think I disagree with anything John's offered, but atheists also have things they believe in that are morally right and wrong. For many, Christianity is actually harmful. But they love their family and want to do the right thing. I have two family members who feel this way and I'm always mortified when they are forced to join hands and pray, I know it's on a personal level, participating in something that's actually bad.

    So for me, I'd be comfortable modifying this to just being a neutral presence – one that doesn't detract what is occurring around them – but to not participate if they believe they are participating in something that is actually harmful, what that looks like is going to be different for every person.

  • DR

    You're actually perpetuating the arguments, Matthew. Who cares how atheists describe their experience? How well would you tolerate someone who is not a Christian describing what it is you *actually* believe? You're doing the same thing to them.

    People deserve the dignity of describing who they are on their own terms.

  • I agree with your conclusion, John.

    Bowing your head and, and doing something as simple as keeping your eyes open if you don’t agree, is very simple. Now, if they were asking her to proclaim that God is the Lord of her life and ruler of the universe every time she walked into the house, THAT would be violating her ethics. But a simple standing in a circle holding hands won’t hurt anyone.

  • Also, the definition of atheism has different "definitions" depending on which dictionary you pick up. But to us atheists, it simply means that we do not believe in God. There is no other single thing that we all agree on. Definitions and labels are political in nature, so there is no way for it to be a "fact". The official definition depends on who is saying it and for what purpose.

    I am an atheist. It is not a belief system, it is simply acknowledging that there is no reason (evidence) to think there might be a God. If evidence is produced, then it can be examined, but there is none to examine atm. Atheism is indeed the default position if no other belief system is present.

    I do not define myself as an atheist except when dealing with matters of religion and religious people. It does not come in to play in any other aspect of my life. If there were no religion around, I would not even have to use the word atheist at all. I would just be me.

  • Leslie

    That actually brings up a question I have, which is why won’t Protestants participate in the Catholic prayers? Truthfully, they’re all glorifying God, and asking Him for His mercy. However, every time I’ve sat next to a Protestant during a Catholic service, they (very politely) sit out the prayers. When I am at a Protestant service, even one radically different from a Catholic service, I will say all the prayers.

  • Old Stuff

    Doesn’t it too depend on the level of disagreement that you might have with (in this case) Christianity? If one is an atheist but sees no harm in the parent’s beliefs, that would be one situation. If one is an atheist and DOES see harm in the parent’s beliefs; that is quite another.

    If I went to someone’s house and they traditionally began their meals with a chant that all the Jews and n**gers should be smote down by God, then I think it is my obligation to NOT participate in the most obvious way. (now I just have to figure out how I got into that situation to begin with)

  • DR

    This has been very helpful to read. I continue to be surprised at how much I define other people according to my own terms which are certainly influenced by my faith- your last sentence is instructive, as tildeb's have been.

  • Cool, I am glad I am able to contribute positively to the conversation. I have learned a lot myself from the people I have met here so I am glad to return the favor.

  • like. Robert. like!

  • alison

    As a protestant who occasionally visits a Catholic church, if it’s all written out for me, I’ll participate in everything (except communion, they won’t let me). But if you attend a protestant, non-liturgical church, it’s often very confusing. If I know what I’m supposed to do, I will do it, as will every other protestant I know.

  • It depends on what you mean.

    In some cases, there might be quirks that make me uncomfortable, so I won’t say them. Not having a specific example, I can’t demonstrate.

    The issue of Communion makes me avoid visiting Catholic services unless I absolutely have to.

    I’m sure that there are differences, but the Protestant congregations of which I’ve been part have a simple standard for Communion — do you profess Christ as your Savior? We don’t screen anyone coming up or have a lot of rules about it. On the other hand, I do know that I’m not welcome to take Communion at a Catholic service.

    That does contribute to a lot of discomfort.

  • Although I fully agree with John’s advice, I feel the need to point out (once again) that atheism is not a belief system in itself. It is the absence of belief in a divine supernatural agency. I’m sure you would grow weary, A’isha, if people assumed you were not a woman but another kind of man called a non man. It’s the wrong emphasis and somewhat lacking in respect.

  • Robert Meek

    I agree, having a background in Lutheran, Calvinism, independent Charismatic, Assembly of God, Church of God, Pentecostal Holiness, Foursquare, Baptist, etc.

    The one thing I have absolutely no working knowledge of is Catholicism. I have attended, out of curiosity, when I was a young man in college, a noon mass at a downtown church in Charlotte, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, before downtown became uptown, back when you got a free ride from CPCC to downtown and back on the bus, and I would go, just to see.

    I found it very enjoyable, but I did not pretend to understand what I did not know. I did ask the priest many questions, after mass, a couple of times. He was very nice, and willing to answer and take the time. A young man, actually.

    I remember asking about the Rosary, praying to Mary (explaining we were taught to think of it as false worship of her instead of Jesus, which he KNEW we had been taught that, BTW!), and the Stations of Christ in the church windows – each story something I knew, but could not recognize well in their stained glass windows, which were, BTW, the most beautiful that I had ever seen in my entire life.

    I remember finding it very comforting, and going back several times, even though I knew it was closed communion, and just sitting through it, feeling very peaceful.

    I remember taking my mother, and telling her to put aside all of her notions about it and just sit quietly.

    Afterwards, she admitted it was quite a surprise and quite a blessing. She was amazed at how peaceful she felt!

    But follow the liturgical responses? I had no idea what they were, and was totally lost.

    The ONLY prayer they prayed that I KNEW was The Lord’s Prayer! Now THAT one, I prayed WITH them, because I DID know it.

    It’s not that we WON’T, it’s that we don’t know what we’re doing!

  • Diana A.

    What I think personally…you shouldn’t kneel before God if you don’t believe in God. It would be rank hypocrisy for you to do so and equally rank hypocrisy for anyone to expect you to do so. I agree with where you’ve drawn the line here.

  • Robert Meek

    Given it’s all PRETEND, just a MOVIE, and a dark comedy, at that, my analysis of it is “When can I see it in Netflix!”


    In fact, me thinks I go there now.

  • Diana A.

    “…but I feel that they have a somewhat heavy-handed approach, especially when they visit our house.”

    Don’cha love that? I know a few “heavy-handed” Christians myself. Being more of what I call a “Garden Variety Christian,” (a rare breed now-a-days, though you’ll find a lot of us here on John’s blog) I totally understand where you’re coming from on this issue.

  • Robert Meek

    Speaking of people who DO use the “N” word (my neighbor 2 houses down the road)….

    He does, I don’t, we both know it. I don’t throw my feelings about it in his face, and expect him to not throw it in my face, but he does.

    For instance, had me in one day, and every other sentence was the “N” word about how he won’t watch this show on TV because they had an n#%^$r and a white person kissing – I told him pretty soon he wasn’t going to be seeing anything on TV! He called the black family on the corner that, and spoke of having shared his catch of fish which he’d cooked with them, “I fed the n#$%^rs on the corner,”and “I can be friends with ‘them’ but I don’t have to let ‘them’ in my house!”

    Lastly, he said “If my daughter ever brought one home…” that he would genuinely disown her, for good.

    I told him I did not believe him that he would disown his ONLY child.

    I also told him that he knew how I felt about the “N” word, and I knew how he felt about it, and I did not understand why he kept throwing it up in my face, after having LET me into his house, unless his objective was to DESTROY our friendship.

    BTW, that was a few years ago, they haven’t spoken to me in AGES.

    Sadly, that suits me just fine.

  • Robert Meek

    I am conflicted about this.

    I do agree with John, and others who agree with him.

    But another part of me asks “Isn’t it being hypocritical?” and another part of me asks “What about the courage of one’s convictions?”

    We don’t wanna go there and find out how MANY “parts” of me there are! 😉 🙂

  • Diana A.

    "But to us atheists, it simply means that we do not believe in God. " See, this makes total sense to me. It would never occur to me to put more of a meaning on the term "atheist" than that.

  • I think the root of this misconception is that religious people think that if someone does not have religion in their life, they are missing something. It seems like you feel that if there is no religion in our lives, we atheists have to fill that hole with something else. That is simply not true however. It is not that we replace one belief system for another. It is that we are comfortable without a belief system. There is nothing really missing and there is no real hole to fill.

    I recognize that the rules change with every new discovery and advancement of human knowledge. More flexible thought patterns are required in these modern times to stay competitive. So why would I tie myself to an inflexible system of rules that does not allow for growth, change and new discoveries about our universe? It simply makes no sense to me. So I just opt out. Easy as that. There is nothing deep or philosophical about it for me.

  • Old Stuff

    Just like 'atypical' means 'not typical' and 'asymmetric' means 'not symmetric', 'atheistic' simple means 'not theistic'. It is simple word construction. I don't deny that some common usage says that it means positive claims are being made…but that is meaning foisted upon it by the believing population.

    If you calmly reconstruct the word it, means nothing more than lacking theistic belief. It could be well argued that a deist is an atheist. More importantly it says nothing about a person's character, world view, or politics.

  • Diana A.

    Speaking strictly for myself–the "belief" parts of Christianity and religion in general have always been the parts I've held most lightly. Beliefs are important–they tend to dictate action–which is all the more reason to hold them very lightly and be prepared to let them go if it turns out that they might be incorrect.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    That's not fair to me, DR, because this says something of *my* experience. It says that until I could articulate a belief in Jesus I was an atheist. I must insist that from the moment of my infant baptism, I have been a Christian. I have tolerated it enough already.

  • Old Stuff

    OK. Certainly I could have put a finer point on the definitions, but it seemed unnecessary. The point remains that an atheist, by definition, does not make any positive claim about the existence of God, but rather is just not a theist.

    Any atheists that I know only would deny the existence of God to the same level that we all deny the existence of Unicorns. If someone showed me a Unicorn (or related compelling evidence), I would believe in Unicorns. But, at present, I have zero reason to believe in Unicorns. Nobody that I know takes the trouble to define their technical agnosticism toward Unicorns…so it probably comes off as a making a positive claim that Unicorns do not exist. It's the same with the biblical god…or any other god of mythology. I would be happy to believe if there was reason to believe.

    I trust that you do not tell people that you are still weighing the evidence for and against Unicorns.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    (For anyone else reading this, I already addressed DR's concerns above.)

  • IMHO, that's not disrespectful at all. It's honest, and that's one thing we should all respect.

    Rejoicing in the day,


  • Matthew Tweedell

    What misconception? I'm not saying that you have something else in place of theistic belief. I *am* saying that you are a being with beliefs (you wouldn't have motive for doing anything if you didn't believe in it, believe that it would be the right thing to do in that moment to bring some sort of benefit to you or someone else), which happen to be, at least for the time being, exclusive of divinity.

  • I do not believe, I think. The difference being that thoughts are based on things that exist and so do not require belief. Thoughts can change as new information is introduced. I do not "believe" in anything at all.

    I have thoughts and feelings that dictate what I do and say. There is no need for me to believe. My motives are dictated by self interest, not belief.

    You assume too much about the way other people think. Do not presume to tell me about myself. You do not know me.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    The reason that no one is agnostic towards unicorns is that no one sees as much so-called evidence for unicorns as can be found for Sasquatch or for God. There are people who believe in the existence of Bigfoot, people who believe that's a bunch of bull, and people who'd honestly say they don't know what to believe. Now, in general, gods are rather more poorly defined than bigfeet or unicorns—various people can be using quite different notions of God—but for many a better analogy might be drawn to bigfoot than to a unicorn. (And for many others, a better analogy might be the existence of any objective truth at all.)

  • DR

    Tolerated other people defining their own experiences as an adult? Why would two adults who have reminded us that their experiences are simply shadows to where we happen to be standing in the sun?

    Their experience has nothing to do eith us and Tilden us absolutely right when he says what he is is not a reaction to what we are. It's incredibly self-absorbed of us to take that approach and they've been pretty gracious in pointing it out.

    You are choosing to make their preferred description of who they are as some kind of statement against you. And in my experience of you to date, you rarely admit to just being wrong, everything is a fight. But
    In this case, you're picking it (from this viewpoint). There are so many other important things to fight about dude, how someone describes their life isn't one of them.

  • DR

    That should read,

    "Why would two adults who have reminded us that their experiences are NOT simply shadows to where we happen to be standing in the sun?"

  • DR

    Matthew, Simply put. People are more therm how they are described in the dictionary. It's just basic courtesy that we allow someone else to say "Actually this is what being an atheist means to me.". Even the dictionary isn't the judge and jury of what something means, and neither are we.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    You are just redefining belief, and yes — I know — it's motivated by your own damn self-interest!!

    I don't need to know you, William. I know what thought is (in the context of the human psyche), and I know what beliefs are.

    "The difference being that thoughts are based on things that exist and so do not require belief."

    First, how do things exist which you have the thought to make (like when you construct a sentence in order to reply to these comments), which you believe you can make (although you might fail to do so, should, for instance, lightning strike), but which haven't yet ever been made? Come on: you are more inventive than a parrot.

    Second, things do not require belief if they don't exist; rather it is that if they do exist, belief is then a meaningful option.

    Third, God exists, but you not only don't believe in Him, you prefer to think He doesn't exist.

  • I have already made my point and I refuse to continue to split hairs with you about word definitions.

    I will repeat one more time for good measure: I do not think that God exists because I have never once encountered any evidence to suggest such a thing. I do not have a "belief system". I'm just not wired that way.

    I would be living religion free and peaceful if the religious would not insist on bombarding me with conversion attempts. I am not even safe from such attempts when I am in my own home! The only purpose the term "atheist" serves is to describe myself to religious people. It is bad enough I have to dodge conversion and define myself by what I am not, but now I have a little whiney twit telling me that my own impressions of myself are false. You are an extremely rude person and I never enjoy our encounters.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    You are such a hypocrite! You say, "religious people think that if someone does not have religion in their life, they are missing something. It seems like you feel that if there is no religion in our lives, we atheists have to fill that hole with something else." So I correct you regarding what *I* actually feel and think, and at that point you have the gall to bark back, "Do not presume to tell me about myself. You do not know me." Yet if you'd practice what you preach and followed your own silly advice (which I guess you just don't really believe in), we wouldn't even be having this conversation!

  • I don't even know what the hell you are talking about here. I was simply clarifying what it is to be an atheist. I happen to know quite a bit about that subject, having been one for the last 14 years. You are a very petty and pointless person to have a conversation with. I am truly tired of you.

    It is a simple thing to let people describe what they feel instead of telling them what they feel. Your rambling is just fighting for the sake of fighting and I no longer wish to participate.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    In what way did I imply it was a reaction to what we are? I understand already what they have in mind by how they describe their perspective. Now, I'm trying to express how that relates to the nature of the true reality in the terms of the English tongue. And I do not wish to tolerate people's manipulation of others' definition to advance their own agendas, such as through expanding the tent of "atheism". I do not take that self-absorbed approach you describe in my interpretation of this term, as I have clearly and consistently maintained (not just on this post), never claiming atheism to be a system of belief, nor even a single belief by itself.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    What is the jury on meaning if not convention?

  • Matthew Tweedell

    @William Ely

    Then why on earth did you tell me what you think I feel?

    As for me, I never once said anything of the sort!!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    @DR. By the way, if they DID actually say, "this is what being an atheist means to me," then that'd be perfectly fine. (In fact, I'd then adopt exactly that meaning for the purposes of the given conversation with them.)

  • DR

    Matthew, my experience of you on this forum is that you display an almost manic need to be right at all costs. You apply a very rigid definition to what are very subjective, personal things for others (like what atheism means). It just makes it very difficult to interact with you for long. I feel like you are constantly trying to win/influence us instead of really building relationships. And that's fine if that's the goal, it's just not mine and it's why I bow out so frequently with you/get frustrated with you. I don't think being "right" is necessarily a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

  • Matthew Tweedell


    If I need to be right, then I better change my understanding if I am wrong. Maintaining that one is right does not make it so, and being right is not something to put in quotation marks as though it's some notion peculiar to the mind of another individual and which you can just choose to believe doesn't exist.

    That one appears consistently right does not however imply that there's ever a *need* to be right.

    What atheism means is just as personal to me as it to them. Whether you believe it or not doesn't change the truth of the matter.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    DR, I don’t understand a word you’re saying because you don’t accept the validity of adopting mutually recognized definitions.

  • Matthew Tweedell


    For the English language, there is no such thing as an official definition. What we do have are the denotations commonly implied in general usage. And the general usage of a word in reference to certain notions is an establishable fact, taking place not in any one person’s mind but on the pages and airwaves of reality. Thus all the most thoroughly researched dictionaries of American English agree:

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary

    1 archaic : ungodliness, wickedness

    2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity

    Oxford English Dictionary (US English version)

    disbelief in the existence of God or gods

    American Heritage Dictionary

    1 a : Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods. b : The doctrine that there is no God or gods.

    2. Godlessness; immorality.

    Random House Dictionary

    1. the doctrine or belief that there is no god.

    2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings

    The reason that this is what the word instinctively denotes to us is etymological: we understand the prefix “a-” (like the prefix “dis-” and unlike the prefixes “un-” and “non-“) to imply not negation by nullification but negation by inversion—there’s a difference between the opposite of one thing as nothing and the opposite of one thing as some negative one thing.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    OldStuff: I’ve been through this at least three times now on this blog: asymmetrical does NOT mean merely not symmetrical; it means having the potential for some defined symmetry that actually is found lacking; atypical means could-have-been-typical-but-isn’t; and to be an atheist means to be among a class of things that could possibly be theists but not be one.

  • William Eli writes But to us atheists, it simply means that we do not believe in God.

    Exactly right. A bit extended outwards for gnu atheists. Maybe MT has conflated the two.

    Thanks, WE, and to DR and Diana A for being gracious as always.

  • Well stated, Velvet. Polite is the point.

  • There are various kinds of respect to be taken into consideration here: respect for the person who is host, respect for the home, culture, traditions, ceremonies (religious or not) into which you have been invited, and so on. Then there's the personal side: can one act respectfully? If one can't, then don't go. If one can, then one tacitly agrees to be respectful by acting politely and inclusively.

    As an atheist asked to participate in friend's and family events that almost always include some religious component, I expect to participate! As John wisely points out, if the activity is not harmful, then dive in. But when the shoe is on the other foot and I am host, then the same rules of respect apply. This has caused some conflict but what's family for if not to maintain a constant process of conflict resolution? And that can be just as much fun to share the love that underlies everything rather than less important stuff.

  • It is very refreshing and welcoming when hosts are sensitive to guests and strive to make the guest as comfortable as possible. It is somewhat disappointing when hosts do not try.

    Yes, I happen to think that belief in the supernatural is a net loss to humanity, but I can certainly break bread with people who believe in all kinds of superstitions. It would be hard to find a seat at a table around which no one believed in anything supernatural.

    But the word 'belief' has two very distinct meanings. There's the version that is a substitute for "I have good reasons to think…" and there's the version that means faith… not allowing an absence of extraordinary evidence to interfere with the extraordinary belief itself.

    An atheist may use the word 'believe' when she says she believes she left the car keys on the counter. If the car keys are not to be found on the counter, the atheist will not continue to believe that's where the car keys are. The atheist will not be too happy with someone who insists that to be intellectually honest, we cannot say that the keys are not on the counter; after all, the missing keys might still be on the counter but mysteriously moved or hidden by some supernatural agency, and there's simply no way to know… right up until the keys are found hanging in the door lock.

    The theist will use the word 'believe' in the same way and (hopefully) not turn to these supernatural forces when it comes to explaining where those missing keys may be. But then something rather remarkable happens: the theist makes what appears to the atheist to be a very strange exemption for more complex issues that are equally unexplained. All of a sudden we stumble across the 'believe' word in some supernatural capacity as if it were a satisfactory explanation. The atheist says, "Let's keep looking," but sometimes it's awfully hard to convince those who think they already have the answer (the keys have been turned invisible by a supernatural agency) to suspend their 'belief' long enough to actually help with the looking.

    I write this to explain that we need to be a little more aware about how we use the word 'believe'. Atheists are as moral as anyone (Old Stuff has pointed out much meta-evidence to suggest perhaps moreso as a distinct group but hardly as particular individuals) but the reasons that empower morality and ethical behaviour for atheists (we 'believe', meaning there are good reasons to think…) are exactly the same kind as those which empower theists and deists to be moral and ethical. After all, our common biology precedes our common desires so our desires must have a significant biological component. Explanations that fail to account for this component with a biological explanation must be – according to the atheist – unsatisfactory (those keys really are somewhere even if right now we can't see where). Passing that requirement off to a supernatural agency on the grounds of faith is not the same kind of belief at all.

    So if I am at someone's home and am told not to put something on a part of the counter because someone believes her keys are hidden there with a cloak of invisibility, I will be polite and put something down somewhere else… not because I respect her 'belief' that the keys are there but because it's polite for me to respect her wishes. Her reasons for behaving the way she does (based on acting on the faith she has) is not up to me to confront or change; it's my job as guest to be polite as long as I do not act in such a way that compromises my integrity. As you write, DR, it's sometimes a fine line to tread and often presented by the more aggressive as brinkmanship. But that's just rude either way (by host or by guest).

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I am a theist.

    It is my understanding that belief without appropriate justification is superstition.

    I'm not one to believe anything without good reason.

    In my understanding of Christianity, it constitutes a rejection of Christ to substitute supernatural agency for natural causation, except in describing the means of God, not the direct deeds of God, or when focusing on the effects, where causation is not of the essence and may be abbreviated.

    When do I substitute faith for fact?

    Perhaps you don't understand what we mean (or ought to if we're to make any sense) by our "faith".

    I for one am always seeking (first, even) the Keys. (I have faith at least that they yet exist.)

  • Diana A.

    You're welcome! We do try!

  • So when you roll your weed up, do you double the papers, or go the full-on Clint Eastwood, "Hang 'Em High" one-paper job? Because, as you say, you ARE cool, so I could see you doin' the one-handed roll 'n lick. Of course, you're cool in that jittery, knee-tapping, "My Favorite Martian" kind of way, so for rolling your joints i actually see you using some sort of device you invented that involves, like, ball-bearings, hairspray, and three shoelaces.

    But it would work! The joints would end up burning in some weird way–like, from the middle out—but the job would get done.

    Nah. I'm just messin with you. (And writing some stuff about weed just now, so all that nonsense is kind of on my mind.) And believe me, if I thought my being obnoxious to you would actually bug you at ALL, I'd feel bad about it. But I know it won't. So I don't.

    Except now I kind of do.

    Okay, but you know what I did want to say to you, MT? You should start your own blog! What are you doing wasting all your monstrously prodigious writing energy on comments in MY blog? I mean, you're welcome here, for sure. But it sure seems to me like you're someone who would just sort of naturally enjoy having their own blog. Surely you've considered it. Why not? You've definitely got what it takes.

    Anyway, sorry to interrupt your Many Comment Responses. Carry on. Righto. Hip-hip, and all that sort of pot.

  • DR

    An atheist may use the word ‘believe’ when she says she believes she left the car keys on the counter. If the car keys are not to be found on the counter, the atheist will not continue to believe that’s where the car keys are. The atheist will not be too happy with someone who insists that to be intellectually honest, we cannot say that the keys are not on the counter; after all, the missing keys might still be on the counter but mysteriously moved or hidden by some supernatural agency, and there’s simply no way to know… right up until the keys are found hanging in the door lock.>>>

    I've *loved* your contributions here (I'm gushing) because in all honesty, I really have been viewing atheists and others through the lens of my own belief system. I tend to use the word "belief" as a conviction, but both you and William are providing a different kind of an awareness for me, particularly your challenge that being a woman is not just being a "non-man" as well as the example below.

    One of the biggest deals for me (as a result of my spiritual experiences ironically) is the absolute necessity to allow people the dignity of being their full *self*, whatever that is. That I don't need to control it, and controlling it – at least for me – is in part, defining it. So this has been a rather huge revelation for me in helping me to further that commitment. I really appreciate the explanations and would ask you to continue to check me if you see it in play. I sense it's one of those habits for me I might apply unconsciously, so if you happen to spot it and it irks you, please say something.

  • DR

    Yeah, I cop to this, It's true.

  • DR

    As I reflect on the word belief, it's probably going to take some time for my to unhinge my particular meaning to it.

    I've thought about your comments quite a bit these last few days. I've applied that word to the atheists in my life who've expressed such convictions around the presence of religion in the world, the word "belief" has been the closest I've been able to come to describing it, it was far more than an opinion or idea. Though it actually was both of those things.

    The danger – the easy danger for a religious person – is slipping into that next conclusion that "oh this is just the opposite side of my belief coin" which is a very self-absorbed posture.

  • DR

    @Matthew: you are a Christian. You not an atheist. To suggest that it is “just as personal” for you as a result when it’s not even your state if being borders on the bizarre to me, but knock yourself out. I will give you the last word on this, I sense you need it more than I do

  • Ha! Irks… what a great word. That really does capture the sense of being slightly bothered, slightly irritated, slightly annoyed, and this is exactly what I feel when I read about others attaching all kinds of what I'll call 'flip-side' assumptions to atheism and atheists.

    Although I have fully agreed with William Eli's statement that atheists use the term to mean that we do not believe in God, it does leave the door open to wondering how such people as atheists can define meaning, make purpose, defend values, uphold morality, and deal with life's Big Questions when the belief set surrounding the god factor is removed. When that wonder is replaced by assumptions that cast a negative hue on non belief (the old 'If one does not believe in god, then one must be immoral), then you hit the nail on the head: we become irked!

    I have yet to come across an atheist who is unable to defend with good reasons those notions that empower that person's answers to those Big Questions. It is to those reasons the atheist turns when asked and it is those reasons that are often expressed with passion. Far too many people of faith fail to appreciate why these reasons (to the atheist) are held in higher esteem – that they are held by the atheist to be better reasons than those used to defend the answers offered by faith. Many people of faith have an irksome tendency to dismiss or poorly argue how well these reasons inform the atheist's counter explanations in comparison to religious doctrine (The answer, "I don't know and you don't either," is a particular 'answer' used by atheists that often seems to enrage a certain portion of those who equate their subjective interpretation of a transcendent experience as evidence for an objective supernatural agency.). And the very notion that atheists are able and have had transcendent and transformative spiritual experiences yet remain happily satisfied atheists filled with wonder and awe and a deepening appreciation to the delicacies of nature seems almost unbelievable (as well as counter-intuitive) to many believers.

    Imagine for a moment that two people fall in love (not with each other). Because one attributes this experience to holding a set of particular beliefs that the other does not hold, ponder what it might be like to be that other person, to face the assumption that one love is 'real' only because of the particular belief set while yours is held by a great many people to be 'not real' because it is not similarly grounded in a similar kind of belief set.

    That is often what it is like to be an atheist: where one's character is assumed to be 'lacking' something due to an absence of an equivalent belief set, which is assumed to be essential for being a 'full' human being capable of loving at all or as deeply, or loving in some mitigating/impaired way. This attitude is prevalent where religion is very popular, although it is often very subtle. But it is demeaning nevertheless and a common enough biased attitude against which the atheist tends to bump up against at every turn in countries where religion is a dominant feature in the community, and it is genuinely irksome even if it is often expressed innocently.

    Far from being militant and strident and arrogant, atheists I know tend to be a very forgiving bunch regarding those who hold them to be somehow 'less' and understand that it is the reasons of bias rather than the person who holds that assumption that needs to be challenged and, hopefully, convinced to let that bias go.

  • So for all you Christians enthusiastically advocating that an atheist participate in your prayers, to at least go through the motions, even if they don't believe, here's a question:

    If you were visiting Muslim friends, and the call to prayer came, and the entire household stood up and faced Mecca and started going through the motions of prayer, would you join in? Would you also feel in that situation that it would be polite and a sign of respect to your hosts to at least go through the motions of an Islamic prayer, and being true to yourself by simply thinking your own thoughts? Because from what I'm reading here, based on the logic that you think an atheist should go through the motions of prayer at your house, you *would*.

    I'm leaning towards standing, holding hands, but not closing eyes and most certainly *not* bowing my head, just as I don't kneel or bow my head when I get dragged to church with the family.

  • Diana A.

    If I was visiting Muslim friends, and the call to prayer came, and the entire household stood up and faced Mecca and started going through the motions of prayer, I would probably politely excuse myself and leave. I don't think I could bring myself to join in and go through the motions with them.

    In my younger days, I attended a few Buddhist gatherings with my best friend at the time (who was a Buddhist.) At that time, I attempted to join in and participate in the gathering, even though my heart wasn't really in it. Now, I'd probably just politely refuse the invitation to go to a meeting.

    My own attitude where atheists and other non-Christians are concerned is that they should follow their consciences. If you feel comfortable attempting to participate in the ceremony, you should do so. If the thought of doing so gives you the heebee jeebies, don't do it.

  • Maybe it's the British heritage part of me, but as a guest I think being polite is the focus during a social event. When in doubt, ask, but be willing to participate because you are a willing guest.

  • Diana A.

    I see your point, but I have to admit that being polite is not my strong suit.

  • Ah well… we all have our crosses to bear.

  • Diana A.


  • DR

    Yes, I would. My *heart* and *intention* has everything to do with what I actually pray and who I worship. Me going through the motions of facing Mecca because a), I think it's interesting to experience that and b), it's polite and I make the call that it's the best way to love my guests is not going to cause me to lose my Jesus card.

    Isn't God big enough and – you know – smart enough to know the *whys* of what we do? If not, we worship kind of a stupid God who has no ability to search our hearts and understand that in that moment, we're trying to care for the person in front of us.

  • DR

    My experience with atheists is a bit off your particular beaten path – they are quite militant and strident – but the context is generally within religious debate. Initially I equated this to a passion around a "belief" system, but in hindsight and with the help of some of your comments, realize it was nothing more than a plea to be who they are on their own terms. I'm sure your last paragraph describes the norm.

    I fell in love with an atheist. It was one of the most important relationships I've had, certainly quite painful as it became unrequited after a brief time together but one of the best educations I've ever received. He helped me understand how difficult it was to not have a seat at the religious "morality" table when in fact, so many who do not believe in God were deeply moral, loving people solving macro-problems with social justice and the poor that private christian institutions don't even begin to touch with the small amounts of well-intended money raised. He told me once, after my insistence that I was one of the "good" Christians something I've never forgotten for how well it served as a cold bucket of water to my conscience:

    "I know you want me to like you – I know you need my approval – but you don't understand how your continued assertion that you aren't one of the 'bad' Christians is nothing more than the self-absorption other religious people demonstrate. There is this profound inability within the Christians I've interacted with to focus on something other than themselves. Someone is either labeling you, injuring you, challenging you – it's all you. There is just no *room* for anyone else. And even if you are one of the good christians, I don't give you a pass. Because you're quiet – you're passive. You allow these people who are removing the Civil Rights of others and causing so much damage to just go unchallenged publicly. Your decision is to just remove yourself from them when in fact, you doing so is making them my problem. These people are in your tent, and you're choosing to be there. So fine, you're not one of the bad Christians but from my people? You still don't get a pass."

    (That was from an email)

    It was one of the most painful things I've experienced, but it was also the beginnings of a very challenging education for me. I think he offered what a lot of people think and feel – they just don't often have the ability to say so.

  • Well, I did write It is very refreshing and welcoming when hosts are sensitive to guests and strive to make the guest as comfortable as possible. It is somewhat disappointing when hosts do not try.

    Does that count?

  • Diana A.

    Some of this, too, depends upon individual family tradition. Some families do make it a habit to say grace at every meal, and so are not going to be inclined to change their tradition just because somebody is showing up who is not used to saying grace. In my family, we only said grace on special occasions (Thanksgiving, Christmas) and after my mom died, so did the tradition. I have a friend who's a little more fundamentalist in her approach than I am–she typically insists that we say grace whenever we go out to eat. I've always found this a bit showy myself ("Look how Christian I am–I'm saying grace in a public restaurant!") but that's just me.

    I do admit, however, that I enjoyed it enormously last spring when after our Choir Concert, we all went out to Bully's and the president of our choir persuaded our director to lead us in singing the doxology ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.") That was fun!

  • And yet no one questions how polite it is for the host of a so-called social event to introduce prayer at all if there’s a chance some of his guests don’t share his beliefs …

  • Nikolai Pierce

    Well what do you feel?

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Why must I “insist that…”? It is surely but weakness resulting from corruption by institutions feeding divisive religiosity.

  • Fisher Prince

    I am a spiritually alive gay man that is agnostic on the existence of God(s). I visit my evangelical brother and his family about twice a year for family gatherings. These events always involve a prayer and usually include explicit or implicit proselytizing. After much meditation on the subject, this is how I handle these events:

    When a request comes to join hands and bow our heads in prayer, I believe it is wonderful to join hands with my family. I enjoy doing this and I do not believe
    it is a violation of my integrity or beliefs. I do not bow my head, nor do I
    close my eyes, however. In this context, bowing your head and closing your eyes are not just “neck stretching” or “a good time to see if your shoes are tied.” It is participating in a prayer, and everybody knows it.

    This is a question of manners and politeness. Manners and etiquette exist to make people feel comfortable and welcome. They do not exist to validate somebody else’s personal religious beliefs. Expecting a guest in one’s home to pretend to share the host’s religious beliefs is asking too much and is itself impolite. The most gracious way for the writer to handle this situation is to join hands with the family, and keep her head held high.