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Austin Cline

Forum Discussion: Atheist Etiquette During Prayer

By November 6, 2013

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Most atheists have religious relatives and most of them will, at some point probably have to deal with relatives who want to engage in communal prayer during some event, whether it's a holiday celebration or just a regular meal. There's a lot of pressure on atheists to be quiet and even to participate, regardless of how they personally feel. How do you deal with such situations?

Thanksgiving Dinner Prayer
Thanksgiving Dinner Prayer
Photo: Photodisc/Getty

On the one hand, a person should allow themselves to become a doormat who just goes along with everything that others demand. That's not psychologically healthy for the individual and it doesn't do atheists any favors in the long run. You don't get respect for yourself or for atheists generally by never standing up for yourself.

On the other hand, objecting to religion in the middle of traditional family practices is probably the wrong way to go about things. Just because you shouldn't let yourself become a doormat doesn't mean that you shouldn't find the best way to deal with the issue. Thus the question: what is the best way? Or is there one?

A forum member writes:

The setting is at the home of my in-laws, who are religious and raised my husband as a Christian (he even attended a Pentecostal church for a while), but they don't know that we aren't Christian because the subject has simply never come up in 10 years.

My question is, how does an atheist/agnostic/non-Christian respond to the command to hold hands for a pre-dinner prayer? I have no problems with a prayer itself...

I just find an interesting spot on the wall to study until it's over. But I do not want to participate in the weird ritual of forcing everyone in the room to come into physical contact with everyone else, including strangers.

Right now I'm waffling between just doing the hand-holding thing without bowing my head or closing my eyes... or, politely saying, "No, thanks" to the person who tries to hold my hand. I'm curious to know how some of you would handle or have handled this situation in the past.

There will certainly be different approaches depending on whether you're with acquaintances or family. If it's acquaintances or even strangers, you should be more willing to object when suddenly forced into a religious ritual that's not of your choosing. They shouldn't simply assume that everyone agrees with, accepts, and follows their religious beliefs.

Add your thoughts to the comments here or join the ongoing discussion in the forum.

November 21, 2012 at 6:38 pm
(1) Karen says:

I was raised Catholic, and in the middle of the Catholic Sunday service there’s usually a time when you shake hands with all the strangers around you and say “Peace be with you”. So I got conditioned early on to taking strangers’ hands; no biggie. But how to not pray, peacefully and neutrally? I just sit looking around the table. It always amuses me that there are others doing that too, that I’m not the only one not praying. On Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be assured enough in my negative assessment of faith that I can just not pray. It took a long time to shake off the mental baggage of the past and be that way.

November 30, 2012 at 10:41 am
(2) Marvin says:

I too grew up Penticostal and withdrew from the church in my early thirties, nearly forty years ago. During the time I was a church member attempting to be a believer, I never ran into the hand-holding thing, but now it seems to be almost universal, even among what we in the AG (when I was a part of it, at least) called nominal Christians. I can’t help wondering how it started, but it hasn’t bothered me. I can fully understand why it would bother some, though. It has all the earmarks of the kind of mindless and pointless ritual that some people seem to find uplifting and make others uncomfortable.


December 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm
(3) Richard says:

I think you should look to the sky and raise one hand up with the middle finger extended . . .

November 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm
(4) CJ Klok says:

Although living in the US for the past eight years I was raised in South Africa in one of the Afrikaans speaking calvinist Dutch reformed denominations (yes, those that justified apartheid biblically). So prayer at gatherings is a given.
I recovered from that brain injury by the age of 20 – now 24 years ago.

Usually prayer precedes a grand meal.
When I’m a guest:
In larger groups I just walk outside (often with others) and wait out the ritual.
In smaller more intimate groups, seated around a table, I’ll hold hands if all there is family, and hold my head upright and eyes open. Often, when confronted for not bowing my head and closing my eyes, I would inquire what possibly could happen during the ritual I’m not allowed to see. This emphasizes the silliness of the exercise.

When Iím the host:
At the start of the meal we (my wife and I) donít even hint at prayer. Usually it goes unnoticed and the meal proceeds in peace.
When someone, however, volunteers, or even insists on having a prayer Iíll state calmly but firmly ďMy house, my rules. No mindless recited conversations with non-existent beings are allowed to interrupt this family meal. Enjoy the food.Ē

November 6, 2013 at 2:58 pm
(5) CJ Klok says:

Part 2

During more emotionally laden situations.
I just keep quiet and decline any requests directed to me to deliver prayers. This is a time when the religious vs non-religious conflict should take a backseat.

Hospital or other disease/medical emergency related events.
When Iím not the patient:
Iíll give the concerned loved ones the opportunity to pray if it will make them deal with the crisis. No need to pile on what is already difficult.
When the crisis is averted and all is well someone often wants to pray in gratitude to gods for the healing. Then Iíll speak up and say gratitude is rightfully due to the medical personnel and the countless scientists who developed the knowledge and applications. Gods, as always, were totally useless, due to their non-existence.
When Iím the patient:
If conscious and capable of speech Iíll cut any attempt at prayer off at the knees. Get me competent medical help, not voodoo BS.
If not conscious and then recovered, Iíll point out again that the recovery is due to medical science and its practitioners, and not rain dances directed at magic men in the sky.

November 7, 2013 at 11:59 am
(6) Anthony Larrimore says:

As an atheist, we all have the right to not pray. But it’s common courtesy to not interfere with the right of Christians to pray and to be vocal about their faith. My family are all catholic and I have no problem sitting with them when they pray out of respect for the people I love and knowing that this is something that they hold dear. It takes a strong person to endure what they don’t want, and a weak person to say, “nope, I can’t do this” and to be rude enough to cause a scene when they are trying to reflect on what they believe.

November 8, 2013 at 6:21 am
(7) Grandpa In The East says:

I prefer to avoid the event entirely, and if asked, explain why. I’m no doormat.


Holding hands at the table is disgustingly unsanitary.

November 12, 2013 at 6:39 pm
(8) billwalker says:

At 87, I don’t get around much any more. But going way back, I recall being at a large social function which included a lunch. We were asked to pray. I didn’t lower my head or close my eyes. At that function I was the ONLY one who had the lowered head, & I had hoped there would be at least a FEW more non-participants.

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