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How do I get my relatives to stop asking me to say grace? (I'm an atheist) Add to ...

The question

Every few years, we join relatives at Christmas dinner at good friends of theirs. The friends have put me on the spot before by asking me to say grace before dinner. I’m an atheist and find it uncomfortable. The last time this happened, I reluctantly obliged to avoid any more awkwardness at the dinner table. I think it was rude of them to put me on the spot; my wife thinks they imagine it’s an honour. We’ll be going there this Christmas and I don’t want to be in this situation again. Should I ask a relative to approach their friends about this? My wife thinks it’s not fair to the relatives and that it’s my problem to deal with. Should I have a prepared reply to let them know I’d rather not say grace? If so, how do I make sure it’s not awkward and rude?

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The answer

I think it hardly matters what you do: You’re going to hell either way.

I kid. I jest. These days, many of us observe, or not, in a myriad different, sometimes seemingly contradictory ways.

Me, I believe in God, but never go to church. Sorry. Too boring! When I lived in New York, I went to Baptist services in Harlem. Now those were fun and always left me feeling inspired. But the churches near me now are too dry, dour and dull. That hour and a half feels like a week! So on Sunday mornings you’ll find me in the kitchen making my wife a Caesar and my kids bacon and eggs. I figure I’m honouring God by being nice to my family, His greatest gift to me.

My Dad’s the opposite: He attends church with clockwork regularity, lights candles and so forth, is friends with the pastor, but he says deep down he doesn’t believe.

Meanwhile, my wife, Pam, like you, is an atheist and believes it’s just “lights out” when we die – but wanted our children baptized just in case.

The point is: Let a thousand flowers bloom. We should thank G – I mean “our lucky stars” – we live in a modern liberal society wherein religious tolerance (and tolerance of the non-religious) is (more or less) freely practised.

Now I understand there are different degrees and levels of passion among atheists.

There are those like the late, great Christopher Hitchens, who called himself an “antitheist,” who felt religion is sheep-like group-think, has a pernicious effect on humanity and is holding back our progress as a species – and seemed personally offended by it. (On the historicity of Jesus, for example, the Hitch would concede only that “there may have been a charismatic, deluded rabbi wandering about at the time,” spouting “unbelievably inane and inarticulate preachments.”)

If you are this brand of atheist, for God’s sake, do politely decline to say grace. You don’t have to make a big to-do about it, or even give a reason. Something cryptic and charming (yet firm) would suffice, e.g. “Oh, thank you, but I think someone else might do a better job.”

Hopefully, your host and hostess will simply assume that it’s some minor, peripheral concern – like you don’t like being the centre of attention – and pass the baton to one of the other guests.

If they do go so far as to press you, or ask why you demur – well, then they’re asking for it. And as the Bible (or it might have been Yogi Berra) says: “Be careful what you ask for.” Then I think you are well within your rights to unpack your reasons for refraining.

Be nice about it, natch. Just say something like: “Listen, I’m honoured, but I’m an atheist, it’s a strongly held belief for me, so I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable.”

All that comment should provoke is an interesting conversation. If it provokes anything more – well, then, you’ve learned something.

But listen: If you’re only mildly atheistic/agnostic, what the hell – why not say grace?

I don’t see why you couldn’t do a perfectly acceptable spiritually neutral grace, like: “I’d like to give thanks for all these blessings and gifts” – then list them. No mention of God necessary. Each person at the table can decide for him/herself the origin and provenance of those blessings, whether divine or strictly human. End by saying, “Thank you,” not “Amen.”

As you intimate, it is indeed an honour to be asked, and doing it to be a good guest is the friction-free route.

You’re already at their house eating, drinking and exchanging presents to commemorate the birth of the “deluded rabbi” they believe will vouchsafe their immortal souls after death. What’s a few more muttered words before digging into the turducken or tofurkey or whatever?

What am I supposed to do now?

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