Sunday, October 15, 2006


The dinner game

As an atheist who has plenty of non-atheist friends, as I'm sure most of us do, I find there's something that comes up occasionaly and that I've found myself mulling over recently: Isn't it impolite to expect me to participate in "saying grace" when I'm at your house for dinner? Isn't it especially bad to give me the "honour" of leading the dinner prayer?

Now, I'm generally a believer in the "When in Rome...." approach, and am happy to do things I consider harmless in order to fit into someone else's culture. If I'm at your house, accepting your hospitality, I expect to accept your customs for it too. And so in the instant, I don't actively object to the practice. If I'm asked to "lead", I politely decline, and after one or two, "No, really, I'd rather not," statements it all moves on with no residual awkwardness. And as a participant, I just sit quietly while the others do their thing. I wouldn't disrupt dinner and offend my hosts by making a scene about it all.

But as an exercise in thinking about it afterward, I've found it interesting. I like to turn these sorts of things around, and see what others would think if the tables were turned.

Suppose I had a custom of saying an "atheist prayer", thanking the land and the sun and the farmers for the bounty, and expressing belief that God is a myth. Would my Christian friends who say their preprandial prayers willingly join in mine? If I were a Wiccan, a Druid, or a Satanist, could I expect those with more common religious beliefs to go along with my dinner invocations?

This relates to the broader area of accomodating each other's food preferences and requirements. Most people would avoid serving ham if an observant Jew were invited, but perhaps they wouldn't know to avoid shrimp, or not to serve creamed spinach or buttered carrots with the kosher steak. Vegetarians can usually make do, and some will even go ahead and eat meat at occasions when it would be awkward to decline it. People with food allergies are used to dealing with them, and hosts are certainly understanding when one tells of gastric stress associated with an intolerance for cheese, or anaphylaxis brought on by nuts.

But we don't give the same consideration to those verbal expressions. "It's just a prayer," we say, "How can it hurt?" And, of course, it doesn't "hurt" in the sense that food reactions do. But one can feel just as "dirty" after participating in a prayer that one disagrees with as one can after eating "unclean" food. Expecting someone to go along with prayers to a deity he doesn't believe in is a spiritual violation. I've heard people wonder, "What's the big deal? Just do it to make them happy." Well, and that's what I do, indeed, but why not say instead, "What's the big deal? Forgo the prayer tonight, out of respect for our atheist guest."? Diners can give silent, private thanks, as they desire.

Or, better still, why not have a secular statement of thanks to use on occasions when "prayer" isn't appropriate? I think few would object to having the host say something like, "We are so grateful for the opportunity to sit down with good friends to a bountiful meal. Enjoy!"


The Ridger, FCD said...

Why not say, "Sure - I'll lead the prayer" and then pray non-religiously? I mean, assuming that they know you're an atheist, which it sounds like they do.

I don't mean something anti-religious, just something like, "We're all grateful to be here tonight, together, partaking of good food and good company." And then pick up your fork.

Barry Leiba said...

You know, it's so silly to say this, but I never thought of doing that. Of course, it's a good idea. The next time it comes up, I'll give it a try.

Mojoey said...

The good thing about being an out-of-the closet Atheist is that none of my friends would ever thing to offer me the honor of leading a prayer. When I am dinning as a guest with people I do not know, I discreetly inform the host of my dietary (no shrimp) and theistic (no prayer) limitations. Where I have encountered a problem is in a business setting. It seems more and more a badge of honor to impose one’s religious piety in the workplace. When an evangelical seizes the opportunity to witness through prayer, I will confront the issue. I usually say, “A group prayer is inappropriate in a diverse business setting. If you are required to pray, please keep it to yourself.” It has happened twice already this year.

Niels said...

We non-believers are playing football upphill against an unattainable goal (at least for the part of the game that is played during our lifetime. They are offended, we are expected to be tolerant to the point of self-effacement, they feel it is their right and duty to propagate their beliefs, expecting tolerance when they are in the minority but not exercising it when they can call the shots. Our weapons in the fight against superstition are a display of (honest) tolerance, insisting on fair play (who can argue against it?) and a gentle sense of humour. Here in Sweden it would be seen as very inconsiderate to pray when people with different or no beliefs are present. One of our new anti-socialist government ministers has argued that religious instruction is not for children or teens, as they are too susceptible to irrational arguments. And this minister is an African-born Muslim woman!
Niels Hovmoller, Spanga, Sweden

Evan said...

As a Christian I though I'd share my take on this.

I believe it would rude (and potentially offensive) for me to ask someone to pray at a meal unless I knew they they shared my beliefs (at least concenring prayer at a meal). Now to explain why: to ask them to pray would either be encouraging hypocracy (if they didn't believe in prayer), or dishonoring to my God (if the person belived in another religion, they wouldn't be praying to my God).

Regarding the suggestion that "a secular statement of thanks" be used, I would have to disagree -- I see no benefit for hiding my faith. If the meal was at my house or some other "christian" place (church, benefit for christian charity, etc), then a prayer out loud before the meal would be appropriate. But if it was me and my athiest friend or a group of colegues from work I'd pray silently for a couple seconds before starting. If the meal was at my friend's (athiest, or of another religion) house I'd follow his lead to the degree that was appropriate and again say a silent thanks to my God.

Barry Leiba said...

Thanks, all, for the comments.

Evan, I think what you're going for is related to what I was thinking: I had thought of the secular thanks as a prompt — and opportunity — for those who care to to give their own silent thanks.

I have a co-worker who prays at lunch. I'm used to that, and if we're embroiled in conversation I try to remember to arrange a pause at the appropriate time. If I forget, he just says, "Excuse me a moment," sits silently for maybe 10 seconds, and then we continue our conversation and he starts his meal.

I don't think that your choice to acknowledge, at your own home, that you have guests with differing beliefs, and to avoid the overt prayer that is your habit, would be hiding your faith in any way — I would consider it an appreciated courtesy. On the other hand, as I say in the main entry, I wouldn't expect you to do that, and I would never object to sitting quietly while you led your customary prayer.

Anonymous said...

In friendly obligation I suggest a twist on Robert Burns:
Some hae meat and canna eat
And some wad eat that want it
But we hae meat and we can eat
So let our loved ones be thankit.

If you are vegan "food" can replace "meat". Of course I don't recommend saying the poem with an accent unless you really are able.

Anonymous said...

All my in-laws and a couple of people in my extended family that are fanatical born again Christians. They constantly make me feel like they pity me because I don't share their religion. Meals are difficult because they want to hold hands and pray. I don't like being forced to pray, and I am getting increasingly agitated that I am made to feel uncomfortable for not praying or not partaking. Also, my in-laws always want to take my kids to church and because I am very against that - it causes much tension with my spouse and his family. I am really starting to resent Christians for their high-horse, preachy, do-right, elitest, intolerant attitudes - keep your religious beliefs to yourself!

Barry Leiba said...

To the last commenter: Thanks for the comment. Yes, it's particularly difficult when you realize that they think they're doing you a favour by annoying you, pestering you to believe and so on, because they're looking to save your immortal soul. There's not much for it, really.

Anonymous said...

I should reread this every Thanksgiving...