Should You Let Others Say Grace At Your Dinner Table? December 22, 2008

Should You Let Others Say Grace At Your Dinner Table?

A question posed to advice columnist Amy Dickinson today deals with an atheist, her semi-religious boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s more-religious family.

The setup is this: The (atheist) girl visited her boyfriend’s (religious) family for dinner. The family says grace before meals, so this was done. No big deal.

Now, the (atheist) girl wants her boyfriend’s family to join her own for a Christmas dinner:

My mother and I want to invite Brian and his family over for Christmas dinner, but when we sit down to eat, prayers for grace will likely not be said because this is simply not our tradition, especially when nearly everyone in my family does not believe in God. Because of this, I am worried that we will offend his parents and his elderly grandmother.

Does something need to be said, or should we just carry on as usual? If we don’t say grace, Brian’s family may be offended. If we do say grace, my family will most likely feel uncomfortable and could be offended. What would be the proper procedure here?

What would you advise?

After you think about it, you can read what Amy suggested to the girl.

Do you think Amy got it right or wrong?

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  • TheDeadEye

    Personally, I wouldn’t offer (it is my home, right?) and if they offered, I’d say, “No thank you.” and continue to pass the food around. They would be more than welcome to say grace silently to themselves if they wish. But I’d keep eating. 😛

  • TheDeadEye

    From the advice column:

    After all, as atheists you are voluntarily hosting Christmas dinner, which is, after all, a religious holiday.

    The reason for the dinner is irrelevant. And Christmas is not a religious holiday, especially among Atheists.

  • Personally, if it wasn’t the boyfriends family (whom you may have to spend the rest of your life knowing) I would agree with DeadEye. But since it is the b/f’s family you should be able to explain to your rational family that they don’t have to participate, and to explain to the b/f’s family that you won’t be participating but they may say grace if they like.

  • Other than getting it wrong about Christmas being solely a religious holiday, I thought she got it right. And kudos to the religious family for getting it right first:

    Before we ate, Brian’s mother politely informed us that their tradition is to say grace before eating formal meals

  • Robin

    When every one sits down, pick up a glass and offer a heartfelt secular toast. I can’t imagine that this is the first dinner they have ever attended where grace was not said, and, since they felt they had to tell her they say grace “in their home”, I doubt it will be a shock. The trick to pulling this off it to do it with absolute assurance and smiling confidence.

  • Qrazyqat

    The correct thing to do is to politely say “oh now don’t be silly; now let’s all eat and have a good time”. 🙂

  • Personally, I am an atheist but I do like to say grace. Whenever we have a dinner party, before we eat, I always say grace as follows:

    “For the food we are about to receive, thanks (insert name of the person who cooked it).”

    It always gets a laugh and quietly highlights how the insistence on thanking god for things that people do is really rather rude.

  • I think Robin hit it dead on. The person at the head of the table could make a warm toast to family and friends (or whatever), then drink and dig in.

  • Renacier

    Christians: “Would you mind if we said grace?”

    Atheists: “No, not at all. Go ahead.”

    Then start passing out the food as you normally would. If you can sit quietly while they do their thing, then they can pray quietly while you do your thing.

  • Waiting a few seconds while the Christians pray is a reasonable accommodation for hosts to make to their guests. Not using their prayer to evangelize is a reasonable accommodation for guests to make to their hosts.

    In saying that, I presume that the prayer is something that the Christian guests will do together but not demand that the atheist hosts will be asked to participate in — in other words, I assume this is not some kind of a power play between the families. If it is a power play, then the host’s wishes should prevail — it is their house, after all.

    Also, the girlfriend should recall the manner in which the family prayed — many families say grace by holding hands in a circle around the table. That requires the atheist to participate in the prayer. So if that’s what’s going to happen, then a word in advance is necessary to see if the prayer can be done without the hand-holding.

  • TheDeadEye

    Do Christians pray at every meal? Late night fridge raid? How about fast food at McDonalds? Bag of chips from the snack machine?

  • Rufus

    They could consider making a secular pre-meal statement. “It’s great to have you all here today, thank you for the food, enjoy your meal, etc.”

  • Do Christians pray at every meal? Late night fridge raid? How about fast food at McDonalds? Bag of chips from the snack machine?

    Depends on the Christian. Some bless every snack.

    I say be polite and let people pray if they want to, at the end just add “Thank natural selection for the production of so many tasty lifeforms and the thousand of artificial selectors who have made them all the tastier.”

  • PrimeNumbers

    Maybe the atheist should say “Do you mind if I say Grace?” and I’m sure they’ll say “Yes.”

    At that point, the Atheist says the single word, “Grace” and starts eating.

  • mikespeir

    I’d let them say grace. I might even bow my head along with them. These are people I respect or they wouldn’t be sitting down to a meal at my table.

  • I would just carry on as normal. To be honest they would have to be fairly arrogant people to suggest saying grace when sitting at someone else’s dinner table. But if something is said just explain that “we don’t say grace, We thank the person who cooked it”.

  • Barry

    I believe this old chestnut holds up nicely. “My home, my rules.” You had enough respect to follow their rituals in their home, they should be expected to show the same respect and follow your rituals in your home.

  • Beowulff

    Other than the remark about having to acknowledge that Christmas is a Christian holiday, I thought the advice was pretty good: it makes your position clear up front, while still offering the option to everyone to either participate in saying grace or not.

    Alternatively, you could just carry on as usual, which should also make your position clear, just less explicitly. If they ask if it’s OK if they said grace anyway (which might make them a little uncomfortable), you can still offer the same proposal.

    I’m assuming they won’t ask their hosts to say grace, which would be rather rude, but if they do, you could just say, “No, we don’t say grace, but you can if you want to”.

    I’d also assume that in those cases they’d have a more silent prayer, which is what most Christians I’ve known were perfectly happy to do, but I don’t know what is customary for this particular family.

    I personally wouldn’t deny them the right for a silent prayer, and would be happy to pause for a little. After all, I believe in freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. If I feel that the prayer sounds more like proselytizing, however, I can always comment about it.

  • Harknights

    After all, as atheists you are voluntarily hosting Christmas dinner, which is, after all, a religious holiday.

    No you are having Christmas dinner because it was in A Christmas Carol and now everyone does it.

    As for saying grace. When my mom is at a home that doesn’t say grace or out to eat she says grace quietly to herself. Why is that so hard for others to do? I don’t say “we doesn’t kill a goat before eating…but if you would like to you can.” If it’s my house we follow my rules. I wouldn’t expect anyone to not say grace at their house just because I am there.

  • ssns

    Amy got it wrong. Not only is Christmas not a religious holiday, but I don’t think a guest’s religious preferences are something that need to be accommodated in my home, especially when they can easily pray silently in their heads. No one is preventing them from praying. I will accommodate a vegetarian because if I don’t, they cannot eat the meal I’ve prepared. But not praying publicly isn’t impacting anyone’s ability to do so on their own.

    I think the toast or host announcing a “thanks for coming” type thing to start the meal is appropriate and should be done whenever you begin a hosted meal. You thank the guests for coming, for any contributions, explain dishes that need explanation, etc., and you signal the start of the meal. That’s just common hosting courtesy.

  • David

    An inability of the potential in-laws to refrain from polluting your rational household with mythological claptrap bodes ill for the long-term relationship.

    Having this conversation about a dinner table is one thing. About a child/grandchild is QUITE another. If you can’t keep the former clear of lies about a SkyDaddy, how will you manage the latter?

  • We try to make reasonable accommodation for dinner guests. Before the meal we simply say, “We don’t say grace, but you’re welcome to if you wish.” We don’t participate, but we sit quietly until they’re finished.

    If I have guests over I want them to feel comfortable, and if they feel that grace is important they’ll be less comfortable if they can’t perform their little ritual. It doesn’t cost us anything except sitting politely for a few moments and trying not to giggle.

  • Adrian

    Apart from the smug ending, I think Amy’s reply is good.

    Isn’t one of the joys of inviting new people to one’s home is that we get to have different conversations, experience different traditions, share different view points? If they respect me by keeping the grace short & sweet then vive la difference. If they want to get all in-my-face then I’d react just as I react to any rudeness.

    It sounds like the family would be doing this as a favour to their daughter so I think it’s in everyone’s interest to keep it as simple and polite as possible. Save the religious rhetoric for the drunken wedding speeches 🙂

  • timplausible

    I am a bit surprised at the level of “my home, my rules,” going on here. I expect that when I’m in the home of friends who say grace, that I’m not expected to participate, and not belittled or made to feel bad if I don’t. The inconvenience of waiting a minute while people say grace at the start of a meal is trivial, especially at a gathering where the point is to bring two groups of people together for the enjoyment of each other’s company. Atheists who celebrate Christmas are likely to view it as more than just a day for getting loot, but as a time of celebrating some of the more noble aspects of humanity: generosity, good will, etc. Not much good will involved in saying, “F-you Christian idiots and your stupid grace-saying.”

    My advice: discuss this in advance with both families (separately), so that it doesn’t become an uncomfortable or conflict-laden scene at the dinner table. The reasonable thing seems to be to plan on the Christians saying grace, but without the participation of the non-Christians. Make sure the Christians know the atheists won’t be involved, and maybe ask the Christians to keep it simple and to the point, so the atheists aren’t staring at each other and their food for 10 minutes, listening to a sermon. Make sure the atheists know it’s going to happen, and ask them to be respectful. Then this awkward moment passes quickly and without trouble, and the two families can get down to the real business at hand: getting to know each other, supporting the two people at the center of this (the son and daughter that are a couple), and eating some yummy food.

  • For a while I was friends with a minister. We’d go out to eat regularly. He always said grace, but to and by himself, without asking me to join in.

  • Polly

    For trivialities like this, I’m a go-along get-along kind of guy.

    Besides, anything to curb, or postpone, my gluttonous tendencies. 🙂

    If they asked (presuming it wasn’t a powerplay or an excuse to preach to the sinners) I’d say “go ahead” and I’d sit quietly. I don’t hold hands…ever. Oh, and also I don’t want it to be one of those long drawn out prayers.

    My wife, who is a Xian, doesn’t go in for the pre-meal mumbling, either.

  • believe it or not, despite being vocally and verbally (tee-hee) opposed to the whole god-thang, i’m pretty easy going about this stuff.

    it’s a simple enough thing to allow the deluded persons in the room the comfort of their delusions. after all, from THEIR perspective, it is I who am deluded, and at least the delusionists that i hang out with generally have the respect to afford me the right to my delusion from their perspective.

    all that to say, if they want to pray, let them pray. i can be quiet for a few seconds while they do so (and if you had known me 20 years ago, that would have been a completely funny statement). anyway, i can be tolerant of their delusion while they actively represent it. it costs me, literally, but a few moments of time.

    if they’re “friends” or “family”, they’re worth a few seconds, aren’t they? i believe so. holiday gatherings among friends and family are rarely opportune times for carrying the torch of atheism in non-tolerant ways.

    pick and choose your battles, of course. but one of the most fundamental considerations of any type of battle is the timing of the thing.

    and, it is somewhat beneficial to the argument that a respectable form of morality is not dependent upon religious avocation, to be morally respectable oneself. prayer does no harm, just as it does no real good. to even so much as suggest that prayer is offensive delivers to the concept of prayer a power which it conspicuously lacks in truth.

  • Sandra

    What I do when entertaining the Christian in-laws is say something like, “Let us take a moment of silence to contemplate where our food has come from” it’s just a nice alternative and lets them thank their god.

    WARNING: This is a large cause for why my son and I are vegetarians. 😉

  • Miko

    The doctrine of “My home, my rules” means that there is no higher authority (I’m referring to a secular authority, of course) which can countermand your decision. It doesn’t, however, mean that acting like a jerk is a good idea.

    Also, it’s not absolute inasmuch as common law tradition denies you the right to kill your guests until after they leave your property or until they decline to follow your rules and also refuse to leave. While historically this developed primarily for the protection of messengers carrying bad news, this also provides an excellent standard for the current situation. If you feel strongly about it, the proper action under the “My home, my rules” doctrine is to tell them that if they attempt to pray, you will ask them to leave and kill them if they don’t comply. If you’re not willing to do this, I suggest going along with it (although nothing says you should participate yourself).

  • The answers here seem to vary based on assumptions about the Christians’ motives for offering the prayer. Such reactions are more revealing about the atheists making them than the Christians responding to them, because it shows what motives we attribute to the religious in the absence of any other evidence.

    In a vacuum, we can’t really know if the prayer is offered to evangelize or if it’s a “we have to do this but you don’t” sort of thing. One attitude deserves a firm but polite response, and the other deserves respectful silence while they do their thing. Bear in mind, we’re talking about dinner guests in your home — you’ve invited them over for a reason and it’s presumably not to pick fights about their religion.

  • Skepticat

    I think a simple and effective solution is to get the family together for the hand-holding and encourage each person to tell what they are thankful for this Christmas. That gives the faithful a chance to thank their god and it gives me a chance to express my love for my family.

  • Tao Jones

    I would say the proper thing to do would be to have a short prepared speech to say just before you eat. Thank both sets of parents for coming and come up with some warm and fuzzy quote about family… “When it’s this cold outside, it’s the warmth around this table…”

    Then eat.

    So turn that awkward moment into a toast that can be enjoyed by everyone in attendance.

    If his parents then try to start praying out loud, I’d say it’s fair to say there was already a toast for the group but they are more than welcome to say their own silent prayer while the rest of you eat.

  • Nicole

    I think the best way would be to allow them to say grace if they really want to, and if they ask the girl or her family to lead, thank the farmers and whoever prepared the meal.

  • I would certainly not say grace at my own home, unless it is a really extraordinary occasion. Like I am saying grace to the FSM, Odin, or something similar.

  • stephanie

    Personally, I would extend the invitation and mention that per your family’s tradition, grace is not said at that time. If you intend to ever marry this guy, you need to set appropriate boundaries from the start so there is no confusion later.

  • Richard Wade

    My religious brother and his religious girlfriend come to my house for dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother, the family peacekeeper, always suggests that we say grace, even though she never had us do so when we were kids. She’s only trying to accommodate my brother and his girlfriend. So he recites a prayer that he memorized from his grandfather and then adds a couple of sentences about whatever is the occasion. Nothing heavy or proselytizing. Everyone puts their hands in their laps and they bow their heads. Everyone except myself and my daughter, who is 23. She and I glance at each other and study the down-turned faces around the table, kind of like psychologists or anthropologists. It’s all over in a few seconds. No skin off my nose nor anyone else’s. If I’m feeling expansive, I’ll give a brief but eloquent toast about human warmth, companionship, generosity and gratitude. The rest of the evening’s conversation is completely secular and very pleasant. No big frikking deal. Since I don’t believe there’s any magic in the prayer, I don’t care one way or the other.

  • bernarda

    Xians have never shown me any respect, so why should I be particularly concerned about hurting their feelings.

    Why not offer them an alcoholic apératif before dinner to clue them in? I would have several bottles of alcohol on the coffee table to give them a choice.

  • @Stanley, my husband does the same thing in our house, especially when my 4yo daughter has just returned from her religious grandparents’ house! Actually, I think he’s even done it when my folks have been here, and my mom did the cooking. She blushed.

    I’ve only recently come out to my parents (!), so it’s amazing to me how well they seem to be taking it so far.

  • N

    Xians have never shown me any respect, so why should I be particularly concerned about hurting their feelings.

    I would hope that this is not how one would feel about someone they were inviting to their dinner table.

    I live in the epicenter of the bible belt, so almost all of my friends are christians. If they want to say grace before a meal, it really doesn’t hurt me any. I take the moment as an opportunity to meditate on the truly great life I have, and after they say amen, we eat and enjoy ourselves. It really doesn’t fucking hurt anything to allow someone I care about to perform a harmless ritual that is important to them and makes them feel good.

  • aliquot

    I think Amy’s solution (politely letting the other family know that the host family does not say grace, but the guest family is welcome to if they would like to) is spot on. If the guests need to thank their invisible man in the sky before eating in order to be comfortable during the meal, and the host is aware of this peculiarity, then why shouldn’t a considerate host accommodate the guests?

    of course, if they get all preachy with the grace, then it goes without saying that the offer wouldn’t be repeated….

  • They can say grace while everyone else is already eating and talking 😛

  • Wendy

    I recommend the girl speak with her family and let them know the visiting familiy is religious and that they like to say grace. I doubt anybody would mind!
    Then, when the family comes over for dinner, invite the eldest member to say grace. It’s respectful, non-intrusive to the atheists at the table, and will make the new family feel welcomed! Harmony. Ahhhhh. 🙂

  • I personally think bowing your head with other people to appease their beliefs is foolish. If people ask me to bow and pray with them, let them do it without me. Praising god is just as silly as praising magic.

    If my religion invloved sacrificing a small animal to appease my god, would you be following along? I hope not. Sure, saying thanks to a god is a lot less violent, but bowing your head is basically consent and agreeing with what’s happening around you.

  • I think that if the writer was openly atheist, then it wouldn’t be an issue.

  • Kat

    After all, as atheists you are voluntarily hosting Christmas dinner, which is, after all, a religious holiday.

    It really annoys me how many people still believe that Christmas is a religious holiday. Advice columnists should do a little research about things before saying such things.

    But anyway, I think Robin said the correct thing to do.
    As the host, she should make a secular toast before the meal. Raise a glass, invite others to raise theirs, and make a nice secular toast about the holiday and the guests in attendance, thanking them all for coming to her home to enjoy this great feast before them.
    As long as something is said, I believe the guests will be appreciative and enjoy themselves a great deal.

  • bernarda

    She could be very clear by putting up a sign saying “No God Zone”. Maybe have one of those highway signs with a red bar crossing(dare I say) it.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I think the advice to open with a toast is spot on. The xians are used to beginning a meal with a ritual, and you will have filled that expectation with something warm and friendly, non-religious, and yet non-confrontational. If you just start eating, it’s easier for your guests to request a prayer, so pre-empt that with your own tradition.

  • Karl Withakay

    So Amy’s position is that you should always accommodate the religious preference of Christians at the table regardless of whether they are the hosts or the guests?

    How far does that accommodation stretch, and why does it have to be one sided? Why is accommodation for the atheist side limited to not being required to participate?

    Just as many Christians would be offended by not being allowed to verbally say grace, many atheists are equally offended by having to listen to others say grace.

    We seem to be operating under the false dichotomy that there are only two possible guest types: Christian or atheist and atheist hosts should allow Christian guests to perform their rituals.

    How would those very Christians feel about having a Muslim, Buddhist, or Wiccan prayer said before the meal? Accommodation can’t be limited to just accommodating one faith.

    For practical purposes, you can’t honor the rituals of every member of a party; you could end up sitting through a dozen different prayers and rituals. That’s why you just go with what the hosts do. This extends to non religious rituals and practices as well. Maybe you serve stuffing and potatoes with turkey, but maybe I never make potatoes when I already have stuffing. Maybe you make thick gravy while I make thin gravy. It’s the host’s shindig; let them run it their way. Say your prayers in silence like you would at McDonald’s.

    Nobody’s advocating denying Christian guests the right to practice their faith, but if those guests don’t say grace verbally every time they go to a public banquet hall or McDonald’s, it’s not a requirement for practicing their faith, and they should not expect to practice their ritual in a host’s house.

    Hey if you are the host, it’s your home and you should be free to engage in whatever rituals you want to so long as you don’t expect all the guests to participate unless you expressly made it clear ahead of time that you do so.

    But for guests, what rituals that a guest might want to perform are out of bounds? What if I believe in setting an extra place at the table with a fully filled plate for my unseen god? What if my faith’s custom is to throw one tenth of my food to the floor in deference to the god that provided it? By symbolically returning my nourishment to the earth that provided it, I honor my god. Bottom line: if it’s not your house, it’s not your dinner party.

    I think we might be confusing accommodation with appeasement.

  • AnonyMouse

    I find it a little odd that Christians might want to say a public grace at the home of nonbelievers to begin with. My parents would never dream of such a thing – they believe it is best to offer a silent prayer of thanks and not bother the host about it.

    In either case, I certainly wouldn’t ask the Christian guests to say grace. Again drawing from my own experience, Christians can be rather leery of people of other faiths (or of non-faith), and may not feel comfortable sharing their religious ritual with such people. In fact, if you were dealing with my parents, it would be best to skip the grace thing entirely – they get kind of squicked out at the prospect of sitting at the same table as someone who prays to a different god.

    Fundies. Gotta love ’em.

  • James

    I think saying the prayer silently in their heads would be uncomfortable, and create an unnecessary division. Christians are instructed to pray with their mouths (with words) anyway. Saying to a Christian that to thank god for something that people do is rude is in fact rude in itself, because Christians believe that god is responsible for making everything possible. I realize this is after the fact but I would imagine, as it IS a Christian Holiday celebrating CHRIST’s birth, it would probably be prudent to ask the people who would not normally say grace to say grace anyway. You are after all trying to be hospitable.

  • John

    Rather a late addition! Several people make the point that Christmas is, after all, a Christian day, but at the same time, Sunday is the day of the sun, Thursday the day of the Norse god of thunder and March the month of the Roman god of war. Nobody objects to the use of these. Christmas just happens to fall, in the northern hemisphere, at a time when the weather is rather gloomy and the days short. Under these circumstances, any excuse for a party is a good one and since it has long been a bank holiday, it’s as good a time as any to have one. I recommend a book, “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas” as a good book to leave lying around.

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