Ask Richard: Atheist Conflicted About Family’s Prayer at Holiday Meals November 21, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Conflicted About Family’s Prayer at Holiday Meals

Dear Richard,

I’m not sure how to start my letter but I suppose a little background might help. My parents are Pentecostals and they tried to raise me as such. I’m one of three siblings and all three of us ended up in the Baptist church by the time we were in high school. You see, I live in Florida and the Baptist church is VERY prevalent here. We were all extremely devout (read brainwashed). I ended up in the Plymouth Brethren Church (a small sect which Dawkins described as particularly odious in his book The God Delusion). About three years ago I started having doubts which led me to leave the faith altogether. I’ve always had a love of science and logic, and it was only a matter of time before I educated myself through books by Carl Sagan and realized that there was no evidence for god’s existence and became an atheist.

Well now I’ll get to the point. The first Christmas after my deconversion I was still closeted. It was always my job to lead a prayer before the meal at big family events (I have a knack for speaking and people always enjoyed my prayers). That year I got away with not praying (I don’t remember how). That Easter, however, I wasn’t so lucky. After my family realized that I left all the god and Jesus stuff out of my prayer I was busted, so I came clean with them. Last year on Christmas I didn’t lead the prayer (now that I am an atheist that is, thankfully, no longer my job. However my mom still asked me to set up the nativity and decorate the tree). However, my brother reached over to take my hand. They had all assumed that I would still hold hands and quietly bow my head. I told my brother that I don’t pray any more, and his response was “Its just a hand, it won’t kill you.” Not wanting to cause a problem in the middle of Christmas I just took his hand. However, I feel as though I compromised my principles.

Now that Christmas is coming up again I want to tell everyone ahead of time that I’m not participating in the prayer. I’m not sure how I should do this. My family reacts with extreme negativity anytime I even mention the A word. I just want them to realize that I’m not just trying to be difficult or disrespectful. I simply have no interest in participating in the practices of a religion I don’t practice.

Former Thumper

Dear Former,

For several years I have been faced with a similar situation at holiday family feasts. If my brother, who is a Christian, is present, he leads the family in a short prayer at the dining table. We all hold hands, but when everyone bows their heads, my daughter and I do not. She and I quietly look straight ahead until the brief ritual is over.

This is because gestures and rituals have different meanings and significance for different people. For my daughter and me, holding hands only signifies being part of and supporting the family, but bowing our heads would mean that we’re participating in the prayer. So we participate in the part of the custom with which we agree, family togetherness, and we refrain from the part with which we do not agree, the invocation of a deity. For us, our principles have not been compromised. No one else seems to pay any attention. Besides, the rest of them are all bowing their heads so they can’t see. In my family no one, including my brother, is very strongly religious, so the situation is pretty easy for us.

However for other people who have arrived at their emancipation through a painful struggle, and who have suffered conflicts with loved ones, customs such as holding hands, bowing heads, setting up nativity scenes or decorating a tree might hold much more emotional power, and so they don’t want to do anything that others might think is giving in or returning to the religion they escaped.

But worrying about what others might think is another thing that is wonderful to escape. What is important in matters like this is what you think.

For instance, when your brother urged you to hold hands at the table, in his mind that might have meant that you would be capitulating to the religious ritual, or it might have only meant that you still have a place in the family. Whatever he thinks does not make reality for you. If it’s not capitulation to you, then it’s not capitulation at all. You’re not sure what’s in his mind, and it could take quite a lot of effort to find out. Being overly concerned about what is in other people’s minds can drive you out of your own mind.

You can decide for yourself what any part of a family custom means, and participate or refrain accordingly. I think what you should do is to sort out what each gesture in your family rituals means to you, regardless of what others might assume it means to you, or what they might assume it means in general. You can by your own volition change your mind about the meaning of each of those things, because you are looking at them from your new point of view.

So if to you, holding hands while others pray only signifies being part of the family, and you’re comfortable expressing that, then hold hands. If to you it means that you’re participating in the prayer, then don’t hold hands. You can tell them ahead of time that you’re just not comfortable doing that. Further explanation is not necessary. The same thing goes for bowing your head, or any other gesture, ritual or task.

Once in a while at Christmas, my mother asks me to help set up a little nativity scene she has more for traditional reasons than religious reasons. I do it because her hands are arthritic, and it’s difficult for her. They’re just little figurines with no significance to me, and so I’m unconcerned about what others might think if they see me doing that.

Religious places and ceremonies no longer hold any magic for you, so in time they can lose their emotional charge if you let it go. Then you can choose to do or not do them with ease. Your principles are not compromised by such trifles. Your principles are about treating people with compassion, respect, truthfulness, fairness, generosity, and love.

Despite the tension and negativity that your family has experienced around your atheism, you are still gathering as a family. That is precious, and sadly not as common as it should be. Cherish that, and nurture that. Make your boundaries clear where you must, and avoid discussing some topics if you must, but the main thing is to continue to focus on the love that is there.

I hope that you enjoy your family during the coming holidays. Remember that to “enjoy” something means to put joy into it, rather than to get joy out of it.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Anonymous

    “You’re not sure what’s in his mind, and it could take quite a lot of effort to find out. Being overly concerned about what is in other people’s minds can drive you out of your own mind.”

    So true; I laughed out loud.

  • Top

    Recently I just keep my head up, eyes open and remain silent while everyone prays.  Perhaps I give a positive silence generic “I’m thankful for what I have, and the people and effort it took to bring this food to the table” im my head.

  • Rod Chlebek

    My in-laws sometimes still offer their hands. I don’t mind. It does feel just a bit awkward but that’s the sort of cultural difference that I would expect going into someone else’s home. When they come to my house they hold hands and pray alone and that’s fine. There was some tension early, but that’s passed.

  • It never would have occured to me that people would pray at christmas dinner!

  • Ed-words

    Former Thumper has read Sagan’s “The Dragon In My Garage”.
    Google it if it doesn’t ring a bell. 

    But the ‘thumpers’ would laugh and say that it’s not in the Bible.

  • T-Rex

    You should offer to lead the “blessing”. Something along the lines of,
    I’m thankful for my health and my family and friends. I’m also thankful for the farmers who grew the food and raised the “meat of choice” that we are enjoying here today. I’d like to thank the pickers who harvested the vegetables, the butchers that prepared the “meat of choice”, the truckers that delivered the food to the stores, the stock boys for stocking the shelves so that we might have such a glorious selection of food to choose from, the bag boy that carried all of my groceries to my car and finally all of  the people involved in preparing this wonderful feast.
    All praise mighty Zeus!

  • I could make my life easier by insincerely parroting my family’s prayer, but at that point I’m treating my family members like children who can’t maintain their fantasy world unless I play along.   Sincere participation is not an option.  The reality is that I can mimic the act of prayer, but my atheism makes it impossible for me to pray sincerely.  My participation would be a denigration of their faith, because I would be only be doing it to avoid social repercussions.  It’d be like making an extra plate of food for a difficult child’s imaginary friend just to avoid a temper tantrum.  In such a case, playing along is not a sign of respect for the child or the imaginary friend.

    My family may interpret my refusal to participate as a lack of respect, but my intent is really the opposite.   I try to remind myself of that when things get awkward.

  • RevTheMag

    I too come from a Plymouth Brethren background.  When visiting my parents, I do hold hands with them because of the reason above:  I’m affirming that we are a family who cares about each other.  They pray before meals as a gesture of thanks that we are all together – my dad always makes sure to mention his gratefulness for our presence and safe travels.  If it makes him happy to give the credit to God, I don’t care.

    I will admit to carrying on a irreverent subterfuge while holding my kids’ hands.  Squeezing hands to the rhythm of “shave and a haircut” or morse code for SOS … all kinds of possiblities to remind them that it’s ok not to buy into this — and it’s ok to make other people happy by doing it, too.

  • Tiffany

    Luckily for me, my family doesn’t hold hands when they pray. Unluckily for me, they do still pray. I don’t bow my head and I don’t close my eyes. I look around the room and occasionally make eye contact with my also atheist husband. Six months ago or so, when my husbands family threw us a wedding shower, someone led the prayer. That is the only time in which I felt it was incredibly rude for that to even be a part of a meal because they are all very aware of the fact that I’m an atheist.

  • Gerry

    Richard, I liked your closing note about the meaning of  “enjoy” that I posted it over on Facebook!

  • Anonymous

    I guess I must count myself lucky. In the last 40 years I have never been at a meal (family or otherwise) where anyone has even attempted to say a prayer so it is not something I have had to consider. Reading this blog certainly opens my eyes to just how unsecular some ‘secular’ environments are. (I am from the UK btw)

  • Matto the Hun

    My family only did prayer on holidays or when we visited my mom’s family. Regardless, the holding hands thing was never part of the prayer. I must have been somewhere around 8 – 10 years old when I first learned that it was a thing. It creeped me out then when I believed in god, it creeps me out twice as much now that I don’t.

    Blech, I feel like I need a shower now.

  • Darric

    What about the animal that had to die for you to eat it?

  • T-Rex

    Ok, so we thank the animal for its sacrifice that helps sustain us.  Although I highly doubt that animal will appreciate the sentiment.

  • chaimsmom

    I close my eyes, bow my head reverentially and think about sex.

  • Clearly a Diplodocus, look at his name 😉

    (Oo, misread that; thought you asked what SORT of animal died >.< That ruined an otherwise fine joke 😛 )

  • Anonymous

     Did you make your burnt offering to almighty Zeus though?

  • Thin-ice

    No big deal. I see my 88-yr-0ld true believer mother once a year or so around Thanksgiving/Christmas. She thinks I’m still a believer (though she knows I’m a heck of a lot more liberal than she is). So I’m going to say the grace and hold hands before the meal. Standing up for my principles is NOT more important than my mother’s emotional stability. Her world would fall apart if she knew I was an atheist.

    Here’s my guiding principle: “Don’t be an asshole.”

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think my family ever prayed at Christmas dinner, even when I was younger. They go to church and that’s all the religion there is in it.

  • Anonymous

    I agree completely. When I’m a guest at someone’s house I play by their rules so to speak. I politely hold the hand offered me, and I remain silent. When I have guests I expect that if they want to pray they’ll quietly pray to themselves and that will be it.

    I had to really hammer the rules home with my brother one time. When he started to protest I quietly told him that in my house it’s my rules, he’s welcome to pray quietly with his family if he likes but there will be no big house prayer; I told him that if we had been at his house I would have quietly abode them praying and not made a scene about it and that I expected the same of him. I made it clear that he was welcomed to stay  so long as he respected the house rules and that if he didn’t like them he was welcomed to leave.

    When he decided to leave I sat down to eat. I continued eating as he was gathering up his family. As I didn’t react to his children crying because they didn’t want to leave he looked at me, sat down and quietly prayed with his family and got some food.

    I sometimes hear second-hand stories of him complaining when I’ve hosted family gatherings, but have had no need of reiterating the rules to him.

  • When we go to my wife’s parents house (2 or 3 times a year), they always insist on saying grace before the formal meal.  I just suck it in and go along with it.  Although, it always bothers me a bit.  At least we don’t say such non-sense when our nuclear family eats together.  I always thank my wife if she worked to prepare the dinner. 

  • Anonymous

    The very few times I’ve had to sit on a mealtime prayer, I just stared ahead until everyone was done. I suppose if hand-holding were ever done I’d hold hands, because it seems an affectionate gesture, and continue to stare ahead.

    I have noticed that sometimes people who come out of deeply fundamentalist backgrounds have a much stronger negative reaction to any religious gesture (I remember a whole thread on how offensive “I’m praying for you” was or was not) than many of us with mild or nonexistent religious backgrounds. It’s understandable that the trauma, and the concern that any religious gesture will make your family think you’re a step away from reconversion, makes people leery.

    So yes, don’t do something you’re extremely uncomfortable with. Still, if what you’re describing is about as far as your family goes in terms of getting you in on religious stuff, it sounds fairly mild, especially for a fundamentalist family. They know you’re an atheist anyway, so maybe holding hands would be worth your while.

  • Former Thumper

    In the time since I sent this letter to Richard I actually had the following conversation over facebook with my brother. The names have been removed.

    Hey ______. Mom said that you’re coming down for the holidays. Can’t wait to see you. Something’s been on my mind lately and I wasn’t sure how to go about talking to you about it, but I guess I’ll just do it like this. The thing is, last year at christmas, when it was time to pray I didn’t want to take your hand and join in. You said something like “It’s not made of poison” or “it’s not gonna bite you” or something like that, I don’t remember what exactly. I didn’t want to create a scene at christmas(the first one since you guys found out that I’m an atheist) so I went along. I feel like I need to be direct and let you know that I felt pressured to participate and that I didn’t appreciate it. I’m not trying to be difficult or rebellious. The fact of the matter is that I don’t practice your religion. It’s fine that you guys do, and I don’t mind standing nearby quietly while you pray. I respect your right to your observances. But the bottom line is that it’s not MY religion. I don’t pray. I don’t participate in prayer. This year I am going to stand by quietly and wait for you guys to pray. All I ask is that I am afforded the same respect in return. Consider this. If you were invited to the home of some Hindus and they wanted to perform some kind of ceremony to Shiva, what would you do? You certainly wouldn’t participate, even in some token fashion. You would quietly wait for the observance to be over and then proceed with the meal or whatever. Anyhow, I’m letting you know ahead of time like this because I don’t want to have to bring it up or “stand my ground” on christmas. Obviously this goes without saying for thanksgiving as well. And as far as easter is concerned, I simply don’t celebrate. Your my brother and I love you. I know that you and I have a relationship that is stronger than our different views on the existence of god. You don’t have to respect my views, but I know that you’ll respect me and not pressure me into any religious observances this year.Your Bro,______(read Former Thumper)Very eloquently said. I do respect you and I want you to know that I will always stand by you. You may never no how much you mean to me, or how much it breaks my heart to hear of your choice to walk away from a faith in Jesus. I felt myself becoming enraged while reading your message to me. Then I felt myself feeling broken for you. I know that you don’t feel that anger or mourning is in order since you don’t believe that Jesus is real or that God exists. So for you, my emotional reaction seems unwarranted. Never the less, I am pained and saddened by your decision. Mostly because I believe that your choice is one of grave consequences, and partly because I feel a personal betrayal by you for walking away from a belief that was once shared between us. That is a human response that anyone would have to someone leaving a specific social circle. I will honor your request and not push you in any direction. However, I will never stop praying for you. I still believe that God will break you, whether you believe in Him or not. Again, even that statement will seem to be without weight and will have little to no impact on a man who does not believe yet the human side of me must say it. The brother in me wants to cry out to you and beg you to reconsider, and at the same time I want to give you a hug and assure you that no matter what your choice you will always be unwaveringly loved by me. I can’t wait to see you this Christmas. Differences, aside it will be great to see you, as it always is. Love your brother

    I’d say it went rather well.

  • Former Thumper

    Dang, it’ didn’t put in the space between my message and his response.  The break is after (read Former Thumper).

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like your brother’s heart is in the right place. He’s hurt and scared because of what he sees as you condemning yourself to Hell (man it pisses me off that people are led to believe their loved ones go to be tortured forever) but he recognizes his emotional reactions for what they are and makes a concious decision that he won’t let that get in the way of your relationship. We hear so many horror stories about fundamentalist families. It’s great to hear a happy ending now and again. Cheers!

  • Anonymous

    I’m reminded of this prayer from “Bloom County” many years ago:

    Dear Lord, I’ve been asked, nay commanded, to thank Thee for the Christmas turkey before us… a turkey which was no doubt a lively, intelligent bird… a social being… capable of actual affection… nuzzling its young with almost human-like compassion.  Anyway, its dead and were gonna eat it.  Please give our respects to its family.

    Give a “prayer” like that and you probably won’t be asked again.

  • Austin

    I do a similar thing, my cousin always does the prayer at thanksgiving and Christmas (which I refer to as the winter solstice) and my brother and I just sit there quietly until it’s over.

  • Rich Wilson

    I still believe that God will break you

    Like a colt.  Yay free will.

  • Very well done, Former. You expressed yourself assertively and without hostility. Your brother seems to have responded in kind. I hope that things continue to relax in your family. 

  • Trace

    That was a respectful interchange. I understand your brother’s feelings and would imagine that they mirror those of other family members. I hope this year things go well and “reconciliation” can be reached little by little. 

    Best of luck!

  • It seems your brother is a better person than the God that he believes in. That is the thing that is so interesting. Most Christians are better than the God they believe in. Enjoy spending time with your brother. Be thankful that you don’t share his warped theology of believing in some kind of supernatural entity that sets up a situation where people that don’t pray right (or enough) spend eternity in hell.

  • You know, I understand the consternation here and all, but at my family (inlaw) gatherings, our biggest worry is whether or not someone will go to jail or the hospital (all depending on whether the cops get called – usually by the neighbors). The sad part? Alcohol is rarely involved. I (and my wife) have learned over the past decade to stay away from these gatherings on holidays – Boston Market is so much easier (and generally better tasting, I might add – you could use my mother-in-law’s stuffing as bricks to build a house).

  • Dan W

     My normal procedure at any family or peer meal where a prayer is said beforehand is a variation of an idea I first heard from Sam Singleton on one of his Youtube videos. When others are bowing their heads and whatnot in prayer, I keep my head up and eye open, and quietly look around to see if there are others similarly nor praying.

    It’s a strategy that’s worked fine for me several times now, since the people praying are too busy doing their thing to notice me not joining in. I don’t know what I’d do if it was the type of prayer where everyone’s expected to hold hands, though.

  • Anonymous

    We prayed before EVERY meal we ate as a family.  When at my Mom’s house, we still do.  Every summer, my son and I are there for a month (Dad passed, I and my son are only children, mom lives a state away).  Every night, she likes to have an informally formal dinner at the table, all 3 of us there.  Being Catholic, she does the cross and likes to see my son do it as well.  Hubby was raised Catholic though is a devout atheist now, so we explained to him what it means and why she does it…. and why it is important to HER that HE does it.  He’s now 11 and he totally understands that it makes Grandma happy, she knows he considers himself a nonbeliever at present, but everyone ends up happy and noncompromised. 

    When at her house or anyone else’s house and they hold hands to pray, I hold hands, happy for the community/family inclusion and closeness, and I look straight ahead and remain quiet… sometimes reciting the lyrics to “Dear God” in my head.  🙂

    I think the most important thing is to be respectful of the customs in the house you are visiting (in your own house, no prayer) and act accordingly.  The holding of hands is inclusive and nonthreatening unless you LET it be threatening and there’s no point in that.

  • Anonymous

    THAT is why we trained our son on the crossing that Catholic Grandma does and have allowed him (encouraged him) to do so… her happiness on this earth is more important than my satisfaction to remain secular, especially while in her home.  It offends no one.  We know it is only actions and they make her happy.  She knows we are atheists (though we maintain the 11yo grandson doesn’t really know himself or the world enough to make that proclamation) so this little ritual between her and the grandson makes her, and me by extension, VERY happy… and isn’t that important, too?

  • That jumped out at me too. A tacit acknowledgement that the god of the bible is a school bully writ large perhaps?

  • I’ve asked several belevers – “How could you be happy if a loved one was in Hell?”  and gotten non-answers.

    Sounds like this brother would give a seious answer along the lines of “I’d hate that, it’d cut me to the core”

    Hopefully he’ll start to wonder how the brother he loves could deserve hell for something so trivial and drift away from religion himself!

  • Spotted_toad

    An outstanding principle.

  • MariaO

    I started confirmation education a skeptic agnostic and ended a confirmed atheist (wanted to give Xianity a last chance – it didn’t take it). But I still went through with the ceremony because I knew both my grandmothers would have be devastated if I opted out and it was by that time so unimportant to me that I did not care. 

    Seriously, if you have troubles holding hand, entering  a church or attending a religious ceremony as an observer (going through the overt motionsso  as to not draw attention to yourself) you are still far too much influenced by religion for your comfort and you have long way to go to become areligious. Its ridiculous theatre and sometimes good  music, nothing else.

  • Rich Wilson

    A lot of us are saying “Just smile and nod”.  Which is fine.  When I have religious guests in my home, I invite the them to pray.  They know I’m not going to participate, but I’ll wait respectfully while they do.  But that’s just me.  I’ve been out all my life, and different things bother me.  I think it’s also perfectly all right for someone to feel the prayer is pushy and to push back.  Everyone has to work out a solution for their own situation, and one size certainly won’t fit all.

  • Ryan Jung

    Some of my family members know I’m an atheist.  I usually don’t get much push-back from them, and I don’t get asked to say prayers anymore.  That’s a nice relief, and I appreciate that they don’t put pressure on me to act theistically (which is surprising, considering they’re all Catholic and Methodist and we’re all from south Texas).  When it’s time for group prayer, I try to not be rude or anything.  I fold my hands casually in front of me (everyone else is clasping their hands in prayer) and look around and watch everyone (their heads are all downturned, eyes closed).  It’s interesting to see their body language as they pray.  My observations lead me to believe that not everyone else in my family is as religious as they might pretend to be.

  • Simon

    I was in the same boat when I moved from the UK to the US about 15 years ago. Before I arrived here, I honestly didn’t know a single person who was outwardly religious, and I’d never encountered anyone trying to pray before a meal. So the prevalence of religion in the US came as quite a shock (and still does). One can only hope that it fades over the next few decades as rapidly as it has done in the UK and Europe…

  • M G

    Had this convo with a friend not too long ago, and told her “I look at the time as an opportunity for each person to “do their own thing”, religion-wise. If you have a god you want to talk to, go for it. Me–I’ve been known to compose a mental to-do list during that time, but that’s just me, and your mileage may vary.”

  • RIchard

    I am a total atheiest, my mother in law is a total christian.  When she is at our table, we hold hands, she prays, I bow my head.  

    It makes her happy, it hurts me not at all.
    She already knows I think she’s wrong, but who am I to tell her what to do?  She wants to go to Malawi, build a school for unemployed women to learn sewing and to start them off in small businesses, to start a church and build an ophanage.  And she is jsut the kind of person who will get it done.  She’d already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and managed it distribution to the starving.

    Who am I to tell this person not to believe in God?  Who am I to not hold her hand and pray with her?  Am I going to help these women, feed these children?
    No.  I;m not.  Oh i do my bit, more than most, but not nearly as much as this.

    Pray with your family, make them happy.  God does not exist so he will hardly care.

  • Gail

    Speaking as a Christian, also a mother and a sister, I try to respect all of my children and their decisions and choices in life and ask only for that same respect. Holding hands , being together in the holidays, sharing our stories and lives, eating a nice meal, and being thankful is important . I realize if you are an atheist- you are not praying to my God, but can we hold hands and during our prayer time can you be just in a thoughtful time , reflecting on the gift of another year together and the love we share? 
    I go to the family Pride marches and seminars on gaming  to show my love and support and respect for my family members. I don’t agree with them on everything, but I love them very much , show interest in their lives and yes, I do pray for them because that is who I am, but I do not try to force my religion on them.  I can only live the life I have, and be who I am . I feel holding hands in a prayer is a nice gesture that shows respect to that family just as I cover my head going to a Muslim funeral to show respect to their beliefs and traditions….just as I kneel at a friend’s confirmation when I am not Catholic..I might not hold the same traditions or beliefs,  but believe in honoring others and equality. Just as I believe in your right not to believe.  I extend an olive branch to you in brotherly love as a people to respect each other..without compromising our individual beliefs…but allowing us to share in each other’s lives.

  • CanadianDude2000

    I don’t get it- if you converted to Judaism, Islam or another  religion, I’d say, don’t bow your head since you’d believe you must do otherwise… But, this is atheism. According to your beliefs, no one is watching you or judging you.. It’s only your family’s happiness that matters.. Unless you’re trying to deconvert them, I would think that going along with rituals while around the parents is the most respectful. While I don’t think it’s wrong to act differently, I think for the sake of family unity you can just celebrate it with them.

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