Tract #31: What Do I Do When People Pray?

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What Do I Do When People Pray?

Imagine you have been invited to attend a wedding in a church or you are attending a large family dinner and the host announces that she is going to say grace. As an atheist, what do you do when people around you are praying?

Some atheists are tempted to show their disrespect for such “silly” or “absurd” practices. They make faces, they look around impatiently, they roll their eyes when the subject is even brought up. But what does this kind of behavior do? It shows the atheist to be disrespectful of the beliefs, feelings, and traditions of others. It also invites payback in the form of catty remarks about atheism later in the day.

Some atheists join in. Prayer doesn’t mean anything to them, so what do they care if they pretend they are doing it? But these atheists may be misrepresenting their beliefs, reinforcing other peoples’ impression that atheism is not a deeply held philosophy or sewing doubt about whether the person really is an atheist.

As a moral atheist, you might want to consider the middle ground. Do not disrupt the prayers of others, but do not participate n them. Sit in polite silence while others bow their heads. Politely decline to give the blessing if asked.

If you are entertaining guests who normally pray before eating, you don’t need to offer them time to pray any more than they would offer to let you eat before prayer at their home. But if they ask for a moment for their private devotion, it doesn’t hurt you to let them have it.

If someone who knows your beliefs asks you to pray with them, consider how you will respond. You’ll likely want to decline with a polite “no, thank you.” But there might be rare occasions — such as when the request comes from an ill grandparent who would gain more in comfort than you would lose in philosophical points — when you make an exception.

As an atheist, how should you respond to more casual religious wishes? Is there any need to be offended by “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays” if you do not celebrate the occasion and the well-wish was sincerely given? Should you object to “God bless you” after you put a dollar in a street performer’s hat or “bless you” after you sneeze, treat such statements as an invitation to debate religion, or simply smile in recognition of the person’s concern (no matter how misplaced you might think it is)? The latter option is friendly, polite, non-confrontational, and philosophically consistent.

If someone says “Go with God” when you leave, you may find that a response of “Take care of yourself” makes your point while still appearing polite.

But being polite and considerate of others doesn’t mean that you should let yourself be pressured into religious demonstrations that you disagree with. It is polite to cover your head when visiting a Jewish temple (just as you would dress appropriately for any occasion), but you should not feel pressured to cross yourself with holy water when entering a Catholic church (since this is a demonstration of religious devotion).

Posted on October 4, 2009 at 12:47 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Atheists' problems, Dealing with religious folks, Tract

5 Responses

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  1. Written by Joakim Rosqvist
    on October 5, 2009 at 2:22 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I’m so glad to live in Sweden were issues like these never come up. (you might hear someone say the equivalent of “oh my god!” when surprised, but that has about as much religious meaning as “bless you” when someone sneezes)

  2. Written by Jena
    on November 12, 2009 at 9:42 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Normally the comprimise I’ve found with prayer is that I will bow my head but not close my eyes. I want to be respectful and not cause any sort of scene or comments, but at the same time I don’t want to seem like I’m faking it. The problem I’ve had has really come with events. My family doesn’t know I’m an atheist since they quit going to church a long time ago, and religion is never brought up. So at things like funerals, where there are songs and prayer, I do a strange participation of singing the songs, but omitting words like God, Jesus, or Lord. I’m not sure why, but it makes sense as a compromise in my head. What sucked though, was when I had to attend my graduation bachaloreat service. That was the closest I’ve come to announcing why I would have no interest in going, but I doubt it would have done any good.

  3. Written by Sarah
    on December 8, 2009 at 11:03 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    “But there might be rare occasions — such as when the request comes from an ill grandparent who would gain more in comfort than you would lose in philosophical points — when you make an exception.”

    Why be deceptive? As a Christian, I wouldn’t make “exceptions” for who I am a Christian around. Just pointing out the contradiction…

  4. Written by Megan
    on June 6, 2010 at 1:16 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I bow my head and fold my arms (as is traditional in the LDS faith I was born into) I don’t usually close my eyes and I usually don’t pay any attention to the words and I never say “Amen.” There is no reason to be rude or inconsiderate. I prefer to give the same respect I expect to be shown in return. If a dying relative needed prayer to feel better I would gladly bow my head for them, but I would not say the pray myself.

  5. Written by Courtr
    on December 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm
    Reply · Permalink


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