Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Atheists and Public Prayer

In a recent episode of the excellent web series “Penn Says,” Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller brings up a quandary many atheists, agnostics and freethinkers face: how to respond when asked to join a group in prayer at a dinner or some other group event.

He makes a good point. A secular group composed mainly of Christians would not invite Muslims, Jews or Hindus to an event, then enjoin them to engage in prayer invoking Jesus Christ. It would be inappropriate and probably offensive to the guests. Why, then, is it okay to do the same thing to atheists? Don’t we have feelings, too?

In my experience, many of the faithful seem to have a tough time discerning that the supremacy of their god isn’t obvious and apparent to people who don’t subscribe to that particular magazine. It’s not confined to religious groups — this is true of many belief systems and political or environmental viewpoints. It’s even true of a lot of atheists. It’s certainly hard for me sometimes.

It is always worthwhile to remind others (in a kind way, whenever possible) that your beliefs are as valid as their own. Often, the best way to encourage acceptance and understanding of your own beliefs is by being accepting and understanding of the beliefs of others.

How, then, should we respond in this situation? My default response is, “When in Rome...” and then to approach the group leaders privately afterward so as to address the situation in a kind and respectful manner. However, this is not always appropriate. As a humanist celebrant, I occasionally find myself placed in the role of community leader, and as such, am expected to speak up on subjects that represent my fellow thinkers. Maintaining silence until after the event can be interpreted as tacit agreement. Is my not speaking up in these situations a disservice to other atheists? Possibly, sometimes.

One alternative is to address the situation directly at the time it happens. It can be difficult to do this tactfully, because by interrupting an event in progress, the speaker is already at a disadvantage and seen as a crank. Still, it can be done. It doesn’t necessarily follow that when everyone else in the room is standing with folded hands and bowed heads, they are praying. No doubt some of them are merely following the abovementioned “When in Rome...” default.

Still, it would be nice for other people to understand, accept and respect the fact that not everyone shares their religious views. Perhaps the best thing to do in these situations is to deal with the situation preemptively. If you’re an atheist invited to participate in a group dinner or similar event, ask ahead of time whether the group is religious or has any religious affiliations. Find out beforehand whether the group usually conducts a prayer or blessing before the meal. Ask questions, and make it clear in a respectful, loving way that while you respect their right to believe what they choose, they must also respect your right to accept or decline the invitation based on your own beliefs. Naturally, if you are okay with being asked to pray, the choice is entirely up to you.

When visiting a church and the congregation kneels in prayer, I simply sit. By keeping my seat I am not making a spectacle of my own beliefs, but I am also declining to participate in the worship of (what is to me) an imaginary friend. When attending an event in which a speaker asks the gathered audience to join him in prayer, I do not bow my head; rather, I fold my hands politely and look around to see how many other people are doing the same thing. This course of action is a compromise on my part, but it enables me to gauge the audience and decide whether anyone else might appreciate my speaking up on their behalf. Often, there are several.

Again, the choice of how to proceed in this situation is yours and yours alone. As always, in all situations, I encourage you to treat others with compassion, respect, understanding and joy.


  1. I, personally, use the moment when others are bowing their heads in prayer at a group dinner to quietly snag and/or scarf down the first dinner roll (presuming I am near the dinner rolls).

    This is probably because I am a terrible person.