Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Prayer Etiquette For Atheists?

O.k., so. Does anybody have any interesting thoughts on the following question: what should atheists doing when theists are praying? Of course I don't mean: what should we do when theists in Timbuktu are praying...but, rather, what should we do when, say, you're invited to supper and your theistic hosts pray before the meal? Or, I dunno...what if you, say, go to an Obama rally at the Dean Dome, and a kindly preacher (note: not Jeremiah Wright) gives a non-denominational prayer? I mean, I know what to do if nutty theists are using prayer as a cudgel. But I'm wondering: what if everyone involved is well-intentioned?

Back when I was an evangelical atheist (note: a term I coined so far as I know, though I see it around now) I'd go out of my way to make my non-participation clear. I'd keep quiet, but look around the room in a way that made it absolutely clear that I was having none--none--of this nonsense. But now I'm all growed up, and far less obnoxious than I used to be. So I'm wondering.

I mean, you can't really pretend to pray--that's fairly clearly inauthentic, disrespectful and dishonest. That is, you can't fold your hands, close your eyes and bow your head. So what do you do?

I've been vacillating back and forth between: (a) silently but non-obnoxiously looking straight ahead and (b) slightly bowing my head, but not closing my eyes. Trying to figure out what attitude reveals a certain amount of respect, but neither some kind of submissiveness nor faux prayerfulness.

Any ideas?


Blogger Tracie said...

I usually do option B. Definitely the most respectful way to go.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

During grace, I just look at the person and listen as I would if they were addressing the group in conversation. To me it is respectful. At least it has never offended anyone enough to say something to me about it.

My approach to patriotic prayer is different. During, say, the national anthem at a baseball game, I like to call one of my companions' cell phone just to see their reaction.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

I am an atheist with a theist wife. We take our children to church (Episcopalian) each week. I go with option B. It is respectful of the purpose of the place and gathering, yet is honest to my beliefs.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clearly (b) is the most appropriate choice. By slightly bowing your head, you are insinuating some level of respect for the beliefs of those around you. But by not closing your eyes, you (at the very least) are letting it be known that you are not a devout theist. This seems sufficient - some people take prayer very seriously and to choose this particular moment to let everyone know how completely and utterly ridiculous the Judeo-Christian version of theism is would be disrespectful to their right to practice religion freely.

However, I will say that I am sick and tired of shacking my atheism up in closet for fear that the mere assertion that theism is most likely false is bound to irreparably offend someone. It's for this reason that, while it is pretty clear that (b) is the best choice, sometimes I feel like going with neither (a) nor (b). That is, I want to start laughing uncontrollably and ask my peers whether or not they really think that Jesus Christ was of a virgin birth and is...wait for it...literally the son of a supernatural being that created and sustains the universe. The only problem with this plan is you wont get invited back for dinner anytime soon.

That being said,go with (b), talk about something else during dinner, and then retire to the parlor over drinks to hash it out in a respectful, yet unabashed, manner.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

All interesting points, IMHO.

I'm with ya, A. That's one of the considerations that's on the table. Some theists seem to enjoy maneuvering you into a position such that you have to choose between either (a) going through some kind of motions that border on disrespecting your own beliefs or (b) making a big deal out of it.

Theists ought to spend half the time worrying about offending me that I spend worrying about offending them.

I'm most struck my Montag's suggestion, though: look at the pray-er as you would if listening respectfully to someone in conversation. I like that idea.

Also: The Pledge of Allegiance is next up for discussion.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

OK, stupid question. Why does closing one's eyes matter? In theory, everyone else has their eyes closed, so does it matter one way or the other if your eyes are open or closed?

In theory, when this happens I should be taking time to think about what I am thankful for--not in a thanks God kind of way, but because it's important to think about the good things--it keeps the bad ones from becoming overwhelming.

I'm thinking along the lines of the Bing Crosby song "Counting My Blessings" which doesn't have anything to do with God, but pretty much says that when things are bad, remember that there are also things that are good.

A personal meditation, perhaps: an opportunity to take a calm moment for yourself.

For me, it's easier than thinking about how much I disagree with the Catholic church, which does no one any good--especially me.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stand with Michelle K. on this one (always a safe place to be, I find).

The problem I have is when I’m supposed to participate. For example, my in-laws have pressured me to join in chanting the Common Table Prayer: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.” Look, I’m respectful, and I’m even happy to say secular words of thanks before a family meal, but that little sing-songy chant just annoys me. Argh.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Aa said...

It depends on my mood to be honest about it...and I see no reason to bow my head at any time. I am being quiet and not interfering in their ritual and that, IMHO, is respectful enough.

Sometimes I do a bit of looking around but not in a 'I'm an Atheist' manner, sipmly to see who else is looking around...it's kinda fun when eyes meet. Sometimes the person gets embarassed and whiplash ensues as the head drops and the eyes slam closed; sometimes it's a faint smile of acknowledgment; sometimes it's an eye roll.

And A. If memory serves that little 'sing song' is said by everyone so you can probably get away with just staying silent (it worked for me for a very long time before I decided enough was enough). If the pressure continues simply say "It wouldn't be appropriate"...I've found that works brilliantly well. Most people aren't comfortable pursuing the next set of questions and they never ask me again. And I too have had problems with my in-laws but that's a story for another time...

12:20 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I just make use of the quiet time. For example, if I was just having a conversation with someone, I consider what was just said, what has been said, and what I could say after the prayer is over.

That's just an example, but I mean hey, if they're using time to help themselves, why not do likewise? Just in an atheistic way. Take the quiet time to think about what's going on where you are and how best to approach it.

3:59 PM  

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