Dear Godless Girl: Saying Grace?

On the rare days when I check my email (read: I’m a lazy bum), I often find questions or objections that deserve posts of their own. I do not claim to be wise nor exhaustive in my ideas, but I hope my thoughts on these topics will be helpful to those who ask.

saying grace 1942

Saying grace before carving the turkey in the home of Earle Landis, Neffsville, November 1942. (Photo from Penn State Live)

On Saying Grace

I read your blog post “Do You Participate When You Don’t Believe?” and I was wondering… I was brought up in a heavily Christian family and we always say Grace on holidays- especially Christmas and Thanksgiving. How can I avoid this politely and without offending anyone?

–Nicole (Colie the Magical Closet Atheist)

See my answer after the break.

Thanks for writing, Nicole! My family prays before meals as well (and sometimes after). I think there are a number of options you have before you. Here are a few:

  1. You could explain your objections respectfully to your family at another time in hopes that their understanding will help them not feel confused nor offended when grace time comes and you choose not to participate. Depending on your family, this could open doors for discussion and education or it could open a wider rift between you if they either don’t accept your non-belief or if they do not know you’re an atheist yet.
  2. You could leave the table during grace or join the meal after grace is said. There is a possibility this could be seen as a dramatic gesture of protest, and I would recommend this if you feel grossly uncomfortable about religious prayer and feel as if it violates you on a personal level. My guess is that you do not have those feelings.
  3. You could sit with them at the table in respectful silence while they pray. You could bow your head out of respect, habit, or just to fit in with the accepted gesture of reflection. Or you could keep your head lifted and eyes open, but show your politeness by not objecting, sneering, smirking, or otherwise mocking their practice while they pray.
  4. If you are expected to pray aloud, then I would do one of two things: Abstain respectfully (this will work best if they know you are not a Christian already) or speak your own thanks and hopes in a way that remains totally secular. You are participating, but you are not praying and will not be lying (in my humble opinion). Statements can be phrased like, “I’m thankful that we all arrived safely today and that I have always had a warm, loving home to return to,” or, “I hope that this food and our conversation will be uplifting to all of us, and  I am so thankful to be here after such a busy week.” No deities, just your feelings!
  5. You could pray. I know you do not want to participate in this option, but I’m putting it out there for those who have no objections to participating in ritual when someone asks you to. Since you would not think anyone is listening, it’s not like you would be blaspheming or breaking any rules set by anyone else. You could think of it as playacting for your family (if you’re truly afraid to ever hint that you might not be a believer) or as simply meditating on good things.

My personal choice is #3. All but one member of my immediate family knows I am an atheist. I choose to sit with them at the table but keep my head lifted and eyes open. I sometimes put my hands in my lap, look around, watch the, or simply think on my own thoughts while I wait for them to finish. I always try to be polite and not make a fuss because I tend to be a peacemaker—I don’t enjoy arguing, debating, or making waves in my family life.

When I’m at work (a Christian company) and I am expected to pray aloud, I have chosen not to abstain, but to say my secular wishes and hopes for those around me and the company. This, again, is to keep the peace (and my cover, as I am at risk of losing my job if I am “out” as an atheist).

What you choose may depend on your relationship with your religious family. From your nickname, it seems like you may be fully closeted even to your family. How would they act if hey did know? If other relatives are around, would your behavior change in any way? I’m sure my readers might have other wonderful insights for you as well.

All the best!

Godless Girl

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17 Comments


  1. That was a quite interesting post. I went to a lot of weddings over the last two years. Everytime the Catholics rites started, I felt embarassed for being the only one who didn’t follow what the priest did. And then I ended up doing it.

    I really try to keep my disbeliefs, but I somehow feel bad for the other people. I don’t even know if “bad” is the perfect word for this situation… But I realized I don’t have to participate in their catholic habits. And I can do this without disrespecting anyone. People say I despise their religion and beliefs, but I do know how to respect them.

    And that’s the most important, right?

  2. I like your post. I agree that option #3 is best. That is what I have done in the 2 or 3 times I witnessed people practicing their “Grace” ritual.

    Also the few times I go to a Church, (Weddings, Funerals) I don’t participate either. No standing, then sitting or any of it. I just sit there. Sometimes I bring something to read.

    I can’t believe they make you pray at work. What B.S.! I was a temp at a Christian magazine once and they had optional prayer groups. I thought about going just to dodge work but never did. (I fell asleep in my cubicle enough to dodge work instead.) =oD

  3. I think if you’re in the company of other Christians, you might as well just pray. You know deep down you’re an atheist, so it’s not like you’re not living in accord with your beliefs.

    • The Magical Closet Atheist

      I thought of that, but in the end, it wouldn’t feel right for me. Maybe this sounds whiny, but I think that I should not have to pray to their god- which in my opinion does not exist- if I don’t want to. This is why I agree with #4. We don’t have to be religious to be hopeful and thankful :)

      • This is how I always felt myself. It is a big reason why I came out in the first place. I’m opposed to lying in general, so once I felt the consequences of leaving the closet wouldn’t be absolutely crippling, I stopped lying about my religion (or lack thereof).

  4. Back when I had a family, Mom was pretty certain she’d wind up sitting at the right hand of Jesus, telling him how to improve things a wee bit. My radical atheism was never a secret from anybody. But it never became any sort of drama. Mom was cool. She never went through the “saying grace” business, but if she had, I’d have taken Door #3.

  5. “…Statements can be phrased like, “I’m thankful that we all arrived safely today…”

    Thankful to who? :)

    I sit quietly, and I also don’t mind the ritual. It feels harmless.

  6. Oh Christ on a cracker! How did my high school self travel forward in time?

    I’m out now (at least to my immediate family…), and I abstain during everyday grace. Before I came out, I bowed my head and kept quiet for the most part, and tried to avoid attracting attention. At Thanksgiving and the like, I can usually get by with something secular (ie: “I’m thankful to be here surrounded by my family”).

    It’s still a bit of the awkward, walking-on-eggshells thing with my extended family, though; they’re mostly quite religious, and my parents have asked that I not come out to them… and while I’m opposed to lying on the subject, I’m a little more shaky when it comes to lies of omission :/

  7. I generally go with #3, with the head up option. This works at explicitly religious functions like church weddings, and my boyfriend’s work functions, which generally always have a prayer component. (And no, it’s NOT an explicitly religious company. Do not get me started.)

    However, this is a dilemma with my boyfriend’s family, as they do that thing where you hold hands while saying grace. Participating in this actually makes me really, really uncomfortable, but I feel like I don’t have a choice. I am not out as an atheist to them–they’ve never bothered to ask. My boyfriend is also an atheist, but is not out to his family, so I have not raised the issue as I do not want to out him before he is ready.

    I am afraid this will all come to a head someday when there is a meal at our place, as I do not want grace said in my house.

  8. You have to pray at work? That’s fucked up. As for grace: out of respect for my parents and the sacrifices they made for me, we participate in saying grace. I remind my children regularly that the opportunities they take for granted were bought and paid for by their grand parent’s efforts. Grace at the dinner table is not the battle I want my children to fight. That is too easy and too petty.

  9. I agree with your # 3 solution. I join hands and sit quietly for the extended family prayer, and I sing along with our family when we do a pre-dinner ritual song (it’s only one verse long).

    I like rituals! I just wish they were more about flourishing and community, instead of blood and rising from the dead.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. I keep eye-contact on my young son, otherwise he laughs at the silliness of grownups talking to an imaginary friend before their meal.

  11. I never try to cause a scene over this because no matter what I would look like the bad guy who’s trying to disrupt a nice family dinner. Luckily grace only occurs during the holidays when I’m with extended family. When I am asked to say grace, I often give thanks for the food and family and various other things, but I don’t give thanks to god nor do I mention anything religious. I don’t feel it’s wrong to feel thankful for what you have, as long as you’re not giving credit to your imaginary friend.

  12. I normally go with option #3. I do get asked to pray on occasion, and I always try to find ways out of it (I’m not out to this particular group of people.) I feel very, very resentful when I’m told to pray aloud. I worked so hard to get to where I am in life; it feels like I’m taking ten steps backwards when I do it.

  13. Just wanted to share a brief story. Part of my extended family is religious. My auntie told her five-year-old niece to say thanks for the meal, and instead of the ‘right’ thanks, she came out with a much for rational statement: “Thank you Granddad for cooking this meal.” Enough to warm any athiest’s heart.

  14. I had problems with practicing meditation up until recently. I kinda couldn’t focus. I guess being focused is the key and that’s why doing meditation doesn’t work for everyone. I created a quiet place for me in my apartment and that provided me with the extra focus I needed. It works better now!

  15. One can always make a gesture of declining and add, “Not my belief system” – even if you don’t have a belief system!

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