Tuesday, May 02, 2006

To pray, or not to pray

A stupid micro-example of what it is like being an atheist in a theist’s world.

My immediate family consists exclusively of conservative Christians. When I visit their homes, prior to the meal, they all hold hands, bow their heads, close their eyes, and provide the obligatory prayer.

A waste of time. The private evil-me would LOVE to take out a bit of raw beef, light a candle, and with a fork burn a sacrifice to Zeus, giving an obligatory thank you, with the request to hold back his lightening bolts, and then leave the blackened, smoking steak in the middle of the table to provide Zeus with a pleasing aroma, and a meal should he perchance join us.

Because “grace” has as much influence on reality as my candle/fork/heifer routine. None.

Of course, the rational, human side of me understands that my family is very well-aware of my position, there is no need to “make a point” or to say or do anything would only cause harm, offense and division. It is their home. I have an obligation, as a guest, to be polite. As it is, I get enough sideways glances that I all but hold my breath to keep from rocking the boat any further. (I am known for being slightly out-spoken, so such a display would not necessarily be out of character.)

So I hold hands, bow my head, close my eyes, and tune out. (At one time I listened, but that started an internal process of debating the prayer, and there is nothing but bad coming from that!)

But what happens in my home? I am married to a conservative Christian, as well, which only complicates things. Would my family grant the same courtesy, if we decided to not pray?

It has become a bit of a ritual. We invite family over. A bit of socializing and then the meal is ready to be served. There is a moment of awkwardness; the pause before the storm. Do I say, “Dig in?” Do I pray? I can see my family holding their breath, wondering how an atheist starts a meal.

And I punt. I ask one of my kids to pray.

O.K.—call me a gutless wimp. I was raised in a home where one defers to one’s guests. If they are hot, turn down the furnace and put on a sweater. If my dog frightens them, she can be restricted away. The people I invite are more important than the “things” I have. If their children are not allowed to watch movies my children can, I defer to them. If they need a prayer, give ‘em one.

And they breathe a collective sigh of relief. The moment passes.

This happened again. Recently. And yes, I told you it was stupid. Yet I reflect on why it has to happen at all. Why does religion have to be so divisive that literally a minor, unnecessary ritual becomes a moment of awkward uneasiness?

I could serve chicken, fish or steak, and no one would feel odd, or awkward with these choices. We go into houses where people ask us to take off our shoes, or not touch the vase, or not use the guest bathroom and think nothing of it. But introduce religion…..one little prayer…..and all of a sudden it drives us apart.

What, really, does it matter if someone prays before a meal or not? I know they don’t pray before every snack grabbed out of the cupboard. I never prayed between potato chips.

This is just a minor example. There are so many, other minor examples. They can start a joke with “A Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister walk into a bar…” But if I did, there would be tension, not humor. We avoid discussing certain movies, certain books, certain places, and certain people, all out of fear of where the conversation would head.

We can discuss what color car we like, where we like to shop or eat, or what our kids are doing. And in the back of every mind is, “Do I tell them about---Whoops! Better not go there. Or that—Ah, No. That is best left unsaid.”

While I enjoy discussing the various flavors and nuances of religion with a variety of people, on occasion it hits home just how harmful it can be. It can be fun to debate who wrote the Gospel of Matthew and when. It gets less amusing when I see my own family cringe over a silly ritual instilled by years of repetition, and dividing us, even for a moment. Religion can be insidiously invasive into separating people because of the engulfing judgment it seems to require.


  1. not to mention, if God's all knowing what does he need a reminder of what you want or are thankful for?

  2. I've been thinking about writing something along these lines as well...regarding prayer before the meal. Perhaps I will do so in the future. I've gotten past the awkwardness of it all now. Noticed it at Easter time. I guess I'm at the point of accepting it & perhaps the family is at the point of accepting me. :)

    Anyway, enjoyed this blog.

  3. Dagoods - My favorite thing to do is when I'm asked to pray in front of theists, I spice it up with jokes.

    "Dear God, thank you for embarassing the Vice President by making him shoot a 77 year old man in the face"