How can I make everyone feel welcome during an opening invocation prayer?
September 30, 2010 7:14 AM   Subscribe

How can I make everyone - people of faith and atheists alike - feel welcome during an invocation prayer?

I've been asked to give a short opening prayer before a dinner at a large gathering this weekend. In the room will be people from many different faith traditions, but also a number of atheists and agnostics. I've sat through uncomfortable, exclusionary prayers before and wondered how it could be done better.

I know how to write a non-denominational and interfaith prayer, but I'd like to include some language that welcomes and lifts up the spirits of all who are gathered.

What words would you use during a short invocation to convey that everyone is welcome? If you're an atheist, would you want to be mentioned in an opening prayer, or should I just not even mention it?
posted by elmer benson to Human Relations (64 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As an agnostic, I feel very awkward when anyone has prayers. I'm never sure what I'm supposed to do. I've only come across prayer things maybe three times ever, so that's probably why I still feel weird about them.

Why not just say something at the head of the table? Like a little speech?
posted by KogeLiz at 7:21 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're an atheist, would you want to be mentioned in an opening prayer, or should I just not even mention it?

I wouldn't want it to be mentioned specifically, just because if you try to include every belief/nonbelief by name, you're bound to leave someone out. And religious belief is like race---lots of people identify clearly with one group, but more and more identify with multiple traditions.

For ideas, google Unitarian Universalist sermons--they have a lot of practice addressing diverse groups.
posted by headnsouth at 7:22 AM on September 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've never really understood the point of broadly inclusive interfaith prayer. Prayer is supposed to be communication between worshippers and their god. I don't think it's possible to pray to one's own god out of one side of his mouth, and to other gods he believes are idols/blasphemy/nonexistent out of the other. Not sincerely, anyway. And wouldn't the insincerity nullify whatever value there was in the first part?

The logic goes like this: If you believe god (a) exists and he commands you not to pray to god (B), are you really honoring god (a) with a prayer to both? On the other hand, if you don't believe in any gods, what possible point could there be in praying to all of them?

Prayer is an act of focus. The point of praying is to focus on your god. When you diffuse the focus, it loses all its meaning. It seems to me that this sort of interfaith "prayer" is not really for any god at all, but just for the people in the room, to make them feel good and welcome (as you suggested in your first sentence). If that's the case, seems to me like you really out to repurpose this whole thing as a motivational speech, and leave the praying to the believers of each respective religion.

I hope this is a helpful answer; apologies if it's not.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 7:26 AM on September 30, 2010 [9 favorites]

If you're an atheist, would you want to be mentioned in an opening prayer?

No and, in fact, I wouldn't even be listening to you. The best think you can do to be inclusive is keep it as short as possible.
posted by ninebelow at 7:26 AM on September 30, 2010 [20 favorites]

I think it's very thoughtful of you to try to make sure everyone is feeling uplifted and even though I'm not going to be in attendance, I really appreciate your efforts.

Usually when I'm in a position similar to this, where seemingly everyone but me in the room is lowering their head and folding their hands, I tend to zone out and feel excluded. SO, yes, I think it would be refreshing to hear atheists mentioned and encouraged to feel uplifted.

The only caution I have is to avoid telling the atheists you're praying for them. That's the worst. I'm sure it's well meaning, but I always feel judged when someone tells me that.
posted by smirkyfodder at 7:27 AM on September 30, 2010

I am not an angry atheist. I like religious people, and I often wish I was a believer. That said, I am biased in the sense that if a sentences mentions God or a higher power, I automatically tune out -- not in an angry way, but in a "this doesn't apply to me" way.

This is totally stupid on my part, because if you say, "God thinks smoking causes cancer," the "smoking causes cancer" part is true whether or not God exists. Alas, I will hear "God thinks blah blah blah." This is totally due to my prejudice, but such is life. And it doesn't make any difference if the speaker uses synonyms for God: higher power, etc. I still hear "God" and tune out. It's as if someone had said, "Here's a message for all the high-school students in the room." I have nothing against high-school students, but I'm not one, so I start thinking about the weekend.

If you really want me to feel included, you'll have to say something like "Smoking causes cancer. The religious people here may see this as..." In other words, you have to totally separate the secular part of the message from the religious part. Maybe I am extreme in needing this. For me, it's about a long life spent hearing messages I can't relate to. I will be interested to hear what other atheists have to say.

But I see no reason why you MUST include me. If it's advertised as a prayer, I will take it as such. I am quite used to living in a religious world. I will be respectful and wait it out, while going into my own special place inside my head -- that place where atheists dance and sing and build great towers out of back issues of "Skeptic Magazine."
posted by grumblebee at 7:28 AM on September 30, 2010 [9 favorites]

As an atheist, any form of prayer is awkward. As others note if you have to do this, keep it short and don't get too deep into God, Jesus, Zeus or any other religious figures.
It is nice to know you acknowledge those who don't believe and are considerate of their feelings.
posted by handbanana at 7:31 AM on September 30, 2010

Atheist here. The best way to do this is for it NOT to be a prayer. Instead, focus on thanking everyone in the room, the reasons you're joining together, and what you hope to happen at the event. If it mentions god at all, it's going to feel exclusionary to atheists and probably to some non-Christians too.
posted by yarly at 7:32 AM on September 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

Don't think of it as a prayer. Can't you just say "welcome"?

Anything you say that's directed at some sort of sky-being is going to be considered a prayer, and either annoy or exclude the atheists.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:33 AM on September 30, 2010

If you're an atheist, would you want to be mentioned in an opening prayer?.

It's a prayer. It doesn't apply to me in the slightest. There is no way to make it inclusive, in the same way there is no way to make a rack of lamb inclusive for a vegetarian. Sure, you can add some potatoes, but they're still not going to want to eat the meat.

If you have to make it a prayer and not a speech, then have the courtesy to keep it short and please don't even try to tell me you're praying for me as well.
posted by lydhre at 7:35 AM on September 30, 2010 [23 favorites]

There's always the Agnostic's Prayer or a custom variant thereof. Delivered with humor (and assuming you can trust your audience to have a sense of humor about this sort of thing, which... if you can't, you should skip the prayer entirely and do some secular reading instead) it may go over well.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:35 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm in agreement with The Winsome Parker Lewis. Prayer is often quite specific to a particular faith, and what might be common practice to one faith might well even offend another. Trying to formulate a prayer that will include all faiths is a bit like trying to write a pun that makes sense in all languages.

Rather than attempting to lead these people in a particular spoken prayer, why not just ask for a moment of quiet reflection, meditation or, for those who so choose, prayer? You could suggest a theme or not, as the situation suggests. As an atheist I don't think this would make me uncomfortable.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:38 AM on September 30, 2010

Another atheist, not angry, but annoyed with religious "stuff". Mentioning non-believers will make me openly bristle. Having a prayer will simply leave me tuning you out for the duration of the prayer. Changing it to a welcome, and focusing on the reason everyone is gathered will make me more engaged, and apt to listen.
posted by kellyblah at 7:39 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could you just open with a "moment of silence" or a "moment of reflection" ? That way people get the sense of a special moment of honoring...whatever...but you don't need to spefically include or exclude any particular group.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:42 AM on September 30, 2010

"I'd like invite everyone to reflect on (whatever). Those of us who are religious can think of this as a prayer; but for all of us it's an opportunity to be mindful of the (subject of the prayer) / (reason we are here today)."

Then the rest of the prayer can be phrased as "We hope that" and "We wish that" rather than "We pray that".
posted by emilyw at 7:44 AM on September 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

Why not read the text of your question and ask those present?

I've been in this situation many time and would appreciate knowing that the person standing up there was thinking about inclusion and trying to make it uplifting in a general way. That in and of itself is uplifting.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:45 AM on September 30, 2010

If you're an atheist, would you want to be mentioned in an opening prayer, or should I just not even mention it?

No worries I would say. It is nice to be acknowledged, even if through ironic foil.
posted by three blind mice at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2010

As an atheist, any prayer makes me feel excluded. By definition, we don't pray - we may meditate, or talk to ourselves in reflection, but we think the idea of telepathically making contact with a god to be a bit bogus. lydhre's metaphor is perfect.

If you really want to be inclusive, just give a non-religious speech that in some way pertains to the event.

On the other hand, you could just pay homage to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2010

I'm not sure if this would apply, or how "prayer-like" your prayer needs to be, but as an atheist I would be much more interested in hearing a short poem or a passage from a philosopher, writer, etc. Something relevant to the topic at hand, insightful, and likely to put a smile on everyone's face. Look to people like Henry David Thoreau, MLK Jr., Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, American founding fathers, etc. All of these people are/were religious, but I don't think anyone would be excluded by hearing their words.

You can wrap things up by affirming how thankful everyone is for the companionship and nourishment they'll receive tonight— that'll be true for everyone in the room atheist or believer.

Oh, and holding hands around the dinner table is cool. Bowing my head feels weird. I'm not sure who I'm supposed to be subservient to, God or the person saying the prayer or what. And besides, is God only looking when prayers are being said? Why bow then, not all the time? It's a cultural thing I don't get, and I don't think I'm the only one. I'd much rather be looking around at the people I'm supposed to be getting to know, or the person saying the prayer, than awkwardly staring at my napkin.

I'd generally say that as an Atheist, my faith is in other people, and any words that reflect that would be uplifting.
posted by fontophilic at 7:58 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also don't understand how this will work and lean towards the 'moment of reflection' -- but if you have a reason for wanting to pray? Explain that. As a lifelong committed agnostic I don't "get" prayer, and do not quite understand what people are trying to do with prayer or other religious rituals. But usually when I witness them, it is assumed that I do.

I am always cheered, and interested, when an effort is made to explain why those performing the ritual are performing the ritual. A little note on the history, a mention of the goal of the performance, and, critically, what it is that I am expected to do while you pray, as some of us religiously clueless can get pretty anxious over how to not cause offence. while also not making a mockery of it by participating ourselves. Should I look at the floor, or is that seen as a form of prayer here -- the participation in which would make me uncomfortable? Really, pretend part of the assembled are aliens who have never heard of "prayer." Elaborate from there. If there are secular components that the non-believers can join in on, make that clear.
posted by kmennie at 7:59 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, broad interfaith prayer is sort of ... blah. By removing the specifics and making it inoffensive, you also make it boring. EVERYONE, not just the atheists, is just waiting for you to get done with it, because it's not meaningful to anyone.

That said, I guy I know who was roped into an interfaith prayer and didn't want to be began it with, "Vague God, vaguely prayed to ..." which I thought was so hilarious I still remember it. So it was at least memorable. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:02 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lifelong atheist here. I would rather not be mentioned, I would almost certainly be doing my best to tune you out altogether. I'll be uncomfortable no matter what you say, the most I'd be hoping for is for you to keep it short. And for the love of whatever you're praying to, do not ask me to hold hands with anyone.
posted by Stacey at 8:04 AM on September 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another mostly-atheist here. First, I applaud you for thinking of everyone and not wanting anyone to feel excluded.

The best way to get atheists to not tune out (as others have said) is to make it as far from prayer as possible. That said, if you do that, a few people who are more religious will get their panties in a bunch about PC police taking god(s) out of an invocation.

Honestly, and I hate to suggest this, I'd go ahead an invoke a vague higher power and accept that most nonbelievers will ignore the rest. A minority of nonbelievers (a minority of a minority, usually) will be actively annoyed. But you're going to please most of the majority.
posted by supercres at 8:05 AM on September 30, 2010

I've had to do this. It's hard.

The most successful that I've been, and therefore the template I've stuck with, is to say,

"Let's please all take a few moments of silence to reflect or pray."
posted by Leta at 8:12 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

As an atheist, I'd be very pleased if you just pre-ambled with the bit about your hope to make all attendees feel welcome and then go into your usual prayer.

Mealtime grace is a cultural/community thing (as much as a religious prayer) and I'm happy to sit through it, even if it's just my way of showing appreciation for the food and company.

Whoever's paying for the food and drink gets to thank their particular god.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:22 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm an atheist raised by atheist parents in a Jewish tradition (ie, I've attended my fair share of services in a reform synagogue). I've heard many prayers that make me feel warm and fuzzy even though I tune out the god part.

I would enjoy a prayer about things we are hopeful for and appreciative of, especially if it didn't mention who we are hoping to and appreciating. Something artfully vague in this department would allow atheists to participate and theists to apply god in their minds where appropriate.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 8:24 AM on September 30, 2010

"Atheists and agnostics" is not really a cognizable group for your purposes. As you can see from above, there are plenty of people who are fine with prayer as a community ritual, some who are wholly uncomfortable with it, some who would like to be explicitly mentioned, some who would prefer to be left out, some who don't want God or any godlike thing talked about, some who are fine with higher powers generally, and some who just think it should be a welcome speech with no prayer-like elements. Atheists and agnostics don't have one view of religious rituals (or indeed, of much of anything. They even conceive of non-belief differently.). In fact, people who believe in God may find different sorts of prayers welcoming or off-putting. You may have people who are offended by nonsectarian prayer generally alongside those who think God is cool but don't want to hear about particular faith traditions. So there's literally nothing you can do that will make everyone comfortable with your ritual. Sorry. It's just one of those divisive things that we all muddle through, and hopefully take as a moment to remember that not everyone is like us and that's okay, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
posted by decathecting at 8:33 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your prayer should be acceptable to the people of faith, but you should forget about making atheists feel included in any ceremonial appeal to traditional mysticism.

As an atheist and former Southern Baptist, I just bow my head and close my eyes during prayer. I don't need to be patronized.
posted by General Tonic at 8:35 AM on September 30, 2010

"Let us give thanks to all who have made it so we can have this food in front of us this evening"
posted by deezil at 8:36 AM on September 30, 2010

"I'd like invite everyone to reflect on (whatever). Those of us who are religious can think of this as a prayer; but for all of us it's an opportunity to be mindful of the (subject of the prayer) / (reason we are here today)."

That would be my take. If the event is for/by people of a particular religious bent, then it would be appropriate to make the opening relevant to them in whatever way while acknowledging that not everyone is from their same faith tradition. Atheists, by definition, don't "pray" but they may do any number of other things to be thankful/grateful to whatever for a nice meal with friends.

One of the things that I think rankles with being invited to other people's faith traditions is the actions/language that implies that everyone lives under the same god/faith tradition, just that some people don't know it. As opposed to just attending an event held by people of one faith tradition who are just doing what's appropriate to their traditions. So, attending a funeral that requires everyone to sing a song about loving Jesus, not so great. Having someone say a prayer for the deceased believer and/or their believing family, totally appropriate.

So, some sort of pre-meal thing that requires people to make the motions of faith traditions [bowing heads, holding hands, reciting anything] is less good than you giving some sort of welcome or talk about fellowship and how wonderful it is that people are together, etc.

That said, most atheists I know are used to graciously blanking out through prayers. So, if there is going to be a prayer, I'd just scoot through it if I were you and not try to be engaging to people for whom it's not directed.

So to restate: if it's a prayer just make it for the people who pray. Otherwise, make it inclusive for everyone and make it not a prayer.
posted by jessamyn at 8:37 AM on September 30, 2010

Opening prayers like this serve a lot of functions. Some might be religious, but most are social. If I were you, I'd worry about those social functions and just ignore the religious ones.

What social functions? Well, you want to mark the dinner as a special occasion, set it apart from the rest of the day. You want to grab the guests' attention, and give them a chance to refocus on whatever comes next. (Think of the ritual of dimming theater lights a few moments before the curtain rises. A moment of silence or a few choice words before a meal can also be like that.) You want to prime people to be kind and friendly and open towards each other, and to remind them to approach the whole thing in a spirit of gratitude — though of course, it doesn't have to be religious gratitude; it's just good when people go in to an event thinking "I'm glad this was all possible," rather than starting out predisposed to nitpick and grumble. And you may have specific goals beyond that. For instance, if it's a charity dinner, you might want to remind people of whatever set of ideals got them involved with the charity, whether or not those ideals are religious ones. If it's an academic event, you might want to put people in an ARS LONGA VITA BREVIS sort of mood, get them thinking about the good things that come from knowledge and beauty and all that. You get the idea.

The point is, you can do all that social mood-setting stuff without mentioning God or even using religiously-tinged rhetoric. A short, sincere speech with a bit of gravitas is what you're looking for — and if it hits all the right points and gets the guests in the right headspace, it is unlikely to matter that it's not a capital-P Prayer.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:47 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.
posted by bonehead at 8:47 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

As an atheist, any prayer makes me feel excluded. By definition, we don't pray - we may meditate, or talk to ourselves in reflection,

So, why can't that be equated with prayer? I think the problem here is just defining the idea. Plenty of religions or religious people are talking more about some kind of personal ritual than a literal telepathic link to a guy in charge.

If you really want to be all inclusive, one thing to focus on is using language that emphasizes the experience of the people rather than a relationship to an higher power (e.g., saying "be thankful" rather than "give thanks"). If you imply something external, people of different religions disagree on its nature, and people of no religion disagree on its existence. Instead, you can talk about big ideas that are generally seen as positive - like say, Love - and those who are religious can make their connections ("god is love") while the atheistic can understand them as abstract. Also, poetry is a good way to say beautiful things while leaving details open to interpretation.

It's important to remember that you won't please everyone, of course. If you make it too secular, there will be people who will be offended that it wasn't a real prayer... So I'd go with saying what you want to say, and letting the listeners deal with it. Most atheists are used to religion, and are fine reinterpreting, thinking anthropologically, or just tuning out, if there's god-talk going on.
posted by mdn at 8:49 AM on September 30, 2010

Hi, atheist here. Grew up with prayer in my school, around religious people who pray before eating, having to sit through prayers before ball games, and have folks in the family who pray before meals. I have a lot of experience getting prayed at.

It's always uncomfortable. If you are going to pray with words, I suggest, like others above, that the best way to make it inclusive is to keep it short. Really, really short.

I vote you call for a "moment of silent reflection." That phrase is a winner in my book.
posted by phunniemee at 9:04 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My problem with prayers is that I don't know what to do with myself. I don't want to bow my head because everyone I know knows I'm an atheist and could well think of it as odd; on the other hand, staring at the walls while everyone else is bowed is equally weird. I think this is the main reason that I like the 'moment of quiet reflection' - I know what I'm supposed to do.

If there's a reason it has to be a prayer, just say it and be done with it "We would like to welcome everyone here tonight, and while we realise that there are people of many faiths and none in the audience, since this even is sponsored by [Insert Religous Group Here] we are going to start with a prayer". I don't think there's such a thing as an all-inclusive prayer, so you might as well separate the 'make everyone welcome' and 'prayer' bits.

But, the very most important thing here: opening speeches, prayers etc at dinners are keeping me from my dinner. This is a bad thing, however good the speech is. Therefore, my personal preference for an opening prayer would be "God bless, and here is the starter".
posted by Coobeastie at 9:07 AM on September 30, 2010

"Good bread, good meat, good God, let's eat!"

or, it's vegetarian agnostic variant

"Good bread, nice plates, thanks cook! Why wait?"
posted by paulsc at 9:31 AM on September 30, 2010

...I'd like to include some language that welcomes and lifts up the spirits of all who are gathered.

You have been asked to pray, so just make your prayer for those wanted it.

As has already been better noted above, attempting to direct prayer in any form at an atheist is neither going to make them feel welcome nor lift up their spirits. Even attempting to “lift-up their spirits” will be counter-productive, crouched as that ambition is in the notion that there is something wrong with the here-and-now, that a super-natural or otherwise elevated perspective is necessary for grandeur.

There are few things more inspiring and stirring than a sense of belonging to a community and common cause, and this is one of the things that religious language can achieve. But it also actively excludes, fiercly dividing the in- and out-groups, condescending and denegrading those not yet beautified by superior Truth.

If welcoming is really your goal, you would be best served by skipping quickly past the superstitous peculiarities and focusing instead on the real community, the things that actually bring you all together.

Let the initial prayer say “look at this particular, needy few”, then let the mundane words that follow it say “but look at how we all, as individuals or subgroups, are nevertheless wonderfully united.”
posted by lordcorvid at 9:43 AM on September 30, 2010

I'd come up with something that goes below the surface of the atheist/religious debate to some common truth about our human condition. Something that reflects the fact that generally both sides appreciate being alive and being Human. So, indeed, I would focus on gratitude for the gift of being human, not explicitly religious, but not unreligious either.

Some currents in modern theology are focusing on the giftedness of creation and life as the center of a postmodern understanding of faith. You can focus on the gift without making doctrinal implications about the identity of the giver. Each person will know the giver in their own hearts as you speak this invocation. Or somethign like this.

"God of all people, (optional)

St. Irenaeus said, with great wisdom, 'the glory of God is Humanity fully alive'.

We gather to celebrate this incredible gift of being alive and being truly and fully human.. We are truly grateful for the gift of each other. For in welcoming all humans into freindship with us, we in turn grow more fully Human, more fully alive.

Regardless of whether and what names we call the source of this Gift, we embrace the giftedness of this moment. And we seek you through the nourishment that this food and friendship provides.

So be it. Amen."
(Amen means "So Be it" so it could be optional too.)

Now, if you are trying to incoporate the nihilist misanthropes in your party, I got nothin'.
posted by cross_impact at 9:47 AM on September 30, 2010

I'm just curious if there's a reason why this has to be a prayer as opposed to, say, a toast, since it doesn't sound like this is a specific religious gathering. In a toast, you could still express gratitude for friendship, life, etc, without bringing religion into it at all. I think everyone likes a nice, friendly toast.
posted by wondermouse at 9:48 AM on September 30, 2010

Atheist here. The word "prayer" would make me feel imposed on. Even if you are a sweet, caring person, I will think you are sweet, caring, and a little bit proselytizing.

Husband is an angry atheist, so he'd probably scoff or roll his eyes.

Then we'd get over it.

If you would want us to feel included, simple words of welcome and a short speech on what your expectations are would be enough.
posted by Tarumba at 9:48 AM on September 30, 2010

I'm just curious if there's a reason why this has to be a prayer as opposed to, say, a toast, since it doesn't sound like this is a specific religious gathering. In a toast, you could still express gratitude for friendship, life, etc, without bringing religion into it at all. I think everyone likes a nice, friendly toast.

This like crazy.
posted by Tarumba at 9:50 AM on September 30, 2010

Okay folks, you're not answering the question. The OP is obviously not in charge of teh gathering and is trying to meet the request while being inclusive. The problem is how to pray before a group while being as considerate as possible to any atheists present.

Saying "You can't" is an unhelpful answer. Saying "Don't pray" isn't even an answer.
posted by cross_impact at 10:01 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm an atheist. I find it insulting when atheism is put in a list with religions, because it is pretty clearly not one. That's sort of the point. Please don't include me in your prayer. Prayers have nothing to do with me, and I find it insulting when I'm put into one. Also, please PLEASE don't pull an Obama and call me a "nonbeliever." I believe in lots of things, I just happen to believe in one fewer god than you do.
posted by juliapangolin at 10:04 AM on September 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

Welcome friends, it's so gratifying to see you all here today. Before we begin, let's all take a moment to give thanks for x, and to think about y.

happy aspect of event
if it's a sad event, whatever good side you can find eg the presence of so many friends here today, who have come so far
the food we're about to eat
the hard work on the project

enjoying the moment
what our dear departed friend would have said
how precious life is
the future of our shared endeavor
the challenges to come and how we will double our determination to meet them
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:10 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a flipside, too. A vague, interfaith kind of prayer can also exclude people of faith, at least if it's a prayer that you're asking people to take part in in some way instead of just shut up and sit through.

I mean, if I were at a gathering and someone prayed over it from whatever their tradition is, it doesn't really matter to me whether they're praying to Jesus or Jebus or Allah or Satan or the flying spaghetti monster. That's their business, and I can happily sit respectfully, curiously, and appreciatively through it. But I'd honestly prefer not being asked to help pray to... something. Maybe some Jesusy thing, maybe to the flying spaghetti monster, or Baal, or whatever.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:13 AM on September 30, 2010

I'm an atheist.

Public prayer always strikes me as anachronistic, a relic of a time past. I agree with ninebelow's sage advice. There isn't really any way to make me feel included in a heartfelt plea to a being I don't believe in. Don't mention me in your prayer.

If you have to do it, do it quickly. I'll sit quietly and wait for other people to start moving again, out of courtesy. I'm, honestly, not even listening to your message. I'm just waiting for you to finish so I can eat.
posted by phoebus at 10:23 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Talk to the person who put you in charge of the "prayer".
If this person is open-minded, you should be able to come up with something together.
Mention that you want to include everyone... and suggest that a toast or speech would be more comfortable for everyone considering the diversity of the attendees.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:29 AM on September 30, 2010

I don't mean to be arguing with other commenters, but just so the OP understands, if someone started a dinner with what cross_impact suggested I would consider it a prayer and zone out and sit awkwardly just the same as if someone recited some text straight from the bible. It doesn't really improve the inclusiveness since it's refers to "gifts", which are still a religious notion even if you try to be wishy-washy and leave out the word "god". Many atheists don't think of "humanity" or anything else other than a birthday present as a gift; the fact that we exist is just something that happens, same way that stars and hydrogen and photons exist.

You can't get around atheists not having any part in a prayer by just changing the words you use.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:36 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't have one. Omitting the judeo-christian god doesn't help.
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:51 AM on September 30, 2010

Agree with kiltedtaco (there's a weird sentence to type). Using dog-whistle language or coded wording for religious themes is worse than simply reading from the bible (or koran, etc). Sometimes using coded words like "gifts", "nourishment", or "god's plan" makes it sound like you are a member of a cult, hard to believe I'm sure.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:54 AM on September 30, 2010

Saying "You can't" is an unhelpful answer. Saying "Don't pray" isn't even an answer.

Oh, but it is. The OP asked his question with the assumption that there must be a way to make non-religious people feel comfortable while being subjected to a group prayer at some sort of dinner gathering. We do not know why someone asked him to deliver this prayer, nor do we know the nature of this dinner. We know only that he was asked.

The fact is, while many people find comfort and solace in prayer, it makes some other people uncomfortable. It makes some of them even feel alienated, those who simply do not believe in prayer, as they have to sit there surrounded by everyone bowing their heads in agreement with the person delivering the prayer. This is unavoidable as long as any sort of prayer is involved.

Since the OP is clearly concerned about everyone's comfort, I proposed making a toast because 1) it's usually pretty clear that a toast is just one person's opinion, unlike an invocation prayer which, in my experience, presumes to speak for everybody; and 2) a toast is a festive way to start a group dinner that can certainly make everyone feel welcome and cheerful.

If it absolutely must qualify as a prayer, yes, keep it as short and non-specific as possible. The non-religious folk will likely just grin and bear it and quickly move on.
posted by wondermouse at 11:03 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am an atheist. My first reaction is: If you're going to pray, make it quick, make it bland and make it light. PLEASE don't make me sit through a bible-waving, ask-god-for-guidance, "i'm not worthy" prayer. the fact that you're even asking means you won't, so thanks for that.

OK, so that said.....What's the circumstances of the dinner, and who asked you to pray? Do YOU want to pray before the meal, or are you doing it because you've been asked? What do you want to communicate? Thanks for the meal? then in addition to thanking god, remember to thank the people who made the meal. +1 @deezil, but maybe i'm saying that because i'm a chef... :-)

Also, I'd be happier if you just went and did it (quick/bland/light) but don't pre-apologize for it as coobeastie suggests. If you're going to do it, do it with conviction or DON'T do it. That's the thing that earns the least respect from me. Faking it is going to raise my ire more than an emphatic 'thank you jesus" prayer done in earnest.
posted by ChefJoAnna at 11:08 AM on September 30, 2010

Weighing in again, against the tide-- I'm a raging atheist but I will stand politely for other people's prayers, and I can totally get behind opening your dinner with some kind of nice introductory nonspecific invocation. And your impulse to make it inclusionary and welcoming is a good impulse.

Short and sweet, using notions like "giving thanks", a moment for reflection, etc which can be religious or not. (I give thanks all the time - feeling lucky to have been born in the place and time I was, for example, and to have good health, thank goodness, fingers crossed, etc. These notions don't have to be religious.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:09 AM on September 30, 2010

jessamyn said it:

That said, most atheists I know are used to graciously blanking out through prayers.

We are. But I would also say that many of us really appreciate it when the organisers of mixed/no-faith gatherings have the courtesy to recognise the fact by not actually having prayers at all. Much better to have some general, all-inclusive secular greeting/expression of unity/good wishes etc. Consider not praying. Consider instead, a genuinely all-inclusive expression of convivial welcome.
posted by Decani at 11:28 AM on September 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

It's hard to write precisely without knowing the nature of the event -- a conference of doctors talking about AIDS would require something different than a wedding or a meeting of community groups who are trying to build a playground.

But invoking the group itself, and the power of the group to work together and affect change can be a strong, uplifting message that doesn't have to invoke any god.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:21 PM on September 30, 2010

Response by poster: Hey everybody- I stepped away from my computer to do other stuff, and am interested, encouraged, and surprised by the responses you all have offered. Thanks for taking a crack at this.

First, some of you have asked if it's possible to not pray at all. That's not really an option. I appreciate the suggestions that nudged the invocation away from prayer and closer to a welcoming speech, but there are other people on the agenda for the event that will be doing the welcoming and whatnot.

I particularly appreciate cross_impact's suggestion to go "below the surface of the atheist/religious debate to some common truth about our human condition." That's helpful, and though I understand the opposing viewpoint, I think I'm trending in that direction.

The event where I'm doing this prayer is an large (1000+ person) annual fundraiser. It's a memorial for a Congressperson, a chance for politicians to come do stump speeches, and a prayer has always been part of it. As an attendee in past years, I've been alternately bored, awed, and enraged by the prayers at this event (and others like it), and I'm hoping to do better. Typically, this prayer is a "grace before dinner" kind of thing, and I'd like to be both appropriate (ie- do what is expected of me = prayer) and welcoming to people who don't dig prayer/God/sky-king worship/whatnot. I'm seeing it's a finer line than I thought it would be when I signed up for the gig.

I remember that, at the Obama inauguration, some people were really happy that the President mentioned "non-believers." (Others, apparently, not so much) As a person of faith who is married to an atheist, I thought that was pretty cool. I know that the faith community doesn't have a lock on moral values (and often contains the worst offenders when it come to moral behavior, I know), and I like the idea of noting that in the space that typically is used to pump up the faithful.

What I asked for, specifically, was language I could include in the opening invocation that would be welcoming to people who don't share my faith. I know you can't please all of the people all of the time, and I'll keep toying with the invocation and incorporating your suggestions as I can. Keep 'em coming.

tl;dr - Don't worry. I'll be short. And thanks for your help!
posted by elmer benson at 2:21 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for thinking of it. I definitely think your goal is achievable. What do people do in prayer, that we can do as atheists? A few things: Reflect, Give thanks, Be humble, Be hopeful -- some examples of things that fall under these categories:

Pause to reflect
Give thanks

Be humble
-either before God or before the size of the task before us,
-or in recognition of the privilege and burden of service we face,
-or in recognition of those who've come before,
-or in recognition of everything in life that got us here -we stand on the shoulders of giants etc,
-seeing that our challenges are big and we can't always face them alone, and
-we are fortunate when we have the help we need from God or fellow humans, etc
-so that we will ask for help when we need it, from the divine or from each other

Be hopeful
-because we can do it, if we pull together
-because we're not alone - we have help either divine or in the form of our hardworking allies;
-because progress has been made;
-because we are coming together across divides to share ideas, etc
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:37 PM on September 30, 2010

The additional info is definitely helpful. I can see why giving a toast isn't an option! In the example you gave with Obama mentioning "non-believers," I actually found that sort of refreshing, the fact that people who don't believe in God were even mentioned at all. Obviously, it's different for everybody, but prayers in political context do generally make me uncomfortable, and I thought Obama's version was a nice compromise. FWIW.
posted by wondermouse at 4:13 PM on September 30, 2010

I was also going to suggest considering UU sources, as we tend to be open to people of many spiritual traditions as well as secular folk. I found some listings on the Unitarian Universalist Association website for specific language. There are categories for Invocations, Openings, and Opening Words. The Chalice Lightings section will probably have more opening themed things, but need more editing. I particularly liked this one:

From the power of our memory and history,
With high hopes for the days that lie ahead,
We gather to craft the destiny we share with one another.

We gather with faith in the practice of democracy.
We gather with hearts and minds open
To the wisdom in every voice among us.

In our gathering,
May we dream and design a bold future.
May we bring our best selves to this service,
And may we dream these dreams
And do this work
With love.


and also this one:

Take from life its coals, not its ashes.
Fan the flames of love and justice;
join hands and hearts in common endeavor;
and there will be no limit
to what we can achieve together.

I hope you'll return to this question and share your final result with us; I'd be interested in reading it.
posted by booksherpa at 8:49 PM on September 30, 2010

It's a prayer. It doesn't apply to me in the slightest. There is no way to make it inclusive, in the same way there is no way to make a rack of lamb inclusive for a vegetarian. Sure, you can add some potatoes, but they're still not going to want to eat the meat.

If you have to make it a prayer and not a speech, then have the courtesy to keep it short and please don't even try to tell me you're praying for me as well.


I can tell you that the most actively offensive thing you can do is crap like:

So, why can't that be equated with prayer? I think the problem here is just defining the idea.

...where you try to co-opt me, tell me what I really believe is just like your random faith.

Saying "You can't" is an unhelpful answer.

It is an answer; the fact it's one you don't like is not really relevant. For one thing, it allows the poster to understand that imposing a religious ceremony is going to be inherintly offensive to some of the audience; that may not be the poster's fault, but that is how it is.
posted by rodgerd at 11:29 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I particularly appreciate cross_impact's suggestion to go "below the surface of the atheist/religious debate to some common truth about our human condition." That's helpful, and though I understand the opposing viewpoint, I think I'm trending in that direction.

I can see why you appreciate cross_impact's suggestion because it is the answer that most addresses your desire to "include some language that welcomes and lifts up the spirits of all who are gathered." But I should point out that the majority of responses have denied that this goal is achievable. So by taking this path you are prioritising your own religious beliefs above those of the atheists whose views you have solicitated.

As kiltedtaco says, a prayer is still a prayer even if you remove the word "God". Similarly, atheisism isn't just a different type of faith with different acts of worship. Atheists tend not to go in for generic acts of celebration because it doesn't make any sense without a belief in a god that is responsible for everything. They are much more interested in the specific.

I went to a wedding last week where the opening hymn was All Things Bright And Beautiful. this is a universal sentiment, right? Everyone enjoys and appreciates the wonder of nature, don't they? Well yeah, I do but the sentiment is ruined for me by the idea that "the Lord God made them all" because, you know, He didn't and the suggestion that He did cheapens the miracle of life and curdles the sentiment of the hymn. So what about taking god out of the equation? I doubt any atheist would show a three minute chunk of a David Attenborough documentary before their wedding. It would be a total non-sequitar. I did have readings at my wedding and these were specifically choose because of the connection they had between us, the words and the readers. This is not something you can emulate.

cross_impact's proposed prayer about the gift of life is clearly a prayer and will be treated as such by any atheists listening. If anything it is a more offenessive and presumptive one than a prayer that specifically mentions god. At least with a normal prayer it is clear you are talking about your own personal beliefs (as you have every right to do) and it is clear that it is not for me. By making it generic, however, you are subtly trying to impose your worldview on me. If my life is a gift it is one bestowed on me by my parents, if friendship is a gift it is one I have worked to create and maintain, who are you to tell me how and when to honour these "gifts"?

I stood politely whilst that hymn was sung, I would sit polite whilst you said your prayer. That's the best you can hope for and all you should aim for.

(It is notable that cross_impact describes those who don't share his worldview as "nihilist misanthropes". Is this the inclusive atmosphere you are aiming for?)
posted by ninebelow at 2:08 AM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Atheists tend not to go in for generic acts of celebration because it doesn't make any sense without a belief in a god that is responsible for everything.

That's true. But atheists do go in for a variety of things that are compatible with some of the purposes of a prayer.

A prayer can, for example
- remind everyone of the common purpose for which they are gathered
- uplift people's spirits by reflecting on the advantages and opportunities they have as a group
- inspire people to achieve some particular lofty goals
- provide a pause for thought in an otherwise hectic day
- redirect everyone's thoughts from their horrible journey, or their weekend plans, to the task at hand
- moderate the energy levels in a diverse group of people arriving from a wide variety of different circumstances, to give following events a more consistent basis to work from. This is the same task that a compere has in a cabaret show. It's an adjustment or a focusing of the tone of the gathering.

I guess there's still a major gap between something a religious person could call a "prayer" and something that invoked some of the above items without mentioning God at all. You could just end up offending everyone equally. But I don't think the purpose of prayer is 100% welded to the concept of a God.
posted by emilyw at 7:20 AM on October 1, 2010

I am agnostic. I, however, am not close-minded to throwing requests for help out there into the universe. "Gee, I really want so-and-so's illness to go away," I might say out loud. I'm also not really opposed to people praying for me... at the very least, it means you're thinking about me and perhaps wishing good things for me.

It might be nice to acknowledge that there are agnostics and atheists are in your audience.

If you choose to say a prayer, I'll bow my head and close my eyes politely. Please keep it short.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:47 PM on October 1, 2010

Response by poster: So, thanks everyone for the input and advice you offered. The event was yesterday, and this is what I ended up saying from the front of the room:
Brothers and Sisters,

As we gather today to remember the life, the leadership and the legacy of Congressman XX, and to lend our support to the political leaders who share his vision and values, it seems appropriate that we take a moment to pause and, if we're called to do so, to pray.

Please join me in a moment of reflection.

We are thankful for this food, for the labor that produced it and transported it to us, and to our union brothers and sisters who are preparing and serving it to us.

We hold in our hearts those who can not join us today: those who have departed, those who are too far away, and particularly our soldiers, sailors, and marines who are serving in harm's way. We want peace for us all.

We are mindful of our advantages and abundance - many of us have health, housing, and economic security in a time when far too many have far too little.

Finally, we are thankful for our friends, our family members, and our political leaders. We know that through our collective hard work, we'll continue to build better communities, cities, a better [STATE] and a better nation for us all.

Bless each and every one of us, and let the people say, "Amen."

Admittedly, it was longer than I expected it to be, but it read pretty quickly and got a nice response. It did the job, and I'm thankful for all of the insight people offered. I'm not 100% sure how to mark "best answer," but I feel like I got a lot of good advice. Thanks!
posted by elmer benson at 10:58 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

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