Grace for atheists
August 23, 2005 7:59 PM   Subscribe

My family grew up saying grace before dinner, but none of us are religious. We value the pre-meal ceremony itself, but it doesn't seem right to use a standard, religious grace; can you suggest a different one?

For us, grace is a chance to appreciate our good fortune in having peace, family, and food. The sentiments of the World Hunger Grace ("For food in a world where many walk in hunger...") apply pretty well, but stripping out the references to faith and oh Lord leaves it feeling kinda lame. Are there any atheists out there that say a grace? Do you use another pre-meal ceremony?
posted by pocams to Religion & Philosophy (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"Saying Will" is a Thelemic custom said before meals. It's purpose is to remind you that the food you eat ultimately is to serve your body and health, which in turn fortifies you to do your "Will" or purpose in this lifetime.

You can also strip it of any occult or Thelemic connotation which you don't like and modify it for your on needs. It goes something like this (with more info given at the link I provided above):

Leader: (knocks 3-5-3) Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

All: What is thy will?

Leader: It is my will to eat and to drink.

All: To what end?

Leader: That I may fortify my body thereby.

All: To what end?

Leader: That I may accomplish the Great Work.

All: Love is the law, love under will.

Leader: (knocks once) Fall to!
posted by RoseovSharon at 8:11 PM on August 23, 2005

good food, good meat, good god, let's eat

or alternately,

thanks for the grub
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:30 PM on August 23, 2005

you could go around the table and each person could say something they're thankful for (we do that at thanksgiving), or have a diff person do it each day and have it become a tradition.
posted by amberglow at 8:34 PM on August 23, 2005

It's ok to say grace and still be an atheist. They won't revoke your membership. But be careful not to cross yourself; you can be fined for that. Seriously, there's no reason not to use the grace prayer of your parents. It works. These sorts of "ceremonies" are mostly harmless and, as you know, do more good than harm. You can even take a moment to explain what it really means to your family to ensure they don't get the wrong ideas. Another possibility is to use a "free form" grace where a family member just says "I'm grateful for ${something that happened to me today}, my family, and this great food." But be careful--God, particularly Providence, can sneak in here too. If you're dead set against scrubbing out all references to a higher power, consider the old Atheist's prayer.
posted by nixerman at 8:37 PM on August 23, 2005

Interesting. I'm an atheist and a big believer in ceremony and rituals. I like the idea of a pre-meal grace. We always said one as a kid - if this comes out well, I may adopt it myself.

A google for "atheist grace" brings up lots of snark. However, I did like portions of the one written here.

I give thanks to those
Who have [...] provided
The food sitting here
On this bountiful day
With a table full of good
Friends and Family

There's more, but I think it's way too long for a 'grace'. Furthermore, the author gets a little bitter towards the end and that's certainly not part of a pre-meal grace.

It's a nice start, I think.
posted by unixrat at 8:44 PM on August 23, 2005

You might be able to find a native american-ish blessing. I rememebr seeing a set of hunting rituals that included blessings after killing/while eating an animal that really stuck with me.

They tend to be a bit less abstract, and are usually directed towards naturalistic elements that contributed to your food.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:12 PM on August 23, 2005

In Japanese one says "itadakimasu" (hear it pronounced here) before a meal. I've seen all kinds of translations -- it's the infinitive form of a verb, "to take" or "to receive" I think -- but a Japanese friend explained it to me as a kind of general thanks for the meal, aimed not at a god or gods but sorta at the universe in general.
posted by sennoma at 9:20 PM on August 23, 2005

For agnostics, there is:
"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."
[Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness]
posted by Hildago at 9:24 PM on August 23, 2005

Here's my favorite:

All life is one, and everything that lives is holy: plants, animals and Man.

All must eat to live and nourish one another.

We bless the lives that have died to give us food.

Let us eat consciously, resolving by our work to pay the debt of our existence.

Attributable to JG Bennett, if I'm not mistaken.
posted by ZakDaddy at 9:57 PM on August 23, 2005 [4 favorites]

the philmont grace is always good. stripping out the religious part of the world hunger grace doesn't sound that bad to me, likewise with this:

for food
for raiment
for life
for opportunity
for friendship
and fellowship
we thank thee o lord

then again, I'm more of a deist than an atheist. s/lord/ourselves/

also, this would be a great chance to make up a clever fsm/pastafarian grace...
posted by dorian at 10:18 PM on August 23, 2005

I've contemplated this for a little while and think that a rotating grace recognizing the seasons would be a nice touch. (If you live in EternalSummerland, YMMV)

Perhaps a poem?

Gold of a ripe oat straw, gold of a southwest moon,
Canada thistle blue and flimmering larkspur blue,
Tomatoes shining in the October sun with red hearts,
Shining five and six in a row on a wooden fence,
Why do you keep wishes on your faces all day long,
Wishes like women with half-forgotten lovers going to new cities?
What is there for you in the birds, the birds, the birds, crying down
on the north wind in September, acres of birds
spotting the air going south?
Is there something finished? And some new beginning on the way?


Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though.
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer,
To stop without a farmhouse near,
Between the woods and frozen lake,
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep,
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


And so on and so forth...
posted by unixrat at 10:42 PM on August 23, 2005

Good question. I struggled with the same problem as well. I wanted to give thanks before a meal without feeling burdened by religion. I ended up adapting a prayer that my grandmother always says before a meal.

We are thankful for the food on this table
We are thankful for this time together
Our thoughts go out to family and friends
We hope that they are safe and well


I optionally add specific people to the thanks or invite others to do so. This allows for a degree of adaptation that is sometimes necessary when you want to express all of your thoughts.

And yes, I still say "amen". It's just so damn decisive. A good way to end a thanks. If memory servers I think it means "I believe". I can't argue with that.
posted by quadog at 11:54 PM on August 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

I always liked what cosmicbandito said, but we added a little flair:

rub-a-dub dub,
thanks for the grub,
Yeah God!

Another favorite was also this classic:

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Whoever eats the fastest, gets the most.

That's not necessarily Atheist, however.
posted by stovenator at 12:23 AM on August 24, 2005

2, 4, 6, 8
bog in
don't wait
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:42 AM on August 24, 2005

Earth we thank you for our food,
For work and play and all that's good,
For wind and rain and sun above,
But most of all for those we love.
posted by McIntaggart at 3:39 AM on August 24, 2005 [2 favorites]

I give the wife a kiss on the mouth.
posted by sohcahtoa at 3:59 AM on August 24, 2005

Here's a long Buddhist meal gatha I've always been fond of. Obviously you'd leave out some bits if you want something completely secular.
"First, seventy-two labors brought us this food;
we should know how it comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering,
we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order of mind
to be free from clinging, we must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life, we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our way, we take this food.

First, this food is for the Three Treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation,
and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus, we eat this food with everyone.
We eat to stop all evil, to practice good,
to save all sentient beings,
and to accomplish our Buddha Way."
And a short meal gatha:
"We receive this food in gratitude to all beings
Who have helped to bring it to our table,
And vow to respond in turn to those in need
With wisdom and compassion."
Personally I like the idea of contemplating how much went into providing the food.
posted by mendel at 4:43 AM on August 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

I like this idea.

I especially like mendel's gathas.

and oh, Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. *shivers*
posted by corvine at 5:08 AM on August 24, 2005

My Unitarian in-laws say grace by holding hands and someone, usually my father-in-law says a little something about what we are all thankful for. They do end it with an amen, but there is no mention of a God or gods.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:50 AM on August 24, 2005

I love the Serenity Prayer, but not the God stuff, so maybe you could amend it:

"Grant me serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference."
posted by tristeza at 6:50 AM on August 24, 2005

Goodness, those are long. Don't let your food get cold! A simple "amen" while holding hands sufficed for my atheist parents, and my athiest husband and I simply toast each other with a hearty "bon appetit!" to begin the meal.
posted by mimi at 6:56 AM on August 24, 2005

My son learned this one in his Montessori school (natch), and we use it quite a bit in our agnostic home:

Thank you for green grass under me
Thank you for blue skys over me
Thank you for good friends beside me
Thank you for good food in front of me
and peace all over the world.
posted by Scoo at 7:09 AM on August 24, 2005

Goodness, those are long.

Yes, I can't imagine having to sit through anything longer than a few lines before a meal. It's supposed to be grace, not purgatory. I like mendel's shorter gatha, and bits of poetry are good too (I said bits, not entire goddam poems, which have their own place in the scheme of things, which is not keeping you from your food). There's always Edward Taylor's "It's food too fine for angels; yet come, take, and eat thy fill! It's Heaven's sugar cake" -- which is quoted at the beginning of this amusing description of early American eating habits:
Tavern meals were taken up with such speed that foreigners were actually astonished. The slang of the period was one of the three "G's:" "Gobble, gulp and go." One guest was puzzled over the haste, hustle and starving attitude the inn frequenter displayed. Everyone stuffed himself at uncanny speeds. Another visitor was amazed that in barely twenty minutes, he had witnessed two series of meals in his hotel.
posted by languagehat at 8:18 AM on August 24, 2005

I've always found that "bon appetit" or the Italian "buon appetito" said fairly formally before everyone digs in gives you that nice moment of communal ceremony without turning into a five-minute sermon.
posted by occhiblu at 8:18 AM on August 24, 2005

My parents say a Native American sort of grace before big meals. It's not written in stone, but goes something like this:
We give thanks for the plants and animals who have given themselves so that we can enjoy this meal together.
We also give thanks for our friends and family who have traveled here today. May this meal bring us strength and health.
posted by slimslowslider at 8:31 AM on August 24, 2005 [2 favorites]

"Thank you Chicken"
posted by daver at 9:53 AM on August 24, 2005

A nice short grace we used at my school (For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful) is easy to de-theize. Just replace "the Lord make us" with "we be".

Otherwise you can just stick with "bon appetit!"
posted by tangerine at 11:44 AM on August 24, 2005

This is a really nice idea, I think (in my family someone always just shouted 'Breakfast/Lunch/Tea's Ready!' at the tops of their lungs and everyone sat down and got stuck in.)

Why not just take it in turns to thank the person who cooked the food? Ceremony enough, beats thanking the actual food, which is weird, and involves not a trace of God business. And your food will still be hot when you get to eating it, which probably won't be the case if you follow some of the other suggestions.

And is it just me, or is the first suggestion by RoseovSharon really rather scary? Have no idea what the 'Great Work' might be, but suspect it involves genocide.
posted by jack_mo at 2:19 PM on August 24, 2005

Laugh if you must, but when I am in a reflective or grateful mood, what I say in my head is, of all things, a line from (I can't believe I am admitting this) Joe Vs The Volcano.

"Dear god whose name I do not know... thank you for my life."

I suppose if you are more or less certain than I about the existence of anything More this might not be appropriate, but for me it covers the bases from Hairy Thunderer to cosmic muffin to serendipitous chance as the reason I'm here and expresses the fact that I'm glad I am.

Which does make me think, perhaps something from Desiderata? (below Deteriorata, which is more my speed...)
posted by phearlez at 4:18 PM on August 24, 2005

I'm an atheist and my wife is a Quaker. We follow the Quaker tradition of "silent grace" before meals: All present join hands in a circle around the table, and are silent for perhaps a minute. Then one person gently squeezes the hands of the people next to him; this signal is quickly passed around the table and people then begin eating and talking.
posted by mbrubeck at 5:08 PM on August 24, 2005

In my family, it was always "Bless this food and them that eats it," very definitely addressed to Nobody In Particular.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:26 PM on August 24, 2005

Also addressed to Nobody In Particular, I've said:

For the meal we are about to eat,
for those that made it possible,
and for those with whom we are about to share it,
we are thankful.
posted by ThePants at 9:42 AM on August 25, 2005 [3 favorites]

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