prayer for everyone at holiday dinner
November 28, 2006 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Religion-holiday-family-filter: Prayer at dinner. No discussion of Sir Thomas

I am returning home for the holdays to visit family. These people are white, conservative, catholic, close-minded midwesterners. I'm pretty much the opposite, except for the white part, can't seem to shake that. Traditionally, there is a prayer before dinner in which everyone stands and words like 'jesus' and 'god' are used. As I am an atheist, I sit this out, as does one brother and his wife, who are of an non-christian religiion.

I'm fine with sitting this out, though some things bother me.

1. There are many nieces and nephews. It seems to be a poor lesson to teach them. Something about excluding others who are not like you.
2. I am bringing home my fiancee (first time). She certainly understands about 'family' (let's just say her father has 'issues')., but still its embarrassing.

I want to suggest that the prayer be modified so that everyone can participate, e.g. change "we thank god" to "we are thankful".

1. Do I bother? Things are not discussed openly in this famiy. Problems are swept under the rug.
2. If, yes, help me word it in a diplomatic manner (I tend to be too blunt) . Especially #1
posted by allelopath to Society & Culture (35 answers total)
The only person who matters in this equation is your fiancée.

You are in the "setting precedents" portion of the marriage, and I suggest you stick to your principles, whatever they are. Be yourself unapologetically.
posted by ewkpates at 6:01 AM on November 28, 2006

You could offer to say the prayer yourself, then make it so gracious they don't notice you left out the Jesus part. Something like, "We are truly thankful for this meal we are about to eat, for loving family, good friends and for all the blessings we enjoy in our lives. Amen."

But you could also not bother. I'm not sure why it's "embarrassing" to sit through grace at a meal with people who don't share your spiritual beliefs, especially when they're the ones who prepared the meal. Sure, you could argue they're being a bit rude by using a doctrinal prayer when there are folks of other religions at the table, but that's hardly a crisis and it is their house. Respect them, nod at any good stuff they include in their prayer, and move on.
posted by mediareport at 6:01 AM on November 28, 2006

In this situation, I would just stand and bow my head but keep my mouth shut and not say the prayer. This is what I do when I am at religious wedding ceremonies etc as well.

I guess I just see it as when you're at someone else's house (or church or temple), be respectful of their traditions. You don't have to say a prayer, but you don't have to sit awkwardly by as though you're protesting something either.
posted by tastybrains at 6:04 AM on November 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

Families can be awfully touchy about changing things that are entrenched parts of their culture and tradition, and they might perceive any request to modify the prayer as a dig at their values. Maybe you could work a deal where the sitter-outers stand for the usual prayer and then add some sort of blessing of their own afterward as everyone remains standing? That way everyone can participate and show respect.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:06 AM on November 28, 2006

As the "guest" I think you just play along. It's once per year, and it's family. You have nothing to gain by making a scene. As an atheist, you don't have to worry about any damage to your afterlife prospects by praying to the wrong God once in a while to appease your family. In a perfect world, your family would be more sensitive you your beliefs, or lack there of. However, we all know it doesn't work that way. Many parents see kids that strayed from the faith as a failure on their part. There is no sense in rubbing it in.
posted by COD at 6:16 AM on November 28, 2006

My practice with people I care about, but with whom I disagree is to allow the prayer to be said, smile politely during its delivery, head unbowed, eyes open, and say "Thank you" when they are done. Sometimes, with people I KNOW are religious (and who know I am not), I offer them the chance to say a prayer. It's how they do what makes them feel good, and if I am a good host, it's my diplomatic gift to them.

If I am a guest, then I take what is presented, as I probably should. Their home = their customs.

That said, I am a rabid athiest, who cannot stand the idea of organized fantasy or any of that bullshit, but I do loves me some folk who ARE religious. If ASKED about my beliefs, I offer. Otherwise I shut up. Hopefully, someday that will lead by example, but that's not a requirement in order for me to be kind to them in their delusions.
posted by FauxScot at 6:21 AM on November 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question not long ago; you might want to check it out.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 6:22 AM on November 28, 2006

Change Catholic to Baptist and I'm in the exact same (gravy) boat, but I think it's terribly presumptuous to try to change how your family members pray in their own home. Sit it out quietly and respectfully, and if you want an activity everyone can participate in, try going around the table telling stories of wonderful, cool things that happened in the past year, or even the old what-I'm-thankful-for routine (even though it's not Thanksgiving). Respecting the right of other's to practice their religion (however ludicrous you might think it is) is an equally important lesson to don't-leave-anyone-out for the kiddies, I'd think.
posted by cilantro at 6:22 AM on November 28, 2006

First, your request could create bad feelings, which are never fun to carry through a family gathering. Second, if you do want to ask for a change, I'd do so with the prayer giver prior to table sitting in private. That way, the person in question won't feel pressured by those around him/her.

Ultimately, though, is that one word, which you claim has no meaning to you, really offend you so much to risk the controversy that might ensue?

Another perspective, in essence, the prayer which is laced with Jesus and God, is also a way for everyone to show how grateful they are that everyone is well and present. Recognize that aspect of the prayer, not the religious side which bothers you. By sitting out, you're showing just as equal intolerance as those giving the prayer.

If you want to impress your nephews and nieces, remain part of the family, then later tell them that while you don't agree with the religious aspect, you felt it was important to show that such objections should never overcome one's wishes to love and be with family.
posted by Atreides at 6:23 AM on November 28, 2006

You can choose the prayer when you host dinner at your house. Your family's just doing their thing. They aren't excluding you - you're excluding yourself. Tell your fiancee she can sit it out if she wants, since other people do.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:25 AM on November 28, 2006

Why is this going to embarass you in front of your fiancée?

What you do — sit still, bow your head, keep your mouth shut — is what everyone in your situation does. It's standard behavior for religious minorities; I'm sure you've seen dozens of your fellow atheists doing it. Unless your fiancée grew up in a 100% religiously homogenous bubble, she's seen it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:26 AM on November 28, 2006

Religion is often used to exclude people who do not fit in. That in itself isn't necesarily a bad thing as long as the only thing you are being excluded from is the religious ceremony. If the kids ask you about why you don't join is, just say "Those aren't my beliefs, but since they are the beliefs of most of the family members, I respect that and give them space to do their thing."

Also, I think the fiancee would be pretty embarrased if in the future she finds out that you asked for a family tradition to be modified because you didn't want to be embarassed in front of her.

I'm an atheist too, but I think that if the family has religious traditions tose should be respected. Gracefully sit this one out, just explain to your fiancee beforehand so that she knows the protocol.

Conversely, offer to say the prayer yourseof (as mediareport suggested) but I think this would be highjacking a family tradition to make a point, and I think your family might either a) feel disrespected or b) not notice your ecumenism and take your leading the prayer as a sign that you have returned to the chuch (assuming you ever belonged).
posted by arcticwoman at 6:26 AM on November 28, 2006

Yes, I'm with Tastybrains. I'm an atheist, and that's what I do.

If it were a non-family situation, like work or school, then it would be appropriate to go to the mat for inclusiveness, but if it's family... You'd just be wasting your time, annoying the pig, and setting up an adversarial situation that must invariably make your fiancee uncomfortable -- and, possibly, color their opinion of her.
posted by Methylviolet at 6:27 AM on November 28, 2006

I'm with COD. When I'm home I pray and even go to church. I don't believe in it, but I do care for my Mom who is made very happy by seeing me do these things.

Certainly don't challenge it unless you want to introduce your fiancée into a family fight. You're asking to take God out of a prayer. How would that go over well with anyone with faith?

As for your nieces and nephews, I don't seeing what the issue is. Certainly their religious training is up to their parents, not you, and will pray in whatever manner they're accustomed.

And your fiancée sounds like she's been alerted to it and should do whatever she makes her most comfortable. If you think this is "embarrassing" you're probably unaware of all of the other embarrassing things your family does.

In short, forget about it. It's not the big deal you're making it out to be.
posted by Ookseer at 6:29 AM on November 28, 2006

1. There are many nieces and nephews. It seems to be a poor lesson to teach them. Something about excluding others who are not like you.

But aren't you the one excluding yourself? Did someone ask you to sit out? Also, wouldn't it be a poor lesson to teach the nieces and nephews to abandon their beliefs because someone doesn't believe the same as you (ie forgoing the prayer or changing it)? Their beliefs are just as important to them as yours are to you.

So, step up to the challenge without abandoning your beliefs. Stand in the circle or whatever, but don't utter their "Jesus" or "God." Ask your fiancee how SHE would like to handle it - sit in or sit out. And remember, a prayer only lasts a moment and it's not gonna kill ya to stand there.

Or, don't stand there - it's really your choice. And like I said, a prayer only lasts a moment and it's not gonna kill them if you sit it out. And I'm sure your nieces and nephews understand or will understand why you sit it out. And it's probably a good lesson for them whether you sit out or not.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:30 AM on November 28, 2006

Bow your head, close your eyes, and use prayer time to think about how nice your holiday together will be, now that you've decided to save the grandstanding for another day.
posted by Optamystic at 6:38 AM on November 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Also an atheist, here. I used to worry when I was younger about quietly sitting out from prayers, but that was before I let go of any worries I had about repercussions for my lack of faith. Now, it feels like no big deal, and it's certainly never embarrassing for me.

You described your family as close-minded. Y'might do well to open your own mind a little, and let other people have their faith during a time of the year that is traditionally important to them.

If you were ever to approach them, I'd do it after the holidays, when the shopping frenzies and the cooking duty and all that stress has been dissolved in the sugar coma of new iPods and sweaters with leather patches on the elbows. Get 'em in the afterglow, and see if you can't affect change then.
posted by wells at 6:39 AM on November 28, 2006

I'm in the same situation, and I would never expect my large family to change their behaviour to suit just one person, or even a few people. They aren't insulting me, they're just acting on their own beliefs. And it lasts a minute. I save my indignation for when they badger me about not going to church;-)
posted by orange swan at 6:45 AM on November 28, 2006

If you make this request, and your family thinks it's because of your fiance (and it is), that would be bad news.
posted by smackfu at 7:11 AM on November 28, 2006

If you are expected to offer something, think about an open ended sentiment like "blessings on this family and this meal."
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:12 AM on November 28, 2006

Tangential, but can you explain the Sir Thomas reference?
posted by jozxyqk at 7:17 AM on November 28, 2006

What is more important to you, pride or family? If you love your family just stand, say the prayer and forget about it. Why make an issue out of this?
posted by caddis at 7:21 AM on November 28, 2006

I've been the significant other (fiance, then husband) in this situation. My family has never been very big on religious rituals of any kind (we're Jewish by heritage, and I'm an atheist), but my wife's Christian (mostly Catholic) family has a few. For instance, at holiday dinners, everyone at the table joins hands as my wife's grandfather says grace. When this happens, I simply join hands with them and say nothing, but don't bow my head or close my eyes as they do, nor do I say "Amen" when he's done.

In other words, I understand that this ritual is important to them, so I treat it with respect, but don't pretend it's important to me. Likewise, when I've had to go to my in-laws' church for a family wedding or funeral, I've stood with everyone else at the various points where you're supposed to, but otherwise simply sat and kept quiet. I've respected their traditions without actively participating in them, and it doesn't make me uncomfortable to do so.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:39 AM on November 28, 2006

If you've sat it out before, then I'd just continue to do that; I wouldn't make a scene, particularly if this the first time that you're bringing your fiancee. Your family might assume that she's causing you to make a scene about it, or otherwise blame her rather than you, plus I can imagine it might be awkward for her if she thinks you're doing it for her benefit. I'd continue to do whatever it is you always do.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:56 AM on November 28, 2006

It escapes me why you feel you need to assume leadership of your entire extended family. Are you seriously you're ready to do that?

Nieces and nephews are other peoples children and usual protocol in most cultures is to allow parents to care for the their own kids as they see fit. If you really have concerns in this area discuss it with the adults, at some other time.

Your fiancee is also an adult, just talk it about it in advance so she's aware and let her be a grown up and deal with it, I'll bet she's smarter and more socially capable than you're giving her credit for.

As usual, I'll be around folks celebrating Chinese New Years in well, the new year... this is not my background but will be interested in learning more about what all the various traditions mean rather than working out how to modify anyones behavior.
posted by scheptech at 8:14 AM on November 28, 2006

jozxyqk: can you explain the Sir Thomas reference?

posted by matthewr at 8:49 AM on November 28, 2006

I'm not sure why it's "embarrassing" to sit through grace at a meal with people who don't share your spiritual beliefs, especially when they're the ones who prepared the meal.

Amen. And we've discussed this before. Just bow your head. Or don't; simply keeping quiet also works. This is not a problem unless you make it one.
posted by languagehat at 8:54 AM on November 28, 2006

Response by poster: >> thomas more reference
Its just a play on the [more inside] that is common here at metafi.
"No discussion of Sir Thomas [more inside]"
He is a famous religious figure.
posted by allelopath at 8:57 AM on November 28, 2006

who lost his head over religious beliefs
posted by caddis at 9:02 AM on November 28, 2006

Just to generally agree with most of the comments above -- You're an atheist. That means that you just plain don't believe in deity. So what do you care if other people who do believe act on their own beliefs? It's not like you have some affirmative belief that praying to their god is somehow evil, or hurts you, do you?

A prayer that would include both their beliefs and yours is easy: Pray to their god. You don't have one, so all you have to do to include yours is do nothing in addition to what they're doing.

Show those white, christian, closed-minded midwesterners that we open-minded coastal folks are actually open-minded. If you're an atheist who wholly rejects the religious beliefs of others without acknowledging the possibility that they might be right and to such an extent that you won't even listen to them pray and be nice about it, then you, my friend, are extraordinarily closed-minded.
posted by JekPorkins at 10:03 AM on November 28, 2006

I am returning home for the holdays to visit family. These people are white, conservative, football-loving, close-minded midwesterners. I'm pretty much the opposite, except for the white part, can't seem to shake that. Traditionally, we all watch football together on TV before dinner and everyone cheers and words like 'football' and 'score' are used. As I am not interested in football, I sit this out, as does one brother and his wife, who are soccer fans.

I find atheism liberating: I don't believe in God, so I have no problem participating in rituals of my hosts. It's good manners.

Besides, when your parents come to your house, well, they don't get to insist on a prayer before dinner, right?
posted by alasdair at 10:10 AM on November 28, 2006

To be more accurately specific, More lost his head over behavior related to his religious beliefs, which makes it a more reasonable parallel to this situation where allelopath doesn't want to make statements that contradict his disbelief.

Rather than being killed for professing a certain belief, More was executed because he refused to play along with certain ceremonies and declarations because he saw them as contrary to his beliefs about the organization and legitimacy of the church. The "Trial and execution" section of the above wikipedia article details it clearly.
posted by phearlez at 10:13 AM on November 28, 2006

exactly, and along those same lines we don't want allelopath to lose his head (or suffer family disharmony)
posted by caddis at 10:45 AM on November 28, 2006

Hopefully, allelopath can be a better example of tolerance and open-mindedness than that closed-minded, football loving, christian, red-stater Thomas More was. Of course, wasn't More objecting to the Government's implementation of religious rites in governmental functions? Hmm. Maybe he wasn't a red-stater after all.
posted by JekPorkins at 11:00 AM on November 28, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments. Many wise observations. I think I will continue to do as I have always done (sit out), but for different, more compassionate, less self-righteous reasons.
posted by allelopath at 10:45 AM on November 29, 2006

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