Monday, November 21, 2011


With Thanksgiving just around the corner in the U.S. many people are facing the prospect of visiting the home of a relative for a meal with heavy overtones of tradition--and religion.  One of the most common questions for non-believers at this time of year is how to act when one's host says a prayer before the meal.

Generally, of course, the polite thing to do is say nothing.  When one is a guest in another's home, the traditions and practices of the host are to be tolerated with the utmost politeness.  This is a simple rule and is almost universally followed.  When religious people dine at the home of non-believers, they almost never have the temerity to demand that a prayer be said.  There are occasions when this will happen, however--such as when a parent visits an apostate child and fails to respect the child's wishes and status as an adult.  There is little doubt in anyone's mind that such behavior is rude and insulting.

There is another circumstance that non-believers sometimes face in this regard.  Sometimes relatives who ordinarily do not say prayers before meals will decide to say a prayer simply because they know a non-believer is in attendance.  If you find yourself in this situation, try not to laugh and try not to comment.  The person insisting on prayer is probably hoping to start a "discussion", which means, of course, a religious argument. 

Be the better person and don't take the bait.  Instead, look around the table to see if there aren't any like minded persons in attendance.  If there are no other non-believers, you might at least be able to discover which attendees are aware of the rudeness of this anomalous prayer.

If unable to avoid the argument, your first ploy should be to point out the person's hypocrisy in not saying such prayers for years and years and then choosing to do so only when a non-believer is present, which is not only hypocrisy but deliberate rudeness.  You should make that point explicitly.  Having invited you into his or her home, thus indicating you are welcome, the host has suddenly decided to send an unmistakable signal that you are not welcome. 

Do not say that the prayer itself is offensive, that would be playing right into their hands.  Simply point out that it is obviously aimed at you because it is not the normal custom of the household.  But, do not object to the prayer itself.

In general, we have a simple rule:  The owner of the home decides whether there will be prayer, and the guests abide by that decision quietly.

These observations about propriety and prayer can be used to shed some light on the school prayer debate.  When the religious insist on having organized school prayer, they have to know full well, on some level at least, that they are sending a message to any non-believer present that says "this is our house, and you are merely a guest here".  As I have written before this, in large part, is the precise reason they want to have organized prayer.

A schoolhouse, or any other government building, does not belong to any one person or to any one group.  It belongs to everyone, including non-believers.  In such a case, the proper thing to do is not to raise the subject of religion at all.  This, too, is the proper rule of etiquette, that we all observe in our day to day lives.  When we have relatives over from different religions we do not initiate discussions about which religion is the "true" religion.  Doing so would only incite conflict and controversy.  It is rudeness to start such a discussion, especially when those gathered came together for other reasons.

Government buildings are neutral ground.  They belong to no one and to everyone.  They are created for a purpose that we all share, and that purpose is NOT religion.  No one person or group has the right to demand prayer anymore than they have the right to exclude other citizens who don't belong to their group.

No comments:

Post a Comment