Posted by: Michael Logan | November 26, 2009

Grace In The Forum

We’ve been having a rather intriguing series of back-and-forths on the issue of grace or blessings said at a meal such as Thanksgiving; exactly how should an Atheist/freethinker respond to such a situation?

Lisa started us out by describing a situation many of us go through; “At my family’s house, which is a tradition every year, we say the “Our Daily Bread” prayer. I have been biting my tongue for years now, giving in to my family’s belief and tradition.” I didn’t feel that this was fair unless the non-religious at the table were given the opportunity to offer their own blessing, and James suggested this:

“Michael gives me an idea you could try, if you are game. After you wait patiently for them to conclude their blessing or prayer, you can ask for their attention. You could then give a brief secular statement about what you are grateful for (i.e. the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the scientific method, tolerant society, etc…). If you are patient and tolerant enough to accommodate their beliefs, they should do the same for you. If they are so discourteous as to ignore your statement and not allow you to be heard, then make it clear that you feel you have been disrespected. I would let it stand there, for this year at least. Next year I would stand up and walk out until the prayer is done.

Of course this all depends on how confrontational you are willing to be.”

That last bit references the main issue that I have with grace; I don’t think that it is unreasonable to conclude that asking to give a secular humanist grace would be met with antipathy at best, hostility at worst, by the very people who expect to be allowed to give their religious blessing. I wasn’t alone in this thinking, and several other members chimed in that the best solution would be to grin and bear it; sometimes, picking a fight over religion just isn’t worth it, especially not on a day when we are supposed to be celebrating something.

Not everyone agreed, though, and Gary suggested that “I like the secular prayer idea, but don’t do it after theirs. That makes it so…I don’t know…contrived, unnecessary…. (“Oh, look, now our little girl wants to say something. How cute.”)

Instead, ask (ahead of time or as you sit down) if you could give the prayer. Be polite, be sincere, just don’t mention god. They may not even notice. (“Today, we are thankful to be surrounded by a loving, understanding family, and for all this food, etc, etc….”) Don’t even go into the tolerant society thing. Show them that you’re thankful for all the same things that they are, but, matter-of-factly-by-omission, that god has nothing to do with it.”

Roni offered her own version of a secular grace:
Today we are thankful for the joy and gladness in our lives,
For mirth and exultation, for pleasure and delight,
For love and friendship, peace and peoplehood.
May we all witness the day when the sounds throughout the world
Will be these sounds of happiness:
the voices of lovers, the sounds of feasting and singing
and the song of peace.

And then Jim R gave us my favorite secular blessing:

Given the opportunity I will share this prayer with my (very religious) family this year.

Today we give thanks not only for this wonderful feast but for the abundant life we enjoy. We are thankful for all that we have, for the love and support of family and friends and for the freedom to follow the courage of our convictions. On this Thanksgiving Day may we begin to show our gratitude by committing ourselves to the opportunity we have to use our compassion and our intelligence, our wealth and technology to provide an abundant life for every inhabitant of this planet.

(The last line comes from the late Carl Sagan in the last chapter of Cosmos)

I’m going to try this one out tonight.

Some may be wondering, why exactly is this such an issue? Why are Atheists fretting over grace? Why can’t we just bow our heads and take it?

Because we don’t want to offend our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors over something as small as grace; we don’t want to put an end to a tradition we have a disagreement with when we can find a suitable compromise that excludes no one; we do not want to compromise our own beliefs to accommodate those of someone else, but we do wish to retain the spirit that often accompanies the blessing. Most of all, and I say this as an observer only, I think most of us like the traditions whose origins lie in religion, and if we can preserve the positive elements of something as innocuous as grace, while updating and secularizing the actual language a bit, we will. Or at least I will.




  1. It’s been ten years since i’ve been to a real family Thanksgiving. I miss them terribly.

    But especially on this Holiday, I think ‘grace’, or whatever, should be a participatory affair; not one where the father or mother as master essentially makes a short sermon. That’s why Gary’s suggestion is a good place to start at the table: doing something like that covers everyone. And then as people start to eat, one by one, each person is asked to think for a second and say at least one thing that they are thankful for.

  2. Upon occasion, I have said something like “Let us be grateful to the farmers who plant and harvest our food… to the truck drivers that transport it… to the stock boys who arrange it… to the cashiers who ring it up and bag it… and to all the others who have a hand in our sustenance and well-being, both directly and peripherally.”

  3. @ Dave: Giving everyone the opportunity to participate is certainly a good idea, but I think that you must be careful not to “put someone on the spot” by asking everyone to take a turn. I’ve been involved in many instances over the years, usually at the evening gatherings on mission trips, where the pressure to “think for a second and say at least one thing” is a very unpleasant experience for many who would prefer not to speak up or are white-knuckled and just can’t think of anything to say extemporaneously. I know many people who dread such experiences so much they avoid volunteering again to do charity work. At Thanksgiving, it would be even worse because you really don’t have the option to opt out without causing hard feelings and children in particular are stuck. Even when making participation voluntary, you can still have some feeling like they have to because of the fear of being the only one who does not speak.

    @ Michael: Thanks for the kind words about my Thanksgiving prayer. (Though most of the credit goes to Carl.)

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