Welcome to Unsolicited Advice, the weekly column in which I dispense advice no one asked for to people who don’t even know who I am. This week in honor of the holidays, we turn to Reddit, where a young atheist asks if he/she is the a-hole for refusing to pray with the family at the Thanksgiving table.
My family is for the most part atheist. We have a few Christian family members so my family was wanting me to participate in a prayer at the family table, as the only person in my family who went from being a Christian to becoming an atheist I feel uncomfortable doing anything religious and I find it offensive. I told my family that I wasn’t going to participate and was not present for it. My mom (atheist) and Dad (hardcore Christian) got mad at me for not doing it. I don’t feel obligated to participate in religious acts and quite frankly hate doing it. So am I the asshole here?
I can understand if you feel ambivalence or hostility towards organized religion. That isn’t unusual in this day and age. It is perfectly acceptable for you to decline to participate in religious ceremonies or actively celebrate a God you don’t believe in. No one should expect you to; and certainly, no one should expect you to pray in their presence when clearly you have no interest in it.
But it really isn’t too much to ask that you respect a family tradition that may last a minute, tops. You don’t even have to say “Amen”. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that you simply quietly bow your head, mock everyone in your mind and then when they’re through move on with your evening and enjoy your dinner.
You say you found their behavior offensive. It seems your family also found your behavior offensive. Who has the right to be offended? Which of you has the right to walk away? Why does your type of “offended” supersede theirs? You may have felt your beliefs should be respected, but clearly so did they. The act of walking away and pouting until it was over seems like it added more time to the act and more tension to the gathering. For the cost of a mere minute of your life, you could have kept the peace and just bowed your head. It would have hurt no one, but benefited everyone including yourself.
While it is much more common these days for people to reject faith, we still live in a society in which religious faith – particularly Christian faith – is widely practiced and recognized. Even unbelievers (like your mother) participate in religious observances as a cultural expression. The “holidays” are based in religious faith. The majority of Americans celebrate Christmas even though many reject the “Christ” part.
Am I to believe you intend to remove yourself from every event or public gathering in which a prayer or some other expression of faith is offered? Will you walk out of weddings? Funerals? This hill you’re willing to die on is starting to look pretty lonely.
There will be many times when you’ll be asked to at least respect the tradition of the majority of people around you. We live in a society…that means we live with all types of people who believe all types of things. You’ll find your tribe eventually, but it won’t excuse you from interacting with people who don’t think like you or act like you. You cannot retreat from every single exchange that offends your personal sensibilities. That’s no way to live your life. It’s certainly no way to treat your family.
The amount of effort it took for you to refuse and walk away from such a short exercise far outweighs the small amount of energy it would have taken for you to sit there and seethe for 30 seconds while someone prayed. And anyway, if you don’t believe in God then why would it hold any meaning for you at all…good or bad? It seems like a small price to pay to simply be respectful of a tradition you don’t believe in.
It sounds to me like what you really wanted is for your family to know how much you hate religion. Perhaps it is your poor attitude that had your parents upset more so than your rejection of faith.
Get over yourself. Look at it as participating in a cultural tradition, bow your head, silently roll your eyes and then get on with your life. The world does not revolve around you.