August 31, 2012

A Question for Atheists About Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving prayer

I received the following question from a reader, and I thought it was one that would benefit from some input from the rest of you:
I am an outspoken atheist and all of my family members know my position on god & religion. My question is every year I go to my cousins house for Thanksgiving dinner and they insist on a group prayer (poor people are catholics) and I don't want to participate. At the same time this is family and I don't want to offend. This coming holiday I am considering not going (I really don't like that option) My wife says I should just suck it up and stay quiet but I don't agree. I am sure there are many Atheists out there that have the same problem as I do. Your thoughts please as you are much more articulate that I am.
I'll share my thoughts on the matter, but I'm sure some of you will have different opinions on this, and I'd love to hear them.

I'll start by saying that I dealt with something similar to this for several years when I was living near family. Like the reader, I was an outspoken atheist whose immediate family knew this. And like the reader, my family wanted me to stuff my feelings and go through the motions. Depending on my mood, who was present, and my comfort level, I'd deal with the situation in one of the following ways:
  1. Politely excuse myself from the table while they engaged in superstitious behavior, sometimes explaining that I did not share their beliefs and would prefer not to pretend otherwise;
  2. Sit quietly with my head slightly bowed and eyes open, thinking how odd it was that people still believed this stuff; or
  3. Decline their request to attend the event in the first place.
I tried all of these at least a couple of times. Option #1 always seemed to lead to a public scolding if I was willing to take it without responding or a fight if I wasn't. I did feel like I was being true to myself, but the other parties were never content to let it lie. Option #2 was what the ex-wife wanted, but I did not particularly like myself afterward. I felt like a coward in some respects, and as I grew older, I was troubled with the thought that people who wouldn't accept me for me really weren't worth the effort. Option #3 came to be the one I most preferred, but I recognize that this was likely due to the fact that I never particularly enjoyed Thanksgiving in the first place. And not surprisingly, the ex-wife was less than thrilled with this one.

For the reader, I'd suggesting thinking through (1) how much conflict this is going to create for you at home and (2) how much you like Thanksgiving and would feel like you were missing out if you weren't there. For me, it usually came down to the following decision point: is it more important for me to be true to myself in this situation or to make the ex-wife happy? I never did figure out how to do both. I hope you can.