Christmas, more than any other time of the year, is full various religious rituals, so the question of how deal with them comes up often. Theists, and even other atheists, often have trouble understanding why I (and many other atheists) won’t participate in these things, particularly at this time of year. so I’d like to offer an answer to this question as best I can.
It seems that many Christians seem to think I’m refusing because I’m intentionally trying to ruin things for them, or wonder why I can’t just bow my head an play along for their sake. Likewise, I’ve known some atheists to think I’m just creating unnecessary drama by putting my foot down over something very minor.
One thing I’ve noticed about most of the atheists who hold this opinion is that, unlike me, they were never religious in the first place. Like Jordan Klepper’s recent piece on the Daily show where he accused other atheists of being “dicks” because they wouldn’t just close their eyes for a few seconds to pretend to pray so they could get a discount.
The difference is that once upon a time I was a Christian, and in the most serious sense of that term. Forget a prayer over Christmas dinner. I prayed over nearly every meal I ate for somewhere around 4 years. This was in college so most of those meals were eaten in a very public dining hall. Yet, every time I sat down I closed my eyes, bowed and said a short prayer, but that was not the half of it. I also got up early and prayed for half an hour quite often. (I intended to do it every day, but I was college student) I would sometimes visit the chapel on my campus in the evenings, pull out my guitar and sing praise songs for a while. Maybe that stuff sounds cheesy to some people, and I sure bet that most people who read this, even the religious ones, find such behavior somewhat extreme or bizarre.
Perhaps you think I was taking this religion thing a bit too seriously, but to me it was serious. To me, at that time, prayer was a deliberate act of communication with the all powerful creator of the universe. It was a religious ritual that meant I was doing something incredibly important.
Now you might point out that I no longer believe any of these things, and you would be right. I don’t believe in god, so I certainly don’t believe prayer is any sort of actual communication, and I certainly have no respect for the Christian religion. However, I do have respect for many people who are Christians, and even more importantly I have respect for the notion of things like ritual and tradition, and I don’t think joining in or partaking in things like a prayer at a family gathering shows respect for either of those things.
As for respecting the people themselves I would ask to to imagine you have some relative with a crazy belief, say flat earth or that the moon landings were a hoax. You see them on the holidays and they start droning on about their pet conspiracy theory. To keep the peace you tune them out, but don’t bother correcting them or even trying to discuss the issue with them. Did you do this because you respect them? My guess is that would be a no. You don’t say anything because you don’t expect to be able to change their mind with reasoned argument, you don’t even think it is worth your time to tell them you disagree with them. That is not respect in my opinion.
On the second point I would argue that rituals and traditions are supposed to point to something real. Would anyone say it’s okay for someone to say their wedding vows but not really mean them, to just go through the motions because that is what is expected? Rituals are important, they are a vital part of what ties all of us together, and if we only pretend to care about them, if we only go through the motions, then we destroy the very things that make us a society rather than just a bunch of individuals milling around in the same general vicinity.
So to my fellow atheists who don’t see what the big deal is, I hope that if this post doesn’t change your own behavior in this regard it at least lets you understand why others like myself don’t think this is such a small issue after all. Finally, to all the Christians out there who are annoyed, angered or frustrated with that one atheist relative who asks to be excused from participating in the dinner prayer, perhaps you might cut them some slack and realize that, just maybe, they aren’t doing it because they don’t like you, they are doing it because they respect the real meaning behind that prayer too much to fake it.