7 Tips for Atheists at Thanksgiving Dinner

Nov 19, 2014

By Herb Silverman

October was a good trick-or-treat month to wear masks and pretend to be someone else. The organization Openly Secular is encouraging atheists in November to remove their masks and reveal who they really are. But holiday gatherings can be filled with tension for atheists in religious families as they weigh staying in the closet or coming out as the “black sheep” atheist.

Here are my tips as you look ahead to Thanksgiving dinner, with the disclaimer that you know your family better than I do, so tread carefully.

1. Don’t come out as an atheist during the Thanksgiving meal.

The blessing may seem like an appropriate occasion for you to drop the news, but family gatherings usually have enough potential friction. It’s best to maximize the happiness of the occasion — or at least minimize the unhappiness. When you come out, try to begin with close and/or tolerant families members who are likely to be supportive. They might later become an advocate or mediator between you and less flexible family members.

2. Be yourself at the Thanksgiving meal.

For instance, you need not bow your head for the blessing. Anyone who notices likely isn’t bowing either, so you might connect with other atheists. (New friendships for me have sometimes begun with eye contact and a knowing smile during public invocations and benedictions.) If someone comments about your unbowed head, then you have an opportunity to engage in a discussion — preferably after dinner.

3. Sit respectfully while others at the table give thanks to God.

If asked why you are not praying, you can mention that you are thankful we have freedom of religion in this country and the right to worship or not worship as we see fit. Families thrive and become closer when they respect different points of view, including religious diversity.


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24 comments on “7 Tips for Atheists at Thanksgiving Dinner

  • This reminds me of the prayer one of my late uncles would offer before the start of every Thanksgiving dinner:
    “One word is as good as ten.
    Pass the potatoes and let’s begin.”



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  • My grandmother would start the meal with ” The lord helps those who help themselves ”
    To which my grandfather would add ” And god help you if you get caught ! ”
    Man I miss him.



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  • We don’t do “Thanksgiving dinners” in the UK , but my family will be having a Christmas dinner (or Midwinter holiday / Saturnalia / Yuletide, dinner if you prefer), without any woo, “graces” or ” blessings”.

    None of us need supernatural drivel interfering with a good meal or a family get-together.



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  • My wife and I always invite a houseful for our Newton Day celebrations. The religious members of my family and visitors (there are a few clinging desperately on to their sky god) may offer prayers before they eat I don’t mind (Generally they don’t even try). All they have to do is mutter their incantations over the sound of me eating.
    I also allow them to express whatever nutterish views they hold dear. They can’t however claim protected rights for the gibberish and they know I may readily express views to the contrary.

    I keep a few bottles of antacid for the faint hearted.



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  • Canadians have Thanksgiving too, but we do it on the second Monday of October. (Nicely spaced out from the Xmas holiday, I like to think!)



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  • When they say, “Why aren’t you praying?”
    I enjoy countering with, “How do you know? If your eyes are open you’re not praying either, unless we both pray in the same way, which is to say, not by the rules!”



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  • Grace ‘ere, grace dere, grace around the table. Take yer knife an’ take yer fork an’ eat while yer able… (just a little ‘grace’ we sometimes say for fun).



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  • 16
    John Birch says:

    No – no Thanksgiving here in the UK. Thankfully.

    My in-laws tend to say grace before Sunday dinner, but I sit silently through it. They know my views.

    We had grace at school before lunch – but I and most (all?) of my friends changed the words slightly. “For what we are about to leave may the pigs be truly thankful” was near enough for teachers to not notice.



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  • I have never joined in prayer, bowed my head, etc. I am always fine letting others do what makes them feel good. There doesn’t seem to be a need to get in the way of it.



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  • THE Herb Silverman? Of Silverman v Campbell? If so, very nicely done, sir. I’ve been citing your case and Torcaso v Watkins lately. I’m in the ‘just talk’ stages of considering a run in my congressional district and I appreciate the inspiration.

    Have a wonderful thanksgiving, all.



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  • 19
    Mcguffin8 says:

    That is my outlook as well. I remain congenial to my family and they to me. When life’s events like weddings or funerals put me in a church, I respect their apparent reverence but will not partake in prayers or sacraments. I have been a lifelong unabashed unbeliever and I care not one bit what anyone else believes. However, I do not tolerate condemnation from my fellow monkeys.



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  • Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on how that huge pile of grub got to the table and on what one can do do give some help to those who don’t have our food advantages. This can be brought up at the table (especially when children are present) without becoming adversarial. Remember your manners! Avoid being a sanctimonious atheist.



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  • Why suffer for the family? They might even admire you for giving them this bit of info before you even think of going. After all they are family, so why not give them a chance to see if they can handle the news?
    There are lots of things to be thankful for. We just need to decide who or what to thank for them.



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