I live in a part of the United States where Christians are a strong majority.

I frequently find myself in social situations that involve everyone being asked to join in prayer. I'm not religious, and I'm not Christian, and the prayers are invariably explicitly Christian.

As discussed in this question, I am fine with being politely silent and still during the prayer. What that question doesn't cover, however, is to what degree is it respectful for me to participate or not participate?

The events sometimes involve family and extended family. Other times the events are not family related at all, and instead are people who know each other as friends or coworkers (but typically the social gathering is outside of the context of work).

I don't like to discuss my beliefs, because I've seen a lot more hostility, intolerance, and bigotry based upon people not being Christian than in other areas I've lived in, including from people I had considered friends, and family members.

Some of these events are recurring, so I know that there will be a prayer of some sort ahead of time. Other times, I have no idea that this will happen until everyone is called to gather.

These aren't events where I'd normally expect a religious component; we're typically at someone's house having dinner, and not in a church, or at a wedding or other ceremony.

Most times these events involve the following:

  • The organizer calls for everyone to gather
  • Everyone holds hands with the person on either side
  • Everyone bows their head
  • Everyone (?) closes their eyes
  • The organizer leads a prayer. Sometimes this is a common prayer that is recited out loud by everyone. Sometimes it is a prayer recited just by the organizer, but then when it ends everyone says "Amen!" out loud.

I want to be respectful, but to me, pretending to believe in their religion would be disrespectful.

I generally hold hands with the people around me (even though this makes me uncomfortable), but I don't know if I should bow my head, close my eyes, or say "Amen!". I feel like I shouldn't do any of those three things, since my understanding of them is that they are all indicative of respect for God and Jesus, and I can't respect something I don't believe in.

I do want to respect the people around me, however.

I also feel conspicuous and uncomfortable by not participating fully (although I feel far more uncomfortable just by being asked to participate).

How should I behave to be the most respectful of the people around me?

  • @Beofett Does your edit mean that you're after approaches that would keep your non-belief a secret? I'm not sure that's really very answerable, you'd need to give us a lot more information on exactly what kinds of actions you'd consider acceptable. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:08
  • @JarkoDubbeldam No, I do not know the prayers, and could not recite them even if I felt it appropriate.
    – Beofett
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:10
  • @curiousdannii I'm not ruling it out altogether, although it is certainly problematic if the suggested course of action is "tell them you're not religious ahead of time" when I won't know if there will be a prayer ahead of time. I might be comfortable saying, quietly, to the organizer, "I'm not religious", ahead of time (although in my experience this most often results in more questions about my beliefs), but I am not comfortable announcing it to the whole group, as they're linking hands.
    – Beofett
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:13
  • @Beofett Fair enough, that would be quite awkward for everyone. But then, they probably need the wake-up call to realise that assuming everyone is religious in a non-religious context is not a good thing to assume. But I come from a very secular society (Australia) where I don't think anyone would assume that, aside from religious family events. If you're from a society which was predominantly religious but is rapidly become non-religious then this kind of situation might happen much more often. I would have thought that happened decades ago in the US though! Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:17
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    @curiousdannii The US is far from homogeneous in secularization. There are many areas that are deeply Christian, and non-Christians are an... oddity, at best. I've been living in my area for a bit over a decade, and it is a drastic change from where I grew up.
    – Beofett
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:24

15 Answers 15


A few questions:

  1. Do these people know you are not a religious person?
  2. Have you ever told them how you feel about this whole ordeal?
  3. How far have you gone so far? Did you do the whole 9 yards? (hold hands, shut eyes, say Amen).

This is a very annoying situation to be in. I am an Indian and a Hindu. I am not a religious person, but if someone asked me what religion was I born into, I would say Hinduism.

I came to the US, married an American citizen. She wasn't a religious person either, but her grandparents were. She's from the south, so everyone is religious to an extent. Every thanksgiving meal, I stood there holding hands with eyes shut as her grandpa said grace. I always participated and said Amen in the end. Don't get me wrong, the grace was always beautiful. It was always about being thankful for real things. The first time I went to Thanksgiving (before we were married), he said he was thankful for all the people from all over the world being present in that house right then. I cried a bit!

Granted, you are not a religious person. I understand you feel like pretending to believe in their religion is disrespectful. But as far as I've seen, religious people, Christians in specific, appreciate anything that is not an insult to their belief. So I think participating in the prayer would not be offensive to them at all. Even if they know you're non-religious. They would appreciate it.

You could always just play along. But what about you feeling uncomfortable about doing it? Are you that uncomfortable that you cannot just stand there holding hands? If yes, honestly, I can only think of one thing. I'd tell them directly. I'd tell them that I wish not to participate and that I'm not a very religious person. If they're your regular Christians, they'd just say OK and proceed doing whatever they do every time. If they're extremely religious (you know, the kind that talks about God and Jesus every chance they get in a desperate attempt to convert you? No offense to anyone), you risk losing a group of friends.

Although, I'd suggest acting differently to friends and coworkers and family.

  1. Friends: Depending upon how close you are to them, be somewhere in between Subtle and brutally honest. If they are real close friends of yours, they'd not be completely offended by this. It is your belief after all.
  2. Coworkers: There is a level of professionalism expected of you. Of everyone. Religious acts with a group in a workplace is, in my opinion, not too professional. But depending upon where you live, it might be the norm. The company I work for is very religious. My boss is religious. No one talks about religion at work. That is where the line is drawn. So you can be direct and professional to them as well. Next time you're invited, tell them "Oh I am sorry, is it OK if I don't take part today?". They'll know why you say that. If they don't say the same thing tomorrow. They HAVE to get it at some point.
  3. Family: Suck it up! :) I'd not do ANYTHING to offend family. Mine or my wife's. For a religious family like that, there is a lot of emotions and sentiments in play. You don't want any of it getting hurt.

I hope this helps you.

  • Saying your are Hindu and not religious is contradicting. It is like saying I am Christian and not religious.
    – user5414
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 15:29
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    @A---B, Yes, it's a contradiction, but for many people it's the way they describe themselves and I think it's perfectly fine. I've even heard people say "I go to church, but I don't believe in god." Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 17:17
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    @A---B For some people, it is a cultural marker. For instance, I have a friend who describes himself as a Jewish atheist - he doesn't believe in God, but comes from a Jewish background and that is an important part of his identity.
    – Em C
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 3:42
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    I consider #3 a subset of #1 - I would be brutal and honest. By lying to family about some things you end up having to lie to them later about it; and they're the ones most likely to say "you had so much fun last time, you should come every week"
    – UKMonkey
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 8:36
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    +1 for tailoring your response. I am fairly often in church, playing music or attending weddings. I don't do the hand-waving or spell casting, I just sit there quietly. Since it's a Catholic area I can at least admire the decoration. And if someone asks, I have the three replies: No, I'm not Catholic; No, I don't do religion; Come on, you don't believe in talking snakes either. The important bit is keeping quiet and calm. When I was younger I would not have entered a church at all.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 12:47

I am a Christian. I pray in public places. But I know how you feel.

I live in roughly the same area as you do, but one can expect to be caught in this situation from time to time anywhere in the Bible Belt.

I was not a Christian when I moved here, and was caught in this nonsense just as you were, and felt not only uncomfortable, but put upon. (I'm not as nice as you are.)

You ask:

to what degree is it respectful for me to participate or not participate?

It is perfectly respectful not to participate. Just maintaining silence is polite and understanding. We understand (or should) that not everyone shares our beliefs.

You do not need to hold hands. (I did not.) If you're standing, just step back so the two on either side of you can fill in the gap and hold hands.

If you're seated, and you get a questioning glance from those on either side of you, just smile your most innocent smile and 1. point to your nose or throat implying you don't want them to get sick or 2. still smiling, just shake your head slightly "no", like you're politely refusing a nice cold beer when there's a conversation you don't want to interrupt verbally.

I don't know if I should bow my head, close my eyes, or say "Amen!"

No need to do any of those things. But I would say an enthusiastic amen! before I was a Christian because I was so relieved it was over.

How should I behave to be the most respectful of the people around me?

You already are being very respectful. You certainly can get away with a lot less and still not alienate everyone. But there's always someone in a crowd who'll take offense at nothing. How to handle that person is a different question.

Shortly after becoming a Christian, I went to Africa in a medical mission capacity. I was not a missionary, nor, really, a good ambassador for the faith. At a large gathering, I was asked to lead the group in prayer. I was too shocked and embarrassed to say anything! They all waited there holding hands while I panicked. Finally someone else took the lead and started to pray. No one mentioned it at all, nor was I treated any differently afterwards. I think they understood.

  • 6
    I'm Jewish in the Christian-dominated US, and even though I'm not deep in the bible belt I run into "of course you are; isn't everybody?" presumption quite a bit. As a Jew I am forbidden to participate in prayers to anybody other than our God, and that poses difficulties sometimes. Your advice to just step back if standing or silently shake your head to the people on either side if sitting is what I do. (If I can avoid being at the table I do that.) That works for me, and I find that nobody takes note of my failure to say "amen" (or any part of the prayer), either. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 22:37
  • Have you ever had a time when, after trying to bow out, the group signals to the effect of "all are welcome," indicating that the unity of the community is more important to them than the religious significance. I've never had it happen to myself, but it seems like something that could occur in times of great strife.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 23:40

If you're in particular invited to join a prayer session you wish to not join, you may stay away from it, no need to feel obliged. And if asked for a reason, be honest,

I'm not a Christian, but thank you for inviting.

Faking belief is not necessary, and in some cases could be offensive.

Here's my experience in India:

I'm not a Christian myself, but I'd attended a Christian friend's wedding in India. A part of the ceremony was some Christian prayer session I do not know about. I was one of the few non-Christians there. Instead of sticking out like a sore thumb, I conformed to their procedures because it didn't seem to bother me much.

During the priest(?)'s speech, he asked everyone to stand up, hold hands and face towards the right side. He recited some verses, I think. And everyone would follow it with Amen. I did most things to avoid being noticed, and said Amen assuming it's all good things being asked in the prayer.

So, later when I'd attend such weddings, I'd either follow with it or avoid that part by going outside the hall for some fresh air taking a couple of non-Christian friends with me long before the speech would start.

I'm sure nobody felt uncomfortable with us following their ceremony, and also that nobody was offended by us leaving the prayer session quietly.

I have a diverse group of friends, from all kinds of backgrounds. We attend every program of every friend ignoring all religious barriers. Not sure if everyone in India does it. I can still say that most of the Indians are like my friend group, multicultural.

I wait for some comments to know whether this is relatable to the US, though.

I for one find it nice being able to be a part of all kinds of religious events. We here celebrate Onam, Eid, Christmas, Diwali, and whatnot! As long as one does not enforce one's beliefs over others', it will be fine.

  • 3
    I've done the same kind of thing in the past. I think that it shows respect to join in and share the experience. I've never felt uncomfortable, instead, I've enjoyed the sense of calmness, love, and peace that comes with these events.
    – user1722
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 13:55
  • i think that's kind of the point of "amen" it's like a group affirmation everyone can take part of regardless of whether they understood or participated in what preceeded it Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 3:41

I'm not a Christian but I had to attend church when I didn't really want to and I had to participate in prayers like the ones you are describing because my boyfriend's parents were Catholics. This usually happened during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Your dilemma seems to be to either respect those around you who are religious or yourself who is not.

I want to be respectful, but to me, pretending to believe in their religion would be disrespectful. I feel like I shouldn't do any of those three things, since my understanding of them is that they are all indicative of respect for God and Jesus, and I can't respect something I don't believe in.

I do want to respect the people around me, however. How should I behave to be the most respectful of the people around me?

To answer your last question:

By participating in the prayer the way you have been, without thinking about it too much.

However, how strict are you about your non belief?

Nobody had forced me to participate when I did. All I did was hold hands and wait for it to finish. I didn't bow my head nor said anything. It didn't bother me though and you know why? Because I knew why I was doing it. I wasn't doing it because I believed in it, I was doing it out of respect to those around me who meant something to me. And whose feelings at the time I wouldn't want to hurt. It felt harmless to just hold hands and sit quiet for a minute. I felt I would be making it a bigger deal if I told them I won't be participating because it's against my beliefs or non beliefs. I had the option, I could have used it but I chose not to. And had I used it I would most likely have to deal with questioning, criticism, and a temporary feeling of alienation and isolation. Did I want to go through explaining why I won't be taking part? No. Could I have brought it up some other time? Possibly. I have done it with really close relatives.

My participation didn't affect me in any way afterwards. I felt good with myself again because I knew why I did it. To minimize damage. I still didn't believe. No harm done.


I don't like to discuss my beliefs, because I've seen [...] hostility, intolerance, and bigotry [...]


I also feel conspicuous and uncomfortable by not participating fully (although I feel far more uncomfortable just by being asked to participate).

Play Along

It may feel insincere, but playing along will prevent you feeling conspicuous and having to discuss your beliefs.

Yes, it may feel disrespectful, but respect goes both ways. If they do not respect you enough to respect your beliefs, I see no reason to show them the respect of not faking through their religious ceremony. Apparently, what they want (as shown by their actions, as described by you) is for everyone to just play along and go through the motions.

If this bothers you, think of it as playing along with Virginia who still believes in Santa Claus. If she gives you grief for not putting out milk and cookies for Santa, it's easier to just put them out, then to have an endless discussion about it.

Also, while you may feel you're not respecting their religion, remember that you are respecting their desire for a sense of community.

  • 3
    Strongly disagree. You are advising OP to fundamentally lie, showing complete disrespect and disregard for the true value of everyone’s belief or lack thereof. You cannot engage in any act of devotion, when not devoted, without being false to yourself and all those who view it. Santa Claus is a social construct, not deity.
    – Dúthomhas
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 20:02
  • 3
    @Dúthomhas yes, but I'm advising the OP to lie given the circumstances as desribed. From Beofett's description, it seems clear to me that the "penalty" for declining to join is far greater than he penalty for just pretending. So I'm advising them that in this case, it may be the best option to just pretend and be at peace with that.
    – SQB
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 20:18

I'm a Christian. Most of my community are consist of Moslem.

In my other community, there majority were Christians, with few Moslems there.

One thing I've noticed is both respect each other religion. Whenever they are the minority, and some sort of prayer is happening, they just stay silent. That's as respectful as you can.

However, in Indonesia people start to lead prayer with the statement

Let's pray according to our religion and belief (10 sec silence)

so that no one feel left out.

tl;dr : Don't worry. Staying silent throughout the prayer itself is enough respect. You don't even need to close your eyes. If you're religious, you can pray silently according to your religion. If you're not religious, just stay silent.

  • 4
    "so that no one feel left out." Well, except people who believe that prayer is ineffective or harmful. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 21:15
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    Sure. I just disagree with your claim that a person will feel included when directed to do something they believe is harmful. Christians, for example, believe that praising Satan is harmful. Would a Christian feel included if someone said, "Let us all praise Satan."? Sure, a Christian wouldn't participate and perhaps would respect others doing their religious belief. But surely it's a bit outrageous to claim they would feel included. Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 0:34
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    @Mrkvička It's interesting that when it's something that offends your beliefs it's clearly something nobody would ever say, but when it's something that offends other people's beliefs, you think it shouldn't cause them to feel left out. Do you think it's impossible for there to be people who feel as left out by an invitation to pray as you do about an invitation to praise Satan? Or do you think even if there are such people, they shouldn't feel left out by an invitation to pray? I see no attempt to include people who believe prayer is evil, and they would in fact feel left out. Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 23:06
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    @Mrkvička For the record, I am someone who believes that prayer is harmful. I do in fact feel left out by invitations to prayer. I do not believe that I am unique in this regard. Prayer seems to me to be an excuse that lets people feel like they're helping others or caring about them without actually doing anything that helps or inconveniencing themselves in any way. It's often a cheap excuse to feel like you're doing good without actually doing any. And, again, I do in fact feel left out (and sometimes even offended) by group invitations to prayer. Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 23:09
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    From the descriptions as given by the OP, I don't get the impression they're invited to "pray according to their beliefs", but rather to "pray to our god in our way." So @DavidSchwartz' example with another deity substituted in, is quite apt.
    – SQB
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 17:07

To answer the question: How do I respectfully decline?

Spin it to their understanding, and don’t participate. Sitting in a chapel while everyone is standing up and sitting down and holding hands, etc? Just sit. Everyone wants to pray? Do nothing. (It would be respectful to cross your hands in your lap or in front of you and continue to sit or stand silently.)

In the vast majority of cases you should be able to remain without drawing too much attention or being disrespectful. Most people can accept that, even if they don’t like it. In those cases where you think it would be disruptive, excuse yourself to go stand to the side/in the back/outside.

For the spin, think of ways to explain it such that you express respectful understanding and deliberate refusal:

"I am happy for the bride/groom/couple/my friends, but I don’t feel comfortable engaging in this kind of activity when I don’t know if I believe."


"I don’t wish to stand apart, but I feel pretty strongly about not being false by participating. I am still here because I love my friends and wish to support them."

For the concern about angry/agitated responses, remember, spin it to their understanding.

"I’m sorry, but I don’t want to offend God by acting as if I believe."


"Sorry, I guess I still don’t know if I can believe. You’ll have to give me some time."

These responses make it clear that

  1. Your belief is part of the issue
  2. You aren’t trying to be disrespectful
  3. You care about your friends
  4. Now isn’t the best time to try to convince you

That last point might need some reiteration if people press you.

"I’m sorry, but I’m really uncomfortable with [your] religion right now. I guess I just need a lot of time to think it over. Thank you for caring, though."

or even

"I'm sure God has a plan for me. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out."

These are just suggestions. Think about how you want to phrase them so that they play to others’ understandings without compromising your own.

  • 2
    If the event is in a chapel/church/etc, you can prevent some problems with careful seat selection. Sitting on an end (not the center aisle but the far one) can help with the "everybody take hands" thing. Sitting near the back makes it less obvious that you're not standing/kneeling/bowing with everybody else. If it's pews and not individual seats, placing something next to you on the people-ward side creates a bit of a buffer if there's enough seating to go around. Since you're talking about chapels, consider adding in something about body language/placement like this. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 22:47

People who are serious about their religion are serious about their religious activities. I'm not aware of any religion which would consider faking religious interest or devotion to be a virtue. If you're being invited to participate in some religious activity then that normally indicates they think or assume you do share their religious persuasions. If that's not the case then there shouldn't be any harm at all in simply saying "Sorry, I'm not religious" or "Sorry, I don't believe in prayer" or something else along those lines.

  • 1
    The Christians I've seen so far have not been like that. They won't invite you to church, because that is something they don't like. A non-believer coming to their family church. But if you just hold hands and join them for a small prayer session, they don't think anything of it. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:03
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    @CrazyCucumber There are 2.4 billion Christians. I can't account for all of them :) Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:04

As an atheist in a predominantly Christian family I have quite a bit of experience in this department. At family gathering there are often prayers before meals that are just like those that you describe, they all hold hands in a circle, bow their heads, one person prays aloud, then they all say Amen at the end.

My approach has been to only do the first of those, and quietly not do the rest. For me I don't mind holding hands in the circle as it is a sign to me of unity as a family, which I do believe in. However, I don't want to bow my head, close my eyes, or say Amen since to me that would indicate respect for and belief in god, which I do not have. If you aren't comfortable even holding hands, that is totally fine, just excuse yourself by being honest, something like "Thanks for the invitation, but I don't feel comfortable joining you in prayer". You might get odd looks, but unless they are exceptionally rude they should understand and move on.

They all know that I am an atheist, I have told them so and discussed it with many of them directly, and while there has been some push-back I have received a lot more respect and understanding than I expected. I can't say the same will be true for you, but it is worth considering.


There can be instances where you know there will be a communal prayer, but it is not possible/acceptable to decline an invitation. An example for this would be a funeral or wedding.

I generally try to copy what everybody else is doing. Without knowing the text of the prayer or having any connection with it, you could just stay silent and reflect on the reason of the prayer.

Depending on the amount of people present, you might get noticed not participating. Unless you get addressed about this, I wouldn't draw attention to it. Just try to be as non-disruptive as possible. If they do call you out on it, you can respond with "I am not religious, but..." and change the subject to the reason of the prayer, rather than the religious part of it.


I have a little experience with this. I think there is one major key factor.

Do the groups this happen in know your preference on the matter? e.g. do they realize you are a non-believer in their Christianity?

If they are not aware that you are culturally removed from this ritual, then I'm certain they don't mean anything bad by inviting you to participate. If you would like them to remain unaware of how removed you are from this, then my insight to offer ends here. You'll have to decide for yourself how much you want to blend in.

To speak from my own experience, I was a closet non-believer for 6 months before finding my footing enough to let my family know. For the period I desired to remain closeted, I would participate in prayers, but only in the most token effort. After gaining confidence in my beliefs and non-beliefs at the time and finally letting the truth be open to my loved ones, things changed. They still invite me to participate in prayers and such, but with my stance clearly communicated to them, I have clear boundaries and lines. Politeness is obviously key. Politely decline participation when you do not want to participate, but if they pressure you more, then stay politely assertive that this is not something you will participate in. You do not owe anyone an explanation, you can say it is for personal reasons. If you keep the interaction friendly, light hearted, and polite enough, yet assertive enough, most people will let you go. That plus showing respect for the rights of others to participate as they see fit, usually everyone comes out happy. As time goes on, it just becomes normal to everyone that you do not participate in these seconds or minutes of ritual. It will become normal, be easier to hold your lines, and it will be less awkward over time as people adjust. Confidence is a huge (read: mega-huge) non-verbal signal in social interaction. Just be confident in whether you want to participate or not, but also make it easy on yourself and others.


but I don't know if I should bow my head,

This is meant to show respect, symbolically indicating bowing to God. If you don't see a reason to show such respect to God, then I don't see why you should so bow.

That being said, I don't recommend raising your nose (without also looking upward towards Heaven), or any other sort of disrespectful action, if your goal is not to communicate disrespect.

close my eyes,

As far as I've been able to determine, this is really more an issue of tradition than a religiously backed stance. In John 11:41, the text mentioned that "Jesus lifted up his eyes" before praying (just before a miracle). Also, John 17 verse one starts out describe "Jesus" ... "lifting up his eyes to heaven", praying.

or say "Amen!"

Please don't. The word "Amen" is not fully understood by most people who say it. (They think it is just meant for something indicating the close of a prayer, perhaps like "Good bye" to God.) However, the word is sometimes called out during a church service, indicating agreement.

I've been taught the word means "I agree". Based on usage, I think some other phrasings may also make sense, like "Agreed", or "That's truth". It is an affirmative word.

So, if you don't agree with "God, we thank you...", then it would be better not to say such a word, as the common consensus would be that such lying/dishonest speech would be violating one of the Ten Commandments.

These aren't events where I'd normally expect a religious component; we're typically at someone's house having dinner, and not in a church, or at a wedding or other ceremony.

It is good to see people treating religion seriously, rather than just trying to limit its impact to only affect one day a week (when church is held). I'm not quite sure why you would expect religious people to not have religion be a part of their home.

Many people have been brought up with "saying grace", referring to praying before eating. I suspect that may be based on the religious text of Daniel 6:10 referring to praying three times a day, and that many people have 3 meals a day.

This sounds pretty normal. By that, I'm simply saying that I believe a lot of people do that.

I generally hold hands with the people around me (even though this makes me uncomfortable)

I've experienced this. I believe this is more about causing a feeling of unity among the participants, and is not a practice that has any specific heavily religious meaning.

I also feel conspicuous and uncomfortable by not participating fully (although I feel far more uncomfortable just by being asked to participate).

Somehow, my mother ended up not teaching me some simple childhood prayers that were known by children from multiple other households from her side of the family. They would be recited by people whose eyes were wide open, so they realized I wasn't saying the words. I never did spend quite enough time with them to completely learn those words. I simply observed without participating in the speech, which I was really unable to do. As far as I know, nobody ever expressed/demonstrated/showed any judgment against my behavior.

I do want to respect the people around me, however.

How should I behave to be the most respectful of the people around me?

There isn't just one universal answer that will definitely work in all circumstances, as some people will have different expectations. Whatever I tell you may run the risk of one of your family members taking offense to whatever you decide.

Of course, the approach that would generally be preferred by the religious people is to join 'em. (That is, to become a believer.)

If that's not going to happen, then I think that simply avoiding religious activities (like praying) can be quite sensible. For instance, if you walk into a room after you hear the group "Amen", that doesn't seem overly disrespectful, in my opinion.

If you decide to join the group, such as sitting around the table (perhaps simply because that is logistically most sensible as you participate in a family event), then you would show people plenty of respect by simply staying quiet, allowing the speaker(s) to speak their prayer, and allowing all others to listen. Naturally, this includes not making silly faces for youngsters, or riling them up in some way to create a disturbance. Silencing your cell phone is also a great idea.

If it helps, just think of the national anthem at a sporting event, or watching multiple uniformed professionals synchronously shoot guns at a college graduation (yes, I've seen this) or a funeral. Simply watching, and not being disruptive for anyone who is wishing to have this be a moving time, is sufficient respect.

As discussed in this question, I am fine with being politely silent and still during the prayer.


What that question doesn't cover, however, is to what degree is it respectful for me to participate or not participate?

Take comfort in realizing that you're showing the most respect that can be reasonably expected from someone who doesn't fully embrace the beliefs behind the activity.


I stand, hold hands, look up and stay silent. I have had people ask why I didn’t participate, but mostly they have their eyes closed and don’t notice. I only tell people if asked directly. It has caused discrimination before. I live in the south and it IS an issue here.

I also always say thank you when someone offers to pray for me. They are taking time to do something they think is helpful. If I believe or not is not the issue at that point.


It sounds like I'm from a completely different part of the US from you, so this might not be super helpful. Most of the people where I am who are religious just want to be allowed to practice their faith publicly in some capacity, and at least from all the people I've met, have no desire to make others feel uncomfortable or like they have to join in. I don't think people would mind if you told them you wanted to sit out or if you just excused yourself for a few moments and went back to the room, or wherever once they were done. If you feel comfortable being in the same room, once again I don't think anyone would have a problem with your not 'participating', meaning you should feel free to not bow your head/close your eyes/say amen. I recognize that there are religious people who are more totalitarian leaning(as there are people like this in all groups) and if you encounter someone who is confrontational if you choose not to participate, or starts to ask you multiple questions about your faith(or lack of) that you don't want to participate in, its completely appropriate to say that you don't feel comfortable discussing that, and then change the subject or walk away. I think most people would recognize that the freedom that allows them to publicly display their faith exempts you from having to participate in it. Purely out of curiosity can I ask what region of the US you are in? I only ask because like I said, I haven't experienced this myself but this is most likely attributable to regional differences as PEW says approximately 70% of Americans identify as Christians.


Going to 1-2 church occasions is a formative experience, it may be fun to do if they sing and dance and the energy or the debate is good, which is exceptionally possible, you don't have to be Christian to go there.

To avoid it:

  • "I am not christened, I am an Atheist"
  • "I am a Quaker/ Buddhist/ other"
  • "Thanks very much, I like to study and do art-work"
  • "Thanks very much I pray in my own time every evening, i dont personally, go to church"
  • "No thanks, enjoy your prayer"
  • "No thanks, Really, enjoy yourselves" "No I am watching ... on TV later " "No thanks, I am going this way now" change place...
  • "No thanks, have you seen the weather forecast for tomorrow?"
  • "No thanks, that's a nice shirt, where did you buy it?"
  • "No thanks, God is very wonderful, for me he helps me especially for moral guidance" bye now...
  • Almost all of those suggested excuses to avoid it are either lies, obvious changes in topic, or would come off as very rude to most people. Also we don't know whether the OP has been to church before, and even if they haven't we know that they aren't interested in doing so. It would lead to a bunch of situations just like the one they are trying to avoid where people are praying, worshiping, etc. which would only make their problems worse
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 17:28
  • You have a negative mindset. Rudeness is a state of mind and a manner. none of the phrases are lies, in fact they are all polite and true. It's rude to insist on an invitation which is politely sidestepped. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 17:39
  • An atheist who says "God is very wonderful" is lying. An atheist who says "I am a Quaker/Buddhist/other" is lying. An atheist who says "Thanks very much I pray in my own time every evening" is lying. So for the OP many of these are lies. They may not be for you, but they are for the OP. Also, abruptly changing the topic after an invitation to talk about the weather, their shirt, TV, etc. is an obvious dodge and many people will consider it rude
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 17:55
  • If someone wants ti discuss father cristmas with me, diplomacy is warranted, not litterality. You are a rude and negative person, you sound like a dravidian baptist preacher. If the OP is as negative and rude as you, they should change churches.. Meditation is prayer in another religion and it doesnt require small minded people lying and claiming they have heartbleed , reading scripture even if its anthropogenic, is querying god. Cosmologists worship maths as a religion. You sound very small minded and negative about spirituality. Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 1:53
  • It sounds naive and childish, to see creationism and christianity and worship and stories as a context for "lies", using the same vocabulary as a thief of ideas: how rediculous and literal that mindset is. Athiests are not all confrontational religion berators like Richard Dawkins: people who are intelligent don't live in a black and white world of lies and truths straight off the bat, and give more weight to context. lies is a favorite word of scion-baptist rapture preachers, not conversationally worthy adults. Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 2:11

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