The Humanist Dilemma: What Do You Do When Someone Asks to Launch Lunch with Prayer?

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Mind If I Pray? I know someone who, when she attends luncheons (both business and social), always announces she is a Christian and then asks people around her, “Would you be offended if I pray before the meal?” Often, she gets the attention of the entire group, and invariably they allow her to say grace without protest, regardless of whether they’re okay with that. I think everyone is caught off guard and doesn’t know what to say or do. But I keep running into her and want to be ready for the next round.

What’s a good response to that question if, indeed, one does mind? I find it cringe-worthy, and I would like her to stop it.

—Mind If I Gag?

Dear Gag,

As someone who has been in circles where my hands were grasped by people around me bowing their heads and thanking Jesus for the meal we were about to consume, I know how awkward and infuriating it can feel, even if it’s just a few fleeting moments. I also know I’m not the only one whose head is unbowed and whose eyes are open, making contact with others that are winking or rolling.

If the person is the host, and it’s a private event, I suppose they are entitled to their prayer—and you are entitled to excuse yourself until it’s over. Some people never begin a meal without a prayer, which can be a deeply personal conviction, a habit, or in other cases a calculated display. Regardless, if it’s a secular function and the person asking to pray isn’t hosting, you are entitled to say yes, you do mind. If that simple response isn’t sufficient to nip the blessing in the bud, you could elaborate that because the gathering is neither Christian nor religious, a public or group prayer would be inappropriate and unwelcome.

It might also be possible to alert the organizers of the event in advance that this request is likely to be made, and perhaps they can advise this person to do her praying beforehand or silently. I’ve been seated next to people who discretely bob and whisper over a tiny prayer book, with no one else noticing, and I respect that they are doing their thing without inflicting it on anyone else or drawing attention to themselves. I’ve also been to secular events that began with Christian invocations, and afterwards I’ve informed the organizers that it’s offensive to the many people in attendance who are not Christian (but who may be donors). Since then, I’ve noticed that the prayers have become brief and non-denominational, when I haven’t managed to absent myself from the room until they’re over.

Perhaps the most powerful response would be to pre-empt this woman by answering her request with a recitation of Matthew 6:5-8:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men…But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray…in the secret place…And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them…”

It should be tough to follow that with a public display of piety.