The Ethical Dilemma: Dear Lord, Don

Joan Reisman-Brill answers your ethical questions on how to handle Christian prayers before meals and what to do with excess Social Security money (hint: keep it).  

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Dear Lord, Don’t Bless This Meal: We have very beloved friends whose entire family gets along with our entire family despite our religious differences: They are fundamentalists who homeschool their children and ban TV and other outside influences, while we are about as opposite as can be (humanist/Jewish). We often have dinner together. Whether we’re at their home, they’re at ours, or we’re in a restaurant, the father always says grace before eating, instructing everyone to bow their heads, hold hands and thank “Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Although our family doesn’t bow our heads or say anything, I feel uncomfortable going along with this ritual. But I don’t want to alienate these people, because aside from this, they are wonderful friends and we’d hate to lose their companionship. And my wife and kids couldn’t care less about the brief ritual.

—Losing My Appetite

Dear Losing,

You are already handling this optimally. Since your friends are aware you don’t share their beliefs, unless they have willfully forgotten or just can’t believe it, they are making a conscious choice to impose prayer in your presence. While it is a bit boorish and you would certainly be within your rights to be offended and object, it probably has nothing to do with trying to convert you (and even if that is their agenda, it doesn’t seem much of a threat). More likely it’s an effort to maintain their ritual for the benefit of their children, whose education they are clearly determined to control as much as humanly possible.

I suggest you explain this to your own children, so they can appreciate observing their friends’ way of life in contrast with their own. Consider it a compliment that your friends choose to expose their family to yours, despite your differences. They must see redeeming value in all of you that allows them to overlook the fact that you don’t share their views, and they are even willing to risk your seductive influence (“But Daddy, our friends are good without god—and they even get to watch a hilarious show called South Park!”).

If you really prefer to put a stop to it, take the father aside and request he skip grace in your home because, as you’re sure he can understand, it runs counter to your family’s practices (but don’t even think of telling him what to do in his home, and let him decide whether to continue blessings in Fuddruckers). Tell him it’s fine for you or him to say a few secular words to welcome everyone before chowing down.

The worst thing would be to make a big stink about prayer at the table in front of everyone. That would not only sour the relationship for all, it would reinforce your friends’ resolve to avoid all contact with influences outside their religion, leaving their children even more barricaded from the wider world.

If in fact they do have a secret agenda for their beliefs to rub off on you (admit it, you wish they’d drop their holy business and follow your example), just cherish all the aspects of their company you do enjoy and keep on getting through grace gracefully. Friends are precious, and none are perfect.

Social Security Benevolence: I’m about to reach the age where I can start receiving Social Security benefits. I’m very fortunate that I don’t need the money. As a humanist committed to doing the right thing, I’m wondering whether it would be ethical for me to collect, or if I should leave the money so it will be there for others who really do need it, especially since I hear the funds will run out one of these days.

—What Would Warren Buffet Do?

Dear Warren,

Humanists ask the nicest questions! Of course you should consult your financial advisor regarding your particulars such as tax implications, estate planning and timing (e.g., the sooner you start collecting, the lower the rate and potential total you collect, if you live long enough to collect it all). And I’m not sure if anyone knows for sure if the sky is really falling on Social Security.

But here’s my take on take-it-or-leave-it: Take it. Social Security benefits are called entitlements. You are entitled to them. They come from hard-earned money you paid in while you were working, which the government has been babysitting to make sure you’d have some savings for your golden years. Even though that’s not an issue for you at the moment, there’s nothing unethical about claiming what’s yours.

Even though you’re in good financial shape today, anything could happen tomorrow—your investments could crash, your car could crash, your immune system could crash, a meteor could crash on your house. So even if your nest egg seems ample, you can’t be sure you won’t one day find your SS benefits beneficial. And since you’re a humanist, you won’t just sit there and say, “God will provide.” Being selfless is great, but being responsible for #1 comes first.

Then there’s the question of who would do a better job of distributing your money, you or the Social Security Administration? The SSA will just dole it out to whoever qualifies, including people who need it even less than you do and aren’t as generous as you are. And I’ve heard rumors that there’s a bit of waste and inefficiency in government programs. So maybe the funds could be put to better use if you took charge of them, rather than letting them ride with the SSA. You could save the loot for a rainy day, use it for some nice trips, share it with friends and family, or commit it to causes you care about. You could unload it as it comes in, keep it in the bank while you wait for inspiration about what to do with it, or pass it on via specific instructions in your will when you pass on (when you can be absolutely sure you won’t ever need that money yourself).

As for what Warren Buffet would do: I suspect he has collected every penny of Social Security coming to him and turned it over (along with some other loose change he had lying around) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he trusts to yield the best bang for the bucks.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.