The Ethical Dilemma: Questions on Praying Atheists and Is Murder Ever Justified?

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of the New York Times “The Ethicist” or Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at All inquiries are kept confidential.


Stay Away or Pray: I have been invited by distant relatives to a wedding in the city where we were all born and raised. I was a very active, highly-visible churchgoer and worship leader, like my still-churchgoing relatives. Today, years later, none of them is aware that I am now an atheist. I am sure that if I go, at some point I will be asked to say grace over a meal. I could agree and, to not make waves, just mumble a prayer. I am, however, most uncomfortable with doing this and feel it would be wrong to leave my relatives with the impression I am still religious. I were to tell them I cannot, in good conscience, say a prayer because I am now a non-believer, it would send immediate shock waves through my family and perhaps even deeply sadden them at this happy time. Should I just decline the wedding invitation? If I decide to attend, what should I do if I am asked to say a prayer?

–Praying for No Prayers

Dear Praying,

It sounds as though you’d really like to attend this wedding, so you should definitely go. Don’t let what seems like a big thing to you, but may actually be a little thing to others, stand in the way of this opportunity to spend quality time with your extended family. And you shouldn’t feel as if there’s anything wrong with you not wanting to lead a prayer. Just decide how to prepare for the anticipated call to worship.

One option is to contact beforehand one of the relatives directly involved in arranging the event (such as whoever sent the invitation), strike up a catch-up conversation, and mention in the course of it that since you no longer participate in religious activities, you will not be available to lead any prayers. That way the family can get over any disappointment before the big day, and the cat will be out of the bag so you won’t have to worry about springing it in the middle of everything.

Another possibility is for you to prepare a short and sweet secular speech to deliver in lieu of a prayer, focusing on how wonderful it is to be together on this occasion. The advantage of this one is that it gently but publicly informs your relatives of your evolution while demonstrating that you are still a good person, still a member of the family, and perfectly fine in your secular life.

You could do a combination of the two, with advanced notice that you are no longer a church-goer along with the offer to say a few words instead of a traditional prayer, and then let the hosts decide whether they prefer you to lead or lay low.

I’d be very surprised if many of your relatives would feel severely pained by your change of heart and mind, since they haven’t been in touch with you for years. I would not be surprised, however, if some or all of them are already aware of your atheism—surely someone in your family is close enough to you to know about it and close enough to them to have spread the word. So, since you are invited, they have probably come to terms with your choice, really don’t care, or are cool with it (and perhaps think you are pretty cool too). Imagine how silly you’d feel if you stumbled your way through a prayer and then a family member asked, “Why would you, an atheist, say a prayer?” So be proud of who you’ve become and expect your family to be glad to see you—the real you.

Can Murder Be Good?: Recently you mentioned how it would be nice if those who commit murder/suicide would just confine themselves to suicide. But what about the recent case of the girl in India who committed suicide after she was raped by two men when the police, rather than arresting the men, advised her to marry one of them? Wouldn’t it have been better all around, and certainly as a message to other women and other would-be rapists, if she had murdered one or both of those men before killing herself? She had nothing to lose, but justice to gain.

—One or Two for the Road

Dear One or Two,

It’s certainly a tempting thought. But is “an eye for an eye” really the kind of justice we want in our world? In a culture where it seems men can rape and otherwise violate women with impunity, the idea of taking down a couple of the perps can be very appealing. It would very likely give other potential rapists second thoughts, and it might encourage women to be more pro-active in fighting attackers. That tragic young woman would become more than the ultimate victim—she would also become a formidable heroine in the campaign against sexual abuse of women.

But the problem is that such a reaction would escalate the overall level of violence, fear and lawlessness. If rapists began to anticipate reprisal from their victims, they would be more apt to kill or incapacitate them. If the girl had succeeded in killing one or both of her assailants, their survivors might go after members of her family, and then members of her family might retaliate in turn. Perhaps women would carry weapons and deal the first, maybe lethal, blow when they merely suspected someone was about to attack. Picture “stand your ground” pre-emptive strikes where any wayward glance, innocent or not, could trigger a trigger.

As much as many of us may crave revenge in cases like this, the problem of unfettered rape needs to be addressed by other means, such as increased police and judicial action against the attackers, protection and support for the victims, and attitude changes in societies that look the other way with rapists while heaping blame and shame on innocent females. Let’s hope the protests in India, amplified by voices around the world, ultimately bring about desperately needed change.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City. 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.