The Ethical Dilemma: Can an Atheist Pay Respect to the Religious?

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Paying Respects: I was raised a Protestant Christian in my youth and my family were consistent Christians (grandfather was a minister), although not flaming evangelicals. My wife was raised a Buddhist and still is respectful of her family who are predominantly Buddhists.

I have subscribed to the merits of atheism over the last 10 years. I am not ashamed of my beliefs, but do not try to persuade others unless asked. I am aware of other Christians who refuse to personally participate in certain ceremonies of any alternative religion–such as paying homage to an altar, praying with others, or providing incense. This usually occurs at funerals, weddings, and other important religious events.

My feeling is that participation in any religious rite, whether Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Islam, or Baha’i, is more about paying respects to important people in your life rather than consenting or subscribing to their religious ceremonies. Hence, I willingly go along and expect others of my family to provide condolences and friendship in the same context.

Please provide your views on what is the preferred public conduct of atheists and humanists in these public situations.

–Do Unto Others

Dear Do,
Sorry, but no one is entitled to prescribe appropriate behavior for others when it comes to participating in rites for religions they don’t endorse.

Although lots of people are fine with going with the flow, whatever it is, and some (especially politicians running for office) enjoy publicly participating in other people’s rituals, many can’t or won’t submerge their own views to exhibit those of others, even for an hour. They may consider it their duty to express their own beliefs or lack thereof, and feel it would be hypocritical to fake a faith. Neither attitude is right or wrong, just personal preference.

And although it may seem lovely to put aside one’s ideology as a gesture of solidarity, the question is: who should be doing what for whom? Should your friend invite you to ignore your own worldview and pay respect to his, or should he respect yours by not asking you to do that? It’s particularly irritating when others assume that since atheists and humanists don’t have a faith of their own, they should join hands with those who do.

While in many synagogues, men (and in some cases, women) are expected to wear head coverings, non-Jews may feel uncomfortable doing that; and while some places let it slide, in others the choice is don the beanie or don’t come in. Similarly, many non-Christians balk at bowing in the name of Jesus Christ. Praying to an altar is something many believers and non-believers may not be able to do in good conscience (or with a straight face).

In such cases, guests may skip the rites and join the reception, with the host’s “blessing.” But if the host insists on ritual participation, the guest can either go along or not go at all. I don’t get why anyone would want, let alone require, others to go through the motions of beliefs they don’t share. That’s more of an imposition than being the one who refuses to do so, since the former requires one person to co-opt his views, while the latter simply opts out.

It’s their party and they can pray if they want to. The only blanket rule is to recognize that everyone is entitled to pursue their views as they see fit, to show “respect” by acknowledging and accommodating each other’s perspectives, and to do so without making a stink that sours the relationship.