The Ethical Dilemma: My Religious Brother Leads My Family of Atheists in Prayer. Isn’t This Wrong?

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Faking Faith: I’ve been an “out” atheist for about 20 years and came out as queer about five years ago. Most of my family members are nonbelievers or also part of the LGBTQ community. However, my brother is a religious youth leader.

With those things in mind, I have a question regarding participating in religious rituals at family gatherings. My brother always leads the family in prayer at family gatherings. He is really the only true believer in the family, but everyone participates in his prayers, joining hands and bowing their heads. The problem is, this is a lie—one that my brother is not only participating in but encouraging. If he is a true believer, why would he want his family members to commit the “sin” of lying about their (non) faith?

I am in no way bothered by the “sin” aspect. I am bothered that the entire family must engage in this charade to appease my brother’s religious delusions. I don’t understand why religion is privileged despite the ever mounting evidence of its destructive potential. But those things aside, how can a religious person feel comfortable asking others to lie about their faith? Why not quietly pray to oneself instead of the whole family to participate in a lie on his behalf? Isn’t he guilty of sin by encouraging us to lie about our (non) belief?

—Compelled Speech

Dear Compelled,

Have you ever asked your brother and family members the questions you raise here? Unless there’s some back story you’re leaving out (for instance, your brother would have a total breakdown if the family didn’t play along), I can’t guess why so many nonbelievers would allow themselves to bow to one believer. Maybe it’s not as important to them as it is to you.

On the other hand, I’ve been with groups who feel we all have to go to a meatless restaurant because one person is vegan, or that entire home-cooked meals have to be gluten- and lactose-free because there’s one guest with each of those sensitivities. I don’t see why those individuals can’t simply select the foods that suit them and pass on the ones that don’t, while the rest of us could exercise our freedom to enjoy more options. While not exactly equivalent, perhaps a similar form of well-meaning but misguided accommodation is operative with your brother’s prayer compulsion.

You can’t really fault your brother. If religious leaders asked that only true believers bow their heads, there’d be an awful lot of upright faces looking around at each other in every congregation, and who knows where that might lead? Perhaps out the door. And when people routinely go through the motions of believing something, they may forget that they are just pretending and make it a habit. So your brother is fulfilling his role as a religious leader the way he was trained, using techniques that are tried and true (even if they require people to be false).

But what about you? Why not excuse yourself when it’s time to join hands and return when it’s over? Or why not keep your head up and eyes open next time you’re called to worship, and see if anyone else is looking back at you, or just rolling their eyes? Or why not assume the role of non-religious leader and see what happens? Maybe everyone else is just praying for someone to point out that your brother the emperor has no clothes. If there are young children among you (particularly if they are not your brother’s), it’s a sin of omission to just let this practice continue as though everyone’s on board.

If, however, you feel that doing or saying anything that rocks the holy boat would cause family friction and bad feelings that aren’t worth stirring up, then you just need to make peace with the charade. Every family has its quirks and foibles. In the grand scheme of things, this one is relatively benign.