7 Tips for Atheists at Thanksgiving Dinner

Should atheists come out to their religious family at the Thanksgiving dinner?

October was a good trick-or-treat month to wear masks and pretend to be someone else. The organization Openly Secular is encouraging atheists in November to remove their masks and reveal who they really are. But holiday gatherings can be filled with tension for atheists in religious families as they weigh staying in the closet or coming out as the “black sheep” atheist.

Here are my tips as you look ahead to Thanksgiving dinner, with the disclaimer that you know your family better than I do, so tread carefully.

1. Don’t come out as an atheist during the Thanksgiving meal.

The blessing may seem like an appropriate occasion for you to drop the news, but family gatherings usually have enough potential friction. It’s best to maximize the happiness of the occasion — or at least minimize the unhappiness. When you come out, try to begin with close and/or tolerant families members who are likely to be supportive. They might later become an advocate or mediator between you and less flexible family members.

2. Be yourself at the Thanksgiving meal.

For instance, you need not bow your head for the blessing. Anyone who notices likely isn’t bowing either, so you might connect with other atheists. (New friendships for me have sometimes begun with eye contact and a knowing smile during public invocations and benedictions.) If someone comments about your unbowed head, then you have an opportunity to engage in a discussion — preferably after dinner.

3. Sit respectfully while others at the table give thanks to God.

If asked why you are not praying, you can mention that you are thankful we have freedom of religion in this country and the right to worship or not worship as we see fit. Families thrive and become closer when they respect different points of view, including religious diversity.

4. If you’re asked to say the blessing, do it.

Most atheists may respectfully decline, but I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to give thanks — to the farmers who grew the food, the migrant workers who harvested them, the truck drivers who brought the food, the grocery store employees who displayed it, and the family and friends who helped prepare it. No need to mention any gods. (When invited to say some version of “grace” in a gathering of atheists and liberal religionists, I sometimes quote Bart Simpson: “Dear God. We paid for this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”)

5. Turn the blessing into a family affair.

A friend once led the blessing by asking family members to share something for which they were thankful. It started with jokes and then became quite touching until the most religious person thanked God for everything, but did not thank his wife, children, or friends. My friend learned about participants based on whom they thanked, and for what

6. Keep this Bible verse ready.

1 Corinthians 13:11 says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away those childish things.” You might get ready to share with your family what that verse means for you, but be circumspect about suggesting that they also put away their childish biblical stories.

7. If you’re not ready to come out, don’t do it.

I was outed to my family quite by accident in 1990, at age 48, when I became a candidate for governor of South Carolina in order to challenge the provision in the State Constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office. The Associated Press picked up the story and the next day I got a call from a very distressed woman in Philadelphia — my mother.

I had to acknowledge that the Philadelphia Inquirer was not the best way for my mother to find out that her only child was a candidate for governor — and an atheist! I never expected all that publicity, so I thought I could spare her such heartache. As it turned out, my mother didn’t much mind my being an atheist, but she worried about how this revelation would damage my reputation.

In any event, have a happy and interesting Thanksgiving. But don’t fight.

Herb Silverman
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  • Jackie Krentzman

    Well said, Herb. Your advice on paying close attention to the timing and the process of becoming open about your belief system to loved ones is wise. You don’t want to embarrass your religious parents in front of 30 relatives! Becoming open is a process that can take time and many one-on-one conversations.

  • RichardSRussell

    About the stage of the dinner where it looks like somebody is going to suggest saying grace, I bellow “Good bread, good meat, good god, let’s eat!” and start digging in. It usually sets the proper tone.

  • Amy

    This is excellent guidance for atheists who are in the closet as well as those who are out of the closet. Holidays are a time of celebration with family and the focus should be on what brings us together, not what separates us. Herb has given good advice for achieving harmony through balancing being one’s identity and beliefs without compromising one’s values. I would be very careful about point 6, though. Insinuating in any way that another family member’s beliefs are childish may lead to a memorable family gathering, but not a fondly remembered one.

  • Louis Altman

    I am thankful for people like Herb Silverman, who live a life based on reason but respect those who do not.

    • Ed Buckner

      I second Louis’s emotion. –Ed B.

  • anamericanundernogods

    I like all the seven steps. But for the step 6 I would say:
    “When I was a child, I was told what to think.
    When I became a man, I did think the way I was told to think.
    Oh dear, when am I ever going to think rationally and independently?”

  • supup

    Thank you, Herb! Great tips.

  • Han

    While I agree that this maybe one of many ways to approach breaking the new to a strongly religious family with minimal impact, I would say this does not really fit in with “be yourself” part of you article. It’s inconsistent.

    Sure if you’re a type of atheist who wants to protect the imposed peace and tradition, then by all means take heed of this article and sit quietly through the dinner, partake in religious traditions and take it upon yourself to not break the peace. However, why should you be the one to bare the burden of doing all that? I would urge anyone to be open about their atheism in every chance they get, and respectfully decline “giving thanks” if that’s not something that you usually do, or are inclined to do. If you’re at your family’s dinner you have full right to be 100% yourself at all times. You should not need to nervously judge when it’s good time to break the new, or memorize some religious text, or give thanks simply in order to not disturb the tradition. Of course unless if you want to, in which case, as I have already said, by all means.

    My impression is that this article puts the responsibility on the “black sheep”. Responsibility should be on others to fully respect atheist without qualm. Therefore, declaring atheism should not be something that you have to be extra careful about. It should be natural and prompt. If your family has a problem with you respectful declining to say thanks in distinctively religious manner, and/or you casually and naturally mentioning your atheism, then it’s their problem, and it’s their responsibility that they failed to uphold.

    Some of you may be thinking “well as you’ve said this would be the most peaceful way to approach the problem, so atheists should do it. It’s a good advice right? what’s your problem?”. Well think this way. Say situation is someone bringing up being in a interracial significant other in a Thanks Giving, and his/her family is intolerant of such behavior or at least uncomfortable. Imagine reading an article saying something in the line of “you should look for an opportune time to make least impact. You should try and not disturb the family’s peach with your black sheep relationship, and you should intentionally take extra care so that your announcement goes smoothly. Also be yourself”. Well…. that would be a true advice, but also bit odd. The announcer should not

    • JD

      AGREED… 100%. Acquiescing to anything to “keep the peace” should never be done, because ideally (Because we all know how family and friends are in real life) it should be something that shouldn’t disrupt the peace in the first place if you’re with people that are supposed to love and respect you. Tip-toeing on eggshells makes it seem as if what you’re doing is shameful, abnormal, or bad when in reality it is NORMAL, just not COMMON. It’s not you, the Atheist that should have something to monitor, reign in, or control. It’s the people around you that are closed minded, rigid, and intolerant that should.

  • Mike Roberts

    I’ve been lucky to live in a family of Christians who pray for me, but accept that we don’t have the same beliefs and that that is OK…My Mother, who is a devout Christian, bought me a shirt with the word “Evolve” on the front and a quote by Darwin on the back, because she thought I’d like it…I do…and I love that she’s so open-minded.

  • skeptic15

    7 tips for “believers”
    1) Accept those friends and family who come out as atheists
    2) Be yourself (unless you are a proselytizing Christian)
    3) Sit respectfully if the ridiculousness of god or the excess, unnecessary waste, and inhumane treatment of animals is pointed out
    4) Don’t ask a non-theist to say a “blessing”
    5) see 4
    6) If the Bible is brought up and a non-theist criticizes the Bible, try to understand the criticism
    7) see 1

    • skeptic15

      And, for the record, I keep this on my phone, just in case:

      Let us be thankful 
      …to those who planted the crops, cultivated the fields, and gathered the harvest
      …for the plants and animals who have given themselves so that we can enjoy this meal together
      …and to those who prepared this meal, those who served it, and those who will clean up afterwards

      Let us remember 
      …those who have no festivity
      …those who are alone 
      …those who cannot share this plenty
      …those who are hungry, sick, and cold
      …and those whose lives are more affected than our own by injustice, tyranny, war, oppression, and exploitation

      In sharing this meal, let us be thankful 
      …for the good things we have
      …for family and friends
      …for warm hospitality  
      …and for good company.

      • Alethea Speakman Sche-Brogan

        I like it, skeptic15.

  • Alethea Speakman Sche-Brogan

    When asked to say anything regarding a ‘blessing’ or a reason to be thankful, I say, “I’m very happy that I have a wonderful family and friends, a warm home, plenty of food, a steady job, and my good health. I’m thanking each and everyone who has made this possible. I hope you all are as joyful as I.” Then I look around at the others with a smile, which invites them to say something.

  • RobWatkin

    I have lived in the UK all of my 64 years and I have to say that I have never been anywhere where grace was said before a meal. I don’t know what I would feel in this situation, it seems so completely alien to me.

    • AntithiChrist

      You lucky bas ard.

      You lucky, lucky bas ard.

      • Martin Hughes

        I am a UK resident aged 70 and have encountered grace at meals all over the place – at my school, at the college where I was educated, at the universities where I taught until 2004. I live in a large town near London where we have a Literary Society with an annual dinner where grace has always been said. I am a Christian myself so it does not grate on me personally but in most of these contexts atheists were plentiful – they just didn’t protest. I have even said grace myself at our Sunday dinners, using the formula ‘Benedictus benediCAT’. I capitalise the last syllable because my children used to say ‘miaow’, a custom which has caught on with my second wife.

    • Kris

      Welcome to ‘merica. Land of the Free, home of the bible thumpers.

      My In-Laws say grace before every meal (my husband’s an atheist)

    • Adam Pack

      My cousin is a priest, and even he doesn’t say grace before meals.

  • JanJohansen

    As a Scandinavian, I find all this “coming out as an atheist” talk very strange. If I sat down at a family dinner and said “look, I have something to tell you, and I hope all of you will accept and respect this: I’m an atheist”, people would have a hard time understanding why I said it. It’s like saying “I had breakfast this morning” or “the sun will set tonight”; it’s the default, it’s pretty much what’s expected. If someone insisted on saying a prayer, on the other hand, it would probably be accepted (so long as there was no pressure on anyone else to join in), but I think the general opinion would be “you’re religious, good for you, but keep me out of it”.

    It’s completely unthinkable that anyone, let alone your own family, would make a lot of fuss about it. I really hope Americans also will get to the point where telling people you don’t believe in fairytales doesn’t offend anyone…

  • JanJohansen

    As a Scandinavian, I find all this “coming out as an atheist” talk very strange. If I sat down at a family dinner and said “look, I have something to tell you, and I hope all of you will accept and respect this: I’m an atheist”, people would have a hard time understanding why I said it. It’s like saying “I had breakfast this morning” or “the sun will set tonight”; it’s the default, it’s pretty much what’s expected. If someone insisted on saying a prayer, on the other hand, it would probably be accepted (so long as there was no pressure on anyone else to join in), but I think the general opinion would be “you’re religious, good for you, but keep me out of it”.

    It’s completely unthinkable that anyone, let alone your own family, would make a lot of fuss about it. I really hope Americans also will get to the point where telling people you don’t believe in fairytales doesn’t offend anyone…

    • Alethea Speakman Sche-Brogan

      The USA is a VERY Christian country, and the Christians are extremely forceful about their beliefs. An Atheist/Agnostic is often an affront to them. I know why and you know why, but horrible arguments often ensue. Sad.

      • cherylsass123

        Officially the US is NOT a Christian nation, at least according to the signing of the Treaty of Tripoli in 1793 by then president John Adams. However, the presence of it seems to be everywhere.

        • Alethea Speakman Sche-Brogan

          I didn’t mean that the US was founded on Christianity (or any other religion), just that Christianity is the overwhelming favorite in the race to ‘paradise’.

        • rach

          Don’t forget Jefferson’s Letters to the Baptists, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine’s presence at the signing of the Declaration means that the country is not only not a theocracy but also it is not founded by Christians exclusively.

    • RobWatkin

      Much the same applies in the UK, pleased to say.

    • Tom from North Carolina

      Unfortunately, here in the belt buckle of the bible belt, god talk is very prevalent. You never get questions about whether you believe in god but what church do you attend. My friend who holds public office must, at the least, pretend to believe. It’s sad.

  • RobWatkin

    Personally I like Seneca’s “grace”before a feast: “When shall we live, if not now?”, though I guess that may not go down too well with some.

  • cherylsass123

    I know that Althea. What you meant is this, Christianity in America is like the mosquito that just won’t die no matter how many times you swat at it with fly swatter. in other words, it has become a parasite that will not allow America to advance.

    • Alethea Speakman Sche-Brogan

      Exactly!

    • Mary

      And you wonder why people think of atheists as anti-theists.

      Want respect for your point of view? Try showing some for others, as long as they’re not trying to shove theirs down your throat. When you say things like “will not allow America to advance”, your agenda shines through loud and clear.

  • Dee Ravenwolf

    If you want to come out to your family about being Atheist or any other faith that is not the norm within your family then go for it. It isn’t a big deal and you can always make it known that it is not a big deal; that everyone believes differently whether they want to admit it or not. Secondly, if asked to give the blessing and you are atheist, then declining or passing it on to someone else is perfectly acceptable. The ONLY thing that everyone at the table should be doing during the blessing is NOT eating or filling their plate. That doesn’t mean you have to take part in the prayer/blessing, it just means sit/stand quietly while those that wish to participate, do. Also, let’s take this one step further and go with completely different spiritual beliefs. It is perfectly okay to talk to your host prior to the prayer/blessing about maybe doing more than one prayer/blessing. Just as if a normal “christian” were to invite an individual over with Jewish beliefs, it is the host/ess place to make everyone feel both welcome and accepted, to handle those family/friends that are less than accepting of those that are different and to make that get together an place of joy, happiness, acceptance, fun, and love. Remember what Thanksgiving is all about. The Host/ess could even go so far as to say that the prayer/blessing will be completely different from years past and do something that would encompass everyone’s beliefs or encourage everyone to add to the blessing/prayer. Just think outside the box, be accepting, understand that no one is out to change you just as no one wants you to change them. It is a time to celebrate family, togetherness, ancestry, and so on.

  • Mary

    Using the “thinking as a child” verse is incredibly disrespectful.

    People of faith are not childish, nor are they stupid, any more than atheists are childish or stupid for holding their beliefs. If your family is intolerant, that’s their problem, so don’t make it yours by adding jibes like that to the conversation.

    • jimv1983

      Oh come on. It’s pretty stupid and child like. An adult believing in god is like a child believing in Santa or the Easter bunny.

      Virgin birth? Resurrection? Noah’s Ark? Adam and Eve? The 6 days of creation? Come on. Those things obviously aren’t true. Disrespectful or not it’s pretty stupid to believe in those things.

  • Rick

    Since when is Thanksgiving a religious holiday??? I’ve never equated it to having anything to do with religion. Religion just screws up everything anyway.

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    I call it Family Day — and encourage others to do likewise.

    And, it should be moved to Friday.

  • Mark

    My family abandoned religion in my late childhood, and we changed our pre-meal ‘grace’ on holidays to thanking my mom for buying and cooking all the food.

  • Joe Paulson

    You had a reputation?

    Seriously, good comments.

  • Bill Kurtson

    Wow, I never heard of “coming out as an atheist” before. Maybe because here in Sweden it’s probably more a thing to “coming out as a believer”. Interesting.