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.