Rituals: Who Will Say Grace For Atheists?

The ritual of Graduation
The ritual of Graduation

A wedding ritual

I was at lunch the other day with a number of friends. A couple religious, a couple not. As our food arrived and we went to eat there was a moment, a pause, an awkward silence as the religious wondered if they should say grace, and everyone was waiting for a cue to eat. Finally, someone spoke. “Bon appetit” they said and, relieved, we all tucked in.

Husband later commented “We should have a non-religious version of grace” and it got me thinking about rituals.

Within our lives, there are many rituals. There are personal rituals, such as the order in which you do things in the morning, going for coffee, or having a weekly catch up with friends. There are societal rituals like graduation ceremonies, weddings, baby showers, bachelor parties and applause. Then there are religious rituals, baptisms, church services and bar mitzvahs.

In days gone by, when a whole country was likely to be the same religion, the rituals that were observed were the same across all people within that society, and intertwined between the culture and the religion. These rituals formed a part of every day life, provided a sense of occasion, and gave societal clues as to the correct procedure of events.

I really enjoy rituals, they provide my life with a sense of tradition. I also am fascinated by them from an anthropological perspective – where the rituals come from, what is the story behind them. Some I know, such as eggs at Easter (Pagan fertility symbol), Holy Communion wine and unlevened bread (Jesus’ instruction at the last supper) or weddings rings (traditionally only worn by women, as part of ‘purchasing’ her, symbolising the business transaction). Some I don’t, such as bar mitzvahs. But I understand the role they play and the event they celebrate.

The ritual of Graduation

Grace is a perfect example of a religious ritual that was a strong part of society but also provided a societal cue for the procedure of events. A table is set, people sit down, food is served, grace is said, and then everyone may eat. It provided a sense of structure and an ability to predict what was about to come next.

With the reduction of religion, and the increase in multiple religions within the same society, we have lost the sense of structure that many rituals provided.

As society becomes less based in tradition and religion, I fear that rituals may lose their place in society all together. I mourn the loss, not just because I enjoy rituals, but because it is a link to our past. To history on a global scale. It is a link to the world we have come from, and although rituals may evolve, they are based in something bigger than us.

It is at times like these, when I watch the decline of rituals within society, that I ask myself: If we lose rituals, and we lose the role in society they play, how will we know what is expected of us? How will we know what to do? And, as we sit down to eat, who will say grace for Atheists?


Do you enjoy rituals? Do you understand them? Do you think they are an important part of our traditional heritage, or an outdated link to society’s past? What rituals do you take part in?

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  • Ash

    In Unitarian Universalism, we have generic graces. The atheists among us don’t see a problem with this- they’re grateful for lunch too.

    It depends on who you’re with, too- but as a whole, a general “We’re thankful for this food and for the company we’re sharing. Let’s eat!” works for us.

    Traditions and ritual are very important in all human lives. Even the secular have their ways, the things they do on special occasions. To lose on traditions/rituals and “ways” is to lose the flavour of humanity.

  • Melissa Savage

    I think this is really interesting. I wonder what my funeral will look like. Also I think that there is an important aspect to grace before a meal where we give thanks for having enough (or something) to eat, and people to enjoy it with.

    When I was 14, I went on an outward bound camp, and on the first couple of days, mealtimes were feral as 15 hungry teenagers leapt at the food. Our young Canadian group leader saw this and instituted a secular thanks ritual before every meal. It involved holding hands in a circle and singing a little chant that included the line ‘thanks for food’. It was a nice little reminder to be grateful and recognise how lucky we were.

    I’m from the Alain de Botton school of atheism. I actually think there’s a lot of value in rituals. Even though I don’t believe an my partner’s church doesn’t baptise infants, we will likely have a small ‘dedication’ ceremony for our children as babies and we will probably name some godparents because I really like the tradition of bringing everyone together to mark the baby’s birth an I particularly like the idea of children having an adult outside of the family whom they can talk to and who has a special role in having that child’s interests at heart. My partner has a goddaughter and I love going to her birthdays and picking out Christmas presents and just knowing she’s a bit special to us.

    • Monique Fischle

      None of the churches I have been a member of have baptised/christened infants. In all of them, the children (including myself) have been dedicated where the parents commit to raising their children in the faith. For me, baptism is something you do once you’re old enough (but don’t ask me what age I think is old enough because it varies) to publicly show that you have chosen to follow Jesus.

      • Melissa Savage

        yes, that’s what I’m talking about. But I like the idea of godparents even when they are not the ones bearing the spiritual burden. For entirely secular reasons separate to the dedication which is something we would do as parents.

        • Monique Fischle

          I was agreeing with you in liking dedications etc, it didn’t quite come off that way though. Godparents are a lovely idea (whether spiritual or not), I don’t have one but I’d like my children to have them.

  • Monique Fischle

    I always say grace before a meal, out loud at home and for the most part, in my head when out at a restaurant. I have a family grace that is the same every time we eat, and even though I’ve said the words a million times, I am still thankful for the food I’m about to eat.

    I love rituals and traditions, always have, always will.

  • Whippersnapper

    This just goes to show how many non religious people I associate with! Everyone just waits for everyone else to be seated and there is an awkward pause when someone says “don’t wait for me, start!”.

    • Melissa Savage

      There’s a scene in The Big Bang Theory where the gang all sit down to dinner with Sheldon’s mum an start eating, but she launches into grace and they all get these awkward looks on their faces and put their forks down. That’s me with my in-laws and my church friends!

  • Mazi Gray

    I am fond of the Japanese customs here, ittadakimasu Just measn Let’s eat, in japanese but is expected before any social meal.

  • http://music.johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

    R and I literally just had lunch with my Brother and his wife – four atheists at the one table…the food came, we just started eating, no waiting, no awkwardness…but we have known each other for ages… :)

    Of course that doesn’t mean atheists are ritual free…I have lots of ritual, usual just personal to me, or me and R…and probably meaningless to anyone else…we’re humans…we like a good ritual just as much as the next person, just not the same rituals as a religious person.

    • Melissa Savage

      Right, I started typing this on my phone but it got too hard. Logged in on the work computer now, forgive me father etc…

      You have reminded me JJ of another thing. The rituals Tamsin talks about are not immutable and unchanging. They haven’t been around forever in their current form and they won’t continue forever either. Every society makes its own rituals, and almost universally there have been rituals around welcoming a newborn, transition to adulthood, relationship commitment, commemoration of death, sharing food, transition of the seasons etc. Because we live in such a plural society, we have a multitude of ritual or none at all, or a mishmash of different ones. Most groups work out their own rituals and at the current juncture, these are in a state of flux for some of us.

      • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

        For many, that’s the thing I think is a little bit sad. There isn’t a standard anything anymore. And in many ways that’s a wonderful thing – so much diversity, but it some ways it makes life, society, just a little more uncertain.

  • Kate

    Not a fan of traditional rituals. I’ve never seen the point really, and many of them feel really forced to me (and of course, historically many rituals were forced upon people). I’m not religious, but my friends who are don’t even know why they do half the things they do, they do it because it’s expected. Even things like marriage. A lot of people I know were perfectly happy just being in a relationship, but other people made them feel like they were somehow less than because they hadn’t done the rituals, so they did it to placate others. Or funerals. Last year we had a funeral for my grandfather. He was a truly horrible, abusive, cruel man, and the only people who didn’t loathe him were dead. But we had to have a funeral, and invite dozens of people who he had treated terribly, because apparently it’s expected. The whole thing was awkward and fake, and we all wish we hadn’t bothered.

    Personally I like uncertainty and I like that we have choices. It would be so boring to live in a society with rigid guidelines as to how you eat, talk etc. And of course, mass adherence to rituals only works when people HAVE to adhere, because they fear social isolation or worse.