To bow or not to bow?

atheist_prayerOne of the most common situations where atheists feel awkward is a gathering where someone initiates a public prayer, and asks people to join in (usually silently, with heads bowed and/or hands folded). Here’s my take on why, in most cases, the polite thing to do is to bow your head and play along:

Taking part in a ritual doesn’t imply buying into all the cultural/social/religious baggage associated with it. There are lots and lots of cases where people engage in gestures or traditions that carry meanings they don’t remotely intend.

We shake hands with people in lots of situations where neither of us are armed and there’s no need to demonstrate that our sword hand is empty. Some of us knock on wood (or say “knock on wood”) even if we’re not pagans who believe trees hold spirits who can watch over our needs. And likewise, bowing your head while someone utters a memorized, ritualistic speech doesn’t mean you wholeheartedly endorse the underlying concepts.

You could argue, of course, that it’s rude of the person initiating the prayer to do so in a situation where there are (or may be) atheists or other non-believers present. That may well be true (although there are situations where prayer is an accepted part of the deal, like a Christian wedding — see below).

But one of the big rules of etiquette is that it’s rude to point out that someone else is being rude. At least, it’s rude to point it out directly. There are some passive-aggressive moves that some etiquette experts recommend for people who simply must say something, but if you’re trying to maintain good social relationships (which is, after all, what etiquette is for), you don’t help to accomplish that by pointing out that someone else is being an idiot or an asshole.

And you could also argue that silently going along with a prayer makes it harder for atheists to stand up and be counted, and creates a deceptive picture of just how few atheists there are out there. If you think there’s a moral imperative that’s more important than being polite, then do what you think is right — but don’t be surprised if people think you’re rude. Because basically, you are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — as someone said, polite people rarely make history. But it’s still a thing.

And if you’re at a Christian wedding, and the minister calls for a moment of silent prayer, it’s perfectly appropriate for you to bow your head. Just as it’s perfectly appropriate for a Christian at a Buddhist wedding to bow her head, or stand, or kneel, if that’s what everyone else is doing. A wedding is about the happy couple, not about you. And if you didn’t want to be exposed to Christian religion, the time to make that decision was before you walked through the Christian church doors and took your seat at the Christian church pew.

There are some other prayer-related etiquette issues (What about holding hands to say grace? What if someone asks you to offer a prayer? What if a prayer you’re going along with turns nasty?), but I think this will do for now.

13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Rob A on September 15, 2009 at 10:06 am

    Hmmm. I personally wouldn’t bow my head. I think bowing my head is participating in their ritual: keeping silent is my showing respect for the person.


  2. I agree with Rob – being silent while they bow their heads is respectful without participating. My ‘other half’ comes from a very religious family and when they pray for Sunday dinner, I sit quietly while they pray and have taught my children they may do the same (or if they choose to they may bow their heads…but usually they don’t)
    I’m excited to have found your blog! I’ll definitely be around 😉


  3. I don’t bow my head either. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to not participate in someone else’s religion. In fact, isn’t it the opposite? If I were to go to a wedding or a service at a Catholic church, taking part in Communion would be insulting to them. I don’t see much of a distinction between bowing my head during a Christian prayer and taking Communion.


  4. Posted by austin on September 15, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Sometimes I bow, sometimes not. It depends on the situation. That said, if everyone else is bowing their head and your not….. whose to know?


    • Posted by Anonymous on August 31, 2012 at 1:29 am

      Here here! Know what u mean there. All to often and sometimes you might even meet a frien and sometimes you might even meet a friend someone else who’s looking around and couldn’t we all use a friend sometimes


  5. Posted by Jamie on September 15, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    I do bow my head. I feel it is respecting a mostly harmless practice. If it made me uncomfortable then I wouldn’t.

    Bowing your head cannot really be equated with taking communion. They aren’t on the same level at all.


  6. I remain silent and still but take the opportunity to smile at the other nonbelievers who are not bowing — those who are bowing never see us and we feel less alone in the room. 🙂


  7. Posted by lneely on September 16, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    there is no escaping the social and cultural aspects, but sure, taking part in a ritual doesn’t imply that one believes all the religious gobbledygook. while there is a certain degree of insincerity in participating in religious ritual without believing it — paying lip service, as one might call it — the way i see it, there is no harm either way.

    That said, if everyone else is bowing their head and your not….. whose to know?



  8. Posted by StephonA on September 17, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    No, not under any circumstances. I’m from a large family and I stopped saying bible verses and bowing my head at family dinners shortly after my first year of college and coming out as an atheist and vegetarian to my sothern hyper-religious (I rethought using the word ‘zealot’) family.

    Since then I don’t bow my head and pretend, no matter where I am, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with folks knowing that there is someone in the room who dosen’t agree with them, hasn’t been stricken down by their “imaginary friend” and deserves at least as much respect as they do. To truly respect me as an atheist they would simply not prey but I’m out-numbered so that’s not gonna happen any time soon.

    I equate the non-believers bowing of their head at prayer with standing silently by while someone engages in aborrhent(sp) behaviour and saying nothing. Not bowing ones head is a statement of dis-belief: to do so is to tacitly agree that the beliefs of others hold more weight than your own.

    I won’t do it.


  9. Posted by austin on September 19, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    I think it comes down to an issue of respect on the part of both parties. I don’t think that bowing is “to tacitly agree that the beliefs of others hold more weight than your own”. It seems to me that thinking that someone should not pray because they know you are an atheist is a double standard-wanting your beliefs respected, but not respecting theirs. Sometimes it’s just an issue of being respectful of other peoples beliefs even if they’re not your own.

    It’s not disrespectful for a large religious family to pray @ meals or such unless they are purposefully doing it to be malicious. (i.e, after my husband & I stopped attending church, my father in law prayed once during a large family gathering specifically for my husband & I and the upbringing of our kids-totally uncalled for!) However, I was recently @ my grandfathers’ (a pastor) funeral where there were prayers and singing of hymns. There were people of several belief sets there, but I don’t think that it was out of line. I also participated in the singing, not because I’m still a “believer” or to make believe that I am, but to join into the ceremony & celebration of my grandfather ….. and for me they’ve changed in meaning to merely be a representation of the human desire for finding meaning to our human experience.


  10. Posted by StephonA on September 26, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    “It’s not disrespectful for a large religious family to pray @ meals or such unless they are purposefully doing it to be malicious. ”

    Austin, I agree completely. If I sit down to dinner with my family I know what’s going to happen and I respectfully sit through it. After all, I volunteered to be there. No one pressures me to pray, bow my head or say a bible verse and I don’t pressure them not to. Mutual respect, that’s all I’m asking.

    As far as the question of who would know if I didn’t bow my head: I would.

    I also agree that there is nothing wrong with singing spirituals or enjoying art that was motivated by religion, there’s a lot of it and it’s still beautiful art. I’m also a musician and in the process of learning a song that is truly beautiful and some folks find it moving in a religious way, I find it well written and I love the melody but I also know that when I play it for my mother she’ll probably be moved to tears. Well worth it.


  11. Posted by erin on December 6, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I often start with my head bowed so as to keep the peace with my religious family, but then look around the circle. I take it as an opportunity to appreciate the people I love, and it’s fun to make eye contact with the other non-believers. 🙂

    One of my favorite things at my wedding during a moment of silence was looking around at the crowd and feeling happy that all those people were there to celebrate with us.


  12. Posted by David on April 30, 2011 at 3:23 am

    Thank you for this. I am Catholic and practicing. I am glad to know that there are atheists concerned about what the polite thing to do is. If I may offer my perspective, what is your friend’s devotion? This will be the determining factor in how much you could offend them. As a subset of this consideration, how good of friends are you and how much would bowing your head offend yourself? I would never ask my friends to debase their own beliefs for mine, but I do know some people that would be offended and I can understand why. If you’re invited to a religious event and religion offends you, perhaps you should consider the etiquette problems in your consideration of attendance. It would be the proper way to be honest with everyone involved, yes?

    If you find you have lingering questions, ask the friend that landed you in the event. It is 100% appropriate to do so, and when you think about it, if you really are friends with a person it is the only way to get into whether or not you’ll offend them. And who wants to offend their friends over something silly like this, right? 🙂


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