Advice for Heathens

Dear Helena,

My sister married a Mormon, and they always say grace before family dinners. When I visit them, my brother-in-law sometimes asks me if I would like to say grace. In his eyes, this is an honor, so I don’t like to refuse. But I’m an atheist, and saying thank you to God makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Is there something I can say that will satisfy them without invoking God?—Tongue-Tied

Dear Tongue-Tied,

Even if you don’t believe in God, you should be glad of the chance to give thanks. Science has shown that gratitude could be good for you. In one experiment at the University of California at Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky asked subjects to keep a gratitude journal, or a weekly record of things they were thankful for. Over a six-week period, her subjects’ overall satisfaction with life improved significantly (whereas the control group felt no better than before).

But how can you craft a secular grace that also pleases Mormons and other believers? Here are some tips.

Let listeners fill in the blank. If you’re an atheist, you can be thankful without directing your thankfulness to anything or anyone in particular. Use the phrase, “Let’s be grateful for.…” Leave it vague whom you’re grateful to. Your religious listeners can quietly imagine it is a higher power.

Include details. Don’t just say, “Let’s be grateful for this dinner.” Your words will be more memorable if you mention the specific meal before you. Here’s your chance to slip in a compliment to the cook. “Let’s be grateful for Mabel’s delicious yams.” Or to a special guest: “Let’s be grateful for the presence of Uncle Bill, who cut short his fly-fishing vacation to be here.”

Don’t let dinner get cold. Keep it short. An example: “Let’s be grateful for the wonderful pork and applesauce Sue has prepared, and that we could all be here tonight.” This is not the time for a paean to Mother Earth, organic produce, or migrant apple pickers.

Keep it upbeat. A Buddhist blessing urges the diner to remember, “This plate of food, so fragrant and appetizing, also contains much suffering.” This is probably true, especially if you’re eating industrially produced meat. You could also mention all the people who are starving. But you’ll put everyone off their dinner.

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