To pray or not to pray

February 23, 2013 

I have an admission to make. I don't pray.

This little tidbit of information isn't really all that interesting because it isn't all that unusual. I bring it up only because a fellow Humanist asked me for advice on how to respectfully handle prayer requests.

People who know me know that I am a Humanist and that I don't pray, so I rarely get asked to participate in prayers. However, this is a real dilemma for many Humanists.

Calls to prayer are made all the time at family gatherings, public events, rallies, meetings and other places where people congregate.

The question is: How can a person who doesn't pray respond in a way that is respectful of the people who do want to pray while still being true to our own beliefs? The reason this is worth discussing is because even with the best intentions, group prayer excludes those who don't.

When prayers start, all a nonprayer can do is sit and wait patiently while everyone else prays, finding quiet humor in the ironic situation we find ourselves in: which is that we end up praying that the prayer won't last that long.

I have to admit, I don't even bow my head anymore when others are praying. I figure those whose heads are bowed won't notice and it gives me an opportunity to see who else isn't praying. Those of us who don't pray like to make eye contact with each other while a prayer is happening. It's a solidarity thing. I once made eye contact with a celebrity whose name will not be mentioned because he isn't out as a nonbeliever.

For more intimate gatherings at, say, dinner time when I am a guest in someone's house, I participate more actively, usually by holding hands just to be sociable. I like to take those moments to focus on my own feelings of gratitude that I am not only being fed, I am being included.

What I have learned over time is that most group prayer is a communal way for people to acknowledge that they are gathering together for some shared purpose. It is a way to express love, gratitude and affection for each other and to formally recognize the value of being together. That's a beautiful sentiment that I also want to express.

It just would be really nice if these expressions of love and togetherness didn't exclude me and everyone else who doesn't pray. It would be nice if an invocation actually helped inspire a feeling of love and community instead of making so many of us feel like we aren't welcome.

Jennifer Hancock, is a Humanist life skills educator. To learn more, visit her at

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