Washington Post (July 15, 2009)
Advice for atheists from Miss Manners? Why not! But before we get to Miss Manners I'm going to give you my advice. What you don't say can't hurt you.
I've never gotten in trouble when I kept my big mouth shut. And trust me, if you are in the wrong crowd, nothing is as inflammatory as religion. Politics, wars, gay rights and gun control (well maybe not gun control) can all be discussed in a calm voice. Not so with religion.
That said, I think Miss Manners hit the nail right on the head. Unfortunately, she is dealing with a rather civilized situation.
I would love to see her answer to this one. What do you do after you have had a couple of beers and told the wrong person sitting next to you that religion is a lot of nonsense. How do you get out of that one, Miss Manners?
In conclusion, I have adopted a "don't ask don't tell" policy -- unless someone still insists on proselytizing after I have told him or her that I'm not interested.
Anyway, enough from me, here's her column. You can also link to it above.
Dear Miss Manners:
Miss Manners suggests separating the proselytizers from those who may be merely repeating figures of speech. Not everyone who says "Bless you" when you sneeze or even "The Lord works in mysterious ways" is voicing a theological conviction.
I am an atheist, and this is occasionally the source of mild social awkwardness. Normally, of course, I do not broadcast my beliefs without solicitation, but occasionally I am asked where I go to church or invited to attend a service at another's church.
I work with a number of civic organizations, including places of worship, so this sort of question or request is usually well-intentioned chitchat from someone with whom I am working on a project.
Somehow, the simple and direct, "I choose not to worship a deity," seems as inappropriate for casual conversation as questions about one's religious beliefs. I would greatly appreciate a simple and direct way to decline such an invitation and nip such questioning in the bud. Occasionally, the question comes as a part of direct proselytizing, which I hope requires no more politeness than a sales solicitation.
The second area is how to respond when passing comments are made that imply a belief in a god, as if one were discussing the weather, such as "He's in a better place now," "The Lord works in mysterious ways" or "I know Jesus will take care of this for me."
I know the speaker is expecting a smile and a nod, but if I consider these beliefs untrue, offensive or ridiculous, how can I respond in a simple way that does not sound strident, open me up to being evangelized or invite the beginning of a theological debate?
Another area of consternation is in expressions of sympathy. Can you recommend a standard replacement for "He/she is in my prayers," for people who do not pray?
Please keep in mind that the idea here would not be to declare your own convictions, a habit you find objectionable in others, but to deflect the topic without seeming to acquiesce.
In any case, the comments of the second group should be treated as if they were good wishes. Similarly, the inquiry about where you go to church should be treated as a casual social question.
"I choose not to worship a deity" is indeed pompous, and also challenging. You need only say casually, "I'm not a churchgoer." Only if this leads to argument need you say -- because you must also be polite to proselytizers -- "It's not something I discuss."
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