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Secular Graces & Invocations:

Secular Invocations and Graces

In addition to the major rites of passage, humanists and other nonreligious people often find themselves asked to contribute to other types of ceremonial event: a benediction before a banquet, an invocation at the beginning of a legislative session, or a toast at a retirement party. Sometimes the standard wording is religious, and secular participants struggle to find an alternative. Other times there is no standard wording. In either situation, you may find the following advice and examples useful.

Secular Invocations

Many groups and government bodies begin their meetings with prayers or other forms of religious invocation conducted by a chaplain or religious minister. Even when such religious commencements make an effort to include people of all faiths they may exclude people with no religion. Secularists argue that government should not hold religious events because they have the effect of endorsing religion and relegating the non-religious to second-class status. However, when governments and other groups refuse to stop all religious commencements and invocations, they may sometimes agree to a humanist benediction as an alternative.

For an example of a secular invocation that is inclusive, although given by someone identified as representing a humanist viewpoint, read this article by Herb Silverman.

For an example of a more pointed invocation by an atheist, read this article.

Secular Graces

Many religions say a short prayer before a meal, in which a blessing is asked and thanks are given. In Christianity this prayer is called "Grace." Non-religious people may still want to give thanks before a big meal, such as a Thanksgiving Dinner, or may be asked to do so at a formal event. Obviously people who don't believe in a god are not giving thanks to God but they can say more than just "Bon Appetit!"

In fact, a godless grace can be very moving: it allows time for reflection and thanks focused on this world, appreciating the value of nature and acknowledging the human effort which went into bringing food, family and friends together for a meal. Nor does a secular benediction need to be explicitly atheist, or exclude anyone because of their beliefs.

Giving thanks before a meal can be just a few words spoken from the heart and finished quickly before the food gets cold! Expressing gratitude for the food and appreciation of the company is all that is needed. Or this may be an opportunity to go around the table and have each person say what they are grateful for.

But there are also some longer or more formal wordings.

  • A classic humanist alternative to a Christian Grace is:

  • A Secular Grace:

    For what we are about to receive
    let us be truly thankful
    …to those who planted the crops
    …to those who cultivated the fields
    …to those who gathered the harvest.

    For what we are about to receive
    let us be truly thankful
    to those who prepared it and those who served it.

    In this festivity let us remember too
    those who have no festivity
    those who cannot share this plenty
    those whose lives are more affected than our own
    by war, oppression and exploitation
    those who are hungry, sick and cold

    In sharing in this meal
    let us be truly thankful
    for the good things we have
    for the warm hospitality 
    and for this good company.

  • There is also this from the humanist writer Nicolas Walter:

    Let us think thrice while we are gathering here for this meal.
    First, let us think of the people we are with today, and make the most of the pleasure of sharing food and drink together.
    Then, let us think of the people who made the food and drink and brought it to us, who serve us and wait on us, and who clear up and clean up after us.
    Finally, let us think of all the people all over the world, members with us in the human family, who will not have a meal today.

  • For those who find these humanist graces too long, or don’t want to be reminded of the suffering of others just before a celebratory meal, there are these simple words of secular thanks and good wishes:

    We are thankful for the food on this table.
    We are thankful for this time together.
    Our thoughts go out to family and friends;
    We hope that they are safe and well.

  • Or these words of humanist benediction:

    For the meal we are about to eat,
    for those that made it possible,
    and for those with whom we are about to share it,
    we are thankful.

  • George Rodger, of Aberdeen, Scotland, used this god-free grace at the start of a wedding meal:

    Let us enjoy good food and good drink,
    And let us thank all whose efforts have set them before us;
    Let us enjoy good companionship,
    And let us each one be good company to the others;
    Let us enjoy ourselves, without guilt,
    But let us not forget that many are less fortunate.

  • Here’s a beautiful Buddhist meal gatha that is entirely secular:

    We receive this food in gratitude to all beings
    Who have helped to bring it to our table,
    And vow to respond in turn to those in need
    With wisdom and compassion.

  • Or how about this variation on a Native American thanks giving:

    We give thanks for the plants and animals who have given themselves so that we can enjoy this meal together.
    We also give thanks for our friends and family who have traveled here today.
    May this meal bring us strength and health.

  • A secular version of the famous “Serenity Prayer” can also work before a meal:

    Grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change,
    the courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.

  • The Quaker tradition of "silent grace" before meals also works well for a dinner party with people of diverse religions and beliefs. All present join hands in a circle around the table, and are silent for half a minute or so as they collect their thoughts, meditate or pray. Then one person gently squeezes the hands of the people seated adjacent; this signal is quickly passed around the table and people then begin to eat and talk.

  • Sweet Reason, the humanist advice columnist, responds to a father's request for a "secular grace" for his daughter's wedding reception.

  • And finally there are these words of wisdom from William Shakespeare:

    "…good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people"
    Sir Henry Guildford: Henry VIII, I, iv

A Memorable Invocation

By Herb Silverman

On Tuesday, March 25, I gave the invocation to the Charleston City Council. Councilman Kwadjo Campbell had cordially agreed to let me do it. As Mayor Riley was introducing me for the invocation, several City Council members got up and walked out. When I finished speaking, those council members walked back in, just in time for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Two of the councilmen who walked out, Wendell Gilliard and Robert George, stated their reasons in a March 27 Charleston Post and Courier article by Jason Hardin.

Gilliard said an atheist giving an invocation is an affront to our troops because they are "fighting for our principles, based on God." Gilliard apparently believes our troops are involved in a holy war. However, we are not the Taliban. The principles of our country are not based on God. Our principles are enshrined in the Constitution, like the right of all citizens to be represented by their elected officials and not to be shunned because their religious beliefs differ from the majority.

Councilman George said about me, "He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I'm not going to be around when he does it." I refrained from telling George what I really thought--that praying to a god makes about as much sense to me as praying to a chicken.

The organized walkout vividly showed that we are engaged in one of the last civil rights struggles in which blatant discrimination is viewed as acceptable behavior. Bigotry exists everywhere, but it is especially outrageous when acts of intolerance at government functions are organized, carried out, and later defended in the media by government officials.

I have two questions for the council members who could not even bear to be in the same room with an atheist giving the invocation, and who are now surprised that so many of us feel deeply offended by their organized walkout. Can you now understand how uncomfortable many non-Christians feel when they are continually subjected to Christian prayers at secular events? And how would you react if we were to organize a walkout during a Christian invocation? Don't worry — we are not that rude.

I was initially quite perturbed by the conduct of council members. Fortunately, lemonade is now being squeezed from these lemons. I have received numerous apologies from Christians for the behavior of the Christian council members who walked out. This is exactly the kind of publicity we need in the Freethought community. Movements are successful when they appeal to folks outside the group. The object is not just to drum up support among fellow humanists, though such grassroots activism is crucial, but to appeal to everyone's sense of fair play and tolerance. "Right-minded" people, whether religious or not, should be appalled by the contemptuous behavior exhibited by members of the Charleston City Council.

Dozens of people, both SHL members and those outside our humanist community, have written letters to the editor of our local newspaper to express their outrage over the walkout. I feel very grateful for their public support.

I hope that the many discussions we have heard about the conduct of Charleston City Council members will bring about more religious tolerance in this city. Perhaps we can now become effective in making Charleston a more progressive community that celebrates, rather than fears, its diversity.

Here is the invocation I gave, as several council members fled:

Thank you for this opportunity to "invoke" a minority point of view.

Each of us is a minority, with respect to something. It might be race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other way we may be regarded as different. Each of us is also part of some majority. It is when we wear our majority hats that we need to be most mindful of how we treat others. We must pledge our best efforts to help one another, and to defend the rights of all of our citizens and residents.

What divides us is not so much our religious differences in this diverse country, but the degree of commitment we have to equal freedom of conscience for all people. We are gathered today, both religious and secular members of our community, with the shared belief that we must treat our fellow human beings with respect and dignity.

I don't ask you to close your eyes, but to keep your eyes constantly open to the serious issues that city government can and should solve or improve. I don't ask you to bow your heads, but to look up at what you can accomplish by applying your considerable talents and experience to the problems that confront us.

As you work together on behalf of all who live in this city, may you gain strength and sustenance from one another through reason and compassion.

I'd like to close in a bipartisan manner by quoting from two presidents I greatly admire-one a Republican and the other a Democrat.

First, the Republican:
When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.
-- Abraham Lincoln

And then, the Democrat:
It's remarkable how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.
-- Harry S. Truman