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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.
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.
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 Secular Grace:
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.
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:
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