Jeffrey Weiss discussed a recent case where the Greek prime minister was accused of showing insufficient respect for Judaism.
Here’s the setup: During a visit to Israel, Antonis Samaras visited the Holocaust memorial center, Yad Vashem, and laid a wreath. Common activity for visiting heads of state. But he refused to wear a kippah, aka yarmulke, aka Jewish skullcap. That’s not so common.
So was Samaras wrong in not following the custom of most visiting dignitaries? Did he feel he was actually being more respectful of Judaism by not donning the cap? He didn’t say. But if he did, there’s a pretty good argument to be made in his favor.
If Samaras believes wearing a kippah is a distinctly Jewish and religious ritual, he could think that a non-Jew like him wearing one could show two kinds of disrespect: Either he’s being a religious hypocrite, pretending to observe the ritual. Or he thinks wearing a kippah is trivial.
It is not only dignitaries paying official visits that face this problem. Even us atheists often enter religious places of worship to attend functions that we have been invited to by family and friends. This raises the tricky issue of how one should behave, the main one being to what extent one should mimic the religious rituals that the believers go through even though they have no meaning to you. This becomes especially problematic when the religion involved is one that one has little familiarity with and so one does not know what is merely an unthinking and routine ritual that can be done by nonbelievers with no consequence and what is considered to have deep significance.
One could argue that since we don’t believe in any of these things, then we should be willing to do and say anything because they are essentially meaningless to us. This was apparently the practice of a distinguished professor seated at the high table for dinner at one of the British universities. It is apparently the custom of the most senior professor at the table to lead the prayers before the meal and this professor would do so, despite being an avowed atheist. When questioned as to whether this was not being hypocritical, he replied that while he would not say something that was untrue, he had no objections to speaking nonsense.
This apocryphal story suggests one way of dealing with it, as treating the whole thing as a meaningless charade that one can indulge in. Against this has to be balanced the fact that for some atheists, there may be some things that we feel uncomfortable doing because it seems to be going too far in acquiescing to society’s expectations that religious sensibilities trump those of nonbelievers. If people know you are an atheist, they will usually not ask you to do things that are obviously religious. But since we do not walk around with a scarlet letter, there may be occasions when as a guest we are asked by the host to lead the group in saying grace before the meal, thinking that they are bestowing an honor on us. Declining to do so may be awkward. If one thinks fast enough, one can say a grace that is not religious in its sentiment but has the rhythms of a traditional grace, like “Let us be thankful for the wonderful food and fellowship that we enjoy today” or some such thing. If one manages to load in enough effusive language, people may not even notice the absence of any religious content.
But in actual places of worship, my practice is to try to be as unobtrusive as possible and avoid drawing any attention to myself. As a former Christian, I have a pretty good idea of what is and is not acceptable in a church. When I attend a church for a wedding or funeral, I stand when people stand and sit when they sit. I sing along with the hymns that I still know from my youth, especially the carols at Christmas, because some of them are really good and fun to sing but don’t join in the singing when I don’t know or like them.
But that is about it. I know that one should never go up to the altar to receive communion. I do not kneel or bow my head in prayer or, in a Catholic church, genuflect towards the altar when entering and exiting the way that Catholics do. I don’t say the prayers even though I know most of them or may have been given a booklet containing them. Doing all those things seems to me to go too far and not doing them does not cause offense, at least none that I have noticed.
But it becomes trickier when I go to religious places other than church, such as a synagogue, since the rituals are more opaque to me. I generally behave similarly as in a church except that one now runs into the added issue, just like the Greek prime minister, of the yarmulke. Some synagogues offer you one as you enter. If so, I take it and put it on. I do not like to since this act seems overtly religious and unnecessary (roughly equivalent to kneeling in prayer) but assume that the people offering it to me have a pretty good idea that I am not a Jew who happened to leave home without it, especially since the occasion is one (like a bar or bat mitzvah) in which they know nonbelievers will be attending and that they are offering me one because having all males wear one is the custom there and turning them down would be rude and may cause a scene. Since my main goal is to enjoy the occasion with the people who invited me, I go along and put it on so as not to make a possible scene, even though it is really hard to keep it balanced on one’s head and I have to keep adjusting it to prevent it from falling off, which is a nuisance.
But of course there is a whole range of gradations of Jewish observance ranging from the Reform to the ultra-Orthodox, and what may be pro-forma in one setting may be a serious faux pas in another, making maneuvering around these differing sensibilities problematic. Similarly, I feel that taking off one’s shoes when one enters the premises of a Hindu or Buddhist temple or a Muslim mosque is fine but I would not prostrate myself in front of their deities or in the direction of Mecca. I have not as yet attended any Wiccan or Pagan or Mormon functions and have no idea what might be the minimal requirements of an unbeliever in such situations. It helps if one is accompanied by a believer and can get whispered clues as to what to do but that is not always possible.
Maybe someone should publish a little booklet on religious etiquette for the nonbeliever, outlining for each religion and denomination three categories of behavior: the minimal requirements that nonbelievers in that particular religion need to observe so as to not cause offense; the things that nonbelievers must not do; and the grey area in between where things are optional and you can do or not do whatever you are comfortable with.