Religious etiquette for nonbelievers

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.


  1. says

    My approach to the yarmulke is to wear an ordinary hat. Halakha requires only that the head be covered: it does not lay out any particular kind of covering. By choosing a nice, plain fedora, I can be respectful without attesting a belief that I do not follow. It has raised some eyebrows the few times I’ve been to a synagogue, but folks have been quite decent about it once I explain the situation.

  2. Dunc says

    On the topic of saying grace, while it’s never actually come up, as a Scot, I’m perfectly happy to go with the Selkirk grace:

    Some hae meat and canna eat,
    And some wad eat that want it,
    But we hae meat and we can eat,
    Sae let the Lord be thankit.

    The last line is really only a figure of speech as far as I’m concerned, and I wouldn’t worry about it any more than I would about saying “God damn it!” when stubbing my toe.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Not to mention that, to my ear at least, the Scottish dialect makes things sound much more profound!

  4. raven says

    I have not as yet attended any Wiccan or Pagan or Mormon functions

    I have.

    Mormon services seem to be modeled on Protestant services and are sort of boring as a result.

    I’ve been to Pagan funerals. There is no Pagan central and all the various Pagans were all but genocided during the 1000 year xian persecution. So people just make it up as they go along.

    One was a bonfire at dusk with a party, a celebration of life. Far superior to most xian funerals. The weddings can be a lot of fun as well, usually outdoors.

  5. Vote for Pedro says

    My wife and I were honored to be 2 of the 4 people to hold the poles of the chuppah (canopy used for a Jewish wedding) over good friends of ours when they got married. They had also provided a table with yarmulkes, and I hadn’t been instructed, so I asked the wedding planner. She said I should wear one, so I did.

    There were five men up front during the ceremony: the groom, the fathers, the rabbi, and me. Guess which two were the only ones wearing the yarmulke? Naturally.

  6. chriscampbell says

    I look at it the same way as other small social graces. As long as they are not unreasonable or onerous, what is the harm. I would add that that line is different for everyone and theirs alone to draw. I habitually remove my hat when entering a church or home or any other building (16 years in the military) and I wouldn’t have a problem removing my shoes in either a residence or a house of worship.

    Those, however, to me, again are simply small ways for people to show respect to each other. I can see others having more difficulty where even the small gesture can be fraught with far more significance, as perhaps some women might feel about covering their heads in a mosque.

  7. left0ver1under says

    The religious have every right not to expect criticism, derision and insults from those they invite into their buildings. They don’t, however, get to demand participation unless they state up front that it’s expected. And if people say they won’t take part, the religious can accept that fact or not invite the non-believer.

    Expecting people to wear hats is demanding participation. If they invite me (or others) in knowing full well that I’m an atheist – because I tell them in advance – then they don’t get to complain when I don’t participate. I’ve had people expect me to take part in “grace” at a meal, as if they had some “right” to do so, or they thought I would knuckle under in the face of peer pressure. They knew I was an atheist, but I never knew they said “grace” and they obviously never told me they expected it. They cause the scene that occurs, not me.

    The hypocrisy is palpable. I’ve been to the weddings of friends where photographers (pro and amateur) were running up and down the aisles, bumping past people, talking and making noise. Meanwhile, non-theists (myself and others) there for our friends tried to sit quietly through the proceedings but were harassed, were asked to participate or leave.

    We did not do the “stand! sit! beg!” stuff that others did, like dogs on command. We sat quietly, and we were the disruption, not the photographers?

  8. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    The word ‘Lord’ comes from ‘hlāfweard’ meaning ‘bread keeper’. It referred to the chief of the house, who fed his people. I suppose he could handle also meat.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Last summer I was invited to the wedding of my sister-son, and it was made clear that I was supposed to act as a backup photographer. So I checked the church beforehand, selected a place where I had a view to the action, and took the photos and videos from there. No need to run around. I didn’t even use a flash. Modern digicam detectors are surprisingly photosensitive.

    And I’m the atheist in the family.

  10. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    The other time I was in a church this year was the confirmation of my brother’s son. I’m not a member of the church anymore, but as the godfather of the kid I had to appear on the scene. Especially because the godmother couldn’t make it (she works as a doctor in another part of the country).

    So I warned the kid that my blessings might not be valid, because I’m a heathen. He didn’t mind. He’s diagnosed with a slight Asperger, but in this case he was probably smarter than many of the other kids. (BTW, are the autistic spectrum people more or less religious than the average population?)

    Anyway, I went through the motions, and took some photos from the front row that the rest of the family couldn’t, and it all went fine. But still, it felt awkward. All these innocent kids being lied to, and forced to make a public promise to be good xians. Just so that they can get a church wedding a few years later.

  11. deepak shetty says

    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.
    I either wont go or if I do I follow the most of the ritual. if you believe , so strongly , for e.g. that you shouldn’t cover your hair and covering your hair is mandatory (e.g. a sikh gurudwara) then don’t go for the function. I don’t see the point in making a statement within the premises – you can make a statement outside if you choose. I take it as similar to going to a library and speaking loudly because you dont believe you should be silent in a library.

  12. sumdum says

    Recently my brother married, they had a church service and I sang along, although not with some of the more groveling songs. Later the preaching dude held a talk about marriage and the different interpretation Christianity has and jokingly said something to the effect of ‘so are there any heathens here’ to which I and a different brother of mine raised our hands. His wife later said she couldn’t believe we did that. 🙂

  13. richardrobinson says

    If you’re in a place of worship as a non-believer, it’s usually to support friends or family in some rite, so even though you’re not going to participate in the worship, you really should be engaged in the goings on. I’m not sure how you could claim to do that if you remain seated with everyone else standing. I got married in a secular ceremony and I don’t even remember if there was any up-and-down, but I think I would have preferred someone skip the ceremony and join us at the reception than be disengaged, no matter how quietly.

  14. richardrobinson says

    As an ex-catholic, I will sit and stand with the crowd, but I won’t kneel as that’s usually part of a prayer. Like you, Mano, I’ll sing if I know the words, except during the hymn with the whole notes (don’t recall what it’s called) because, again, prayer.

    Regarding communion, some parishes invite non-catholics up for a blessing during communion. You get in line, but instead of putting out your hand to receive a wafer, you put your head down. The priest will put his hand on your head and say a little blessing. I usually just stay seated. It can get awkward if the rows are narrow as all the little old ladies shuffle by and avert their eyes, or sometimes glare.

  15. says

    Another dimension: when visiting other countries, often with more conservative and pervasive religious observance (I’m thinking specifically of Thailand, but the principle applies to a lot of places), how far do I as a feminist go in respecting their rules for their temples? I decided to go with the clothing suggestions (at least t-shirt sleeve length or borrow a shawl, remove the shoes to enter the temple), and with the simpler parts of suggested behaviours like not pointing at people, not showing the soles of my feet to people when sitting, not touching children’s heads/hair or asking to, offering a donation to a Buddhist monk by asking a passing gentleman to hand it over for me (and being willing to perform the same service for a man donating to a Buddhist nun). But I don’t light candles or incense, and I don’t say prayers, and I won’t genuflect to anyone’s god, and don’t mind saying to people that my purpose is to be considerate as a neighbour, and not to trivialize their beliefs by making a show of pretending to also believe. This last applies to Christians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, whatever.

    Also, the many pagan friends I have are very easy-going about other people’s joining in. They’re happy if you do, and completely cool with it if you don’t. Which is probably why I have a lot of pagan friends, because they never push me to believe what they do, or pretend I do.

  16. smrnda says

    Depending on the particular shul or chabad, fedoras or fedora type hats might be more common.

    I suspect this is a confusing business for people more used to Christian standards where, for men at least, wearing a hat is a kind of faux pas.

  17. says

    I dislike your assumption that left0ver1under was “disengaged”.

    When my (catholic) grandfather died, I helped carry his coffin. I sang with my father. Otherwise, I sat quietly through the mass. I was “engaged” in honoring my grandfather. That does not include playing at a religion I don’t believe in.

  18. says

    I find myself attending a decent amount of Catholic masses still. My father’s catholic, my paternal relations are catholic, and we have a number of catholic family friends. When the pews are narrow, I file out with the rest of the people, then move to the other side and stand quietly till they come back.

  19. filethirteen says

    Sometimes it’s good to affirm and participate and sometimes it’s good to stand up for your own beliefs. Not wearing a head covering in a Jewish area offends some people. Wearing a burqa to a supermarket here is also offensive to some people. I’m wondering whether it’s hypocrisy to claim one is okay and the other isn’t.

    Off topic, what are your thoughts on the Sunday Assembly Mano?

  20. Mano Singham says

    I heard about this. I think if people like it they should join it. I myself am not much of a joiner (though not a recluse) but to each his own.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    The only time I’ve entered a synagogue where headcovering was absolutely required was as a member of a youth tour group where opting-out would have caused multiple problems for me and the adults leading the group (and besides I was curious to see the place, a historic building).

    Problem was, they were all out of loaner-yarmulkes. Much clustering and muttering among the doorkeepers ensued.

    Result: I was issued a plastic baggie, about 4 inches on a side, and firmly instructed to keep it on the top of my head at all times while inside. This meant keeping one hand on it the whole visit, even when not gawking at the ornate ceiling, and enduring a continual razzing from my beloved peers.

    Afterwards I duly handed the baggie back to the door-rabbi, who glared at me suspiciously. Had I spoken the local language better, I surely would have said something about his G-d that would have gotten said youth group banned from the premises for years.

  22. DonDueed says

    You want awkward? Try this on for size:

    You’re visiting your parents at Christmas and you are expected to go to church services. You lost whatever faith you once had years before, and they both know it. You attend for their sake. Not being a hypocrite, you don’t go up for communion, though it is quite noticeable to your parents and their friends that you don’t.

    And your father is the minister conducting the service.

    This was my life for many years. Mom and Dad are both gone now, so that little dance won’t have to be repeated. The last time was at the memorial service their long-time church held for them after Dad died last year.

  23. left0ver1under says

    Exactly. I was there for my friends, people who wanted me there. I wasn’t there for the religion.

    My friends actually informed the various churches that non-believers would be attending, but basic courtesy and honesty was beyond them. For once, those who were not white (e.g. friends of Indian descent, sikhs and hindus) were not the ones not being harassed, while the caucasians were.

  24. Pen says

    I feel it is really up to the host group to be clear about their preferences and expectations and the prospective visitor can then choose whether to attend or not. The reason the host group needs to clarify is that the meaning of the code isn’t clear to outsiders. I know I am expected to take my hat off in a church, refrain from talking loudly and keep out of the altar area, but I’m not expected to take communion even if every other person in the church does, because I was never baptised. I know something about Christianity so I understand what lies behind these behaviours but how could the outsider guess why I do one thing like the Christians and not the other? So, despite significant association with Judaism I don’t know whether the kippah denotes membership of the Jewish faith or respect for the religious context. I suspect the latter.

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