In the American Atheists Magazine second quarter 2014 edition (available by subscription or at Barnes and Noble), there’s an article by Dale DeBakcsy called “Athe-quette.” It’s about etiquette for Atheists and describes common situations and the proper Atheist response to those situations. For example, what do you say to a store clerk who wishes you “Merry Christmas,” or what do you say to the door-to-door proselytizer? Freethinkers may have fundamental problems with rules of etiquette because they replace the thinking about any given situation and insert a learned, possibly rehearsed, almost dogmatic response. Each situation discussed in the American Atheist’s article deserves an entire blog entry and may receive one in the future, but here I’ll discuss the idea of etiquette and proper response to religious invocations.
It is a good idea to be always prepared like in the Boy Scout motto and I can agree partially with the idea of etiquette rules. They help us to be ready and confident. On the other hand, there is usually more than one way to do a thing. There may be only one basic table setting but there are many ways to react in a given social situation involving the mix of believers and non-believers. Flexibility is the key. The American Atheist magazine included alternate responses for the store clerk that tells you, “Merry Christmas.” Mr. DeBakcsy suggests simply responding with “Happy Holidays” is fine. A better one would be, “Ah, and a happy season to you!” because it carries the message that you’ve acknowledged the spirit of the greeting while simultaneously offering a “whiff of secular suggestion,” but intent is so hard to convey. We’d all like to hope that every “Merry Christmas” we receive is a sincere expression of good will but that is not always the case. Sometimes responding with “Happy Holidays” or ANYTHING other than an acknowledgement of “Christmas” is met with poorly camouflaged hostility. Ideally, codes of etiquette would avoid such confrontations but they don’t always.
According to Wikipedia, there are three types of etiquette: Hygiene, courtesy, and cultural norms. Hygiene rules are necessary in our society to prevent disease transmission and should become second nature as they are drilled into our behavior from an early age. Courtesy rules ease social interactions and cultural norms help with group identity and status. The Atheist Etiquette rules fall into the areas of courtesy and social norms.
When people gather together, there is usually an invocation that calls for a blessing from a supreme being. Courtesy rules and cultural norms demand that all people attending stand, remove their hats, bow their heads, and remain silent during the invocation and allow the person to finish the invocation without interruption. This is a good time for us to play the game, “Heads up Atheists.” It’s a non-compliant way to pass the time even though these intrusions of religiosity usually last a couple of minutes at most. While the speaker is going on about his favorite deity and often editorializing, don’t bow your head and look at your feet. Instead, hold your head up and look for other Atheists in the room.
We should be participating and giving our own invocations from time to time. Protocol for giving invocations can be found on the internet. A Toastmasters group defines an invocation as a form of prayer intended to secure the blessings of a supreme being. The speaker is addressing a deity on behalf of the group. There is a four step formula: 1. Give recognition to the supreme creator, 2. Unify by stating the purpose of the gathering and making everyone feel welcome, 3. Give thanks to the organization, its purpose, and the people involved, and 4. Release—a statement of conclusion (Amen). Obviously, we’d leave off the first step but check out how our own Arizona state representative Juan Mendez covers the other three in this YouTube video clip.