The holiday season usually sees me visiting my family in Miami. While they’re not as overwhelmingly zealous as Ania’s family, they’ve made a point to remind me that my not being a Christian is something they don’t like. Amusingly, they’ve even suggested I privately doubt while going through the motions and living, to all appearances, as a Christian, to spare them the difficulty of having to deal with the existence of atheists and the shame of having one so close to home. Apparently “thou shalt not bear false witness” has an addendum somewhere about cultural hegemony.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about right now. The single most ubiquitous religious tradition I have to confront when I spend time with my family, besides the displayed crosses, images of La Virgen de Caridad, and Bible verses scattered all over the walls, is saying grace. Those of us from Christian (and perhaps some other) backgrounds are probably familiar with the practice of offering a prayer of thanks over a meal. My family is fond of extending the short ritual into a longer expression of gratitude for any of various good things, such as continued health and the fact that we live in a “free” country. Other times, this can extend into a drawn-out sermon about all of the things people have to be thankful for and what version of a proper Christian life would constitute an appropriate long-term expression of thanks, but that’s rarer for us. Generally, I just sit quietly through this ritual and look around the room or at the food, since the standard practice is to close one’s eyes and pray along. It’s an opportunity to gauge how seriously various family members take this practice, to see if anyone else isn’t praying either, or if anyone’s checking me for similar noncompliance.
But have you ever thought about what saying grace actually means?
On the one hand, it’s a harmless, even beneficial tradition of recognizing things that are good in our lives, especially things that have come to us unbidden. The ritual of saying grace could easily be a humbling experience that helps people recognize how much of what they have, they didn’t earn. There might be few practices better-suited to training people to understand the concept of privilege than saying grace.
But if we recognize and—this is the important part that my parents tend to lose—take seriously the religious language that cloaks this ritual, an altogether different picture emerges. Thanking God for rain, or health, or for your three beautiful children, or for a gerrymandered-to-hell Republican House only makes sense if God didn’t have to provide those things. If the goodness of God were as mechanically consistent as gravity or electromagnetism—if God were actually omnibenevolent, as many Christians describe him—the idea of thanking God for anything would be ridiculous. In that situation, God could not possibly not do good things for people, just as gravity can’t not pull objects toward each other with a force proportional to their masses. Giving thanks only makes sense if the entity being thanked had the choice to do otherwise. This isn’t like thanking the DMV clerk for doing their job—it’s like thanking raindrops for hitting the ground. If saying grace means anything, it can only be because God has the option to be a jerk, and one is thanking God for not exercising that option. We call that theodicy.
The ritual of grace has another, weirder implication. The way that grace prayers are formulated, and the things for which people express thanks, show a curiously limited God at work. The prayer is always, “Thank you for the food on our table,” not, “thank you for not making us hungry.” “Thank you for the roof over our heads,” not “thank you for making the entire world a balmy paradise from which we do not need to hide.” “Thank you for protecting us from the beasts of the night,” not, “Thank you for populating the world with so many wonderful animal friends.”
Why indeed would we thank God for putting food on our table when, the Christian tells us, it was God who made us need food in the first place? Why thank God for the roof when an omnipotent God could have made us impervious to weather? Why thank God for the lack of lion maulings lately when God could just as easily have made lions uninterested in human flesh?
It’s because they don’t believe that God controls those things. They’ll say that their God is omnipotent and all-powerful and all-good if one ask them directly, but if one asks them about the specific subject of their prayers, it’s another matter entirely. God could have made Abuela’s back problems disappear in seconds, instead of giving us the economic means to pay for her medicine, but he…can’t? The practice of saying grace speaks to a truth about Christianity that many Christians find difficult to admit. Saying grace, and intercessory prayer in general, assumes a world whose present shape is outside God’s design, and a God whose options for acting in that world are sorely limited. Saying grace is predicated on a fallen world, a world in which God operates but in which God is most emphatically not in control. Instead, the world is a savage, evil, deadly place, full of plagues and storms and slavering maws, a place that is not made for us. Our continued persistence in this hostile world, say these Christians when they are being honest, is due to the periodic interference of a being of cosmic providence who can tweak events to protect us and even bless us, but who cannot change this world enough to make it less hostile. Christians have a patron, a being who sponsors them against the arrayed forces of a world that would otherwise obliterate all humankind. (Unless they’re gay, or talk back to their parents, or wear mixed fabrics…) They do not have a benevolent, omnipotent creator.
If anything, the entity that so altered the world that it stole the supposed omnipotence of God is the true power in the world that Christians assume when they say grace.
By thanking God for being good, the Christian admits that God had the option to be bad, but not the option to be better. And this is the being whose absence is supposed to make our non-theistic lives cold, joyless hellscapes.
But that’s the funny thing—this very limitation is what makes God so dear to this version of Christian. Separating oneself from that belief, even long enough to try to understand the implications of a godless world, seems like turning one’s back on the sole force of order and protection in a chaotic, antagonistic universe. Ania’s mother once told us that, if it turned out God didn’t exist, she’d kill herself, as she’d have nothing left for which to live. This is what she meant—for her, a world without God implies a world without any of the things that she values, a world in which anyone would be hard-pressed to avoid suicide. People like her are convinced that atheists live hardscrabble, Hobbesian lives of subterfuge and toil because they are convinced that only through supplicating God (sometimes not even their god) is anything better possible. The idea that God’s existence is a separate question is quite beyond the presuppositions they are willing to entertain.
And the fact that our lives aren’t necessarily like that? That we succeed at our careers and grow our families and pursue our hobbies and live in happiness as well or better than they do? That terrifies them. That shows them that the world out there is not arrayed specifically against all of us, that the lions and storms and recessions don’t appear specifically to maim and starve us. It shows them a world that simply is, that operates according to logical, consistent, knowable principles. It shows them a world where knowledge is power.
It’s a testament to how fundamentally sick the religious mindset is that they find this as terrifying as they do.