To an atheist, the idea of praying to God before a meal seems silly. God didn't put the food on the table, but plenty of others had a hand -- the farm workers who grew and harvested the food, the truck drivers who transported it, the person who earned the money to buy the food and the person who cooked the food. Still, saying grace is one of the most common spoken prayers an atheist will encounter, and it's just good manners to be polite.
At the Atheist's Home
Others shouldn't expect to say a prayer before a meal at an atheist's home, especially if they are aware that the person is an atheist. If you're hiding your beliefs, though, there can be some confusion. One way to handle the situation is to just dig in once everyone has been served. Anyone who prefers to pray before a meal is free to do so quietly. However, it's also polite and appropriate to allow others to say a prayer, especially if that's more likely to keep the peace. It all depends on family dynamics.
At a Religious Person's Home
If you're dining at a believer's home, expect the guests to say grace together. Don't start eating your food until they've said the prayer. During the prayer, you should hold hands, if that's what everyone else is doing, and sit quietly. You don't have to participate in the prayer, bow your head and close your eyes or say, "Amen," at the end, unless it makes you more comfortable to do so.
At a Public Event
Expect a prayer before any meal at an event sponsored by a religious organization and follow the same protocol you would at the home of a religious person. State-sponsored events, though, should be prayer-free, in keeping with the idea of separation of church and state, which is based in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Separation isn't always the case, though, especially if you live in a more conservative area, where people assume that everyone is Christian. In that case, you can just sit quietly, but consider complaining after the event so that it doesn't happen again. Write a letter to the organization that sponsored the event, letting them know how uncomfortable it made you feel to sit through a prayer at a non-religious, public event. You can also report the event to the American Civil Liberties Union or the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Saying a Blessing as an Atheist
Occasionally, you may be asked to lead the prayer before dinner, which can present an awkward moment. If you're the one saying the blessing, you don't have to mention God. Instead, mention the others to whom you are thankful, or stick with a standard, non-religious message, such as, "May we have grateful hearts for all we receive and be ever mindful of the needs of others."
- Dick Luria/Photodisc/Getty Images