Musings On Religion, Holidays, and the In Laws

Family Saying Grace, 1585

Family Saying Grace, 1585 [Via]

We’ve spoken a bit about etiquette in places of worship already, though the idea is pretty simple. Be respectful, dress conservatively to be on the safe side, and ask if there’s anything you’re unsure about. However, most of us aren’t just popping into random religious services all the time. What’s more likely is that you’re invited to participate in a service or tradition by your close friends and family, especially your In Laws, and with 45% of marriages in the US between people of different faiths, this probably happens a lot!

While my relationship is not interfaith, our families are. My husband’s family is Jewish, and mine is a combination of vaguely Christian, Hindu, and “have you read the new Sam Harris book?” As such, there are occasions where we’ll be asked to participate in services and traditions we don’t believe in, which can be difficult depending on your view of religion.

Here’s my thing: I have a hard time participating in a religious ceremony or tradition if I know I don’t believe it, no matter how welcome my hosts have made me feel. To me, it feels dishonest to fake it while everyone around me earnestly believes what’s being said. I’ve been told many times throughout my life that I just need to go with the flow, and there are times where I have been able to ignore it  and have a good time. But usually I feel like it’s not my place to be there and participate, even if I’ve been explicitly invited. I am a crazy person and maybe you shouldn’t be turning to me for etiquette advice. Oops.

There’s also a difference between a ceremony taking place in a place of worship, or in a more private setting. In a church I can stand and sit along with everyone else, and no on will notice if I don’t say “amen.” However, there are certain rituals that take place in the home, and it’s a lot more obvious if I’m not participating.

Okay, so what does this mean in terms of practical etiquette? Well, if you get the sense that someone is not comfortable practicing your religion, do not ask them to “go with the flow.” That’s like telling an anxious person to “just calm down,” like really, you don’t think they tried that already? Also, be up front about what’s expected, and be gracious if they cannot meet those expectations, even if they seem minimal to you. If you’re the one being asked to participate, ask questions and participate where you can, and if anyone asks why you’re not participating in a certain ritual, explain that you don’t feel comfortable doing so. If they try to pressure you, they’re the rude ones. Also, see if there are other places you can help out, such as cooking some of a meal or helping set things up. It’ll show you’re grateful for being invited and included, even if you don’t feel like fully participating.

Etiquette in Places of Worship

Notre dame noel 2006Sometimes we might find ourselves in a religious space that is not our own. Here are some very general tips to help you not embarrass yourself. Also, remember that even within a religion, there is a TON of variation, so consider these extremely general guidelines.

In General:

  • Be respectful of beliefs that are not your own.

  • Be quiet before and during all services-turn your phone off (and don’t dare use it unless an emergency), no talking or excessive rustling.

  • Follow along with whatever everyone else is doing if you are unsure.

  • Dress fairly conservatively, many places of worship require arms and legs to be covered (or have more specific requirements), even if visiting as a tourist. Check before you go.

  • If you are inviting a non-member to your place of worship, it would be kind to give them a rundown of what to expect and what is expected of them.

  • Don’t eat or drink, unless you are specifically offered something as part of the service.

Christian Churches:

  • Be very quiet even before services start, people use the time for reflection and prayer. In fact, you should almost never talk above a whisper in church as there are always people who wish to pray. Churches are very similar to libraries.

  • Stand when the congregation stands but you may sit while they kneel.

  • Communion: if you do not wish to participate, you can remain in the pew. If the pew is too narrow to allow this and let others pass, you can go up and cross your arms over your chest to signal that you are not participating. (Note: in the Catholic faith, only Catholics are allowed to receive communion, it is very disrespectful to take communion if you aren’t Catholic.)

  • You are welcome to follow along with the prayers, or to keep silent.

  • Don’t applaud after any music or singing.

  • There are many different denominations, so don’t expect every church to be exactly the same. Many have looser or stricter requirements.

  • Grace: you may be asked to say grace when dining in a Christian home. There are a number of well known graces you can say if you feel comfortable, but a general thanking of the host and talking about the beauty of the food is fine. If you want more of a “grace” feel, you could try this secularized version: “for what we are about to receive, let us be truly thankful. Amen.” If someone else is saying grace, follow along with everyone else and either bow your head or join hands respectfully and either say amen at the end, or say nothing.

Jewish Synagogues

  • At many synagogues, most men will be wearing a yarmulke (a small round hat, also known as a kippa). They may have extras for you to borrow. Apparently it is not required, but it strongly suggested in more conservative synagogues.

  • There is a lot of standing and sitting, just go along with what everyone else is doing.

  • Services can last from 3-4 hours, so often people come and go and don’t stay for the entire time.

  • When the Ark is open, you shouldn’t enter or leave the sanctuary.

  • Don’t put prayer books on the floor.

  • Kiss anything that has fallen on the floor, like yarmulkes and prayer books.

  • It is inappropriate to applaud.

Muslim Mosques

  • Remove hats and shoes

  • Do not point your feet at the Qibla, the wall that aligns to the direction of Mecca.

  • Women are required to cover their heads, and everyone should cover as much skin as possible.

  • Sometimes there might be separate entrances or separate areas for men and women.

  • You may be greeted with the phrase “Assalam Allaikum” to which the correct response is “Wa alaikum-as-salam” though no one is really going to expect you to say it.

  • It is customary to enter with your right foot first and leave with your left foot first.

  • If you are a tourist, you should avoid coming to the mosque during the 5 daily prayer times.

Buddhist Shrines

  • Remove your hats and shoes.

  • Dress modestly, long pants are preferred to shorts.

  • Do not touch the Buddha statue. It is also respectful to back away from the Buddha statue a few paces before turning your back on it.

  • Pointing is very rude. If you need to indicate something, gesture with your whole RIGHT hand, palm up. Also don’t point your feet at any people or Buddhas.

  • If any monks or nuns enter while you are sitting, stand up.

  • Only use your right hand when giving or receiving anything.

  • Women should be careful not to touch a monk or to hand them anything directly as they must perform a lengthy cleansing ritual after any contact with a woman.

  • In the opposite style of a mosque, it is traditional to enter with your left foot and leave with your right foot.

  • You may greet monks by putting your palms together and bowing slightly.

Hindu Temple

  • You will usually need to take off your shoes. Many temples have cubbies outside where you can keep them, but if you’re worried about that, bring a bag and slip them in there.

  • There are generally pastes, flowers, and other objects that will be put on you. Be aware that you might get dirty.

  • Use only your right hand when making offerings.

  • There may be some places in the temple you are not allowed to go if you are not Hindu, so be aware that you may be blocked from entering certain rooms.