Etiquette: Religious Events

Eventually everyone finds herself at a religious ceremony she doesn’t necessarily understand or agree with, and it’s important to behave like a decent human being. If you were invited to a religious event that you don’t necessarily agree with, chances are that it is a Big Fucking Deal to the person who invited you. It was such an important thing that religious boundaries are completely transcended for the day, and you have been included in what may be a big milestone in someone else’s life. 

In the same vein, if you invite someone to your religious event, knowing that the person is not a practitioner of the same faith you are, you should try to be as inclusive and non-judgmental as possible. Obviously this person is so important to you that you want to include them in your big day regardless of their personal beliefs.

I do have experience in these things. I grew up Catholic, first in a Catholic-heavy area, and then in an area of the Midwest where Catholics are considered familiar sorts of pagans. Most of my family is non-practicing and I am dating someone who was raised Baptist. And in case that’s not enough, Catholics have lots of religious milestones. Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Funerals, and each one comes with a party. (Oddly, yes, even the funeral, though it’s kind of somber.) And I went to Southern Baptist Vacation Bible School as a kid, because the VBS at Holy Spirit started after public school began at the beginning of August. Suffice to say, I have been the inviter and the invitee at a good many religious events.

Therefore, I offer some helpful hints for religious events.

As the Invitee

Go with the flow. At least as much as possible. For instance, don’t talk while everyone is praying. I’m not saying you have to bow your head and close your eyes, especially since no one will notice if their heads are all bowed. Just stand there and appreciate the universe, if nothing else, or think about the person who invited you here and how much she must care about you.

Try to participate. People who just sit look sullen. Your attendance is so important to someone, that the least you can do is play an hour of Simon Says. If everyone is standing, stand up. If everyone is singing, grab a hymnal. (I cannot tell you how much fun it is to sing Christmas songs at a Baptist service. They SING ALL THE PARTS.) Just follow the leader. (Unless someone is sacrificing a young virgin or something. But in that case, why do you hang out with murderers? You should probably go call the cops.)

As the Inviter

Do not be a religion pusher. I have seen this happen. I have HAD this happen to me. Be happy that your friend/family member has come to support you on your big day, or loves you so much that she just wants to spend time with you. Appreciate that person for who she is. Do not ask if they want to join your group of cool kids or make sly comments about how they should join your church. Respect your friend’s brain and ability to make her own decisions, unless she has specifically come to you for advice.

Offer helpful hints. I invited my boyfriend to Christmas Mass two years ago. He had never been to Mass, other than once for a wedding and didn’t know that when you cross in front of the altar, you genuflect. I didn’t warn him before I dropped to one knee. Had it not been for a sweet spin move, he would have tripped over me in front of the whole congregation. In other words, WARN THE NEWBIE. Being in an unfamiliar situation is bad enough. Being in an unfamiliar situation and looking like an idiot? Awful. Just be a good friend.

And overall, just be understanding. Not everyone believes the same thing, but I think we can all agree that when you love someone, you respect that person and their beliefs no matter what, regardless of whether you share those beliefs or not. So go to your niece’s bat mitzvah, watch your friends quite literally tie the knot in a beautiful handfasting ceremony, or congratulate your cousin on finishing seminary.

And if there’s a party afterwards, count me in.

By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

16 replies on “Etiquette: Religious Events”

As what seems like the only Jewish person in Catholic-land, I’ve had more than my fair share of cross-religious events. It has gotten tricky for me a few times, mostly because Jewish people don’t kneel during religious services, and Catholics kneel all the time, and that’s one of the few times I won’t go along with the crowd so as not to call attention to myself, because it’s directly oppositional to what I believe.

Communion is tricky, too. Obviously, I don’t take it, but several times I’ve been in circumstances where the priest has asked everyone to still come up and if you aren’t taking communion to cross your arms or whatever and they’ll give a generic blessing. My problem with that is: A) panic disorder, and B) the blessing is always still Jesus-centric. To be honest, I generally sit in the back of the church and try to be as unobtrusive as possible because I don’t want to be rude or cause a spectacle.

Oh, and since many people don’t think of this, please warn someone if a funeral is open casket. My first one of those was… memorable, since no one thought to mention it, because they didn’t know Jews don’t have open casket services. Let’s just say all of my many years of retail training at staying thoroughly unflappable in any circumstance came in awfully handy there.

I’m so glad to see the when-their-practices-aren’t-just-different-but-contradict thing mentioned. I have cousins who are irish catholic (my aunt lisa married into a family). I know that there are certain aspects (as you mention) that I will not be able to follow through with when they get married/have kids baptized/a thousand other things. And that can be nerve wracking when the general advice is “when in rome”.

ETA: On the other hand, I hope I have the forbearance NOT to invite my anti-circ friends to a bris if I ever have a son. THAT could get awkward. . .

Speaking as someone who finds infant circumcision quite odd and distressing, if a friend invited me to one I’d probably try to show up only afterwards, and not be there for the actual surgery. Would that be very rude +/ totally not the point of inviting someone to a bris?

I don’t know that I’d invite someone who was uncomfortable with it to a bris. But I’m not sure what would be rude or not- I know I’d rather have someone just say that they can’t come if they are opposed than to show up and be upset.  But I don’t think at this point it’d be something I’d have performed in front of non-Jews, just the required participants, so what you’d likely be invited to is the after party. But you could check if you were really concerned? IDK.

As a raised-Catholic-but-now-agnostic, I generally don’t kneel during Mass either, or go up for a ‘blessing’. It’s never been an issue (except when I was in school, but that’s another day’s story). At a recent funeral, I was sitting in the pew with my boyfriend’s family and friends (who are all ex-Protestants/present-day hippies:) ), none of us went up for Communion, and it was nice to be in the heathen row:) I recommend that method if available…

I’m an ex-Catholic-turned-heathen myself, and I usually go through the motions if I have to be at Mass. Probably because usually my grandfather is there and he would be unhappy if I were too resistant.

(In my head I also thought “plus, free wine.” I’m definitely going to hell.)

Not kneeling and not going up for communion are fairly common at my church, and even more so at events like weddings and funerals where non-Catholics are likely to be present. I can’t speak for every community, but it wouldn’t cause a lot of fuss around my church. Then again, the idea of the priest encouraging everyone to come up for a blessing regardless is foreign to me. If anything our priest encourages people to not come up if they haven’t been to confession lately.

If I’m with someone from outside of the faith, I try and swing for a seat at the back of the church so that they don’t have to feel like the whole community is watching them if they decide they aren’t comfortable with something.

Exactly!  It is always good to discuss with a friend what they might see or experience when visiting your event.  I attended mass with a friend in elementary school and got scolded by the priest that I was not catholic and couldn’t take communion.  My friend only asked if I had done communion, yes in my church I had, but we did it differently than she did.  Still very interesting.  I attended a Hindu wedding in Malaysia that was beautiful and fascinating.  It is wonderful to see how people do things differently.

I love this article! I think part of inviting someone or being the invitee at a religious event is being able to ask questions or give answers pre-emptively in the same vein as being a good host/ess. It seems that good old hospitality should be a rule of thumb. If inviting, make your guests comfortable. If invited, don’t be a terror. ;)

I (luckily) don’t have any experience with these situations, but I will just add ‘watch your (foul)-mouth’ to the tips. Because it’s not like I exclaimed ‘Jesus!’ during a visit at my slightly Catholic grandparents-in-law (and on the first meeting as well. I am definitely the Loud City Girl now).

I think generally respecting differences in beliefs is the absolute key. Even if you’re not technically at a religious event but a religious thing happens. Example: I went to a friend’s family picnic thing and they were all Baptist but I’m just a non-believing heathen. So when they all joined hands to say grace I just smiled and quietly stepped aside and waited for them to finish. Probably would have been a little rude for me to dive into the potato salad mid-prayer. And no one gave me any grief about it. Mutual respect isn’t that hard.

Also, protip, when at the party after your nephew has been ordained, don’t sit near to a pack of nuns and talk in a loud voice about how your camera takes “A damn fine picture.” Please. So much contact embarrassment on that one.

And my rule of thumb on participation has always been to do as much as you are comfortable with, and when you choose not to participate, do not make a spectacle of non-participation. I don’t mind if you aren’t comfortable singing, or kneeling, or what have you. There is stuff I am not comfortable with either. Just make it so that others aren’t distracted by you.

 do not make a spectacle of non-participation.

THIS. I’ve been at a lot of religious things that I find weird/infuriating but it’s not about me. Hopefully, the most anyone ever saw me do was squeeze my boyfriend’s hand really hard. Hopefully.

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