A Humanist Grace

In many places, when you have a large gathering of people for a fancy meal, it is often customary for someone to lead the group in a prayer, called “Divine Grace,” or just Grace. For those who are particularly religious, it is seen as a recognition that God was responsible for (but not obligated to providing) the meal they are about to eat. And indeed some such people will say grace before every meal.

This can sometimes be funny when it comes to what exactly constitutes a “meal” worthy of saying grace – does dessert count if you eat it afterward? How about a bag of cheetos in the afternoon? I once had a friend who would pause uttering casual expletives mid-sentence at the moment he sat down at the table to pray, and promptly resume when the private invocation had been completed! I also remember a dating show with a very awkward guy in red goggles who forgot to pray and had to excuse himself in the middle of eating his pie.

For those who are more moderate with their religious beliefs, saying Grace is a recognition that not everyone is fortunate enough to have this much food on the table, and to ‘thank their lucky stars,’ so to speak, that they have this food to enjoy. God takes a more indirect role in the presence of the ensuing feast, but still features as a prime mover behind the prime rib. Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub.

In one episode of The Simpson’s, Bart was asked to say grace. He joked aloud, “Dear God: We paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing!

I do not believe that a deity had any role in the food that I am about to eat tonight. As an atheist, I see a great many people giving responsibility to something that probably does not exist. (And what about the complexities of attributing such responsibility in less fortunate cases?) As a Humanist, I see them forgetting about very real persons who had direct and indirect roles in the food on their table.

I’m not just talking about the family members who paid for the food, or those who cooked it. But what about the farmers who grew it? Who thanks them? How about the laborers on those farms? Let’s not forget the people who cleaned, gutted, and chopped the meat on that table, or the cheesemakers that curdled the milk and aged it to perfection? Going farther back, what about the breeders who selected which animals to breed, giving you that large-breasted turkey or that Angus beef? Even more importantly, the breeders (And today, genetic engineers) behind that delicious ear of sweet corn, the tomatoes, potatoes, berries, wheat, etcetera?

My spouse Ariela and I came up with an idea. Owing a little bit to the kind of dinner deconstruction found in the works of Michael Pollan and others, and to my longstanding beliefs about giving credit where credit is due, we came up with a Humanist Grace:

When you sit down to a special meal with just your family, or even more, take a moment to recognize some of the people that played a role in your dinner. Don’t do it every night, or make it an endless tedium that gets dull. Do it when your dinner is a big deal – and when you have the time to sit down and enjoy it.

If you know exactly who farmed your cabbage or slaughtered your chicken, this gives you a chance to think about your dependence upon their efforts. If you try to eat local food, this gives you a chance to indirectly pat yourself on the back for making that effort.

If you don’t know who exactly grew your food, you can still recognize their contribution. Mind you, no one you are talking about will hear you (unless someone at your table grew some food and is on your list). But the people at the table will hear you, and you will hear you. This is about connecting you and your dinner guests to what is about to be eaten. And it may even make your dinner seem so much more special.

If you have rambunctious kids like Bart Simpson, this still gives them a chance to rebel as they pick up a lengthy food package label and read off all the different sources of ingredients and who must have made them. Sometimes I’ll joke about the role of government subsidies or foreign oil in getting the food to the table. So it can be a bit of fun as well!

Saying a Humanist Grace, for the religiously un-inclined or moderate, gives you a way to punctuate the beginning of your meal with something special that serves a useful function for the evening and for your general agricultural awareness. You don’t have to be a Humanist, or an atheist for that matter to join in on this idea – it is entirely nondenominational. And for those who are very strongly religious, how about working a few people into the pre-supper equation?

Thanksgiving is an American holiday that institutionalizes thanking people in our lives for the things they do that have benefited us. Why not, on such a day, start a tradition of thanking just a few people every now and then that helped provide what you are about to eat, and start your dinner with a Humanist Grace?

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.