When a Humanist Is Asked to Pray

In Ghana it is customary to start and end every meeting with a prayer. What kind of meeting doesn’t matter: PTA meeting, building project meeting, NGO planning meeting–they all start and end with a prayer. Ghana is one of the most religious countries in the world, so while there are Christians, Muslims, and traditionalists, it’s assumed everyone prays to God and the prayers are generic enough to include these belief systems. Or, sometimes, one of the prayers is Muslim and one is Christian–the two most common religions present in Ghana by far. I’m in Ghana working with the Humanist Service Corps. We don’t really pray.

Our volunteering program is not exclusively for self-identifying humanists. In fact we’ve had religious volunteers on our team. Our philosophy of service however is based on humanist ideals and we expect our volunteers to adhere to those ideals as they go about their work. Does this mean we make a fuss about the prayers at all our meetings? Quite the opposite. We are strictly anti-proselytization, and that applies to ourselves as well. We are guests in this country and prayers to open and close meetings is the custom here. I do what I often do when prayers are happening around me–bow my head slightly and keep quiet until it’s finished.

But it’s not always that simple. The people we work with in the field almost never know what our beliefs are. For one thing, it’s not relevant to the work we are doing. For another thing, though humanist is in our name–Humanist Service Corps (HSC) –”humanist” isn’t an identity well known enough in Ghana to reveal that we don’t pray. So we are sometimes asked to lead the prayers ourselves–an honor for the guest. Different volunteers have come up with different strategies for when this arises. Some politely decline and ask that someone else do the prayer. Some do a secular version of a prayer–wishing health and happiness for those present without calling upon God to provide it. Some do a short religious prayer mimicking the prayers we hear from Ghanaians.

Personally, I waffle between politely declining and saying a secular prayer-like invocation depending on my mood and the context. This is very different than my reaction to the same situation in the United States. I said before that I often bow my head and wait for a prayer to be over. That’s what I do when someone in my family prays before Thanksgiving dinner or during prayers at interfaith events. That’s not what I do in every context. If I were at a meeting with city officials in the United States and someone suggested we pray to start the meeting, I would protest. “Have you heard of separation of church and state? Suggesting we start with a prayer is completely inappropriate!” Prayers when meeting with a government official has happened several times here in Ghana, and I haven’t said a word.

What’s the difference? This is a different context and though my humanist identity is unchanged, my role is. As a US citizen, my right and duty is to speak up when I feel something is wrong. What higher duty does a US citizen have than to make their country a more inclusive and equal country for all? Furthermore, I am versed in social norms and etiquette, so I largely understand the larger consequences of breaking  to make a point, or publicly pointing out that someone else is breaking them. In Ghana, not only are the nuances of what’s going on beyond my comprehension, but it’s not my place to insist that social norms change for my sake–for some stranger’s sake.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m pushing back. I’ve written before about how I feel every conversation I have when Ghanaian men ask me about my husband and children and I tell them I’m not married, have no plans to marry, that I will adopt if I have children, and my father has no say in any of this–is doing the work of challenging their assumptions about women’s roles and worth. I believe the same dynamic is at play during the prayer interactions. I can push back by being myself–by saying my version of prayer and explaining my actions when asked. But I don’t have a right in this context to insist that they don’t pray even if I think it’s inappropriate. (Which I usually do. But I also have to remember that Ghana does not have any sort of separation of church and state clause in its constitution.)

There is some light for humanists in Ghana. In the past few months, we’ve been building a relationship with a new partner with whom we hope to work with, in addition to our current partner, for the next few years. It’s the beginning of the relationship between our two organizations and we are still figuring out what our unspoken group norms will be. At our first meeting with the new partner’s whole staff and our whole team, knowing we are a secular humanist organization, the partner’s director started the meeting by saying that it is customary to begin meetings in Ghana with a prayer. We told him that we were used to it. He suggested that instead of a prayer, we could start with a moment of silence so everyone in the room who wanted to pray could. I thought that was a wonderful compromise and it gives me a lot of faith in the potential strength of our partnership because he is looking to make us comfortable even when it comes to something that is a given in Ghanaian culture.

Before I go, please indulge me for just a minute to let you know that we–HSC–are in the midst of our yearly fundraising drive. HSC is the only international secular service organization and we are dedicated to culturally responsible, sustainable service. If that is a philosophy of service you support, please consider donating or spreading the word about our existence to anyone you think should know about our organization.

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