Being nonreligious, I no longer say grace before meals, but I do appreciate the work of the farmer, the cook (typically myself) and, especially, nature. So as a parent, I want to convey to my daughter the appropriateness of thoughtful reflection on where our food comes from, but I also want to be clear that our appreciation does not require a supernatural provider. I say if you’re giving the glory to God then you must be stealing it from somebody else.
I think it’s common for religious people to think atheists must be inherently unappreciative and thoughtless. This is far from true in our house. In fact, I happen to think the religious view that everything good comes from God is so simplistic it’s effectively mindless and therefore thoughtless. But I digress.
So my daughter, C, who is in kindergarten, has a very good friend, K, who is being raised Mormon. My husband and I get along with K’s parents very well. They are genuinely nice people. Of course, at playdates where I provide her dinner, K insists on saying a prayer before eating. K took it upon herself to coach my daughter on the importance of this ritual and how to properly close her eyes and place her palms together in front of her. I allowed this because I view it as a cultural exposure that I can discuss with C later. But it became clear that C felt disadvantaged; she did not have her own similar expression she could teach K. So I provided her with one that her dad and I agreed was a pretty good alternative.
I printed out a poem I had first encountered, ironically, in a 1984 movie Mel Gibson starred in about a farm family (The River). In the movie, the kids say grace before eating, but what they say is so uncharacteristically nonreligious for a farm family I rewound the video and wrote it down for future use:
Earth, who gives to us this food
Sun, who makes it ripe and good
Dearest Earth, Dearest Sun,
We won’t forget what you have done.
Now, we’re not a family of nature worshippers, just nature appreciators. And we explained to C that it’s not a “prayer” but is rather a poem that talks about how nature is the source of our life, a big part of which is the food we eat. We asked C whether we can plant seeds in a god (“no”), water the ground with a god (“no, of course not”), dig the earth with a god instead of a shovel (“no, that’s silly!”), and pointed out the bees often help pollinate the crops, and bees aren’t gods, so nature is what our family thinks is important. It’s appropriate to give credit to nature when we think about food.
C enthusiastically adopted and memorized “Dearest Earth.” The latest news is that when our little heathen C goes to K’s house for dinner, K’s family has instituted a rule. If one girl says a prayer before the afterschool snack then the other girl gets to say her poem before the main meal. Which I think is a graceful solution.