Secular Rites of Passage

Will Preachers Conduct
Atheistic Wedding Ceremonies?

Lauren and Amy

From: Lauren
To: “Positive Atheism”
Sent: July 30, 2002

Hi,

My fiancé and I are both atheists. We want a non-religious wedding, but do not wish to go through a justice of the peace. I am having a really hard time finding a certified clergy who will marry us on our terms, with us helping to write the speech. Do you know of any openminded clergy in Indiana? If you know of any who might be willing to marry an atheist couple in Indiana, please, if you would, help me get in contact with those individual. I have tried every source I could think of.

Thank you for your help.

Sincerely,
Lauren

  

From: “Amy”
To: “Positive Atheism”
Sent: October 21, 2002

Hi Cliff!

It’s your long lost friend, Amy. How are you? I hope you’re feeling better these days.

I’m writing to ask some professional advice. I’m getting married next year and of course I’ll be having a secular ceremony. As you can imagine, I’m having a hard time finding any sample ceremonies that I can use for ideas in attempting to write my own vows.

Is this something you’ve come across? Is there somewhere on the PAM website that might help? Some website you may know of?

I’d appreciate any direction you may be able to provide!

Thanks so much!
Amy

  

September, 2002

This is YOUR Wedding!
This is Your Wedding!!

Boy! You’d almost think this was June or something! Ah, but we’re atheists, aren’t we!

I remember when I was a little boy, Mom showed me the photos of their wedding. It looked odd, being a garden rather than a church, and she sensed my puzzlement: “We were married in the back yard of the house where I grew up!”

Oh, okay! I had been to a few weddings, but they had been at churches. Ditto for the ones I’d seen on television (which, for me, back then, was still indistinguishable from real life). I didn’t know you could — just — get married anywhere!

Yes, since then I’ve seen where people have gotten married while skydiving, while scuba diving, at the beach, on the bus where they met, even at a nudist camp. And yes, Mom and Dad, though atheists, had a preacher conduct the ceremonies. Since old-school Unitarianism plays no small role in her family’s cultural heritage, the preacher was a Unitarian. Too bad only a few years earlier her grandfather, a Unitarian minister of the Deist school, had died, as he surely would have done the honors for them. I met my Dad’s Mom’s Mom, but sure wish I could have met Mom’s Dad’s Dad! Fortunately enough of the heritage from both individuals was carried down and given to us!

An old friend of mine is Rock and Roll performer Mojo Nixon, now a disc jockey in Cincinnati (so I hear), which is pretty close to Indiana. As part of his singing persona, Mojo became an ordained minister through the Universal Life Church, as did myself, about the same time, give or take. Unlike myself, I hear Mojo keeps his license up to date so he his outrageous persona can perform weddings. During my most recent amorous fling, she and I were both such adamant Mojobones we instantly decided to jettison both of our principled objections to marriage just so we could have Mojo perform the service!! I’m sure he’d love to see me again: it’s been years and years!

Officiating weddings is a great sideline business for just about anybody with a strong voice and clear diction! With no inventory to keep up-to-date, your gig is pure profit — just like preaching religion! (Well, hell! Were it not for religion sewing the erosive seeds of doubt and temptation, we wouldn’t need to promise to stay together. Instead, we’d simply stay together, okay? unless there was a very compelling reason not to, of course.) In the marriage business, you don’t have to worry about dissatisfied customers: if the product doesn’t work, it’s the customers’ fault, not the person who officiated the wedding! This is not unlike preaching the Gospel. In principle (but not in real life), by the time customers would be in a position to even know they’d been taken, they would longer exist to even know that the preacher pulled a fast one on them (much less do something about it)! What a wonderful racket! No wonder the clergy constantly jumps up and down about “family values” and the Christian political opportunists push legislation to make things easier on those who have undergone the religious rite of marriage: more money for the preachers — who never, ever conduct these ceremonies for free.

Contrast the popularity of marriage among religionists with the report within the City University of New York’s 1999 survey or religious affiliation: they tell us that atheists are about half as likely to marry as are the mainstream of religious folks.

No wonder heterosexual marriage is so big among Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christian political exploiters! What if these trends among atheists (in which half of us, for whatever reason, choose, instead of marriage, what the City University pollsters for some reason called “shacking up”) spread beyond atheism? Where would this neat little source of income go?

This is where I’d normally jump in and say, “Seriously, ...”

But I am being serious! My point is that marrying people is good business!

And like any careful businesswoman or businessman, we can expect those in the business of performing Rites of Passage to have a hefty arsenal of tools for the trade. We expect this of any competent professional plying whatever trade. Indeed, you should see my collection of dictionaries and grammar handbooks — to say nothing about my professional grade fonts, word processors, page layout and graphics programs, and, of course, the excruciatingly spendy software for manipulating PDF images!

Like burying the dead, somebody’s got to do it! So what does the funeral home do if the widow mentions that the deceased was not religious and neither is she, and so she just wants a simple, nonreligious funeral ceremony with which to usher her husband unto “The Great Before”? (When I die it will be, for me ( “experientially,” if you will), as if I had never existed in the first place, as if I had never been born: nothing — nothing at all — which is why I started calling death “The Great Before,” “ ’ere my beginning,” and “ ’ere whence I came”!)

The simple truth is this: Any funeral home worth its salt will have both the willingness to accommodate the atheist as well as a collection of nice, religion-free service orations that will do the job just fine. I can imagine an entire collection of specialty nonreligious funeral orations, though I’ve never heard of one that actually exists.

I suspect that anybody who has not run across a person who is prepared to marry atheists has been asking only preachers and other church leaders.

You see, this is your wedding, and because of that, it becomes tougher for you to see it the way all the others involved will see it: a business transaction; a service to be performed.

I mean, c’mon! This is your wedding we’re talking about! This is likely the most important day of your life!!

Any entrepeneur who fails to emphasize that fact up front does not deserve your business.

At all.

  

Hiring the Right Person
to Perform Your Wedding Service

I’ve never been married, but I assume that all but the most adamant Fundamentalistic clergypersons are willing to “marry outside of the faith” (to borrow a phrase from a different context). They do this in the military: sometimes a Roman Catholic priest is not available. In such a case, from what I hear, the Church will accept as valid the services of a Mormon chaplain. They also help atheists with life-problems — without (I hear) evangelizing them. (Well — they’re not supposed to evangelize!) This, I hear, is what you do and how you agree to do it if your church wants representatives of your denomination to be involved in the chaplaincy. Verify this before quoting me, though, as I speak from second-hand information.

If you subtract the ultra-fundamentalists, then, what do you have left? Most of them, I think! Your most Liberal congregation would be, of course, the Universalist-Unitarians. My Mother’s side features very strong “regular” Unitarian roots, as in from before the merger with the Universalists. These Unitarians, according to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were synonymous with Deists. Looking on the Web, I see Unitarian congregations in: Bloomington, Indiana; Columbus, Indiana; Lafayette, Indiana; Muncie, Indiana; Danville, Indiana; Fort Wayne, Indiana; South Bend, Indiana; three in Indianapolis: All Souls Unitarian, Indianapolis; Oaklandon Universalist-Unitarian, Indianapolis; Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis; and just because it’s there, don’t forget the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Indiana, Pennsylvania, the boyhood home of actor Jimmy Stewart, who is said to have had one hell of a fetish with a pookah! (Whew!)

The UUs are right on the edge of the religion side of the border. Moving toward the religion epicenter, other denominations that have a history of Liberalism when it comes to the way they practice their faith include, of course, the members of a group called the Center for Progressive Christianity. Although Positive Atheism cannot become a member organization (we do not think anything special of Jesus, neither are we willing to speculate as to whether he even existed as a person), we are one of the “friends” or supporting organizations (supporting as in moral support and endorsement, not financial). However, I would hope that any member church of this coalition would be more than happy to meet your needs. In Indiana, one such church is the Shalom United Church of Christ, in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Other Liberal-minded Christian denominations include the Anglican or Episcopalians and some Lutherans (although their “liberality: may vary greatly depending upon the congregation). Although I am in Portland, Oregon, with the highest per-capita representation of atheists in the country, I have been involved in many, many endeavors whose needs were best met by renting space from churches. Of those we encountered, I did not come across a single Episcopalian group that would have turned down the wedding request of an atheistic couple.

Although I know very little about them, contacting a synagogue of Reformed Jews might be worth your while. Again, I know next to nothing except that the Reformed are the most Liberal wing of Judaism.

Another angle, as religion goes, is to keep in mind that this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, as the song from the musical Hair says, and this can be taken literally as well as metaphorically. This means that New Age groups such as Wiccans and Buddhists and gurus of every stripe abound. Contacting these groups or businesses which cater to such people could be most productive. Some suggestions might be herbalists, hot tub spas, so-called health food stores (all good food is healthy, in my opinion), and “alternative medicine” clinics, such as chiropractors and naturopaths and the like, and spiritualists, such as astrologers, palm readers, and so on. When inquiring of such businesses, wisdom is the first order of business. Some of these can be dealt with by telephone, such as the medicine clinics and spiritualists — basically, those who deal as individuals. When inquiring, explain that you’re at a loss in trying to locate an individual or groups that might perform a wedding, and leave it at that: they’ll know what you want based entirely upon the fact that it was them that you called, and not some church. If not, you’ll know what to say next! If there is a health-food store close by, you do well to simply visit the store and look around for a bulletin board or a kiosk where people post handbills, business cards and leave periodicals. These can be a gold-mine of information. I don’t know what the situation is like in Indiana, but in Portland, a single visit to the kiosk of just a single store at one of the commercialized health-food chains would probably yield enough paperwork containing enough information for a person to go into business as a consultant on this one question, were there a market for such services! Yes, I am exaggerating, but not by much!

As I mentioned, the UUs are right on the edge of the religion side of the ideological border. Precisely their counterpart, that is, right on the edge of the nonreligion side of the border, would be your Humanist groups. When I turn to Positive Atheism’s Web Guide, I notice a listing and link for the Humanist Friendship Group of Central Indiana, who meet in Greenwood. One thing that the Humanist groups of all stripes strive to do is meet the needs of those wishing to participate in various “rites of passage” (such as marriage ceremonies) but who wish to do so without religion playing a central role in those rites (or any role whatsoever, as the case may be).

And speaking of Cincinnati, I also see a link for the Free Inquiry Group (FIG) of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Surely someone there might have some ideas, and particularly some contacts for you. It is true that atheists recently showed up as the religious group least likely to marry. However, this only means that about half as many of us as religious people will marry rather than “shack up” (as the pollsters so distastefully put it). That leaves a lot of atheists getting married. Surely they know of at least a few regular Christian ministers who are liberal-minded. Not all of us are simply gritting our teeth and settling for a religious ceremony just to please Mom. My folks did it and found someone just fine: they married in the back yard of the home where Mom grew up, and if I remember correctly, it was a justice of the peace who came by and did the honors. (If I ever remember to ask and remembered incorrectly, I’ll change the information on the post.) Both of them had either atheistic or Unitarian parents, and both of them remained married until death intervened. Their parents, too, but then, we’re approaching the great era of Freethought in the American Mid-West, the American South, and Victorian England. Before then, you pretty much took what came and did what you could to keep from making waves unless you were among the elite, when you could afford to pay just about anybody to do just about anything you wanted them to do. That wooden box with the slot on top mounted by the back door of the chapel has always made a very effective “suggestion box.”

Lastly, one of our charter subscribers is a retired judge. I forgot what he asks as a donation to PAM or one of his other favorite Freethought groups, but if you’re interested, I can find out. Surely if you’re willing to take care of the accommodations, he would most definitely help you put together whatever kind of service you wish. It would be a “justice of the peace” wedding, but without the courtroom decor.

  

Yes, this did take some thought and no small amount of research; however, like everybody listed here that I have recommended, I am in a unique position in that I can rattle off leads practically in my sleep, whereas you might struggle for days going down blind alleys and dead-end streets simply because like the vast majority of atheists, you’ve probably never paid much attention either to atheism or religion, and do not have a lot of this information and insight at your fingertips.

My point is this: as critical as I have been of organized atheism lately, there is most definitely a time and a place and certainly a need for a few of us to pay attention to these things so that the community can have resources along these lines. My only regret was that your letter came on a day when I received over 700 letters, and I finally had to quit at one point, long after the sun went down, and attend to such necessities as housework and eating and such. This delayed my reading of your letter for quite some time. I am truly sorry that’s what happened here, and I can only hope I am not too late. As my health improves (and especially if I can get a special desk built), I will be allowed to spend more time taking care of this project called “Positive Atheism.” In the mean time, I need to take care of myself if I want to stay alive and keep my body and mind whole and intact.

  

Several years ago, one of the Nordic European groups (Norway? Sweeden? Finland?) was polling activists and groups for sample nontheistic wedding and funeral services and sermons for a project they were assembling (online, I think). As memory serves (well, it doesn’t, recently), they didn’t find a single “taker”! This is sad, because there’s just got to be something out there in the “real world” of the wedding business in this respect! And I would hope the Humanists would have printed guidebooks containing such things.

  

I would appreciate a follow-up when it’s all over, letting us know how you fared in what should not be an unusual quest. As we grow and become more aware of ourselves as a distinct subculture — atheists, nontheists, humanists, agnostics: any will accurately describe me — important resources such as you seek will emerge and you will need to look no further than the Yellow Pages in any town in America and, without knowing anything else about atheism or this movement, find a way to obtain the services of someone willing to perform a nonreligious wedding! As a life-long activist and having worked exclusively on this issue for over 14 years, now, I see, on the horizon, some good things along these lines coming to pass.

It won’t be long: perhaps your younger sister (if you have one) will find things this way when it becomes her turn; surely your daughter (may you be so, er, blessed) will cock her head in wonderment when you tell her of the time you had struggling to find someone who would marry you. “What? Mom? You mean you had to go through all that? I’m so glad things are not that way today, and we can simply look them up in the phone book or ask the Baptist pastor down the street for a referral and nobody raises an eyebrow that you’re an atheist!” I see this happening, if and only if we keep on them and continue to insist that we’re good people, honest and patriotic citizens, worthy of dignity, and more than eager to return kind for kind, as dignity goes.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Seven years of service to people
    with no reason to believe