Should Secular Humanists Celebrate the Rites of Passage? an Affirmative View of Celebrations

By Kurtz, Paul | Free Inquiry, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Should Secular Humanists Celebrate the Rites of Passage? an Affirmative View of Celebrations


Kurtz, Paul, Free Inquiry


Should secular humanists celebrate the rites of passage? My personal answer is Yes!

I share the concerns of some secular humanists and freethinkers who are adamantly opposed to anything that smacks of religious ritual and ceremony.

Certain poignant moments of life stand out, however, and we need to commemorate them. Virtually all cultures do. It is, therefore, important that humanists, who are committed to the full realization of fife here and now, likewise be willing to highlight the passages of time. Humanists need to provide, by means of social festivals, opportunities for human beings to exult in the joyful events in life, such as the birth of a child or a marriage and, during tragic times, such as death, to express grief in our communities of friends and relatives. Rites of passage can be celebrated in a secular manner, which can be intensely meaningful, intellectually stimulating, and profoundly moving. Such celebrations can provide a powerful catharsis.

Unfortunately, we are immersed in a religious culture where theological rituals still dominate. Many unbelievers resist the social pressures to conform. Some atheists reject any and all such holdovers from orthodox religious customs. Although many believers reject the faith of their relatives, the latter may nevertheless insist that their infants be baptized, undergo communion or confirmation, and submit to a religious marriage ceremony. Many freethinkers recoil at the horror of being buried in by a priest, minister, or rabbi; yet once dead some devout relatives have no compunction in insisting upon it.

An especially barbaric illustration of this indignity occurred three years ago when Philip Mass, a dedicated secular humanist and first chairman of the Robert G. Ingersoll Memorial Committee, died unexpectedly and without leaving written instructions for the disposal of his remains. He had intimated to his friends and colleagues beforehand, however, that he wished to be cremated and his ashes cast to the winds in San Francisco Bay. In spite of this his family persevered in burying him in an Orthodox Jewish cemetery in St. Louis next to his parents. I remember Phil saying to me, with tongue in cheek, that he "would rather drop dead than be buried by a rabbi!"

Some religious humanists believe in preserving the trappings of their religious heritage, but in breathing naturalistic meaning into the ancient symbols. They still use liturgy and ritual in services, commemorating the rites of passage. The Unitarian Universalist church and many liberal Protestant denominations, for example, offer quasi humanistic services at naming ceremonies, marriages, and funerals. Some even commemorate Easter and Christmas. The Society for Humanistic Judaism, an atheistic denomination, has a rabbi perform bar mitzvahs, and even celebrate the traditional Jewish holidays of Passover and Chanukah--though without any reference to a supernatural God.

Aspects of forms of religiosity strike rationalists as a betrayal of intellectual standards, a failure to stand up for one's unbelief, or to transcend parochial ethnicities. …

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