Humanist Celebrations

By Willson, Jane Wynne | Free Inquiry, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Humanist Celebrations


Willson, Jane Wynne, Free Inquiry


With the completion of its new headquarters at the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) is entering a new phase of growth and development. An important part of this will be the expansion of grass-roots activities with a particular focus on the provision of support and services for nonreligious people. Many nonreligious people - although by no means all - feel the need for celebrations or ceremonies at important moments in their lives: rites of passage such as birth, graduation, marriage, and death. CODESH will aim to meet this need by providing advice and assistance for secular celebrations and commemorations.

Below we publish the reflections of a key figure in the development of secular celebrations in the United kingdom, Jane Wynne Willson. We are also pleased to publish extracts from the first celebration conducted at the Center for Inquiry. - EDS.

Planning and conducting celebrations is certainly one the areas where humanists and religionists are working in parallel. To a large extent we are working towards the same goals, though by somewhat different routes.

Two examples of this come from personal experience; I have recently conducted two wedding ceremonies with a Unitarian minister, which worked very well. I conducted the humanist wedding ceremony while the minister took a back seat; then I took a back seat while he registered the marriage. Of course, this sort of thing will not be necessary when the law changes - as it will - and humanists are entrusted to conduct their own weddings. My second example happened a few years ago, speaking at a seminar on liturgy at King's College, Cambridge, to a group of university chaplains and postgraduate theology students, when I found to my gratification that several chaplains actually use my booklet (Funerals Without God) as a resource. It may sound a bit arrogant but I feel it fair to suggest that we in the humanist movement have shamed some members of the church into personalizing and humanizing their funeral services, perhaps for the first time.

Ritual and Ceremony

Humanist ceremonies certainly contain elements of ritual - and some humanists tend to shy away from that word, which for them conjures up pictures of irrationality and superstition and both pagan and religious practices to which they do not subscribe. But the word ritual is merely the technical term that describes those formal occasions that are held by many people at times of importance in their lives - most commonly at birth, marriage, and at death.

Ceremony is the word humanists tend to use. A ceremony is an opportunity to stand back and consider a personal commitment, to celebrate a life or an event, to share feelings, and to strengthen ties with family and friends. At times of emotion or distress the set framework and a familiar series of actions can be a comfort.

Many nonreligious people wish to participate in ceremonies, though for religious people there is an extra dimension that we cannot share. Harold Blackham, the first director of the British Humanist Association, has written:

If in a broad sense "religion" is taken to mean an inner world of personal belief and response and "political" as outer world of regulated conditions of a common life, "ritual" is an intersection where a personal event takes place in a social context. Birth, marriage, and death are private events of moment which have this public face. They call for publicity, solemnity, celebration, public participation. . . . Humanists would like to see whatever social rituals are needed dissociated from particular religious rites, so that they may be universally shared.

Is Ritual a Human Need?

So, is ritual a human need? I think it is a basic human instinct. As a child of seven or eight, together with my sister of the same age, I used to hold ceremonies for the birds and mice that our cat brought in regularly.

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