Humanist Rituals

A few weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk in Kelowna on Humanist Rituals. The attendance was unfortunately rather low, so rather than give a formal speech, I worked it as more of a discussion about humanism, ceremonies, and interfaith involvement.

The speech I intended to give is below though, adapted from a couple earlier speeches on the same topic that I gave.

First, the abstract:

Humanist Rituals
CFI Okanagan
23 June 2012

Atheists discount religious institutions for the obvious harm that dogmatic obedience has caused humanity, but do we lose something when we abandon all rituals that don’t pass the atheist purity test? Should we incorporate some rituals into our lives?

What might be called the New Humanist movement, led by Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein, argues that there is value in rationally considered rituals and ceremonies. Alain de Botton called for Atheism 2.0 which would encourage atheists to take pilgrimages and to build atheist temples.

But by co-opting the language and actions of the religious, are we not granting them legitimacy? If a Humanist sits on an interfaith panel are we saying our view are only as legitimate as the theists? Furthermore, there is a legitimate concern that hierarchies like chaplaincies are antithetical to free inquiry. We should be tearing down unquestionable structures, not replacing them with our own.

In this discussion, I will attempt to weave through the arguments and concerns raised by both camps. What does a humanist community look like? Are humanists trying to create church for the unchurched? Is there a need for humanist chaplains and officiants? Is humanism a faith? Can, or should, atheists participate in interfaith events? Finally, I will discuss the work being done by the BC Humanists to build a strong, secular society in this province.

And the speech:

One of my dad’s friends, an atheist, died recently and his funeral is being held today, in a southern Alberta church.

To get married in British Columbia, using only words written by you and your partner, you will have to seek out a very liberal religious representative. The civil marriage commissioners have mandatory and unromantic lines.
?Meanwhile, in North America we suffer a true lack of secular alternatives to recognize the birth of a child, or their transition to adulthood.

In today’s talk, I’m not going to try to convince you of the need for humanist ceremonies or rituals, the unsolicited demand we receive at the BC Humanists is evidence enough, but I’m going to go through what humanism is and what these rituals involve. If they’re not for you, that’s completely fine, humanists are all for individual freedoms.

Humanists do not believe in any supernatural higher power, however there is a difference between atheism and humanism. Atheism describes what I don’t believe in, humanism describes what I do. At the very core of its definition, being an atheist simply means that I do not believe in God. While most Humanists are atheists, not all atheists are Humanists.

There are no universal tenets for Humanists. Humanism is an evolving tradition and we constantly re-evaluate our principles in light of new ideas. The basic tenants of humanist thought have remained relatively consistent and I feel that most people would share these values. These ideas include using reason, evidence, and the scientific method as a means of learning about our world. In our lives we seek fulfillment, growth, and creativity. Finally, we value the search for truth, a concern for this life over an afterlife, secular ethics, and building a better world. Humanism isn’t a radical or dangerous set of ideas, it is simply about being good without god. Humanism is a progressive worldview that is informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.

Starting with the idea that humanists are informed by science, I want to convey to you that humanists believe that the world is knowable and that the best tool that we have come up with to discover truths about the world is science. Science generates reliable knowledge because it uses evidence to test hypotheses about the universe. Science is very critical of extraordinary claims, and Humanists are therefore skeptics. We apportion our beliefs according to the evidence. We care deeply about promoting scientific literacy and are passionate defenders of naturalistic explanations of the origins of life and the universe, because the available evidence points to the Big Bang and evolution being facts.

Looking at how our understanding of the world has evolved over generations, we no longer believe that God controls the rising and setting of the sun or the weather. We no longer believe that God creates earthquakes or was even necessary to create the diversity of life. We have naturalistic explanations for the history of the universe, and it is all consistent. Science has a good track record of correcting its mistakes. This is why Humanists do not feel the need to appeal to the supernatural. Even though there may be gaps in our knowledge that we cannot yet explain, that doesn’t mean that certain things won’t be understood in the future.

Turning now to the idea that Humanists are inspired by art, Humanists take our inspiration from the beauty in the natural world and from the art that we create. I further believe that good science can elevate beauty. Pictures taken from the Hubble telescope are truly numinous, but their awe is compounded by our understanding. For example, we know that a nebula is more than just a collection of interstellar gas, it is the place where stars are born.

Since we have no evidence of life after death, we believe that when we die we cease to exist. All we have is the time that we have here on Earth. We therefore must make the most of the time we have. Music, art, theatre, and charity are all important to humanists. It is necessary to not neglect these things so that we may develop as whole people. The arts allow us to explore the human condition in ways that science cannot, and thus gives us a greater perspective on life.

Thirdly, Humanists are motivated by compassion. Humanists seek to make the world a better place because we value life. We are but a pale blue dot in space and our observations suggest that life is exceptionally rare in this universe. We must therefore help our neighbours, seek peaceful solutions, and promote human dignity where ever possible. This life is the only life we have and for this reason we must act to minimize the suffering of others.

I now want to address the issue of morality without a god. This is a common question posed to many humanists because we believe that the existence of a supreme being is unnecessary to live a moral life. Philosophers have long recognized that morality, or the question of why be good, is independent of the question of the existence God. In ancient Greece nearly 2500 years ago, Epicurus asked a question that those who believe in God have yet to adequately answer: “Is something good because the gods says it so; or do the gods say something is good because it is good?”

In other words, does God decide what is good, therefore making the difference between right and wrong a mere arbitrary choice, one that can change with His mood. Some would argue that God wouldn’t arbitrarily change his mind, but then if God can’t change the ethical laws then He is not all powerful.

Or, could it be that Good is something independent of God? There may be an objective moral standard that says what is and isn’t right. If this is the case, then why even include God in the discussion? If God is just following a higher rule of the universe – like a physical law – then why do we need to invoke him at all. Could we not just pursue that greater ideal?

With secular morality, based on reason and human dignity, we don’t need to run into these dilemmas. Humanists aren’t forced to do mental gymnastics to circle these squares. We state that human dignity is a value and that it is moral to promote it.

Therefore, being good without god is really quite easy. It’s about seeking to make the world a better place by promoting things that increase human dignity and flourishing and avoiding things that cause harm. Many of the moral lessons of religion remain valid: do unto others as they would do unto you, the commandments against murder and lying etc. These lessons are not enforced by a higher power, but by our desire to live in and have future generations live in a world that is compassionate and caring.

Finally, Humanists want to see real progressive change in the world, and we want our organizations to be the vehicle of change, and so I want to talk about how we put these beliefs into action. Humanists recognize that many people have a need to belong. By building communities we create a place for like-minded people come to together with common goals. With greater organization comes a greater ability to affect positive change in the world.

In this light, the BC Humanist Association seeks to bring together people who share Humanist beliefs and values. We seek to build a community and to raise awareness of humanism. To do this we hold weekly meetings, which also happen to be on Sunday mornings, where we socialize and hold discussions. Our meetings tend to have a number of different opinions represented, and we value intelligent discussions in which our own beliefs are questioned and challenged.

We also do a number of special events. Coming up next weeks we will be joining the Vancouver Walk for Peace and building a secular parenting community. We also hold many lectures. This past year we’ve had many speakers including one on the dilemmas of war in a Humanist framework and a psychology professor from UBC talked about her research on beliefs at the end of a person’s life. We also run a monthly book and are raising money for the Light the Night walk to fight blood cancers with the foundation beyond belief. These programs show that Humanists can be good without god and positive change agents.

We are also hoping to expand across the province. There are humanists in every city and town across this province and they often lack a like-minded community. By establishing new meetup groups I hope to build more communities like our thriving group in Vancouver.

We are also just waiting for government recognition to launch our Humanist officiant program. Humanists see value in community and tradition, when grounded in reason. We see that it is important to many people to mark certain events in life that have been traditionally dominated with religious rituals, and there is a growing demand for more secular ceremonies that can still mark the importance of the event. We therefore want to provide trained officiants who can help families mark different passages in their lives. We’re hoping to model our program on a similar one based in Ontario. Our goal will be to have officiants across the province who can perform baby welcoming ceremonies, marriages, memorials, and invocations.

So lets talk about humanist rituals. A ritual is merely a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. There is nothing inherently religious about rituals, graduation is an inherently secular ritual, nor are they necessarily irrational.

While Humanism has made belief in god irrelevant, it hasn’t removed the desire to mark moments in our lives in meaningful ways. So how do humanists mark our births, bonds, and burials?

First we have ceremonies to mark the birth of a child. Where the religious traditionally offer christenings, and we have the secular commercialized baby showers. Humanists offer naming or welcoming ceremonies. When a couple chooses to add a child to their family – whether it’s a traditional birth or an adoption, surrogate, or otherwise – it is a momentous occasion. It’s only natural to want to share that moment with the friends and family that will be necessary to support the new parents in their responsibilities.

Next we have the passage to adulthood or coming of age. The religious mark this time in the late teenage years with Bah mitzvahs, confirmation, while the only North American secular alternative involves Las Vegas or other debauchery. Yet there are meaningful ways to mark this time of life. The Norwegian Humanists offer a confirmation that involves a year of weekly study into humanist ethics before taking the confirmation test. This is a chance to demonstrate that a child is ready for some of the new responsibilities and rights of adulthood, and is worthy of celebration.

Next we have perhaps the biggest of the ceremonies, and the only one to require government approval, marriage and commitment ceremonies. Secular options have been around for a while, which typically remove the supernatural and welcome non-traditional families, a truly humanist marriage ceremony is one designed to be a dignity-affirming commitment between two people. Additionally, for those who reject marriage as an institution, we can offer commitment ceremonies that recognize the promises made, yet keep the state and law out of the bedroom.

Next, as not all marriages are meant to be, it can sometimes be dignity-affirming to recognize divorce or separation with a ceremony. As humanists place no supernatural value on marriage, we can recognize separation as an important decision. While not all divorces are worthy of celebration, it can be a way to heal some wounds and part on peaceful terms.

Finally, as we all will eventually die, humanists recognize the need for those who live on to remember and comfort one another. Our memorials are therefore framed as celebrations of life and remembrance, and can be arranged around whatever is chosen to be done with the remains.

The key difference I hope you will take from this speech between traditional religious rituals and those offered by humanist organizations is that humanist rituals are malleable and are about affirming the views and dignity of those involved. We don’t want to force you to splash water on your baby or eat crackers, a humanist ceremony is about you.

Finally, Humanists are also establishing chaplaincies and communities at a number of universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Toronto. These agents fill the gap for secular students who have the big questions and want answers based on reason and compassion.

Rituals do not have to be about superstitions or blind obedience, they can be life-affirming ceremonies and celebrations. And if they’re not for you, that’s okay too.


One thought on “Humanist Rituals”

  1. Please provide me with a dinner ritual to replace ” grace” at the dinner table.

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