On Traditions, and How I Approached My First Humanist Wedding

On Traditions, and How I Approached My First Humanist Wedding November 10, 2014

On March 2, 2014, I had the honor of performing my first marriage ceremony. There is a relative paucity of resources for self-conscious atheists and humanists eager for help in planning weddings that reflect their values, break with religious forms they conscientiously object to, and yet also feel in keeping enough with existing traditions to feel “right”. So, in the spirit of chipping in with the project of giving people ideas about how to conceive of a humanist wedding, I thought I would explain in some depth the thought process that informed my approach to officiating my first wedding and explain themes and structure I used for the homily. I have the couple’s enthusiastic permission to share this with you.

Dylan Walker, an ex-Christian, former religious studies major, and atheist blogger, had been reading Camels With Hammers for a while before we met at the American Atheists convention in 2013. Then the summer and fall of 2013 he took my online philosophy class, Philosophy for Atheists. Often Megan, his fiancee at the time, would intermittently listen in on the classes as she went about her business around the apartment. Occasionally she would even join in on class (as partners and roommates are welcome to do in my classes, for no extra cost).

So, by the time the classes were all said and done I was friends with both Dylan and Megan. And when it came time for them to marry, they were passionate about the prospect of a wedding that reflected their own values as secular humanists. This was a particularly important issue for Dylan because, unlike Megan, he had been devoutly Christian and his deconversion was a transformative event in his mind, his heart, and his life. While it seems extremely common for atheists to simply defer to their spouses’, their families’, or their broader cultures’ religious traditions when it comes time for a wedding, for someone like Dylan that was an unconscionable prospect.

Religious ceremonies mean things. The symbols, rituals, and language they employ are all specific. They’re loaded with inextricably religious content. For people (like me) who are sensitized to this, not believing in the faith that those ceremonial forms reflect and actively rejecting some of that faith’s core values and beliefs about the nature of humanity, of men, of women, of God, and of marriage itself means not wanting one of the most significant ceremonies of your life to be colored by those beliefs and values. It would violate our consciences, make us feel like liars, make us feel as though we are still subject to the hegemony of an institution we think of as wrongheaded, deceptive, corrupt, and power-hungry.

Traditional Christianity wants to claim all of life for itself, it wants to mediate and arbitrate everything about a Christian’s life. To people like many deconverts who were truly and devoutly literalistic believers in Christianity allowing Christianity to be involved in mediating, creating, interpreting, and sanctioning one’s marrying is to give it precisely the kind of undue role in the most intimate matters of the mind and heart that we want it to stop having. It’s a big deal to have a wedding with nothing specifically Christian about it.

Of course, there are aspects of the form of the wedding that are commonly Christian and which people growing up in Christian societies cannot help but reflexively see as characteristic of what makes a wedding a wedding and want to preserve. We don’t have a problem with most of that, so long as we can modify these forms so they’re consonant with our own humanistic beliefs and values and shorn of their distinctly religious connotations.

So Dylan and Megan were both atheistic humanists. Dylan had serious serious philosophical, moral, and practical disagreements with Christianity both theoretically and institutionally. And while Megan wasn’t initially as worried about religion and while she is aesthetically relatively traditionalist, she found Dylan increasingly persuasive on the importance of explicitly rejecting and calling attention to what’s wrong with bad religion.

So it mattered to them both that they had a wedding that was consonant with their take on reality and which emphasized their values, rather than those of a tradition they didn’t believe in–while retaining enough of the traditional dynamics that it “felt” like a “real wedding” to them.

So they asked me if I could be their celebrant. This was something I had always wanted to do but hadn’t ever done before or been trained to do. They trusted me to figure it out because I would be someone who understood what was important to them.

The first thing I had to do was get ordained. I found a way to do that quickly and consistently with my conscience by registering online as a minister in American Marriage Ministries whose only tenets are the following:

All people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have the right to marry.
It is the right of every couple to choose who will solemnize their marriage.
All people have the right to solemnize marriage.

I wholeheartedly agree with these precepts. I wasn’t going to have to fake anything.

Then I went about planning and giving my homily.

I started out by mentioning that I was a philosopher and talking about what I saw as the philosophy behind having a philosopher marry people. (I’m meta that way; which seems appropriate for a philosopher, no?)

I suggested that philosophy, at its core, is built on dialectic. That means that, at its core, philosophy is about the back and forth of an ever advancing but never completing conversation. And that marriage is a similar conversation and a similar dialectic. Generation to generation, we receive the same basic puzzles and each generation must work them out for themselves building on the previous generations’ progress, while trying to remedy their mistakes, adapt to new circumstances, and face newly arising puzzles. Traditions accumulate which advance our starting points by working out a starter set of assumptions and premises to launch from. And then we need to try to make some kind of progress, both within that and against that.

Marriage is, there are no two ways about this, a traditional institution. So, I talked about the meaning and value of traditions generally. Unlike some reactive and over-correcting progressives, I don’t reflexively think of tradition as something to be escaped, as though it were merely or primarily a repository of our ancestors’ mistakes. But, of course, as a relatively drastic progressive, I certainly don’t see it as something to be blindly obeyed, observed purely for its own sake, preserved at all cost, or ever spared routine reexaminations–as though it were the storehouse of our ancestors’ unquestionable wisdom or a god’s one time instructions about what’s best that our reason cannot figure out for itself. I rather see it as something to be in constant conversation with. I see it as cultures’ ways of giving their descendants a head start that allows them to avoid the momentous task of starting from scratch in a huge number of crucial matters that are hard to figure out from the ground up. I believe in constantly rationally challenging and revising our culture as a process of perpetually improvement morally. But I also believe in always figuring out why a tradition is in place before dismantling it as “obviously” pointless.

I liken removing or altering a tradition to knocking out a beam in a building. It’s vital first to rationally inspect whether that beam is too fundamental to the whole house and it would make the ceiling fall in to mess with it. I understand the value of conscientiously making sure new supports are in place for whatever a corrupted beam is holding up before taking it out. The best traditions hold up so much of our flourishing and do so so structurally that the full extent of its benefits are impossible to estimate and as easy to take for granted as gravity or the floor you walk on. The whole point of it is to function so automatically that people don’t make mistakes that would otherwise be common without it. It’s supposed to do the thinking for us seamlessly on matters that should be settled so we can focus on new problems instead.

This is precisely why a corrupt tradition is so hard to fix, the deeper the corruption goes. It’s because it structures our reality so much and is so constitutive of the unjust flourishing of some within a society that it becomes exceedingly hard to think outside of or feel secure outside of. And to those who do not benefit from a given tradition and see its structural oppressiveness can wind up taking for granted the ways that it upholds even many of their goods. People who want drastic cultural and moral reform (as I, for one, adamantly do) need to be explicitly deliberate about creating new tradition lest we destroy the roots of numerous goods, which were intertwined with the evils we’re trying to uproot.

What makes humanity so marvelous to me is that we are an animal with traditions at all. Were we to participate (as I don’t recommend) in that somewhat silly and arbitrary tradition of looking for “the thing that separates us from the other animals” we might even go so far as to say what makes us unique is we are the Tradition-Having Animal. I am positively convinced that we owe our dominance as a species most of all to our extraordinary ability to pass on what we have learned to subsequent generations. This means that not only can we make excruciatingly hard won discoveries but we can keep them, preserve them, and give them to future generations to use as a starting point so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel but can go on to invent the cart. And eventually the car. It does not matter how capable the individual human brain is. The accumulated resource of thousands of years of human experience and, especially, the ability to acquire secondhand other people’s arduously won technical refinements of understanding, is the utterly priceless and indispensable infrastructure of all individual human successes.

And of all the traditions humans have devised and passed on to their children with the most earnest of recommendations, none rivals marriage in its nearly universal grip on the human imagination. As I stressed for those assembled, it is a human institution that has endured for millennia, on every continent, among nearly every people, and across all religions and even to those with no religion. It is not the sole province of people of any one race, ethnicity, skin color, polity, religion, or sexuality. While the forms it has taken have drastically differed in different places and changed over time in particular cultures, it is the institution that unites humanity to each other across the most differences. It was important to me to express just how humanist and inclusive a tradition marriage is and is becoming by explicitly interpreting it this way in noticeable but unstated contrast with the kinds of sectarian and exclusive rhetoric fundamental to a profound majority of theistically religious weddings. To put a finer point on it: it mattered to Dylan, Megan, and me to explicitly acknowledge our humanist support and solidarity for gay marriages and for other non-religious marriages at a straight wedding that could have brushed such issues under the rug.

One thing that bothers me about highly liturgical religious weddings, and other ceremonies, like funerals, is how impersonal they can be. The wedding is designed for Man and Woman, where these are universal archetypes rather than individuals. Any man could be standing there next to any woman and the ceremony is exactly the same. (And the ceremony simply can’t happen if it’s not a man and a woman.) To me it was vitally important that the ceremony was not about “Marriage between Man and Woman before God” but about “The marriage of Dylan and Megan guided by their consciences“.

But I also saw the value in the way that marriage as an institution unites people across cultures and generations. There is something profound about how widespread the institution is. There is something to looking at the marrying couple and realizing that they do not stand alone; that they are united to billions of other human beings, past and present who have stood where they stand and have lived as they will live. It was important to me to emphasize this reality. That there is a wealth of passed on and internalized human experience that encouraged Dylan and Megan to marry and that will be available to help guide Dylan and Megan in their marriage. They were not alone in this. They were entering into one of the oldest and most durable of human projects and they were surrounded an audience filled with particular married people who would offer them particular support.

And, it was crucially valuable to me to stress that it is up to individuals (and, in this case, couples) to take ownership of the traditions that they inherit from their forebears. Received traditions are our ancestors’ most earnest recommendations. They package up and make programmatic the lessons and practices that they were most adamant about preserving. Traditions are the ideas and social technologies that generations past thought were the most integral to surviving and thriving in life. They should be cherished as such. But traditions shouldn’t be substitutes for taking responsibility, thinking for ourselves, and engaging in new experiments.

Traditional roles give us guideposts about what our ancestors thought worked in the past. But it is up to us to test out what still works and what doesn’t for ourselves. We may come to think that some parts of our tradition are so profoundly flawed they were never a good idea in the first place. Other parts of it we may simply find outdated. Whereas other, seemingly pointless aspects of the traditional way of doing things may be vindicated as surprisingly wise and indispensable.

So it was important to me both to stress that Dylan and Megan both were entering into a received institution and taking ownership of that institution. What they, along with all else who marry, would choose to do with their marriage would be their contribution to the institution itself. Marriage does not exist merely as some abstract Platonic Form in some disembodied realm. Marriage is instantiated in the actual marriages that embody it. They determine what marriage is. Marriage is what married people do and future marriages will be influenced by what married partner does in its marriage. The template is not made in Heaven by God but it evolves through a natural selection process as the people in each marriage rework the template. We do not pass on traditions exactly as we received them. We each make our contributions to every role we inhabit. Cumulatively, enough people modifying a role to make it better suit themselves or their time in particular ways means that the next generation of those to inhabit that role will have a modified tradition to work with. Each generation of spouses collectively puts their stamp on what it is to be a spouse, by how they influence each other and others’ spouses and, maybe most importantly, by how they influence those who grow up observing them.

So before the ceremony, I interviewed Dylan and Megan separately about their philosophies on marriage and the particularities of their relationship to each other. Then during my speech, after a little of my own philosophizing about love in general, I shifted my focus talk about what Dylan and Megan, as particular individuals taking responsibility for the institution of marriage in their own case, saw as important to make central in their marriage. I talked about why they particularly loved each other as individuals and what their particular connection consisted in. They were not just Man and Woman, Mere Custodians of The Unalterable Institution of Marriage, Dutifully Submitting Themselves To Its Inviolable Rules. They were Dylan and Megan—particular people, in love in particular ways, committing to each other for particular reasons, and planning to deliberately adopt and transform the received tradition of marriage with a mindset of both humble willingness to be guided by the wisdom of tradition and conscientious responsibility to advance the institution.

So, rather than presume to preach either to them or to those assembled about what I thought love or marriage are or should be about, I simply teased out of Dylan and Megan their own views and synthesized them in order to make explicit for all assembled the philosophy of marriage they were developing. And then they read their self-written vows, expressing the particular commitments they wanted to make to each other, which the audience could understand in the context of background about their relationship and their values.

In a future post, I hope to talk more about some of the specific choices Dylan and Megan made in order to express their values in their wedding and what they specifically expressed about their philosophies of love and marriage (some of which was revelatory to me). Hopefully there will even be a transcript of my actual speech to draw upon (and maybe publish).

Your Thoughts?

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If you’re interested in consulting with me about working out your own ideas for a constructive secular wedding or other ceremony or are otherwise interested in developing your humanist worldview in philosophical detail and living more deliberately in accordance with it, consider booking sessions with me for philosophical advice or taking my non-matriculated online philosophy classes designed precisely with people like you in mind. Also, I plan eventually to become a Humanist Celebrant through the American Humanist Association. I didn’t do so in the first place because I was invited to officiate with just weeks left and I didn’t know they had the option of immediate registration yet. I recommend the same path for self-conscious humanists. We deserve our own tradition, with its own identity, and its own celebrants who are identifiable as such. Become A Celebrant, Endorsement Guidelines.

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