Humanists are first and foremost human beings. And like everyone else they might wish to celebrate some of the most important moments of their lives: when a child is born, when children grow from adolescence into adulthood, when they marry the one they love, or when a loved one dies.
For millennia there has been no real alternative for humanists, atheists and non-religious people in general: either you celebrated important life events with a religious ceremony or you would not celebrate it at all. In the best case scenario, a humanist couple could get married in a town hall with a secular state registration, which on average is notoriously neutral and anonymous.
Often (wrongly) disregarded as a mere mimicry of religious ceremonies, humanist ceremonies are instead one of the most meaningful expressions of humanism itself. Overall, humanist ceremonies are important for at least three reasons:
In order to address the above-mentioned lack of humanist alternatives to religious ceremonies, in the last few decades humanist groups around the world have started to celebrate different kinds of humanist ceremonies. One of the pioneers of this movement has been the Norwegian Humanist Association.
Tale Pleym, Head of Ceremonies of the Norwegian Humanist Association, said in this regard:
“In Norway we started with secular confirmation ceremonies in 1951, as an alternative to the Christian confirmation ones, offering young people a course in ethics, with a ceremony to mark the conclusion of the course. Five years later, in 1956, our organisation was founded with the name Human-Etisk Forbund.
“Our confirmation ceremonies have developed since then. 20 years ago we started calling them Humanist confirmations (Humanistisk konfirmasjon), to better emphasize the humanist aspects of the course. Today we have over 20% of the Norwegian youth choosing our Humanist confirmation, and the numbers are growing every year. We now offer a course with topics such as humanism, human rights, critical thinking, identity and ethics. The course ends with a ceremony, marking the growth from adolescent to adult.
“We have humanist ceremonies for the four main rites of passages in life: naming ceremony for a small child, confirmation for adolescents, wedding (Human-Etisk Forbund has the legal right to wed in Norway) and funeral.
“Our ceremonies are not neutral, like for instance a secular ceremony in a town hall. Our ceremonies have content with our values, from a humanist lifestance perspective. We have chosen specific values that we wish to portray in each of the four ceremonies, for instance love, mutual respect and equality in humanist weddings. Feedback from the people who choose our ceremonies is that they are beautiful and personal, and contribute in people celebrating the important aspects of life in a meaningful way ”
Over the years we started seeing more and more humanist weddings celebrated all over the world, to the point that in some countries humanist marriages outnumber religious ones – see for example the case of Scotland, where humanist marriages make up 23% of all marriages, while Christian marriages make up 22%.
Fraser Sutherland, Chief Executive of Humanist Society Scotland, commented on this success as follows:
“In 2005 when humanist marriage was first recognised in law – after a long campaign by Humanist Society Scotland – there were 82 such ceremonies against over 14,000 Christian ones. Fast forward to 2019 and there were over 5,800 humanist nuptials with slightly fewer Christian ones.
“The success of humanist ceremonies in Scotland has been truly dramatic in the public knowledge of humanism. National polling in 2018 showed that 60% of people in Scotland had attended a humanist ceremony in the previous 10 years, a third of them in the past year. That means around a million people attend a humanist ceremony in Scotland each year alone.
“Not only did the change in recognition of humanist marriage impact on us as a humanist organisation, allowing us to grow, but it has also changed the face of Scottish society in general. What was seen in the middle of the 20th Century as a socially conservative Presbyterian nation has morphed into a state with increasingly liberal views and laws on LGBT matters, children’s rights and other social matters.”
Joseph Lukyamuzi, Chairperson of HALEA Uganda, said:
“Humanist Ceremonies are very important in advancing the freedom of non believers in conservative and religiously dominated countries such as Uganda. Humanist ceremonies provide us (atheists, humanists and non believers) a rare opportunity to organise secular ceremonies free from superstitious beliefs and dogmas that are so rampant in Uganda. They therefore give us a platform to show the world that it is perfectly fine to live a life without God.
“We are grateful for the support given to HALEA in regard to the legalization of humanist marriages in Uganda. We started the project in September 2019 by putting in place the equipment and general infrastructure needed to prepare our team to popularise humanist ceremonies in the country.
“We have created a website specifically for the ceremonies, trained celebrants, made banners and brochures, run some adverts through local radio and group messages. We have also written a petition and collected signatures from over 417 people supporting the legalization of Humanist Marriages in Uganda.”
Urtė Žukauskaitė – Zabukė, Co-Founder of Taip Kitaip, said:
“Humanist wedding ceremonies in Lithuania have existed for 4 years now. Each year they double in number, which is a sign of such ceremonies becoming more accepted and noticed by society. Mainly because they offer a meaningful and inclusive alternative to religious ceremonies.
“Therefore, as humanists, we see the need for other important ceremonies. Currently, with the help of Humanists International’s grant we are focusing on establishing humanist funeral ceremonies in Lithuania.
“We believe that humanist ceremonies are not only a meaningful way of marking life’s important events, but also a way to advocate humanist values and bring actual social change into society.”
Many of our Members and Associates around the world are celebrating humanist ceremonies in their countries, for example in the following countries (the list is not exhaustive):
In Europe, in particular, there is a dedicated organization for humanist celebrants called European Humanist Professional.
Humanists International believes that the spreading of humanist ceremonies around the world will shape substantially the future of humanism, as it is remarkably happening, for example, in such a deeply religious country like Poland, currently under the threat of a religious fundamentalist backlash.
This is why in 2019 Humanists International organised a series of training sessions for our Members and Associates on humanist ceremonies. And this is why in 2021 we are planning to keep funding projects in this field in developing countries.
If you are interested in starting a project on humanist ceremonies or if you want to provide a feedback on this article, please get in touch with me at [email protected]