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A Humanist Perspective on Ritual

Andrew Copson's picture

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Humanists believe it is natural to want to celebrate the most important events in life with a special ceremony, usually involving speech, poetry, music, song, and feasting and dancing. People have always needed to mark the important times in their lives, and to commemorate the lives of people when they die. Public celebrations of 'rites of passage' are different from ordinary parties, which we often hold for events like birthdays, anniversaries or graduations – they are a bit more focused and often more formal, and we usually use special language, music and places. Humanists like to celebrate too, but prefer to do so in non-religious ceremonies, where they will not find themselves saying things they do not believe. So humanist organisations worldwide have devised ceremonies suitable for their contexts and needs and provide funerals, weddings and other ceremonies.

 

Ceremonies are personal

 

There are no special rules or observances that non-religious people have to keep: they are not obliged to attend any kind of service, or have any ceremony beyond basic legal requirements, but there are humanist ceremonies for those who would like to mark special occasions. They are always created for the people involved, so each one is unique and personal. Sometimes families of mixed religious backgrounds choose a humanist ceremony because they can all share the non-religious, personal content.

 

And what about Christmas?

 

People often wonder what non-religious people do on the Christian festivals that are still so much part of our culture, and humanists who enjoy these holidays are sometimes accused of hypocrisy. But since long before Christianity, people in Northern Europe have feasted and celebrated in order to cheer themselves up in the darkest days of winter or to welcome the beginning of spring or harvest. These ancient feast days and traditions were simply adopted by early Christians as good times to celebrate. Most humanists and other non-Christians are happy to continue at least some of these traditions, though some may choose not to because they have no particular significance for them or because of their over-commercialisation.

 

There are, of course, many non-religious festivals that include everyone: local celebrations and anniversaries, film and book festivals, and fairs like Nottingham's annual Goose Fair. Humanists would like to see more of these, and some public celebrations that are meant for everyone, such as Remembrance Day on 11 November, are becoming more inclusive and less religious. Humanists died or lost friends and relatives in wars too, but religious memorial services and ceremonies can make them feel left out.

 

 

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