Posted by Richard Rawlinson
‘Organising atheists is like herding cats’. Richard Dawkins
Every so often, civil celebrants here revive the debate about rituals in secular funerals. Some point out there’s plenty of spirituality already in a unique eulogy and individually-chosen readings and music, and enough symbolism with the procession of the coffin, the lighting of candles, and so forth.
Others say more set words, actions and visual aids could be established to enhance the ceremony—symbols that are appropriate for atheists and those people who are undecided on faith but are not members of any organised religion. The division seems to be between maximum individualism and those who think repeated ritual might help unify secular communities.
Just over a year ago, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones held the first meeting of the Sunday Assembly, a church for people who don’t believe in God. Meeting in various public venues, these gatherings offer the chance to meet like-minded people over a good sing-along, some stand-up comedy and more serious talks on subjects such as science. The stated aims include strengthening community bonds, inspiring a sense of wonder about life and promoting the loving values of humanism.
The Sunday Assembly, which a BBC reviewer described as ‘overwhelmingly young, white and middle class’, has divided people like Marmite, some attendees saying it fills a void in their life, others saying it all sounds a bit too happy-clappy.
In an interview with Reform magazine, co-founder Jones said: ‘A lot of atheists have given us abuse on Twitter, because apparently the way we don’t believe in God is not the right way to not believe in God’.
Evans added: ‘I suppose, because we’re not campaigning for atheism, it probably feels closer to church than to atheism as we know it. When we did the first Sunday service a couple of militant atheists came along who were angry that it wasn’t like a rally. We tried to explain that Sunday Assembly is about celebrating being alive’.
This is one example of the chasm between those non-believers who see the merits of church-style community—and perhaps the benefits of non-religious ritual—and those who want as little as possible to do with such ‘ecclesiastical baggage’.
In a recent interview with the Catholic Herald, the British Humanist Association’s chief executive Andrew Copson was asked why the BHA doesn’t focus it energies on establishing Humanist schools instead of campaigning against the admission policies of faith schools, and ‘let Catholic parents, who also pay their taxes, educate their children as they see fit’.
Copson answered: ‘We don’t work for the establishment of Humanist schools because we would be concerned that, just as with religious schools, such schools would further segregate society on the basis of belief, or otherwise limit horizons, and that would be a bad outcome for all of us.’
He continued: ‘Parents have the legal right to educate their children in line with their philosophical convictions, but the state is under no legal obligation to provide or fund any particular sort of school to provide what parents want – the legal obligation on the state is merely not to interfere.’
I’m personally for the limited interference of a smaller state. But I don’t see state provision for reasonable choice in pluralist society as interference. In fact, making homogenised secularism the sole option is arguably forcing one way on all.
I’d like to know where Copson stands on the Sunday Assembly church for non-believers. Like churches for believers, including the Catholic Church in Britain, it’s self-funding with no aid from the secular state’s tax revenue coffers. Would he discourage it, based on his argument against Humanist schools potentially segregating society?
Does this stance have any bearing on the development of secular rituals, and the divisions between Humanist celebrants and those civil celebrants searching for more spiritual symbolism, and accommodating of varying degrees of faith?
For full interviews: