Are secular rituals too churchy?

Charles Cowling

Sunday Assembly founders

 

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:

Reform Magazine

Catholic Herald

http://www.reform-magazine.co.uk/2013/10/pippa-evans-sanderson-jones-interview-how-great-thou-arent/

 

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/2013/10/15/andrew-copson-the-catholic-church-is-just-a-human-institution-like-any-other/

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Richard
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Richard

Thank you, Tess, for rationally explaining away authoritarianism towards faith schools, marriage and, by logical extension, funerals. Choice is to be cherished. Destruction of choice by propagandist guile is undoubtedly a negative, to be opposed.

Tess
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Tess

Hi Jeanne, I went to a faith school which did better than the local non-denominational state schools in league tables. I’m not sure if this was because of the selective admissions or the teaching. There was, to be sure, a mix of children from poor and middle class backgrounds. I didn’t entertain such thoughts at the time, but I now wonder if we all benefited from being part of a community with shared values and a belief system. I look back on it as rounded education, and we certainly didn’t leave as brainwashed cranks. I’m glad my parents educated me… Read more »

Richard
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Richard

Telling comments. The blog’s about ritual. It’s about whether the eulogy is enough for most secularists, or if there’s perhaps a yearning for new secular rituals. The blog asks what the BHA thinks about this, based on its reported opposition to any cultural practices that might ‘segregate’, that might prevent the end goal of state homogenisation at the expense of faith-based individualism. Instead, you leap to the emphasis on imposing the scared cow of neutrality on any event touched by the state. This proves your main concern is political, not artistic or spiritual or about the human need for love,… Read more »

Vale
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Vale

And I’m afraid I’m beginning to think that you are I’ll-mannered Richard. Your original post covered a number of issues including a direct question about the BHA view of Sunday assemblies in the context of comments about secular schools. I’m sure that most columnists and bloggers are regularly frustrated by the way commenters will miss the point of their well crafted arguments. Most, in public at least, bear it with resignation and without resorting to name calling. It’s going to become tiresome if, every time I want to debate a point or disagree with you I have to sit with… Read more »

Jeanne
Guest

Hi Richard, I do not attempt to speak for all atheists but I m y comments about labelling children is a statement of BHA policy on children and education and the campaign ‘Please don’t label me’. Call it manifesto if you wish. It is consistent for secularists, which often include religious people, to campaign against religious institutions – schools, churches, hospices, chaplains etc being state funded and against religious assemblies in state schools, local council parayers, Bishops in the Lords etc. The idea that schools should be inclusive of all children does not make people like me ‘vindictive, interfering atheists’… Read more »

Vale
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Vale

Thanks Jeanne. As someone not active in any humanist or secular organisation I’m really interested to hear about the people who are speaking up for secularism. I’ve been wondering about the connection between this discussion and the funerals that are the main focus of the blog. I think the points you have made about the need to create a level playing field between secular and religious ceremonies makes the link for me. Although there aren’t the same legal issues surrounding funerals as there at weddings, the funeral industry broadly still proceeds on the basis that it is the religious service… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Jeanne, you sound like a self-appointed spokesperson for all atheists, even if organising them is supposed to be ‘like herding cats’. You talk as if you’re the whip for a political party’s manifesto that interferes in private matters as well as public. ‘We believe that children should not be labelled by their parents beliefs, supernatural or otherwise, and that religious segregation is anti-education…’ As Vale points out, there’s a difference between state-funded schools and self-funding gatherings, whether by the Sunday Assembly or church services. We all agree people can do what they want in their free time. I happen to… Read more »

Jeanne
Guest

I went along, out of curiosity to a Sunday Assembly in Crystal Palace, south London. It was, as I expected, a gathering of mainly, white C of E atheists. It was lead by a Jesus like Jones, the bearded-long-haired-comedian-in-an-Aran-folk-singer jumper. It seems to offer some sort of comfort for those yearning the nostalgia and familiarity of their childhood and school and who feel the need for some sense of belonging to a community. The demographic of a typical SA in this country is rather similar to that of an Alpha Course. The SA they tried out in Dublin last year… Read more »

Vale
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Vale

I like your quotation Richard. You can see how Dawkins – a man on a mission if ever there was one – would feel about a group of people united only by their shared lack of belief. I suppose I want to reinforce the impression because I’d like to suggest that humanism and atheism are not interchangeable terms and, further, that the point that Andrew Copson was making about state sponsorship of religious and non-religious schools pointed to the need for a neutral secularism that is also a different thing. State secularism seems to me to be much more of… Read more »

Jennifer Uzzell
Guest

I seem to recall another Atheist “Church’ in the early 20th Century. I can’t recall specific details now, would have to go and ‘look stuff up’ but I do remember that it didn’t last. It will be interesting to see what happens with this. Logically it seems sound…it fulfils the sociological and anthropological purpose of religion.
We shall see 🙂