Are secular rituals too churchy?

Charles 10 Comments

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


  1. Charles

    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 🙂

  2. Charles

    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 a conscious neutrality that provides the space for potentially competing belief systems to coexist with the least conflict. Whether that studied neutrality is compatible with state sponsorship of belief led schools is, as your post highlights and Andrew’s comments suggest, a live and serious question.

    I’m not convinced that Sunday non-religious gatherings provide a good test through. They are above all private affairs and the whole issue is that people should be able to do and believe what they like in private as long as they don’t break the law (unless, as it appears, they are are doing it electronically). It only becomes an issue if you want the state to, effectively, sponsor and support those beliefs and practices. Mr Copson draws the line at that point – and I’m inclined to agree with him. But you knew that already, I’m guessing…

  3. Charles

    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 didn’t go down very well – it seemed like a very British import!

    I understand the attraction of singing in choirs but the cheesy pop/Beatles singalong is not an edifying sound. For those atheists who are not invloved in any community/political activity then popping along to a Sunday Assembly makes sense.

    British Humanist Association local groups are expanding but again, some of us don’t necessarily need to join them for comraderie as we already have other networks and some of us prefer campaigning activity towards secularisation and challenging religious privilege and divisiveness especially in segregated schooling.

    Incidentally, one reason the British Humanist Association is not tryng to establish Humanist schools is that we are committed to secularisation, to the separation of the Church of England from the State. We believe that children should not be labelled by their parents beliefs, supernatural or otherwise, and that religious segregation is anti-education and dangerously divisive. We believe that all schools should be inclusive in their intake. The religious admissions policies now, under this government with the proliferation of academies and ‘free’ schools, not only excludes on religious grounds but also discriminates on other grounds eg those on free school meals, special needs etc. When AC Grayling set up his exclusive private University, with Dawkins and others as lecturers, he was dropped by the BHA as potential President!

    Perhaps, there will be a proliferation of different types of Sunday Assemblies that are not reflecting an Anglo-centric C of E ethos which sometimes means a certain arrogance towards others – Catholic, Muslim, Black Evangelical etc.

    Yesterday I attended the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group in the House of Lords with Jim Al Khalili in conversation which was very interesting, especially meeting up with fellow humanists in politics. This is the kind of activity that is more likely to get effective changes in the law. One question that was asked was about wedding registrars and how this should be secularised and all weddings be registered by the State as happens in France and elsewhere. People can then have their wedding ceremony anywhere conducted by whatever celebrant they wish -religious or otherwise.The is just an extension of secularisation and which celebrants like myself are used to both here and abroad.

    It is interesting to see how the atheist versus humanist strands are playing out in Ireland. The Humanist Association of Ireland is longer established than Atheist Ireland and its wedding celebrants are recognised as registrars but it is the latter that is making headways in changing legislation towards secularisation and is more active politically and socially.

  4. Charles

    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 also believe that excellent schools, founded by the Church for communities, should not be made criminals by a homogenising state, run by vindictive, interfering atheists.
    As for your advocacy of secularising weddings by forcing the French way of compulsory state registration on us, we already have a legal choice between civil or church. Why add an extra, expensive layer of tedious bureaucracy on top?

  5. Charles

    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’ nor whenever we challenge the unfair priveleges afforded to religions, especially the C of E.

    The situation with weddings is, again about religious privilege for religionists only to be wedding registrars but not other celebrants including Humanists. Registrar weddings are a civil/legal process and not a ceremony which is why some people religious and non-religious want a separate ceremony that reflects their beliefs.

    Again it is BHA and the National Secular Society policy to seek to separate church and state. So it is entirely consistent to seek to remove the privilege afforded only to religionists including the Scientologists to be registrars. Furthermore, there are restrictions about when, where and how registrars can operate. This is why it gives more freedom to all if the legal registraton is separated from the ceremony. I have conducted many weddings here and abroad whereby the couple, gay and heterosexual, have had to have a separate legal registration often with just the two required witnesses but regard their personalised Humanist ceremony as their real wedding witnessed and suported by family and friends whose blessing they seek rather than that of a a deity.

    When the non-religious

    1. Charles

      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 that is the norm and secular funerals the variant. This surely is the position that needs to be challenged across the whole range of life ceremonies. I’m not for a moment suggesting that religious ceremonies won’t continue to be important, only that a non religious choice shouldn’t be seen as a departure from the standard.
      Of course in the end it is ordinary people who are already driving the change – but it’s good to know that all of this is being drawn to attention of our legislators. Thank you.

  6. Charles

    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, truth, beauty and wonder, and how these aid the bereaved.
    I stand by my choice of words: vindictive, interfering and rather sad.

    1. Charles

      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 a helmet on in readiness for the opprobrium you’ll heap on it. I also think it’s an affront to the courtesy this blog offers us all – to debate, discover and express ourselves without risk of abuse because we happen to disagree.

  7. Charles

    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 as they saw fit, and I’d defend them and my old school against criticism for teaching the ‘wrong’ type of values. Instead of talking about ‘social exclusion’, perhaps you should be asking how the success of faith schools can be replicated.

    When I grew up, I came out as a lesbian, and have views on gay marriage, too. In my first relationship, we had no desire to buy into the ‘bourgeois tradition’. We’d grown up witnessing divorces, and like many homos and heteros, we were happy to co-habit.

    In my second significant relationship, we embraced civil partnership. The bond symbolised our love. It also strengthened commitment to one another, should, God forbid, one us consider straying. It was, to be blunt, a form of social and moral regulation. Lastly, the legal contract gave us peace of mind about passing on what we owned in the event of death.

    It’s these traits, part romantic and part practical, that have ensured the ideal of marriage has retained its status in modern society. It’s a model that’s embraced by so many couples, whether married as a sacred act at the altar or at the registrar office.

    After a few years, we were blessed with a baby daughter, my partner being the blood mother, a friend being the sperm donor.

    We then experienced perhaps the most fundamental function of marriage. In our case, it wasn’t to bring a child to life through marital, procreative sex, but it was to provide a domestic unit where a child could grow up secure in the knowledge they were loved by two parents, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and grandparents.

    You might be surprised to hear that we’re sending our daughter to a faith school. You might be surprised that she’s been admitted, given our lifestyle. You might be even more surprised that we have no plans to switch from civil partnership to marriage.

    From our standpoint, civil partnership has given us all the choice we want. That’s equality enough. The same-sex marriage lobby presented itself as a movement for civil rights. The old segregation laws excluded racial groups. The institution of marriage was principally oriented towards the regulation of human reproduction. Noone can claim marriage was a straight conspiracy designed to exclude gays. We came together for companionship, but ended as a family unit. We have no desire to redefine marriage for further affirmation.

    Much that I dislike zealous advocates of traditional marriage saying gay unions undermine family life, I find the accusation of homophobia is often inappropriate. There is the ideal of the traditional family. We like to think we do a decent job, but we’re not the norm of man and wife becoming mother and father.

    Perhaps the most liberal proposal for the future is that marriage become a matter of private preference rather than an institution validated by the state. If marriage is deregulated by the state, then no one’s ideal need be violated.

    We need not increase the power of the state over private life, over how our relationships are defined, understood and experienced. Those who opt for a traditional marriage can determine what this ritual means for them, and can partake in a ceremony that validates their union. Others can choose a form of marriage fitting for their preferred identities and moral norms.

    The separation of marriage from state would allow people with different outlooks to flourish in their chosen way, and not according to the dictates of officialdom.

    Now, how can I bring this mix of autobiography and opinion round to funerals? I think the blog raises valid points about the controlling streak of some atheists. We need to distinguish between the ‘politics of equality’ and the ‘politics of identity’. And we need to bring the sectarian extremes of absolutism and relativism back to the realm of common sense and common purpose.

    I ask you, what will be the next injustice to lobby against? You can book a priest for the secular venue of a crematorium, but you can’t book a civil celebrant for a church funeral?

  8. Charles

    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.

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