Are secular rituals too churchy?

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

Holding the line

There’s nothing new in a minister-naffs-off-mourners story, nor yet a Catholic-priest-bans-eulogy story. Some minsters are insensitive to the needs of their congregations, some insist on theological orthodoxy, some use a funeral as a conversion opportunity, some like to remind non-churchgoers that they will burn for all eternity in the fires of hell. Some clergy do exactly what their congregations want them to do, let’s not forget, but today’s story is not about them.

Today’s story is about Father Mike, a catholic priest in America who, at the funeral of a 29 year-old, was reckoned to have conducted himself in an insensitive, impersonal way which denied the congregation the comfort and assurance they sought. Below is an email one of the mourners sent to him:


Below is the reply from the priest:



Father Mike, like a lot of Catholic priests, believes that a funeral is no place for a eulogy. The do afterwards is the appropriate occasion for personal tributes, reminiscences and other life-celebratory stuff. A Catholic funeral has an altogether different job to do.

Father Mike’s heartless-seeming treatment of those grieving people is theologically defensible. Who are we to take issue with him for defending the integrity of the Catholic funeral mass and objecting to it being muddled by the intrusion of an anomalous element like a eulogy? Any faith group which is settled, fixed and confident in its beliefs prohibits the intrusion of anomaly. Atheists (Humanists) ban religious elements from their funerals, a practice reckoned heartless by some. In the words of one humanist celebrant, “Reverting to old comforting superstitions at a time of bereavement is understandable and will no doubt persist for a generation or two … I feel that celebrants, whether Humanist or religious should personally subscribe to the ethos and philosophy that underlies the nature of the ceremony.”

Whether or not Father Mike would subscribe to what this same celebrant goes on to say, we can only wonder: “I’ve met independent celebrants who’ve told me they can be whatever the client wants them to be but that strikes me as being the job description of an ancient but entirely different profession altogether.” (Source)

The question never debated by secular, semi-religious, call-them-what-you-will celebrants is whether a eulogy does actually belong in a funeral. If a wedding is analogous, we note that the speeches are made at the wedding breakfast, not the marriage ceremony — the happy chatter is kept separate from the solemnisation.

Atheist funerals mark the end

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Coming to adulthood in the 1980s, there seemed to be less anger surrounding religious beliefs. Before sex abuse scandals, suicide bombers and militant atheism hit the headlines, debate seemed more liberal, tolerant and respectful of differences. Ironically, there seemed to be less apathy, too. You could search freely across boundaries that seemed less rigidly defined.

As a token Christian adolescent trying to get to grips with existentialism, I recall some angst-ridden questioning of the meaning of life and death. When our brain dies, does our consciousness cease to exist, too? What if our minds just create meaning to stop us from despairing? Are religions mere comfort blankets for the deluded?

In time, I concluded that, if the hope inspired by faith turned out to be groundless, I’d rather be a cripple with a crutch than without. Later still, my faith was restored more fully.

Sartre recognised the problem of Nietzsche’s nihilism with an existentialism replacing cultural illusions with enthusiastic commitment to our personal choices. A definition of existentialism is ‘in and of itself’. If we freely give food to the hungry, the act has value in and of itself.

Many humanists believe life has meaning in and of itself. They’re sons and daughters, parents and grandparents. They create things and contribute to society. They seek creature comforts for themselves, their loved ones and those they do not know.

They accept we can also be cruel to ourselves, our loved ones and those we do not know. We can chase pleasure from a bottle, and abuse power on a domestic and global scale.

Most humanists aim to curb destructive traits via a code of ethics forged through a reason that’s not beholden to consciousness beyond death. They believe in objective good and bad, unencumbered by aspirations to merit heaven or avoid hell in any afterlife. They believe in love and beauty in and of itself, and, presumably, hatred and ugliness in and of itself, but try to be committed to the former.

Most would agree that those with and without faith both succeed and fail in varying degrees. There are saintly and wicked things done in the name of religion, and outside of religion.

I’ve been reminded of existentialism both by funeral talk here and by a recent sad encounter. Walking home from work I pass a mental asylum. One day, I bumped into a friend outside who, it transpired, had been sectioned. Surprised, concerned and sympathetic, I asked him to a nearby café to talk. With an hour before his curfew, he told me about triggers for his mental state. At some point, I alluded to prayer. He politely said he’d stick with lithium for now.

Many funerals offer practical, psychological and spiritual succour. Just occasionally, people politely say they’ll accept all the physical and psychological help available, but would rather leave God and the eternal soul out of it.

As this is the last wish of the dead person, it’s fulfilled with due respect and diligence. The life is celebrated and eulogised without prayers (public prayers anyway). Bereaved guests benefit. ‘The final send-off did him/her proud, and witnessing it helped us let go’.

However, I’m interested why so few opt for an exclusively atheist funeral, according to several civil celebrants and undertakers here. Could it be that, while we’re comfortable with the idea that we didn’t exist before conception, we remain troubled by the idea of perpetual annihilation of consciousness after physical death follows life?   

A humanist funeral is for the living as an atheist believes there’s nothing positive to look forward to after death, and nothing negative to fear. Death may be a blessed relief from physical pain but that’s now for those left behind to contemplate. The person is not in a new realm of peace outside his body, he has ceased to exist. He is not in a void, an empty space. He is simply no more.

If this finite history of a life is dwelt upon, it can lead to unsettling thoughts among those left behind. If a comet collides with Earth and all life is annihilated, the destruction of humankind has no meaning, in and of itself, as humankind no longer exists to be affected.

Absence of belief is not the be-all and end-all

In an article in the Telegraph, atheist Brendan O’Neill asks:

When did atheists become so teeth-gratingly annoying? Surely non-believers in God weren’t always the colossal pains in the collective backside that they are today? Surely there was a time when you could say to someone “I am an atheist” without them instantly assuming you were a smug, self-righteous loather of dumb hicks given to making pseudo-clever statements like, “Well, Leviticus also frowns upon having unkempt hair, did you know that?” Things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself, and instead mumble something about being a very lapsed Catholic if I’m put on the spot, for fear that uttering the A-word will make people think I’m a Dawkins drone with a mammoth superiority complex and a hives-like allergy to nurses wearing crucifixes.

What’s gone wrong with atheism? The problem isn’t atheism itself, of course, which is just non-belief, a nothing, a lack of something. Rather it is the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life, which gives rise to today’s monumentally annoying atheism. The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality. Which is bizarre. Atheism merely signals what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. It’s a negative. And therefore, basing your entire worldview on it is bound to generate immense amounts of negativity. Where earlier generations of the Godless viewed their atheism as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever, today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare “I am an atheist!” as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t.

It’s O’Neill’s conclusion that is especially relevant to atheist funerals: 

Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something. 

The BHA seems to have largely absorbed this message in its definition of its Humanist Ceremonies™. The Scottish humanists prefers a more hectoring tone, quoting journalist Reg McKay:  “Don’t you just hate it when a funeral seems to be all God and Jesus and sod all about your good pal? The Humanist Society of Scotland provides people just for this purpose. Called celebrants, they’ll whoop up the deceased’s life, not mourn it. That’s for me.”

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Can we agree to differentiate?

Ed’s note: Here’s your chance to interrogate the BHA on humanist funerals. If you’ve something to say, say it. Hannah or another BHA representative will respond. 

Guest post by Hannah Hart from the British Humanist Association explains the basics about humanist funerals, what happens at them and how they are organised.

The 2011 census showed that at least a quarter of us are not religious, and certainly many of us know we wouldn’t want a religious funeral for ourselves. 

So it’s no surprise that has been an enormous increase in number of non-religious funerals over recent years. Mostly this is to be welcomed; it signifies there is a real alternative for those for whom a religious service would feel inappropriate or hypocritical. 

But it also means that choosing the right person to lead a funeral can seem overwhelming, especially at an already difficult time. So how do you work out who would be the best choice in your situation?

 First things first: what is Humanism?

Humanism is a positive approach to life based on reason and a concern for humanity and the natural world. It is neither religious nor superstitious. 

We think that people are able to make ethical decisions based on experience and compassion rather than, for example, religious teachings. 

And what does Humanism have to do with funerals?

Humanists think that we each have one life, and one life only. We think funeral services should reflect this. And since there’s no issue of what happens after death to address, our funerals can concentrate on the life lived. 

So humanist funerals are about the profound sadness of saying goodbye whilst also celebrating the life and legacy of a loved one. They provide a very dignified and very personal farewell. 

And what is a ‘humanist celebrant’?

Celebrants are people who create, write and conduct ceremonies. 

Humanist celebrants are those who conduct and create non-religious ceremonies. They are sometimes called officiants or even humanist ‘ministers’. 

And Humanist Ceremonies™ celebrants have been trained and accredited by the British Humanist Association (BHA), a registered national charity representing the needs of non-religious people. Providing high-quality ceremonies is big part of the BHA’s work. 

Why do people choose humanist funerals?

Often because they feel it will most accurately reflect the personality or outlook of the person who has died. And many people come to us having been to another humanist funeral and actually enjoyed it; they’ve perhaps found it more honest and moving than other services they’ve attended. 

I’m not sure if the person who has died could be called a ‘humanist’. Does this matter?

Not at all. Our funerals are available to anyone who wants to mark their loved one’s life in a non-religious, personal, meaningful way. 

But I don’t want to offend anyone. Will it be ‘preachy’?!

Absolutely not! Our celebrants are there to provide an appropriate, personal, non-religious funeral – not to promote a cause. And every funeral is carefully designed to be inclusive of all present. 

What actually happens at a humanist funeral?

Each ceremony is unique, written specifically for the person who has died. In terms of structure, it may contain music, a welcome and then a tribute section of up to fifteen minutes. Time for reflection often follows, then the committal, and then closing comments.

Sounds great… but a lot of work.

This is where the celebrant comes in. Their job is to makes things as easy as possible. They meet key members of the family or close friends and talk about what is wanted from the funeral and about the person who has died. They then co-ordinate contributions and write a bespoke ceremony, making sure everyone is happy with this before the day itself. 

Where are humanist funerals held?

Most are held in crematoria and some at burial grounds, but since funeral services have no legal status they can be held wherever a family wishes.

 We also conduct a growing number of memorial services (when there is no body to inter). These are held at all sorts of venues.

Do you allow any religious content in your ceremonies?

Our ceremonies are non-religious but we recognise that there are aspects of religious reference embedded in our culture and day-to-day experiences. For example, certain hymns can remind people of their youth or even of their favourite rugby team. We are happy to include this sort of content where it helps to reflect the person, but not as an act of worship. 

How are your celebrants different from other non-religious celebrants?

There is a wide array of people working as celebrants and so it’s impossible to generalise about what they do and how well they do it. 

What we can do is assure you of the British Humanist Association’s approach and our commitment to quality. And we’ve certainly got experience on our side; our members were conducting humanist funerals as far back as the 1890s! 

Our celebrants are carefully recruited and trained to the highest standards. They are quality assured and regularly observed, follow a strict code of conduct and undergo continued professional development. 

How do I find a humanist celebrant?

Many funeral directors can recommend a Humanist Ceremonies celebrant or you can look for someone yourself on our website

Our network is as diverse as the clients we serve, enabling you to find a celebrant that is just right for your particular situation. 

And our celebrants are always happy to be contacted with any questions or simply for a quick chat so that you can decide with confidence if they are the right person to conduct your loved one’s funeral.

Yes, where were the humanists?

We’ve held this over awhile, but the question it asks remains topical. The article is about the aftermath of the Newtown shootings: 

The funerals and burials over the past two weeks have taken place in Catholic, Congregational, Mormon and United Methodist houses of worship, among others. They have been held in Protestant megachurches and in a Jewish cemetery. A black Christian youth group traveled from Alabama to perform “Amazing Grace” at several of the services.

This illustration of religious belief in action, of faith expressed in extremis, an example at once so heart-rending and so affirming, has left behind one prickly question: Where were the humanists?

Well worth reading the whole piece in the New York Times here

Funeral for a friend

The following is by Matthew Parris in his Times column (£). A nice little snapshot of a typical modern British funeral.

I went on Friday to the funeral of my dear and (very) old friend Barbara Carrington, my landlady once. It was a humanist funeral: beautiful, simple, unsentimental, with the reader not sheepishly overstating, as vicars sometimes do, her acquaintance with the deceased, but instead reading a story of Barbara’s life, as recounted by family and friends. Barbara always said that I’d be late for my own funeral and I was nearly late for hers, overtaking, as I raced over Chesterfield Moor, a pale grey hearse. Hers? Surely not.

Not. The coffin was already there as I arrived in the nick of time. But as I left, still rushing to finish my Saturday column, that pale grey hearse drew up. Doubtless for the next funeral, but I had the momentary and illogical feeling that I had just broken the equivalent of the sound barrier, racing half an hour ahead of time itself, overtaking the deceased on the way to her own funeral.

Does this make the case for a secular funeral ritual?

Here’s an interesting and stimulating view of funerals from Guardian commenter Sussexperson:

Each to their own, and all that, but there are serious flaws in the “capturing the person” style of funeral. I’ve been involved in a depressingly large number of those over recent years, so can speak from bitter experience.

You don’t, as a rule, have very long to organise a funeral service: often, less than a week. Consequently, friends and family are scrabbling around for favourite readings, favourite music etc. If the funeral’s at the crem, you generally have to choose the least worst option from the music on offer rather than the single piece of music the dead person would really have wanted. If you’re tasked with giving the eulogy (or “saying a few words”, as it’s usually put), it’s just awful: the closer you were to the person, the less able you are to sum them up in a glib two-or-three-minute address. Result: the general attendees may come away saying the usual things about “a lovely service” or whatever, but you, the handful of nearest and dearest, know you’ve short-changed your relative/friend — that it’s all been a bit sketchy and inadequate. Horrible. And the guilt of that stays with you.

Myself, I’ve decided I don’t want to inflict all that on my own family/friends when I go. I’ve left instructions in my will that there’s to be no “saying a few words” or other DIY stuff at my funeral; it’s to be the traditional C of E Book of Common Prayer funeral service, and no nonsense. Not because I’m religious, but because it’s the most perfectly-constructed ritual I know of — and ritual is there for a reason. It externalises all the thoughts and feelings that people in grief (assuming anyone does grieve my departure!) can’t easily put into words themselves. It provides a framework. And it lets the mourners mourn, instead of foisting upon them the necessity of getting up an ad hoc bit of am-dram. Furthermore, by using the same ritual, the same words, that have been in use for centuries, it makes that single death part of a long continuity: something to be accepted as the fate of all mortals, not some exceptional outrage against natural law. Much more comforting, in my view.

Plenty of opportunity afterwards, over the funeral baked meats, for the anecdotes and personal reminiscences and quiet chuckles, if people want to do that.

In the same comments thread was this, from Remorsefulchekist:

I went to a Christian funeral and was bored witless.
I went to a Christian funeral and was moved beyond words
I went to an Atheist funeral and was bored witless.
I went to an Atheist funeral and was moved beyond words
Repeat with variations for Sikhs, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Agnostics, Buddhists . . . 

Guardian article here

Thoughts of a funeral-goer

Posted by Lyra Mollington

The lovely Mr Cowling and his little friend Vale have kindly invited me to contribute to the splendid GFG. As a lady of a certain age, I have attended more than my fair share of funerals, becoming something of a connoisseur.

I have also attended more than my fair share of dreadful funerals. On one occasion we were regaled with threats of hell and damnation by an intense and possibly psychopathic lady vicar. She clearly warmed to her theme as she saw our horrified faces. We were her ideal audience – unable to escape.

The humanists are only slightly better – why do they have to mention religion so much? Yes, we get it – you can have a funeral without God. And yes, you mean no disrespect to those of a religious faith. Get a grip for heaven’s sake! We’re not going to fall apart because you’re unable to wax lyrical about Life Everlasting. However, I do miss a good hymn. As long as it’s not All Things Bright & Beautiful! Unless the organist is playing it in the key of C, at my age I have no hope of reaching the top notes. But even that is better than Wind Beneath My Wings. Does no-one listen to the lyrics?

Anyway, it got me thinking. What if my children chose something like that for my funeral. Plan ahead – that’s the key. So whilst we were tucking into our crispy duck in restaurant in China Town, I tentatively raised the subject of my demise. It went something like this:

Me: I’ve been thinking about my funeral.

Daughter: (imagine high-pitched disapproval) Mum! We’re eating!

Me: Well we don’t often get the chance to talk like this. I just wanted…

Son: (fingers in ears) Not listening. Not listening.

Me: I’ll write it all down then.

Daughter: Fine – but it’s not legally binding you know.

Son: (starting to chuckle) Yeah, but don’t worry – we’ve got lots of ideas.

Later that evening we saw Bill Bailey’s Work In Progress and everyone howled with laughter when he sang the first few notes of “I Will Always Love You…”

Now that’s another song I don’t want at my funeral. Does no-one listen to the lyrics?

Ed’s note: the first two lines are: ‘If I should stay, / I would only be in your way.’ A very good point you make, Ms Mollington.