The Ceremony without the Religion

The Ceremony without the Religion
By Louise Holden – Irish Times

As society becomes increasingly secular, ways of celebrating life’s milestones in a non-religious way are gaining in popularity.

Do Irish families use Catholic sacraments as an excuse for a party? Some say yes, but it’s not that simple. Christenings, weddings and funerals are the only religious events in the otherwise secular lives of thousands of Irish people. The need to celebrate a rite of passage and to attach ritual to family milestones is strong in everyone, from atheists to fundamentalists. Most Irish families want to share their new arrival, their union or the death of a loved one with family and community in an organised fashion. Not every family wants to involve religion, but their choices to date have been limited.

The number of people in Ireland stating that they have no religion has more than doubled with every census since 1961. There are now 138,264 professed non-religious people in Ireland, and that does not include those who pronounce themselves to be atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics and those who left the section on religion in the census blank (a further 79,000).

James Maher, a father of two from Co. Meath, is non-religious, but he does not want his children to miss out on the celebrations other children enjoy.

First Communion – Other choices?

“When my daughter’s class were making their First Communion last year, I worried that our daughter would feel left out,” he says. “I even asked a child psychologist about it, but she said there was nothing to worry about as long as it was handled sensitively.

“Luckily my daughter’s teacher, while very committed to the sacrament of Communion, respected our wishes and our daughter was made to feel included in a non-religious way.”

Prior to the event, Maher attempted to track down other families in the same position as his, to organise a parallel event for the children of non-religious families. It was hard to bring such families together, Maher admits. Since non-religious people tend not to be attached to any obvious community they are hard to reach. Also, Maher was afraid that he made a public effort to profile the event he would draw unwanted media attention. He did not want his day out for the kids to be presented as an act of defiance.

“I was afraid that with all the hype around First Communion, the dresses in the window and the media reports, my daughter might feel that she was being ignored while everyone else was being acknowledged. “On balance, however, I think she was too young to analyse the situation that deeply. Her only gripe was that everyone else got money except for her.”

Maher feels that Confirmation is a more important stage of a child’s life, in age terms, as they are entering young adulthood. He is determined to gather like-minded families together in time for his daughter’s coming of age.”

Norway Provides Role

Maher uses the example of the Norwegian “civil confirmation”. Around 16 per cent of young people in Norway attend a civil confirmation instead of a religious confirmation. In the year 2002 a total of 8,700 Norwegian teenagers were confirmed in civil ceremonies.

Before taking pat in the civil ceremony, participants attend a course in which they discuss life stances and world religions, ethics and human sexuality, human rights and civic duties. In short the question that is addressed during the course: “How shall we behave towards one another?” At the end of the course the participants receive a diploma at a ceremony where there are music, poetry and speeches.

Ireland currently has no equivalent to the civil confirmation, but ceremonial options for families may be growing. The Inter-Departmental Committee on Reform of Marriage Law has published a discussion paper on marriage venues in which has recommended a liberalisation of the locations where marriages can solemnised. If couples are allowed choose their own wedding venues, many more non-religious ceremonies will be held in gardens, hotels and open spaces across the country. This would be a relief for non-religious couples who do not want a church wedding but aren’t too keen on the registry office as a venue for such a personal event. Given that there is only one registry office in the country that can accommodate more than 60 people it will mark a huge change in the nature of non-religious wedding ceremonies in Ireland.

Association of Irish Humanists

For 10 years, the Association of Irish Humanists (AIH) has been helping families who wish to stage formal celebrations of life’s milestones without religious involvement. The association currently has 300 families on its membership files, but many more have used its ceremony handbook to create their own formats for weddings, baby-naming ceremonies and funerals.

“Every time one of our members has a ceremony, some of the guests take an interest and the pool grows,” says Dick Spicer of the AIH. “We provide celebrants to officiate at weddings, baby-naming ceremonies and funerals, but in the majority of cases people write their own scripts and choose their own celebrants from family or friends.”

According to Spicer, non-religious weddings and funerals tend to follow the same lines as traditional ceremonies, but without the religious content.

“The structure of a wedding, for example, has evolved over a long time, comprising both religious and non-religious elements,” he says. “Most weddings I have officiated at have featured white wedding dresses, rings and bridesmaids – the whole kerfuffle, even the crying mother.”

Has he come up against family disputes, in which religious parents have refused to attend their children’s non religious ceremonies?” There has been tension from time to time but as long as the wider family is included, and well prepared, by the end of the day those reservations have all melted away and the joy and togetherness of the day is what matters,” Spicer says.

He has officiated at funerals, too and believes that the non-religious funeral is a more straightforward arrangement than many people expect. Almost every county has a municipal graveyard and families can arrange with the undertaker to book a slot. Funeral ceremonies are often held in people’s houses, or, where space allows, in undertaker’s rooms.

The underlying Script

In most cases, the only element that divides religious and non-religious ceremonies is the script – the format and the feeling of belonging and change are common in all cases. Rituals and symbolic actions are fundamental aspect of human social and personal life. Where religious ceremonies call on a deity to witness and acknowledge a change in human affairs, non-religious ceremonies call on family, friends and community to do the same.

These ceremonies are occasions that families of all persuasions and none can share, and with Ireland’s changing religious profile, they may soon become a common feature of Irish family life.

‘courtesy: The Irish Times’