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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
WEDDING THE ATHEIST WAY
by Robin Murray O'Hair
A soft and moonlit night, shadows of early evening music, the lush, velvet scent of a rose — all combine with a vibrant enthusiasm as they walk together. As he savors the brush of her body against his, he thinks fleetingly of those long years of romantic trial-and-error, lingeringly of those first tentative approaches to her. Drinking in his presence, she remembers the moment she first thought his eyes sparkled. Hand in hand, they bask in each other's warmth. He slows his steps beside a stream, she turns to him, open with trust. And then, bold yet hesitating, he asks if she will build home and hopes with him, if she will become his wife. He thinks suddenly — in the hush before her reply — that he never before realized the depth of his own affection for her. And then she says, \Yes.\ Later — after the embrace, after the slow kiss — images run through both their minds of a lifetime of sharing and concern, of two-story houses and suburban gardens, of laughing children. They imagine telling their families and friends the news, the time when they will exchange promises of love in public, the stunning bride in a white lace dress — dazed with love and marching slowly toward a jittery groom, of joining hands and turning toward the minis—
Unfortunately for that old stereotype, our two young lovers are Atheists. They are to be excluded from the pageantry of the religious wedding. They cannot, in all honesty, stand before a priest and claim that a god is joining them together. Didn't they bring themselves together?
Instead, they will want a justice of the peace or other authorized individual to officiate at their wedding. Later when they go to the library and try to find some \secular\ ceremonies for the nuptials, they will find any number of quotes from the Bible recommended. They will also find any number of unrealistic and quasi-religious promises recommended for the exchange of vows. If our couple doesn't just give up and forgo the celebratory ceremony, choosing instead just to go to the court house and send out announcements afterwards, what shall they do?
Fortunately, Atheists no longer have to forgo marriage to avoid religious weddings. The battles for secular ceremonies have already been fought for them. They can take advantage of the common law marriages available in many states and — in effect — marry themselves. They can avail themselves of a justice of the peace, many a one of which will perform ceremonies outside of the court house and in more festive settings. In some states, they can even obtain the services of individuals who are registered as marriage celebrants. Some of those celebrants or officiants are not alone willing to perform completely nonreligious nuptials but are officers of chapters of American Atheists.
While it is not necessary to go back to the church for one's wedding, much of our popular wedding symbolism is entangled with religious tradition. The most hardened Atheist will sometimes slip and say that a couple \went down the aisle together\ or that a woman finally got that old bachelor \to the altar.\ The Atheist couple need not acquiesce to this image, however. They can create together a marriage ceremony that reflects their relationship and their hopes for a life together. Such a ceremony need not be a pale mimicry of religious services.
It's For You
Each marriage is a unique union between two individuals. Each individual brings into that union his or her own set of values, past experiences, family traditions, expectations, and finally, perceptions of love and affection. The limitations and mechanics of the union are set by the physical, intellectual, emotional, and often financial abilities of those involved. As all relationships do, it evolves and matures. There is certainly no formula for how a marriage will operate, though it might be hoped that it is a give-and-take, sharing situation.
If a specifically Atheist wedding ceremony exists, it would take into account that uniqueness. It would reflect the specialness of the relationship and of the persons involved. It would display their particular hopes and dreams, aspirations and goals. It would, in other words, be an individual and not a generic wedding. It would be shaped by the ones to be wed. It would also, it is hoped, focus on the bridal couple instead of on an institution or philosophy. Religious weddings focus visually on the officiant and ideologically on the state and the church. Atheist weddings should instead revolve around the couple and their feelings.
A marriage ceremony need only consist of a couple's exchange of vows and an authorized officiant's acknowledgment of those vows. That is all the law requires, all that it takes to have the IRS recognize the couple as husband and wife — despite what Aunt May might say. There is no reason for a couple to add frills to this simple, legal recognition of their affection — unless they want to do so.
Many lovers do want those frills and specifically want the opportunity to announce and define their partnering to family and friends, and to provide a forum for the celebration of the newly created family. Traditionally the main ingredients for the festive declaration of love, known as a wedding, are:
(1) Gathering words, acting as a call to order and announcement of the proceedings.
Not all weddings contain all these ingredients, nor do they need to occur in any particular order. (Though we can probably agree that any gathering words should occur before anything else is spoken.) Nor is there any reason to exclude other, ethnic traditions which may be important to either the bride or groom. It should be kept in mind, however, what the various traditions may represent. The throwing of rice after the ceremony, for instance, is an expression of wish for fertility — perhaps not an appropriate image for couples not planning to add to the world's population.
Who Does What
The Atheist couple might also reflect upon who they wish to perform what of various possible activities during the ceremony. If the bride, for instance, is an accomplished musician, she might wish to perform a song for her intended. If readings of poetry seem appropriate, the bride may wish to read a poem to the groom, and then the groom may wish to read a poem to his bride. In some weddings the couple may wish to do everything but the officiant's acknowledgement. Since the event is in honor of the lovers and the lovers' relationship, it would seem appropriate for them to take the most prominent parts in the performance. Too often the only statement made by each principal participant is \I do\ — while the officiant gives a long discourse, having frequently nothing to do with the couple. The following, for example, is the traditional format of the Roman Catholic marriage rite:
In the above hodgepodge, the bride and groom actually participate — if that's the correct word — only in three parts: \The Question of Willingness and Consent\ (\Do you take this woman,\ etc.), \The Exchange of Vows,\ and \The Exchange of Rings.\ The first two usually only require a yes or no response, and the third is a formulaic response. The priest, however, monopolizes the event.
Lovers should use the wedding ceremony to celebrate and announce their own relationship in their own way — with their own words. Realistically, however, many couples might be too preoccupied (or nervous) during the nuptial activities to recite more than \We do\ distinctly. In that case, having the officiant and/or friends do either all or many of the other readings and announcements may result in a lovelier ceremony.
The \Gathering Words\ are basically a verbal gavel, something to call the assemblage to order. Everyone knows the \gathering words\ of the traditional religious service: \Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the sight of God, and the presence of these witnesses, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.. .\ That formula is, of course, unacceptable to an Atheist couple.
The opening call can be simple and straightforward or poetic and ornate, depending on the wishes of the couple. The officiant can simply say, \We are here to celebrate the marriage of Ginger Roe and Gallagher Doe.\ Several longer openings are included in the ceremonies reproduced elsewhere in this issue. It should be kept in mind that the opening words need not be a statement, but could instead be a poem.
Because of the unsavory aspects of this tradition, many women have insisted upon eliminating \the presentation\ from the wedding ceremony. Some individuals may still wish to recognize the importance of their original families to their own growth and support sometime during the proceedings. Fortunately, many variant wordings exist for the \presentation\ which honor the importance of parents and relatives (and even close friends) while avoiding any sexist connotations. It is suggested that if the bride is \given away\ the groom should be also. One possible presentation is:
Officiant: The union of Gallagher and Ginger brings together two family traditions, two systems of roots, in the hope that a new family tree may become strong and fruitful. Theirs is a personal choice and decision for which they are primarily responsible. Yet their life will be enriched by the support of the families from which each comes. Will you (parents) encourage Ginger and Gallagher in their relationship?
One's loved ones can be included in the proceedings in any other of a number of ways. One's mother can, for instance, be recruited to perform some music. One's father or friend can be included by reading poetry or a statement. If the couple was originally introduced to each other by a mutual friend, that friend might be called upon to give an account of the original meeting. While the wedding is primarily a celebration of the love of two people, it can also be an opportunity for the couple to thank and acknowledge others who are important in their lives.
If the \declaration of consent\ is included in the ceremony, it should be regarded as the most flexible part except for the vows themselves. The couple may choose to keep it fairly traditional, with most of the readings done by the officiant. For example:
Officiant: Gallagher and Ginger, is it your intention to try to share with each other your joys and sorrows and all that the years might bring each another and to live as husband and wife? Response: We do.
Alternatively, the couple may take a more active part in this exchange. For instance:
Officiant: Ginger, will you tell your family and friends why you are here today?
A charming form of the declaration that is becoming increasingly popular is for the bride and groom to exchange unprepared statements. In that case, the officiant may invite the bride and groom in turn to make a pledge. The spontaneity of this procedure well symbolizes the spontaneity of a relationship.
Officiant: Do you. Ginger, take Gallagher as your husband?
Many couples may wish to use that classic, traditional exchange. If nothing else, it would be the \something old\ in the wedding. But personalization can be as important in this part of the proceedings as any other. Couples should keep in mind, however, if they write their own vows, that the vows should be equal, that is, the groom's vow should be the equivalent of the bride's. The same ideas that apply to the \declaration\ can apply to this part of the ceremony; many couples may wish to combine the two.
It is common in all cultures for the bride and groom, after exchanging vows, to exchange tangible symbols of their new legal relationship. These symbols are sometimes rings, sometimes bracelets, necklaces, or charms. Some individuals argue that the ring may be a hangover from when the bride was brought home by capture and literally in bonds, and some Atheists (and feminists) may want to eliminate it for that reason. The authorities are not, however, in agreement on the origin of the wedding ring. If symbolic jewelry is to play a part in the marriage, it should be remembered that it is generally more convenient to wear a ring than a necklace. If the couple does choose to exchange symbols of their affection, they should do so with some sort of statement explaining the importance of what they are doing. They could state, for example:
Bride: Gallagher, I give you this ring that you may wear it as a symbol of our union.
The couple may also make other trades symbolic of their relationship in place of or in addition to any jewelry. They can join hands, drink wine from the same bottle, light a candle together, or even have friends tie their wrists together as our Northern ancestors once did. The couple should not forget the climax of the ceremony: the kiss.
I call upon all of you to witness that Ginger and Gallagher arc husband and wife.
The Atheist couple should be particularly careful in their selection of music, since so many of the available wedding themes are contaminated with religion. At one wedding the author attended, the bride, a second generation Atheist, had chosen a popular tune called \The Wedding Song\ without realizing that the song discussed — in detail — the potential relationship between bride, groom, and Jesus. To keep the wedding symbolism untarnished, the bridal couple should listen to music all the way through before deciding on their selection.
Classical instrumental music can add much to the dignity of the proceedings, and couples should consider it. Popular love songs can be equally beautiful, if they are appropriate to the feelings of the bridal couple. Many musicals, such as the Rogers and Hart musicals, include wedding and love songs that are charming.
If the officiant or another individual does the reading, it would be most appropriate if it were something on the general nature of love and marriage. These lines from \The Prophet\ of Kahlil Gibran could perhaps be read:
Love one another, but make not a bond of love;
If the bride and groom read, it might be best to have something descriptive of an individual's love and affection for another. They could perhaps read alternate verses of the same poem. Thomas Lovell Beddoes's \Song,\ for instance, could be read thusly:
Each person could read a poem separately. Some appropriate poems are listed and reproduced in this issue. The couple also should consider writing their own poetry for the occasion. The results might not be Shakespearean, but they could not fail to be appropriate and special to the occasion.
The use of prose readings should also be considered by the couple. Ingersoll and others can provide particularly affecting additions to the event.
Atheists realize that a ceremony does not make a marriage, that a couple can have an exchange of concern and love without legal recognition. They should also understand that any couple planning to have a wedding is probably — and hopefully — already married for all intents and purposes, bonded by mutual trust and affection. The wedding festivities should be treated as just that: festivities. They should be looked upon as an opportunity for the couple to announce and clarify their relationship for others — and to include others in their joy. There are too few celebrations in modern life; more can be added by the convivial announcements of new families.