I had a very interesting weekend.
On Friday, my wife and I stood up for old friends who had been living together for 17 years, and decided, quite unexpectedly, that they were going to marry. No, there was no shotgun involved, just a certain acceptance of the inevitable coupled with a recognition of the legal advantages of marital status. There was just us, another two couples representing friends and family, and the local magistrate who performed the ceremony. From the moment she came to the door (the magistrate that is) to the end of the ceremony couldn’t have been ten minutes, and for me, it was one of the most meaningful weddings I ever attended. We drove to Pittsburgh that morning in the pouring rain, insufferable weather that didn’t stop even upon our arrival, until about 30 minutes before the ceremony, which was planned for the garden in our friends’ back yard. The rain stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Those of a religious mind would have been praising the lord for his beneficence in providing good weather for the ceremony. I simply acknowledged that the rain had to stop sometime, and, true to form, did. And if it hadn’t? Well, that would have been true to form also.
The service was commendable, not just for its brevity, but for its secularity. The magistrate had a small manual that the state apparently hands out to judges upon their election, that contained a marriage ceremony for just this eventuality. The couple didn’t plan any special vows, were happy with what their tax dollars provided, and went with the flow as set forth in the manual. I had the rings in my pocket (purchased thirteen years prior in an act of incredible prescience) which I pulled out at the appropriate prompt. They still fit! There was not a single word acknowledging any divine approval of what they were doing. After the ceremony, we went back inside, prepared hors d’oeuvre, toasted them with champagne, and then met more of their friends at their favorite Italian restaurant for dinner. That’s the way to do a wedding!
Today we were invited to what I would have called a baptism, protestants might call a christening, but because the family was Jewish, it was called a naming. A different set of old friends picked today for the naming of their daughter’s first child, a little girl. If the child had been a boy, it would have been a bris. Again, the ceremony was short, and held in a small chapel, not in the main synagogue. The Rabbi prepared a few remarks, the baby was on her best behavior, everyone sang and clapped and within 15 minutes we were out of the chapel, and on our way to lunch (the weekend involved far to much food, but I have no complaints).
It was explained by the Rabbi that up until the 1970’s or thereabouts, normally the Jewish faith ignored the birth of baby girls, instead expending all the ceremonial trappings on the boys (and let’s not forget the ritual genital mutilation – the girls are probably happy they weren’t involved). Now Jews, or at least those of the Reformed congregation, have a ceremony that recognizes the inclusion of females in the Jewish community. It was a nice occasion for friends, and grandparents, and aunts, uncles and cousins, to get together, break bread, and let their hair down. I was happy to be included as friends. My wife said I had never participated in a religious ceremony with such enthusiasm as I did today. I suspect it was a combination of knowing it would be short, with the general good feeling one experiences when family and friends get together for auspicious occasions. Sunday church service, which my wife was referring to, never met either of those criteria.
Of course, the juxtaposition in such a short time of two distinctly ceremonial happenings, both normally religious in nature, but with little religious emphasis in practice, got me thinking about religion, people and the necessity of communal ties. The ties that bind.
I would have thought that given my atheist colored glasses, I would have arrived at a jaundiced view of both of the ceremonies, but to my surprise, I didn’t. I should have concluded that religion, being a pox upon humanity, is simply being given a booster shot every time we get together to celebrate a wedding or a birth in a religious setting. Upon reflection, however, I began to appreciate how religion actually reinforced the connections between humans. The traditions of weddings, funerals, christenings and other ceremonies that reinforce our tribal connections ensure, to a certain degree, that empathy for our fellow man is instilled in all of us, and our children.
Connection is important. Without it, humans would see each other as enemies, competitors on the stage of life for the resources the planet provides us. It would be every man for himself, dog eat dog, and all those other trite clichés we use. Unless we felt some empathy for our fellow man, well, humanity might not have survived to this point. So traditions and celebrations that emphasize our connections to each other were important, and are still important.
As an atheist and a humanist, I don’t see the necessity for belief in gods, but I do see the necessity for the continuation of these types of traditions. As humans, we will continue to experience the facts of life and death; birth and burial. As a two-gender species, with coupling a necessity for our survival, some type of traditions surrounding the coupling ceremony is good. Call it marriage, call it a union, but whatever you call it, celebrating it as a positive step in an individual’s contribution to humanity is desirable.
Historically religion provided a means for the continuation of these traditions, and for that I guess we have to acknowledge it with thanks, though I suspect that without religion, humanity would have figured out another means of arriving at the same place. However, in my estimation, it’s time for it to go. Religion, being based significantly on a delusion, should step aside and allow humanity to continue its progress, by retaining those aspects of the traditions handed down that religion preserved, while jettisoning those aspects based on the delusion that there is some divine, supernatural overseer.
Clearly, it might appear that I come to this conclusion as if it hadn’t been thought of before, but the last couple of hundred years, since the Enlightenment, indicates that we are already on that path, and we’ve come pretty far along it to boot. Recent claims to the contrary notwithstanding, America is based on the premise that we can continue along this path of secular humanity without gods to guide us, using only the reason and intellect we’ve developed on our own. The traditions of weddings, funerals and christenings will continue to bind us together as humans who care for and desire to nourish each other, even if we are not related in the tribal sense. The perpetuation of our species demands nothing less.
So as long as the weddings, funerals and namings continue to be short, sweet and to the point, and conclude with a nice meal, I’m there, even if they are held in a church. 😉