Before I get bogged down in philosophy, I need to acknowledge the glaring, more concrete reason I’m drawn to life-cycle rituals—I was raised in a (Jewish) culture of them. They were the signposts of life as I grew up, experiencing some ceremonies for myself, and witnessing countless others. This is the autobiographical basis of my attachment to ritual.
I begin with this point so as to highlight how an individual’s connections to ritual are often largely culture-driven (aka from nurture), and this is cause for great diversity in secular attitudes towards ritual. If a Humanist has strong roots in a particular religion and its ceremonies, those early experiences can set that individual’s image of what meaning-making is supposed to look and feel like. And if a person was raised without much attachment to rituals, there’s a great chance they won’t develop a taste for them later in life. So, when it comes to Humanist ritual celebration, some people just will never be that into it. Some people are academic or activism humanists, but not song-and-dance humanists.
So I won’t say Humanist life-cycle ceremonies are for every Humanist, or every human.
For myself as a Humanist, I am drawn to life-cycle rituals by a need to mark time, to live intentionally, and to gather with others—and to accomplish these things by use of the symbolic in word, object, and act. Rituals develop our sense of meaning and purpose, our capacity for wonder and reverence for the triumphs and challenges in life. Our life-cycle ceremonies honor our relationships and celebrate our intersubjectivity. And we express these meanings and values by drawing on (and often creating afresh) the rich heritage of human cultures.
*(I’m just borrowing a lot of the language from the Humanist Manifesto III in this whole paragraph, but I think you’ll agree it echoes a number of the Existential/Feminist themes I mentioned in my last post.)
As a Humanist, I would want to hold a baby welcoming ceremony in order to make explicit and public our joy, hope, and solemn sense of responsibility in welcoming new life and growing a family.
As a Humanist, I would want to hold a coming-of-age ceremony in order to give adolescents an opportunity to be recognized in their transition from childhood to adulthood, to be honored for developing and sharing their own thoughts and values, and to feel supported in finding new roles in the community and society.
As a Humanist, I have held a wedding because as a human in love, I wanted to make explicit and public the commitment, joy, and hope that follow from that love, and to be supported in this endeavor by friends and family. I held a progressive, Humanistic wedding in order to honor the egalitarian values over those of patriarchy which plague human relations.
As a Humanist, I will want a funeral or memorial service because the people I leave behind may need that ritual to help process their loss. And because, as an Existentialist, I believe it is healthy and meaningful for humans to engage with mortality—“It is better to go to the house of mourning… for that is the end of all men (sic), and the living will lay it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)