“It’s not easy to live a good life or be a good person—with or without a god,” writes Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein in the introduction to his new book, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.” Tolerant, fair-minded people of all religions or none do not dwell on the question of whether we can be good without God,” Epstein continues. “The answer is yes. Period. Millions and millions of people are, every day. However, the question why we can be good without God is much more relevant and interesting. And the question of how we can be good without God is absolutely crucial. Those are the questions in this book—the essential questions asked and answered by Humanism.”
[The following section is excerpted from Chapter 6, “Good Without God in Community: The Heart of Humanism,” with permission of the author and the publishers.]
Art, Nature, and Being Alive Twice
Another important and Humanistic alternative to prayer you don’t need me to tell you about—but which is important to mention—is the appreciation of nature and the arts. Just as frequent reminders of the importance of compassion and the golden rule can be helpful (see chapter 4), we secular people can’t be reminded too often that art and the natural world are always there waiting for us to appreciate and take part in them. A psychologist friend of mine likes to say that every Sunday he attends the “Church of the Blue Dome.” Or as the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po said to his friend and colleague Tu Fu, “Thank you for letting me read your new poems. It was like being alive twice.” What, after all, is making or appreciating art if not taking what we find in the world around us—its radiant natural glory and toxic ugliness, our own love and hate, passion and ambivalence, anger and humor—and transforming it all into something that makes life more beautiful, more worthwhile? One finds this kind of sentiment again and again among great artists and Humanist lovers of art. Katha Pollitt, whom the right wing has labeled the “Atheist in Chief” at Nation magazine,has in fact written sensitively that atheism alone, as the rejection of gods and the supernatural, cannot meet our deepest human needs for connection and inspiration, but “perhaps art can go where atheism cannot.” And musicologist Daniel Levitin gets at a similar idea in a beautiful chapter entitled “Comfort” in his book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. The chapter is subtitled with some words a Joni Mitchell fan blurted out to her in gratitude while Mitchell and Levitin were eating dinner together one night. Explaining that Mitchell had helped her get through a rough decade in the 1970s, the fan said, “Before there was Prozac, there was you.”
Levitin’s story reminds me of a conversation I had with a fan after I quit the rock band I’d been singing with for a few years and announced I was headed to graduate school to study Humanism and religion. “Religion?” He asked incredulously, his disappointment in me palpable. “But music is religion!” I don’t think I mustered much of a response at the time—hell hath no fury like a music fan scorned—but upon reflection, I can say I love music as much as ever today, but the problem with the idea of music as a secular religion is that a concert is not a community. As “cultish” as the fans of some contemporary musical acts or artists can be, such cults rarely get to the point where their members are inspired by their common fandom to support each other in living well and meaningfully, or to come together to help others and make the world a better place.
As the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade explained, modern secular people do have sacred moments and rituals, but they are almost entirely private: “a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth . . . they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary life.” Jonathan Haidt’s reaction to Eliade’s diagnosis says a lot: “When I read this, I gasped. Eliade had perfectly pegged my feeble spirituality, limited as it is to places, books, people, and events that have given me moments of uplift and enlightenment. Even atheists have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature. We just don’t infer that God caused those feelings.”
Love, nature, and art are all incredibly important; the memorable moments they provide us with are priceless. When I first got involved in organized Humanism I was shocked that the groups I spent time visiting seemed to spend so much time and energy sponsoring debates about the existence of God or publishing magazines, journals, and newsletters, rather than staging poetry readings and concerts or going on hikes together. I hope the coming years will bring a change in that pattern, because we can continue to experience moments of art and nature alone, or in our small and often fairly insular little pairings or groups, but when we do so at the expense of recognizing special moments in other people’s lives, and especially at the expense of sharing special moments with others in a broader community, we limit our own potential.
Here are a few ways Humanists and the nonreligious can experience some of the “natural alchemy” that is shared ritual—without actual belief or talk about strange and magical concepts like, say, alchemy.
The Life Cycle
The vast majority of Humanistic and nonreligious people have no idea that formal options exist for secular versions of what we call “life cycle” ceremonies—celebrations marking the major transitions in life, such as birth (think alternatives to baptism, christening, or bris), coming of age (confirmation, bar or bat mitzvah), marriage, and death (weddings and funerals, obviously). But beyond this simple lack of knowledge, there are some who suggest that crafting and holding such events sounds too much like religion. To me, the lack of creativity and originality in such an attitude is shocking.
It’s ridiculous to think that giving up belief in unseen beings and the like means we must also give up celebrating important moments in our life in a way that honors family and the best of our traditions and history, seeking to galvanize around our best values and build a good community together. Weddings, funerals, birth, and other such ceremonies not only predate all the currently extant major world religions, they almost certainly predate organized religion itself. And today, there are several organizations in North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere that exist to help people celebrate their lives Humanistically.
Baby Naming Ceremonies
“I always thought having a baby was a very private thing to do—boy was I wrong,” one mom told me on the morning I performed a Humanistic baby naming ceremony for her new son. “I never realized how much help you need, and how much you end up wanting to share the experience with others.”
Starting a family is an intensely public thing to do. And the people who care about you want to help—they often just don’t know how. A birth ceremony is a chance to let them see how: by loving you and spending time with you. A ceremony can also provide the first major chance since your wedding or commitment ceremony to bring the two sides of your family together and really think about how to blend them most successfully. And of course, it’s a chance for you as parents to consider what you want to give to and get out of the process of parenting.
In his Humanist naming ceremonies, Sherwin Wine often said: “When a child is born, hope is born. A child makes us look forward with anticipation and excitement. A child is our link between the past and the future. Children allow us to reach out to the future, with all its possibilities and opportunities. Children unleash the power of our love and creativity and let us discover how much we need to nurture. When we give the gift of life to others, we give life to ourselves. We become alive with hope.”
Along with the hope it brings, parenting can also be a daunting prospect, and the fears that often go unspoken are: I don’t have enough strength to do it. I won’t be good at it. I don’t know what to teach my kids. How can I balance being a parent with work and everything else in my life? We acknowledge these fears head-on in our ceremonies. Wine continues, “To love a child is to love life. To nurture a child is to express hope. Children do not exhaust our strength. They allow us to go beyond ourselves and to discover the power of our own creative talents. To be a mother or a father is more than a profession. It is more than a social calling. It is the fulfillment of one of our deepest needs—our need to touch the future and make it live.”
Some families choose to do a “welcoming ceremony” where the name isn’t a big part of the occasion, but I love naming ceremonies. Why? First of all, a name is significant—choosing the name that a human being will carry for the rest of her or his life is a pretty awesome responsibility. If you don’t believe me, if it sounds trivial compared to the stress of submitting your tax forms or getting your next big work project done on time, consider the fact that, as David Brooks has pointed out, “people named Dennis or Denise are disproportionately likely to become dentists. People named Lawrence or Laurie are disproportionately likely to become lawyers. And people named Louis are disproportionately likely to move to St. Louis!”
Seriously, though, choosing a name is often the first major decision a young couple makes together as parents. Every time you do it, you have to negotiate your two different cultural backgrounds, personal styles, family and personal histories (a mom can’t give a daughter the name of a beloved great aunt if the dad had a really awful ex-girlfriend with that name). It’s a symbolic mutual project involving three people, and it’s wonderfully worth those people celebrating together.
You may also want a secular alternative to the often poignant moment of choosing “godparents”—beloved and loving friends or family members who pledge to take a special mentoring role in the lives of your children and, movingly, to step in and play an even bigger role should any unexpected tragedy befall you as parents. Why should nonreligious couples be denied an opportunity to formally, publicly acknowledge this sort of commitment? We do often call them “guideparents,” acknowledging the guiding role they commit to play in the life of a newborn child.
I suspect that a lot of secular and nonreligious people may occasionally wonder: Why even bother getting married in this day and age? Isn’t it just some patriarchal old institution, ready for the dustheap of sexism and oppression? Isn’t monogamy impossible, and isn’t the desire to celebrate it the height of self-absorption?
If you’re not feeling ready to get married, far be it from me to pressure you. At the time of this writing, I’m not even married myself, yet. But I’ve performed quite a few wedding ceremonies, and my colleagues—other Humanist chaplains, rabbis, and celebrants—have performed many thousands of them. It’s a fact that there are millions of nonreligious people out there (gay and straight) who are in love and would like to have a meaningful wedding ceremony that suits their values, whether or not they fully understand why they want such a thing.
In the past, some wedding ceremonies centered on a groom formally purchasing his bride from her family. Others were primarily intended to seek divine sanction and blessing on the marriage—to ask God to grant some happiness, longevity, and healthy offspring to a couple, often one forced together by the harsh realities of a life in which survival alone was bitter at best and impossible at worst. This is not the place for an anthropological or historical exploration of the history of marriage, though Stephanie Coontz has written a fascinating one for those interested.
Today, though, most people get married by choice. Few of us choose mates primarily on the basis of who can put food on the table or cook it to our specifications. As we often say in our Humanist ceremonies, “the essence of the marriage commitment is the taking of the other person in his or her entirety as a lover, a companion, and a friend. It is a decision undertaken with great consideration and respect by both partners.” We want love and companionship. We expect sexual intimacy and attraction, but also a person we respect enough to envision ourselves growing old with. It’s a tall order. The wedding is an opportunity to publicly acknowledge that we are blending hope with a grasp of reality—namely, the knowledge that this will not be easy and that we won’t be able to have every little thing we might want.
Finally, a Humanist wedding is an important moment in the lives of a couple and their families and friends because it is an opportunity to publicly state that we need help from our loved ones to build a happy home, and to ask for that help. In return, we grant those in attendance a chance to reflect on the role love has come to play in their own lives. Perhaps older couples may be reminded of the hope and intimacy that once energized their own vows; younger singles may gain a model for what they want to find.
As Humanist ceremonies often continue, “Two people in love do not live in isolation from the wider embraces of humanity. To achieve love is not to be absolved of human responsibility. So it is that the institution of marriage is ordained as a public recognition of the private experience of love and as a sanctifying of both parties to its greatest purposes.” After the vows are exchanged, I think it’s good to ask those in attendance to answer a question: do you, this couple’s family and friends, promise to encourage and support them in creating a strong and vital marriage? The answer is always “We do.”