The Ethical Dilemma: Will Our Catholic and Baptist Families Approve of a Pagan Ritual at Our Wedding?

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Pulling a Fast One with Handfasting: I’m engaged to a believer (not a very strong believer, more like a “keeping his foot in the door” believer). He has a very Catholic family and my family is Baptist. I’m not “out” as an atheist to either of these parties. I tried hinting at atheism once to see how any of them would react, and the reactions were unpleasant.

We’re planning a handfasting at our wedding because we like how the ceremony flows and, although it is rooted in the pagan culture, it works nicely as an inclusive yet nonreligious ceremony. I’m looking for an officiant who will understand my worries and needs. What are some things I can do or ask about for the script and ceremony that will make our handfasting go as planned without ruffling the feathers of our religious families?

—Lovers in Many Closets

Dear Lovers,

It’s not clear from your letter, but I’m hoping you have revealed your atheism to your fiancé. If not, you really need to do so before you make any further plans. The two of you need to delve deeply into your joint intentions not only for your wedding, but also for your married life, including how you will handle your religious families, and what you envision if children enter the picture. I can’t overemphasize the importance of making sure the two of you are in sync before you go any further. Religious families on both sides plus a fiancé who is keeping a toe in the church door seriously outweighs one lone nonbeliever. You don’t know which way your fiancé will lean once you’ve tied the knot, and he has not just one but both sides’ families advocating for faith.

I had to Google “handfasting” because I’ve never heard of it before, but of course the first hit was a handfasting website. This site can answer a number of your questions and direct you to handfasting officiants. You could also look for a humanist celebrant—I’m sure most would be delighted to work up a handfasting ceremony with you. For those as uninitiated as I was, handfasting is an ancient ceremony with pagan roots, now adopted by Wiccans, that involves binding the hands of the couple together with rope or ribbon to signify their bond. I’m still trying to figure out when and how the couple gets untied so they can enjoy eating, drinking, and dancing following the ceremony.

The fact is you will certainly ruffle feathers by including any nontraditional ceremony in your wedding, particularly one with pagan and Wiccan associations. Moreover, people will be grousing if you have any nonreligious ceremony at all, given the religiosity of both your families and the fact that you haven’t asserted your nonbelief.

Rather than hinting at your atheism and interpreting the reactions, you need to come out of that closet well before the wedding day. Otherwise you will surely experience stunned surprise at the very least, and outright unpleasantness or worse, if you spring a godless ritual on your unsuspecting families.

When you broach the subject, don’t present your atheism as a guilty secret or anything negative. Just be matter-of-fact in conveying that you are not a believer, so you won’t be having a religious wedding—and, depending on what you and your fiancé have agreed to—perhaps not a religious life ever after either. And if that causes feathers (or something else) to fly, you need to decide whether you really want these people at your wedding or in your life—and if this union can fly without them fluttering around your nest.