Does the word "atheist" sound cold to you? If you enjoy the comfort, reassurance and community that comes with a religion or spiritual practice, you might find the idea of an atheist ceremony a bit sad and non-celebratory.
The British Humanist Association defines atheist this way:
"Atheist includes those who reject a belief in the existence of God or gods and those who simply choose to live without God or gods. Along with this will usually go disbelief in the soul, an afterlife, and all other religious beliefs."
What does it take for your wedding to be meaningful and memorable? How can your ceremony be a special occasion that you will remember all of your lives and that sets the foundation for a long and happy marriage? Is a spiritual or religious context the only valid way to celebrate your union?
As a celebrant in the South of France, I often conduct ceremonies for couples, coming from many different countries, who are of mixed faith or mixed culture. They are rarely traditional and may include a religious element, or none at all. Are these weddings less meaningful?
Where there is an absence of formal doctrine, the couple has to think for themselves more than they might otherwise do. In this way, an "atheist" wedding may be more to the point and memorable because they have to invest more of themselves in preparing for it. The absence of a formal process and traditional wording can leave space for a more spontaneous and heartfelt expression of love.
Wedding planner Lucy Till offers these words of advice:
"Be sure to include music, readings and poems. Without these, the ceremony is very short and I feel does not give enough gravitas to the occasion. Your guests have all arrived, everyone has been busy getting ready, photos have been taken, etc. It is a time for everyone, the bride and groom, but also your families and friends to reflect on your commitment to each other. In a religious ceremony there is plenty of time for this with the hymns, the prayers, the readings and the sermon. It is important to allow time for this reflection in an atheist ceremony."
I prefer to view an "atheist ceremony" as a "celebration of love." The experience of love transcends all the boundaries and differences, beliefs and conditions, and touches all who join the couple in their celebrations.
Many years ago, I conducted a wedding for a groom whose Muslim family was originally Palestinian, now living in another part of the Middle East, and a bride whose family was English Protestant. The ceremony text had to be spiritually "neutral," favoring neither faith. It was a very lively and exuberant occasion. Applause came from the Palestinians at the end of each section. After the exchange of vows, the Palestinian parents rushed over to the bride's mother to embrace her warmly.
How can you create a Celebration of Love that will heighten the experience of your wedding day, strengthen the bond between you and your special loved one, be touching and awaken more love in you and your guests? These seven keys may serve to create the wedding of your dreams.
1. Your values. What are the values you share with your loved one? What criteria are most important for you both to be happy and fulfilled in your lives together? These details contribute to the success of your ongoing partnership. Your values, close to your hearts, can be woven into your ceremony text.
2. Vision or aspirations for your marriage. Each person is different. So each couple is unique. It is up to you to decide how you envisage your marriage as being rich and rewarding. The readings you choose as part of your ceremony, for example, can reflect the aspirations you hold.
3. Intention for the wedding. If your wedding ceremony could be the most exceptional and enjoyable experience for you and your guests, what would that be like? How will you and everyone feel? What is the ambience you would like to create? What style will characterize your event? When you take a little time in advance to reflect on these questions, there is a good chance that what you envisage will come about, as it usually does for the couples whose weddings I officiate.
4. Declarations of love. Expressed at an early part of your ceremony, they open the way for a greater feeling and sense of connection between you and the loved ones who are there as your guests. Lighthearted and even humourous, your declarations can demonstrate the ease you have with each other and enable your guests to appreciate more why you are choosing to take this step of marriage.
Writing declarations of love can start with answering the question: What is it that you most love in your loved one? Anecdotes and insights from your times together can bring joy and laughter to the occasion. Often the Declarations are kept a secret until the day, so that the bride and groom, as well as your guests, can enjoy the surprise.
5. Vows, commitments, pledges and promises. This is a serious moment in your ceremony. Not serious in the way of being heavy and leaden, but real and meaningful for you.
You need to consider the times when life gets stressful -- moving home, changing jobs, job loss, death of a closed loved one, starting a family, for example. What are the strengths and qualities you will need to express at those testing times? Tolerance, forgiveness, sense of humor, patience, for example. Your choice of vows can assist you at those moments to remember how to deepen and expand your love, and not damage your partnership.
6. Your witnesses. Your wedding is much more than bringing the two of you together to a new level of your partnership. You are bringing two sets of families and friends into a new community, some of whom may never have met before. They are really important and need to feel valued, included as part of the occasion.
There is nothing like love to accomplish this outcome! Love brings us together. Love lets us be who we truly are. Love loosens our fears and doubts about being rejected or separate from others. Love gives us the courage to reach out to each other, share and appreciate the moment of celebration. Love allows us to let our hair down, relax and be natural. Love connects.
7. Treasure your uniqueness. In planning and preparing your ceremony, take some time to reflect on those qualities and strengths that you see in each other that maybe others do not appreciate. Give yourselves permission to shine and radiate the love that you are to each other. Doing so will allow your witnesses to catch that spirit and to see themselves in a new light. Know that the remarkable human essence that you are is a gift and more available to inspire others on your special day.
Far from cold or sad, an atheist ceremony as a Celebration of Love can truly be a service that serves all who come to it.