Section One: Birth

Although it is likely that pre-religious cultures developed celebrations for childbirth, birth rites today are usually associated with religion. In many cases, despite birth being a joyous occasion, there were accompanying fears of dark and evil forces that were lurking to harm the baby. In eastern countries where Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced, the mother is still regarded as “unclean” at childbirth, just as she is during menstruation. Such is the fear of evil forces in Hinduism, for example, that there are more life-cycle rites for a pre-natal and post-natal baby than there are for the remainder of an individual’s life!

In Christianity, too, the baby was never really “safe” until it was baptized, and an important part of the ritual of christening a baby to the present day is the renunciation of the devil. Needless to say, such life-cycle rites are so important that they are accompanied by very precise ritualistic language. And whether or not the beliefs surrounding such ritual are maintained to the present day, the rites are accepted by many in their antiquated, ceremonial form, which has little relevance to the modern human being.

There is nothing fearful or unclean about birth to a humanist. The birth of a baby is a time for joyous celebration, for a new human being has been brought into the world with all the potential for fulfillment in a unique individual life. Each human being is part of the evolutionary unfolding of nature, a wonder to behold in his or her self.

To those humanists who choose to celebrate the occasion with a ceremony, there are more meaningful words that can be used than those of religious traditions for the newly born. Planning a ceremony for the welcoming of a baby in order to give it a unique identity can be something personally done by the parents, family, or friends, or it can be arranged and conducted by a humanist celebrant. All sorts of personal contributions and ideas can inform such a ceremony. It is likely to be a naming ceremony, and naming will be the special part of the ceremony that denotes the individuality and uniqueness of the new-born baby. Parents often have special reasons for giving the particular name or names that they choose, even if it is just because they like the sound of a name. Explaining their choices of names can be part of the ceremony. In planning such a ceremony, parents can include poetry, or songs and music appropriate to the happy occasion. Interpretation of poetry is rather like the interpretation of a painting; we see what has meaning for ourselves, and what can be particularly expressive of our emotions at the time.

In Christian christening, godparents play a specific role in the ceremony, promising to encourage the child in the Christian faith. But at a non-religious naming ceremony, there may well be one or two adults who are prepared to take on a particular role in the personal development of the child — individuals who would like to offer support and encouragement through the years to adulthood. Such people are sometimes called supporting adults by humanists: they support both the parents and the child during the latter’s evolving years, acting in various roles of advisor, a “refuge”, or providing “respite care” outside the immediate context of the home.

Raising children in the complex contemporary world is not easy. And because each child is different, and develops a unique personality, parents so often find that the aspirations they have for their children, on the one hand, may never be fulfilled, and on the other may far outstrip expectations. Parents often have to learn to accept a unique personality in a child who may be so different from them. This is not easy, and the intricate balances of self-identity and self-respect, and yet respect for others and the ability to allow freedom to others, are important values for each member of a family, and thoroughly humanist ones.

Importantly, humanist parents never make vows to a deity, declaring that they will bring up their children in a certain way. Rejecting religion, they say what they aspire to do, what they hope to do and to achieve, but they would not wish to be categorical or restrictive about such hopes. For one of those hopes would be that the child would develop his or her own beliefs and values. Their approach to parenting is rational and not categorical. Thus, some brief poetry or prose to end a naming ceremony — especially if it is in the form of words of wisdom for the future life of the baby — provide an obvious conclusion to a very non-religious ceremony.

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