Section Two: Rites of Passage

Initiation into adulthood

The important occasions marking an individual’s journey through life are called rites of passage. Many religions and cultures have ceremonies for the rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. It may involve only the males of the religion, as in the ultra-orthodox Jewish Bar Mitzvah, or both sexes. Some Jewish sects, including some strands of Orthodox Judaism, have adopted a ceremony for girls, too, called a Bat Mitzvah.

Generally such initiation ceremonies mark a transferring of responsibility to the young person for his or her own religious life and beliefs. Humanists do not usually have ceremonies to mark this occasion, though they recognize that it is important for young people to feel accepted into the adult world when they reach the appropriate level of maturity. Secular celebrations to mark an eighteenth birthday have become commonplace in the West, and these ceremonies tend to celebrate that important transition. In Scandinavia there is a ceremony in which all those who have reached voting age are invited to the Town Hall for a reception, thus reflecting the new civic responsibilities of young people of voting age.


Since humanists do not believe in a deity they do not usually marry in a church, synagogue, gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship), or the like, although in the United States some humanists do marry in a Unitarian Universalist or Ethical Culture ceremony. In contemporary western society, many couples live together as “partners” and, for a variety of reasons personal to each couple, prefer not to marry, so marriage is not quite the “institution” that it was in the past. But despite modern trends, many humanists still accept that marriage is the ideal relationship in which two people express a firm commitment to each other.

However, being married to another individual for the rest of one’s life is not a commitment to take lightly, nor is it an easy route through life. So many humanists are in favor of couples living together for some time, with or without sex, before undertaking the more serious step of marriage. But should a couple decide to marry, they would probably wish to celebrate their marriage in a special way. The humanist marriage is a civil and not a religious contract and, while the civil contract is essential for a marriage to be legal, the ceremony can have the same kind of scope for personal planning as the naming ceremony of a baby.

Throughout most of human history, marriage has usually come under the control of the religious authorities. But over the last two centuries, it is civil authorities that have increasingly taken over such control. In some countries, such as France and the Netherlands, only civil wedding ceremonies are legally binding. These secular ceremonies are conducted by a government representative in a civic building such as a town hall. If a couple wants a religious ceremony, this is conducted separately from, and in addition to, the legally binding civil wedding.

In the U.S. marriage laws vary from state to state but, in general, any religious group can conduct legally binding weddings, as can many different civil authority persons like judges and justices of the peace. However, non-religious humanists are generally not able to conduct such ceremonies unless their states have special provisions. Marriage law is sometimes influenced by the distinctive religious heritage of the state. For example, Pennsylvania has a long tradition of Quakers and of other “dissenting churches” which do not accept a clergy. Here, a marriage does not require a legal officiant: the marriage is considered legally binding if the couple publicly declares it to be so.

In some states in the U.S., any couple living together for a certain time constitutes a married couple in a “common law marriage”, as long as they are of the opposite sex. In other states a marriage license and ceremony are essential. In most of the world, same-sex couples are prohibited from legally marrying, although this is beginning to change in some countries such as Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and parts of the United States. But even where same-sex couples cannot legally marry, humanist officiants, and even some liberal clergy may conduct marriage ceremonies that are legally non-binding. Most humanists support gay marriage and/or civil unions.

British marriage law falls somewhere between the strictly secular approach of France and the flexible pluralism of the United States. In Britain legally, binding marriages can only be conducted by certain officially recognized religions, or by government marriage registrars. As the law stands in Britain, minority religious communities have the right to perform religious ceremonies providing they take place in a registered building that has been solemnized for marriages. Once the necessary procedure for registration is undertaken, and a fee paid, the General Register Office certifies that the particular building is legalized to perform marriages without a registrar being present, and by a person appointed by the religious group.

A period of one year has to pass before legal marriages can take place. These regulations apply not only to Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim communities but to Non-conformist churches or chapels too. Until the mid-1990s the marriage had to be held either in a church or chapel or in a municipal register office. These days in Britain it can be held in a variety of places providing those places has been registered by the appropriate procedures with the General Register Office.

It is important to note that a secular marriage — as in France or in a British register office — is not necessarily a humanist wedding. Unlike a humanist wedding, all too often the ceremony does not allow for anything more than a minimal personal statement if any at all. So many humanists have two ceremonies, the civil one, and then a personally planned one.

Previous PageNext Page