Mixed Blessings

Are secular life ceremonies the wave of the future?

Perhaps it was bound to happen: Spiritual seekers who left churches and synagogues for the freedom of an independent path are finding it’s lonely out there. When it comes to life’s big moments—weddings, births, funerals—a religious ceremony can be a, well, religious experience. But instead of going back to church, some people are finding nonreligious means of celebrating life’s significant events. Though not without their challenges, these secular rituals can make a significant contribution to the 21st-century quest for spiritual meaning.

The rituals are the work of a growing number of “secular officiants” who create religion-free life-cycle rituals commemorating everything from birth to death, puberty to menopause. Advertising through Web sites like and, they attract those who have abandoned traditional religion—atheists and the “spiritual but not religious” alike—along with those who feel abandoned by religion—for example, unmarried parents.

Different approaches to this endeavor range from the secular humanist who does not mention God in her ceremonies and refuses to include Jewish or Christian rituals or Bible readings, to the officiant who will only include rituals thatsomehow figure in her clients’ lives or heritages.

Ceremonies by Terri Mandell-Campfield take the former approach. There’s typically an exchange of vows (for a wedding) and an appropriate ritual for the occasion, borrowed from any number of traditions aside from Judaism or Christianity, which she shuns because, she says, her clients are seeking rituals they can’t find in church or synagogue—and many are “really angry about the religions they were brought up with.” Instead, there might be “handfasting,” which her Web site defines as “an ancient Celtic wedding ritual in which the couples’ hands are tied together with a ceremonial ribbon or cloth.” Or it might include “calling the directions,” a commonly adopted Wiccan (neo-pagan) and Native American custom in which North, South, East, and West are summoned to bless and aid those involved in the ceremony.

The biggest drawback of this approach is that pulling rituals from various traditions and performing them out of context risks distancing them from the realities of participants’ spiritual lives. They may evoke the intended visceral reactions—pushing the right emotional buttons and giving the proceedings the solemnity they deserve—while leaving little below the surface. It is the officiants’ and the participants’ challenge to ensure that handfasting or calling the directions is more than just a nice thing they borrowed from the Celts or pagans.

Ann Keeler Evans represents the second approach—insisting that rituals have some basis in her clients’ spiritual lives or family heritage. For a wedding between a Sikh man and an Irish-Catholic woman, for instance, the ceremony included the lighting of a Catholic unity candle (slightly modified: The couple didn’t extinguish their individual candles after lighting the joint flame, as is the tradition) and a Sikh ritual in which everyone is given cooked grain as a sign that the temple feeds and blesses all.

These rituals are made rich by drawing on participants’ personal histories, but obviously they aren’t for those looking to flee their heritage and truly do something that is theirs and only theirs. Keeler Evans says clients often ask about incorporating symbols or rites they’ve seen elsewhere—including, once, a reality television show—but she won’t do it unless it has particular significance for that person. This approach is far from traditional but it allows participants to connect to their—or at least their family’s—past. The risk of pulling rituals out of contexts is lessened, though not eliminated, by their basis in the participants’ lives, and it remains in the hands of these leaders and their clients to ensure a balance between tradition and what is personally meaningful.

What sets these secular celebrations apart from traditional rituals is their focus on the individuals. In the past, people didn’t need ritual to speak to them personally; if it was part of their religion, it was inherently meaningful. Today, with confidence in our institutions eroding, authority and belief come—for many people—from self and personal experience.

The spirituality-without-religion movement has been criticized by many in the religious world as being hopelessly narcissistic—too, or even exclusively, focused on the self. And it does seem like individual choice has become, for some at least, a religion in and of itself. 

But it’s also possible to overstate this point. It’s not as if traditional religions are immune from our culture’s emphasis on the individual. That emphasis itself is an outgrowth of Protestantism. And today, in this country, the most up-and-coming faiths are those that tap into this individual-centric worldview. It’s no coincidence that evangelical Christianity is ascendant in the Protestant world just as many boomers and their children are seeking “personal spirituality” outside of churches and synagogues and through secular ceremonies. Like the “secular spiritual” crowd, evangelicals are all about the individual, although for them the religious life centers around the born-again experience and the resulting personal relationship with Christ.

Religious and secular officiants agree that community is vital for life-cycle ceremonies. For secularists, community is made. They are defined by a fluid set of friends, co-workers, neighbors. Society’s norm no longer boasts the community pastor as surrogate parent whose intimate knowledge of a family allows him to perform all their life-cycle ceremonies in a personalized way. But secular officiants can’t step into this role; the community they’re ministering to is so loosely defined. To compensate for this, they may insist on multiple meetings with clients or follow a family through the life-cycle, officiating at its weddings, birth ceremonies, funerals, and other events.

A sense of history is likewise central in making life-cycle ritual meaningful. That’s an inherent problem for secular officiants, whose ceremonies are mostly about do-it-yourself spirituality. Keeler Evans addresses this through her insistence that rituals have some basis in her clients’ lives; others face the challenge of ensuring their ceremonies somehow tap into this. Even those who’ve rejected religion are shaped by their, and their family’s, past, and without some connection between rite and participant, the ceremony risks being little more than performance.

But if the secular-ceremony movement has its challenges, it also has its promise.

For one thing, secular officiants cater to people who don’t feel at home in churches and synagogues. Their clientele is largely interfaith or same-sex couples wanting to get married, unmarried parents seeking to commemorate their babies’ births, and others whose situations leave them outside the tradition in which they were raised.

Additionally, secular officiants are creating ceremonies for previously unmarked moments like divorce, menopause, or buying a first house—filling in what religious studies scholar Ronald Grimes calls “a big barren zone between most people’s weddings and funerals.”

It’s clear that rituals are central to human life. Ever since early humans did a dance of gratitude for the food they hunted, humans have been celebrating life’s high points and marking its low ones. The scholarly jury is out on whether humans have an actual innate need to ritualize; but even if it’s not biological, the pull can be intense.

These days, anyone with Internet access can be legally ordained by the Universal Life Church. The challenge, then, is to create ceremonies that rise above the cliched and hokey and to fashion ceremonies that are meaningful, personalized, and imbued with a strong sense of community and history. Given that many people have fled religion in part because of rituals that seemed hollow, secular officiants need to keep what they do original and not allow anything to become routine. If they can manage that, they’ll have made a valuable contribution to the new religion of personal spirituality.