When I told people I was writing an article about atheist weddings, a lot of them responded, “We did that! We had a totally non-religious ceremony!” And I was like, that’s totally great! But it’s not exactly what I’m talking about here.
No one says, “We had a pagan wedding, we just took out all the Christian stuff.” Because that’s not what a pagan wedding is. A pagan wedding actually talks about paganism. It might even give you the idea that the people involved in it think paganism is kind of the best. Because… it’s their wedding. They can do that!
An atheist wedding isn’t just a secular wedding. My initial Google searches for “atheist weddings” brought up a number of weddings that were science-themed, which is great for people who are really into science, but it’s still not the same thing as an atheist wedding. When I say “atheist wedding” I’m talking about a wedding in which the word “atheism” is actually spoken in the ceremony in some kind of meaningful way.
Now, I can certainly see being an atheist and not caring about having an atheist wedding. That’s kind of the point of not joining something, right? You don’t have to go to meetings, or even think about it at all. I spend my Sundays at brunch, not holding meetings about not believing in a god.
If you do want to hold an atheist wedding, however, I’m here to help.
I’ve always been good at Tell Us What You Really Feel. And by that I mean that while this was a major problem in my childhood… it’s now basically my career. So I’m pretty much exactly the sort of person who would be like, “In a world in which none of the many gods people have believed in throughout human existence actually exist, loving each other for the short time we are actually here is very important.” Because, hello: it is.
I had an atheist wedding (officiated by Jessie Blum of Eclectic Unions), and I once officiated an atheist wedding myself. I wrote some stuff for both of these that I’m about to share. I can’t vouch for your family members’ potential reactions, but I personally found that the atheist sentiments presented in both weddings were surprisingly subtle, and received plenty of compliments, including from my husband’s (Jewish but not very religious) relatives.
In my search for text for atheist weddings, I came across a lot of readings… most of which were not what I was looking for. The majority were not very serious. For instance, “How Falling in Love Is Like Owning a Dog” by Taylor Mali. It’s a nice poem, but I’m not a dog person. There was also “Foxtrot from a Play” by W.H. Auden, which ends with the lines, “And dogs love most an old lamp-post / But you’re my cup of tea.” Dogs again! Haha, but no. There were also lots of quotes from The Princess Bride and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Hilarious! But not what I wanted.
What I wanted was an actual ceremony, not some quirky shit for my aunt to read. So I wrote it myself. And now I’ve got two big ideas for you to steal and incorporate into your atheist wedding.
Big idea: Marrying someone “for life” means more when you actually believe that life is all there is
Now let’s say that in a pretty way! Here’s a paragraph I wrote for my own wedding that you can steal:
As atheists, [Name] and [Name] don’t believe that there’s an eternity for them after this life. There is only this life. Thus, to give oneself in marriage for this lifetime isn’t a waystation on the way to some other heavenly eternity—it is all there is. It is a commitment to be together until they no longer exist, until they are nowhere and nothing.
Not long enough? No problem! Here’s an opening I wrote for an atheist wedding I officiated. You can steal this too:
Welcome. We have come here today to celebrate the union of [Name] and [Name].
Mark Twain once said that “a marriage makes two fractional lives a whole. It gives to two purposeless lives a work, and doubles the strength of each to perform it. It gives to two questioning natures a reason for living. It brings a new gladness to the sunshine, and a new fragrance to the flowers, and new beauty to the earth, a new mystery to life.”
We are called here today to celebrate the joining of two people who possess these questioning natures. Today we celebrate the union of two people, of two hearts, but also of two minds making a conscious and deliberate choice to experience the great joys, and commit to the great sacrifices, of lifelong marriage.
When no edicts are handed down from the skies, and no promises from the universe are expected, each decision a person makes for his or her life bears more weight and consequence; two such people who make a decision to love one another until death have made a momentous commitment, fully of their own volition, with all the importance that an individual life can hold.
Today we celebrate the union of two people who know fully that human life is finite, and that therefore we should waste no time in spending those precious years with those we have chosen to love. Only two people who know that life is lived here on earth, and only on earth, can fully offer each other their own eternities.
Mark Twain also said, “After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.” Let no one turn down the tree of knowledge; let us all, and let [Name] and [Name], enter into our decisions fully responsible, fully adult, and with the full commitment of vigorous minds, and unencumbered hearts.
You might have a family member who would be offended to read that, but when it’s spoken aloud, it’s all just happening too fast. “Let no one turn down the tree of knowledge. Eat that apple! Knowledge is good! Women aren’t actually cursed with the pains of childbirth as punishment for original sin! There is no original sin! We’re just people, so try to do a good job with that!” See, that’s all kind of implied in the above. But your relatives will probably be distracted by the fact that you’re getting married, yay!
Okay, on to the next idea.
Big idea: When your values aren’t decided for you by a religious authority, they’re an especially important part of who you are
If you marry someone, you commit to those values. And values can last longer than a human life. For a vow that really means something, pledge that whoever lives longer has to further the other person’s values until their own death. One important part of being an atheist is that you get to define your own values. (Or is that an important part of being an existentialist? My philosophy degree happened a long time ago.) The point is, if you’re going to construct your own belief system plank by plank, isn’t it worth fighting for? And if you’re marrying someone, doesn’t it imply that you hold many of those values in common?
Here’s a nice vow:
If you should live longer than [Name], do you promise to promote [Name’s] values to the best of your power until your own death?
Say “I do” to that, motherfuckers. Seriously, that’s a real thing you can actually follow through on and others can hold you to. When people pledge to “always be there for you” or “cherish you for all time,” well, that’s very pretty, and we had some stuff like that in our ceremony too because it’s nice stuff to say at a wedding. But it’s hardly quantifiable or verifiable. (See what I did there, with atheism and the scientific method?)
Promising that whoever dies last has to promote the other person’s value system until they die is a set of effing chores. It’s a real to-do list. It doesn’t prevent you from marrying other people if your spouse dies, and it doesn’t obligate you to generate feelings forever. It’s a vow you can be held to.
If my husband dies before me, I have to figure out how to do something to get you all to switch to solar energy. Or wind power, because he also likes wind power. This is homework I could really spend decades on. And if I die first, my husband, who is a less public person, will be obliged to lead a neighborhood feminist Girl Scout troop (or Boy Scout troop, which would actually be a much better use of male privilege) or something, forever. He can marry another woman anytime, but he is never released from his vow to promote my values until he dies.
Take that, afterlife!
As an atheist, it’s particularly sobering to acknowledge that marriage isn’t “forever”—at best, it’s until one of you dies first. Let’s be serious about that. Atheists like sobering truths. And then, after your sobering truths, you celebrate. You open the champagne, you dance. You can even quote The Princess Bride… if you want.