Can You Plan a Wedding When You’ve Lost Your Faith?

My family doesn't know I'm not religious

non religious wedding

Q: Hey APW!

I’m just going to get right to it: I have completely deconstructed my faith in the last few years… and now I find myself planning a wedding and having no idea where to start. Your idea of a wedding when you’re actively, heart-and-soul religious and when you’re not even sure there is a god and are just trying to figure out how to live a meaningful life without this certainty are bound to look different from each other. And that can be scary, especially when not everyone knows you’ve lost your faith, and you’re not sure the lead-up to the wedding is the best time to spring a life change on them.

So I’d love to know: If you planned a wedding as a formerly religious person, which wedding traditions and rites did you keep, and why? Which did you let go of?

have you planned a secular wedding after losing your faith (or leaving it behind)? what mattered most to you? what didn’t? how did your families react?

 If you want the APW community’s two cents, send it to QUESTIONS AT APRACTICALWEDDING DOT COM, and we’ll do our best to crowdsource you some answers!

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  • Jane

    I’m keeping more or less the structure of a Catholic service (not a full mass, just the non-mass Catholic weddings) because that’s what weddings have always looked like to me. So, reading, song, reading, prayers of the faithful (lead by FH’s and my mothers, who are Catholic), short speech by friend who is officiating, vows, group song, done. But, except for that prayer, it won’t be religious at all. Except, it’s possible our group song will be a little religious.

    I kept the prayer of the faithful because I love it, it’s religious but it’s also very personal/ meant to be customized, and it involves everyone. I kept the structure because I wanted my ceremony to last long enough that, if I’m feeling a little stunned or like, ahhh, this is happening now! I had time to reel myself in and enjoy it. You could also fill up more time with things that don’t feel like a service, but I didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel. And I thought it would help the members of my family who really expect a religious service to feel like this was still a wedding.

    Also, there’s a birdbath at our ceremony spot and I want to put some petals in it because it reminds me of a holy water font and I always thought petals in the font looked so pretty!

  • AmandaBee

    I’m in – and maybe will always be in – a bit of a transition with my faith. Like I wouldn’t describe myself as having “lost” my faith but it looks a lot different from what it was when I was young. So when it came to planning out our ceremony, I was a bit stuck too.

    Some things that helped us:
    – Our ceremony was in a secular space, not a church. Getting married in a church just didn’t feel right to us.
    – We looked for an officiant that was a) willing to do a mostly-secular ceremony but b) knowledgeable and respectful of different religious traditions. I wanted someone who would thoughtfully incorporate some of my faith while still being largely non-religious. We might have lucked out, but the officiant we hired totally nailed it. He did several “prayers” or “blessings” that followed the pattern of a religious prayer but were secular in nature, which sounds weird, but actually worked.
    – When it came to vows/readings, we looked over a range of options, both religious and non-religious, and incorporated pieces that felt right to us regardless of whether they were religious or secular in nature. In practical terms, that ended up being one Bible verse that I picked along with my grandmother (someone who raised me religiously, and who read the verse) and several other secular readings read by other family and friends.

    Those are just a few examples, and what works for you might differ entirely, but I hope they illustrate that you don’t have to think of religious/secular as a dichotomy. If there are elements of religion that are still meaningful to you, there are ways to potentially incorporate those while still reflecting your existing beliefs.

    Another thing I’d say that is that moving away from the faith you had growing up doesn’t mean that nothing is sacred, so this is a great chance for you and your fiance to think about what’s sacred to you. Community? Partnership? Respect? Look for concepts that are core to your relationship, and build your ceremony around those.

    (As far as family goes – I was lucky that mine is really accepting of different beliefs so I can’t advise there. I do have friends whose family did not approve of their nonreligious weddings and most took the approach of not really saying anything to their family, knowing that it’d become A Thing if they discussed it ahead of time but that family was unlikely to walk out the day of. But these are also people with very strict religious families. Know your people, I guess.)

    • Jess

      The not-saying-anything-before-hand approach was what we took, and we heard So Many people saying how wonderful and meaningful our ceremony was. I think if you can fill it with emotion, you can avoid the “But where was the prayer?” questions.

      Plus, you’re right! Probably nobody is going to walk out of your ceremony.

    • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

      What was your Bible verse? I waffle between asking my mom to do a reading, or having her offer a prayer.

      • AmandaBee

        Romans 12: 9-16
        “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
        14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another.”

        It’s not overly “wedding-y” but it went with our love/community/acceptance focus. If it helps, the verse was also really important to my grandmother (who was the one reading it) so how we picked it was something like this:
        – I went through a bunch of options and narrowed it down to 4 or so verses that I liked.
        – I ran the list by my husband (who is more agnostic than anything so it wasn’t really that important to him) and he ok’d them
        – Grandma and I went through the verses together and she picked this one as the one she liked best.

        I actually really like that we picked it together It was really nice to see my grandma, who was in many ways the person who brought me up spiritually, get to pick out the verses she thought should be read at my wedding.

        Could you ask your mom what she would prefer, between choosing a verse and a prayer? That might give her a chance to be involved in the process

        • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

          If I ask her which she wants to do, she might ask to do both. I think if I go with a reading, I’ll have more control over what is said, because I can specifically ask her to read X verse. But, I also attended a wedding where the ceremony was exactly what they wanted (and non-religious), and then before the reception started the grandma offered a prayer to bless the union. I liked it because it meant they didn’t have to compromise on the content of their ceremony, and the family member who cared about the prayer had their own little moment to wish lovely things upon them.I’ll also add that a ton of people from my old church family (some of whom will be invited to attend) still pray for me on a regular basis, and I genuinely think it’s really nice of them and it makes me feel loved. So maybe I’ve answered my own question.

          • AmandaBee

            Yeah – I think you could do it either way for sure, there are lots of nice ways to incorporate faith beliefs in small bits while still having a fairly secular ceremony. The nice part about a prayer/blessing is that it’s often meaningful in a way that goes beyond the religion it represents, because it also tells you what your mom hopes for you and your partnership. On the other hand, like you said, it means less control over the content, versus a verse where you know what you’re getting and can sort of pick it out together.

            It sounds like you’ve got a solid idea of what you’re interested in doing, good luck in incorporating it in a way that feels right!

          • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

            Thanks! Talking it out here definitely helped.

  • savannnah

    “Your idea of a wedding when you’re actively, heart-and-soul religious and when you’re not even sure there is a god and are just trying to figure out how to live a meaningful life without this certainty are bound to look different from each other.”

    I want you to think about this statement a lot because it seems to me like you feel like you are missing something rather than just changing the way you think about the world and yourself. Depending on how religious you were and your background, you might feel like marriage was once between you, your partner and God and maybe that’s why you are feeling this gap? You could replace where you see the God gap with your community- family and friends who will support your marriage. The idea of a wedding doesn’t necessarily change, you are joining in partnership in some outwardly recognized way. You are actively heart-and-soul living and committing to your partner. Pick readings and parts of the religious ceremony that still appeal to you and build around those with other readings and ceremonial pieces that speak to you and your partner. Play around with the balance until it feels right- My ceremony has some small religious parts to it even though my fiancee is an atheist- they spoke to us and also its a small comprise with more religious family members.

    • Jess

      ” Depending on how religious you were and your background, you might feel like marriage was once between you, your partner and God and maybe that’s why you are feeling this gap? ”

      This statement is really valuable. I have been to weddings with friends of mine who are truly very committed to their faith, and the references to God being within the marriage are deep and meaningful because I knew they felt that. In our wedding, it would have felt not just inauthentic for us, but also offensive to them, to mirror their reverence.

      We couldn’t just say them and it’s hard to take a religious based script and pull them out without the words falling flat.

  • Jess

    ::waves:: Hello there! My family and many of my friends have a fairly deep faith, and I was raised in their traditions, but I have not found religion to resonate well in me. We put a lot of work into making sure we honored those around us, but also did not reference God in our ceremony.

    Basically, we did this:
    1) Secular Space. It felt inauthentic to be in a place of worship.
    2) Officiant. This was HUGE. We interviewed a TON of officiants for LGBTQ Friendliness, willingness to adapt to various faiths and no faiths, and appreciation for the fact that we were not ourselves religious. We landed with somebody who came with lots of ideas and an earnest interest in making the ceremony match us.
    3) We kept a fairly traditional format of:
    Declaration of Consent
    Acknowledgement of Family & Friends
    Reading (Secular – we used A Marriage by Michael Blumenthal with a wonderful friend who stressed the heck out of “A Man OR a Woman”, which I love her for)
    Charge to Couple
    Vows/Rings/Hand Blessing (We did not specifically use “blessing” in the words though, and we repeated vows I found on APW that were so perfect for us)
    Marriage Pronouncement & Closing Statement.
    4) We DID have my dad say a blessing at the start of the dinner, because I knew it would mean a lot to him & to many of our family & friends. This was the only “God” portion of the night, but it felt right to do for us.

    • Anna

      “We did not specifically use “blessing” in the words though”
      See, this is so interesting to me. As we’ve been trying to adapt the Jewish wedding ceremony, I was surprised to find that for my atheist fiance, “blessing” and “blessed” are fine, as long as it’s not “blessed is God” or “blessed by God”. I guess he has some abstract sense of blessing in mind that doesn’t strike him as inherently religious.

      • Jess

        For me it was using language that calls religion in a way that I have friends use really sincerely that I was uncomfortable with.

        A lot of people use it in the “#blessed” way, or the “casual good thing” way, but knowing that many people I love say “This is such a blessing” and deeply mean “blessing from God” it felt (and feels) wrong for me to use it casually in their presence.

        I don’t say it in my regular life for exactly this reason.

  • Kate

    Oof. This can be really tough. I went through something similar.

    I finalized my mental departure from religion while in college. Before then it had been going though the motions for me, but allowed my parents to convince me to get confirmed in the Catholic church (something I now regret, but I was like 12, what did I know?).

    I’ve never talked about it with my family, except my sister, who shares my views. Mostly my approach has always been to keep my mouth shut, and if I get dragged to church on Christmas, I can deal.

    My wedding in 2015 presented a bit of a challenge. I’m from a fairly traditional European immigrant family (I’m first generation) and I was absolutely certain that my grandparents would have a fit if I had a secular ceremony not in a church. But this was where I stood firm—I was absolutely not going to begin my marriage my being untruthful about who I am (I should interrupt myself here and say that my partner and I also share views on religion, making this easier).

    So here was the approach:
    We chose a wedding venue with an absolutely beautiful outdoor ceremony area, telling family that we wouldn’t imagine not using it.
    We hired an officiant from our city hall who was willing to have my husband write our ceremony completely.
    Because my husband is a writer, it matched exactly who we are as a couple and both of our families got so caught up in that fact, not a single person commented that there wasn’t any religion in it. It was pretty short, but we did have a friend read an excerpt from one of our favorite books to give a small nod to traditional ceremony formats.

    When it came down to it, the most important thing to my husband and I was to have our ceremony represent who we are as people as fully as possible. For us, that included Lord of the Rings references, my swinging between a fit of giggles and happy tears at his vows, and the theory of relativity.

  • Anna

    I was never very religious (in the sense of faith, believing in God, organizing my life around the precepts of my religion – which happens to be Reform Judaism), but growing up, I was significantly a more observant Jew than I am now, in the sense that I became Bat Mitzvah, attended services fairly regularly, fasted on Yom Kippur, kept Passover, celebrated a variety of minor Jewish holidays, etc – none of which I’ve done in years. I also have very strong family associations with my religion; I’m extremely close with my enormous extended family (second, third, fourth cousins) and Judaism is at least one strong thread of our connection (particularly because the events we tend to get together for are B’nai Mitzvah, weddings, and funerals…). I love the ritual of it, and I love that if I talk to any other Jewish person from anywhere else in the world, even from very different backgrounds or traditions, we will have at least a few prayers in common – but I’m effectively a non-practicing “cultural” Jew at this point.

    My fiance is an atheist (I mean, so am I, but he was raised with no religion at all, although his mother is Jewish with a similar background to mine) and deeply uncomfortable with organized religion in general.

    It was important to me to draw from a Jewish wedding tradition, but neither of us was comfortable with the “God has blessed us with this relationship” kind of language in the Jewish wedding ceremony (there’s also some “you can’t have sex with each other until this ceremony is over!” stuff that’s just laughably inappropriate to our relationship). Partly because we were at a bit of a loss over who should officiate our ceremony, we asked the current rabbi of the synagogue I grew up in (who is not the rabbi I grew up with) to officiate. She’s been at least nominally willing to accommodate the changes we want to make in the ceremony, although she also has drawn some hard lines, saying “This is what makes it a Jewish wedding ceremony, and as a rabbi, the state gives me the power specifically to perform Jewish wedding ceremonies.”

    We’ve navigated this by picking translations of the blessings that range more poetic and less liturgical, scrapping or equalizing anything with a gender imbalance (e.g., traditionally, the groom gives the bride a ring, but she can’t give him one in return because it’s supposed to be a transaction… we’re giving each other identical rings) – fortunately our rabbi is 100% on board with this part – and, when we encounter something that really doesn’t feel true to us but the rabbi insists must be included in some form, we’ve had her explain what she thinks of as the essential core of that part of the ceremony so we can try to form a version of it that we’re comfortable with but still gets at that purpose she’s identified. We’ll see how this turns out (we’re still almost two months out), but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll end up with a ceremony that feels like us, brings in the Jewish traditions that I still feel connected to even if I don’t live by them, and keeps the rabbi happy :-)

    • Alice

      Thank you for this! My partner and I are culturally Jewish (both grew up and still celebrate the holidays, both bar/bat mitzvahed) but atheist. The community and the traditions and the history are important to us…but not so much the religious part. Thinking about how to navigate wanting a Jewish wedding without wanting *too* much of the God stuff is definitely tricky.

      • Anna

        Yep, the part we’re having the most trouble with is the birkat erusin, the “betrothal blessing”. The shevah brachot (seven wedding blessings) have a ton of really beautiful translations that have less of a God focus, but the birkat erusin is… well, people have tried to come up with less objectionable translations (removing the bit about “forbidden relations” and instead making it more about God blessing this covenant between people, etc etc) but they’re still all about how God is central to marriage and that’s just… not us.

        Our rabbi says the part she wants us to get out of the erusin phase of the ceremony is the sense of this relationship being set apart from all others as a different kind of partnership, special and separate from other relationships we have had and will have with other people. So I’m trying to come up with wording that goes straight to that idea without saying that our relationship got that way because God did something; it’s something we’re doing, deliberately, choosing to make our relationship different from non-marital relationships, that sanctifies it. Fiance and I are going back and forth on the wording now and will run the text we come up with by the rabbi; I suspect there will be another couple iterations there.

        The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant was a great resource for us (we’re considering two different versions of the shevah brachot that appear in the book), although the book’s expectation is still that you’ll modify the Jewish wedding noticeably less than we want to.

      • Jew-lic?

        Totally feel you. I didn’t realize how extremely anti-feminist some parts of the traditional Jewish ceremony are until I started trying to incorporate some basic elements into our ceremony. We are interfaith non believers but my Jewish culture is important to me (my formerly Catholic partner feels very differently about his). On that note: I think while a lot of Jews are generally comfortable picking and choosing parts of the faith we like, or reinterpreting things to suit our needs, my ex-Catholic partner does not feel this way at all about picking parts of his faith and leaving others (seems like a lot of other Christians feel this way too). So, interfaith/not-Catholic-anymore people: did you incorporate any Catholic traditions even as a non-believer? What were they? or did you leave out faith entirely, and that was totally fine, even if it meant your partner’s faith was featured and yours wasn’t?

        • FormerCatholic

          Not married yet, but I was raised Catholic (now atheist) and while I resent it a lot sometimes and want a secular ceremony, I also take to heart some of Catholicism’s main teachings. I love the prayer of St. Francis. I’m thinking of incorporating it and its message of service/forgiveness but removing the “Lord” part at the beginning and the “dying/eternal life” part at the end somehow:

      • G.

        For those looking for a more feminist Jewish option, I highly recommend reading and considering Rachel Adler’s Brit Ahuvim (lover’s covenant) from her book Engendering Judaism (it’s the last chapter, I believe). It doesn’t get rid of all the God language, but it’s a ceremony and contract rooted in rabbinic business partnership law, which was centered on a relationship of equals and not at all about God. It still uses the 7 blessings, so there is God-language, but I find it less theologically driven, more intellectually engaging, and still culturally Jewish. It’s all about retooling (or reconstructing in Mordecai Kaplan’s language) traditional ceremonies, so I also think it’s a guide for how to do that, even if you go in a different direction. I’ve been to a few friends’ weddings who have done it, and found it lovely — may have to explain it to some family though.

      • I was raised mostly without religion but we celebrated some Jewish and Catholic holidays (my father was raised as a Jew in Brooklyn, my mother a Catholic in Ireland; my father lost all of his faith, while my mother is spiritual, but not religious, so we were very hodge lodge growing up). My now husband was raised Jewish. We had a secular wedding, but since we both have Jewish heritage and enjoy the cultural part of Judaism, and met in Israel, we wanted to incorporate some traditions in our wedding. God was never mentioned in our ceremony, but we had one parent or stepparent and your officiante each read one of each of the blessings, in English, with modern interpretations and the general messages are really lovely. I paired each blessing with the parent that I felt fit best with the message contained. This is the language we used:

        1. May you be blessed with love. May your admiration, appreciation and

        understanding of each other foster a love that is passionate, tranquil

        and real. May this love between you be strong and enduring, and bring

        peace into your lives.

        2. May you be blessed with a loving home filled with warmth, humor and

        compassion. May you create a family together that honors traditions

        old and new. May you teach your children to have equal respect for

        themselves and others, and instill in them the value of learning and

        tikkun olam (making the world a better place).

        3. May you be best friends and work together to build a relationship

        of substance and quality. May your sense of humor and playful spirit

        continue to enliven your relationship. May you respect each other’s

        individual personality and perspective, and give each other room to

        grow in fulfilling your dreams.

        4. May you be blessed with wisdom. May you continually learn from one

        another and from the world. Together, may you grow, deepening your

        knowledge and understanding of each other and of your journey through


        5. May you be blessed with health. May life bring you wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. May you keep each other well-balanced and grounded, and live long that you may share many happy years together.

        6. May your life be blessed with the art and beauty of this world. May

        your creative aspirations and experiences find expression, inspire

        you, and bring you joy and fulfillment. May you find happiness

        together in adventures big and small, and something to celebrate each

        day of your lives.

        7. May you be blessed with community. May you always be blessed with

        the awareness that you are an essential part of a circle of family and

        friends. May there always be within this group love, trust, support

        and laughter, and may there be many future occasions for rejoicing in

        their company.

        We stood under a chuppah and had our officiant explain that is symbolized the home we were making together and that we chose to erect one in honor of our shared heritage and the fact that we met in Israel. So in other words, we explained, with brevity, why we chose to include the elements that we did, which made those loosely religious things feel genuine to us. My husband did break a glass at the end of the ceremony and guests were invited to say Mazel Tov after we were pronounced husband and wife. Since there is a lot of mystery around the meaning of the breaking of the glass tradition, it was easy to explain it vaguely and not mention any possible explanations (the destruction of the second temple, etc…) that didn’t speak to us as individuals.

    • Lisa

      Meg Keene also posted an article on her Jewish ceremony many years ago, and it’s still quite relevant and the comments are really helpful. I was just reviewing it as we’re writing our ceremony this week:

  • Amanda Smith

    We are dealing with this as well. My parents are still adjusting to the lack of religion in my life (we recently moved back to where they live so we can’t hide it via distance anymore). My Mom, who I’m close to and planning everything with, has been so cool about it. She never once suggested holding the wedding in a church and took it well when I backed out of having a friend who is a minister officiate because we really don’t want religion in our ceremony. There are some things we are doing to make this easier!

    -Our ceremony and reception are on a public college campus. Neither of us felt comfortable getting married in a church.
    -We actually are technically married. Due to me getting a good job and health insurance being a thing, we got married at the courthouse strictly for the benefits (though I did still cry).
    -Because we are “legal-ed” already, we have greater flexibility for our ceremony. My fiance’s brother is officiating!
    -We found an amazing ceremony script on offbeat bride (non-traditional, secular) that we both love! And we want everyone to be surprised so the only person seeing it prior to the day of is my fiance’s brother. That way no one gets to have an opinion and we think everyone will be too happy and love filled the day of to care.

    My only major reservations currently are how my 90 year old Grandma takes the non-religious ceremony and how to get around praying for the food at the reception. I don’t particularly care on the second part but the fiance really, really does. And it’s his day, so we won’t have a prayer.

    But honestly I never imagined how much a wedding would open these old wounds. I am comfortable with my beliefs as an individual but I know how important my parent’s faith is to them. It’s hard not to feel guilty for breaking their hearts a bit.

    • Jane

      I’m worried about my very old grandmother as well. She’s pretty sick and I don’t want her to die worrying that I will be going to hell. If there were more time and more of a chance of success, I would try to play Pope Francis’s recent comments about aethiests, but I’m hoping that she just gets swept up in how beautiful it all is, hears the one prayer, and doesn’t think too carefully about it.

      She may be at a stage where she is just choosing to not hear things that would upset her (like 2 years ago when my then-boyfriend accidentally told her we had just moved in together). Four years ago that would have been a major incident. Instead she just told me he seemed like a sweetheart.

      • Kat

        I used to worry a lot about my grandparents reaction to my choices, but 2 of my older cousins (and one younger) did me the huge favor of getting pregnant outside of marriage, so they’re pretty much desensitized to scandal now. *eyeroll*

        In the past I’ve worried about what my VERY religious grandmother (mom’s mom) would have thought about my dating a Jewish boy and living with him. She passed before we met but we were so close and my mom once made some comment in passing that she’d have had serious issues with our living arrangements. I’ve since confronted her about it and she apologized, but it hurts to think that this person I loved so dearly wouldn’t also love my partner.

        Family and religion is a complicated mess. :P

        • Jane

          Yeah – I’m just a stranger on the internet, but I bet your grandmother would get over it and be happy that you’ve found someone to love. Most people who love you have a hard time being against things that make you happy.

          And lol, yes. My grandparents are also somewhat desensitized by scandalous things my cousins have done. But those have all been done by male cousins and, in keeping with the conservative spirit, they expect higher moral standards from their granddaughters. A lot of it makes me want to scream and throw things. . . But also my grandmother is really great and smart and funny. If my granddad, on the other hand, started worrying that I was going to hell, I wouldn’t be as upset.

        • Anon

          In my experience, grandparents seem to be more forgiving/ accepting. Perhaps that comes with age, wisdom and perspective or its that grandchildren take a piece of their heart in a different way. Probably a combination.

    • Kate

      It’s hard not to feel guilty for breaking their hearts a bit”

      I feel you on this so much. This is why my charismatic evangelical family doesn’t know I’m an atheist. I genuinely think they’d boycott the wedding. I’m trying to work some stuff in to appease them, but it’s going to be difficult. The guilt is so difficult.

      • Totch

        Yeah, I’ve been feeling that same thing.

      • Amanda Smith

        It really is. I avoided any and all discussions on the topic for years. If my younger sister hadn’t been more blunt about things with them, I don’t know that I would have ever told them.

        I remember once when I was in high school I was talking to someone at my parent’s kitchen table and somehow the discussion lead to Atheism. At the time, I was very much a Christian (or trying to be). My Mom walked by and thought she heard me say that I was an atheist. She never confronted me but my Dad did. He told me she sobbed all night because she knows what happens to people who don’t believe. I quickly let them know they’d misheard but that night is so vividly in my mind still. It just isn’t an “agree to disagree” situation for them. It’s literally my eternal salvation at stake.

        Navigating it all is so incredibly difficult. I hope you can come to solution that works for you!

    • BSM

      The praying over food bit makes me really uncomfortable, too. My in-laws do it at holidays (and sometimes randomly other times), and I’ve periodically wondered if there was a polite way to stop it from happening when people are eating at our house. With a baby coming, I’m even less enthused about it, but I’m really not sure if there’s anything to be done.

      • Violet

        I think you gotta let people pray, as long as they don’t insist that you pray. I’m trying to think of a similar example that shows how trying to stop other people practicing their beliefs can be pretty intolerant– maybe for example, if you had a friend over to your house who is an observant Jewish man, you wouldn’t ask that he remove his yarmulke.

        • BSM

          Yeah, I get that. I’ve thought about it a lot and can’t think of a tactful and respectful way to discuss it. But I also sometimes think… how come people’s religious beliefs always trump my nonreligious beliefs?

          It’s also hard because there’s not an obvious corollary. Like, an observant Jewish man wearing a yarmulke doesn’t affect me at all, whereas being expected to participate in a group prayer before eating does.

          • Anna

            You could maybe ask them if they’d be okay praying silently/quietly to themselves before eating; two of my closest friends are very religious Catholics and this is what they do (in any context that isn’t an explicitly religious meal). Granted, though, I never had to ask them to do this, and I could imagine someone who starts from the point of initiating group prayer at someone else’s home reacting poorly to the request.

          • Violet

            I see what you mean, but I don’t think their beliefs trump your non-beliefs, because you’re not being asked to pray. Everyone is doing (or not doing) what’s right for them. You don’t have to participate in the prayer, you can sit quietly or, hell, start eating while they’re praying! It’s your house!

          • BSM

            I do feel like I’m somewhat being forced to participate when I have to bow my head, sit quietly, and wait for the prayer to be finished, so I think starting to eat (at our house) is a really good middle ground. At my in-laws’, I’m fine to semi-participate because they’re welcoming us into their home.

          • Violet

            That’s a solid middle path that doesn’t compromise your specific views. I’m not religious at all either, but I don’t mind sitting quietly (though I don’t bow my head or cross my hands) because there’s a real difference between praying and just not speaking. I think if you want to eat (especially as a model to your child that you don’t pray because s/he might not be able to tell just by looking that you’re not praying) is still respectful of them while not compromising yourself.

          • Anna

            I think it’s a little disingenuous to say that someone initiating an ostensibly group prayer over your dinner table isn’t imposing their beliefs on you at all. As a Jewish kid, I had the sitting-awkwardly-while-friend’s-family-says-grace experience enough times that I would never, ever want to feel that way in my own home. And some of these families were always like “go ahead, you don’t have to wait to eat!” while they were doing this, but it was still awkward because then it was even more marked that I wasn’t part of their ritual.

            ETA: I think if it’s reasonable for someone to say grace out loud in the presence of a guest who is not part of their religious tradition, and ask that the guest sit quietly or whatever while this is happening, it’s equally reasonable that when religious guests are invited to a non-religious home, they can be asked to pray quietly rather than initiating a group prayer that inherently involves everyone at the table on some level even if they are not actually praying.

          • Violet

            I’ve totally been there, too! But eh, no one can impose their beliefs on me. I think of the two options, stopping someone from practicing their religion is much more on a scale of tying to impose my beliefs on them than deciding to wait 20 seconds to eat imposes theirs on mine.

          • Anna

            I’m not saying ask them to not pray; I’m saying ask them to do it quietly or silently to themselves, rather than out loud to the entire group. Listening while someone else reads or speaks a prayer is a religious activity! That’s what quite a lot of religious services consist of. And I think that when visiting someone else’s home, one needs to respect their religious practices (even if that’s “none”).

          • Violet

            Oh! The silent part, gotcha. Yep, we’re in agreement.

          • BSM

            Yeah, actually a big thing that sparked this internal debate for me is that my in-laws are very big on we do things your way at your house and our way at ours. So I was cool with the praying at their house, but then they initiated it when we hosted Christmas a couple years ago, so I was like wait a minuteeeeeee!

            Anyways, lots of good discussion. I think we will go forward with the eating thing and then go from there as the kid becomes more conscious of what’s going on around it.


          • quiet000001

            Another middle ground, especially on holidays, might be to say a little something that is non-religious before the meal but allows everyone a moment to add silently if they want. My dad’s family frequently has very mixed groups for meals as they will invite students and single coworkers and so on to join them for holidays, and that is what they do. Someone will simply say something like “before we eat, I just want to express how happy we are to see everyone today and that heath and weather allowed you all to make it” and there’s a brief pause, then eating starts.

            (If something particularly big has happened, that might get a special mention. Ex. ‘I’m specially happy that Aunt Fred’s treatment went well so she is able to be here with us today’)

            Or sometimes someone just reads a short secular quote about family or friendships.

            Usually if you are thoughtful about your words, it’s true and doesn’t mention god or religious beliefs at all, but can be close enough to something someone might say as a prayer that the religious folks can add a quick silent/quiet prayer and ‘amen’ or what have you, and then no one feels like they are awkwardly waiting to eat.

            We only do that on holidays, though, or on special occasion meals (like when we’d visit from a 16 hour drive away, people would make the effort to gather for dinner and then someone might say something quick about us making it there safely) and not everyday.

          • BSM

            I love this :)

            Also, your dad’s holidays sound so wonderful!

          • Kate

            I (an atheist) had a super-observant Catholic roommate/best friend for a while. When we would sit down for dinner she would pray over her meal while I would just sit there silently – she knew I wasn’t praying but wasn’t going to interrupt her moment. It was also super important to her to have a cross over our door, which meant a lot to her and nothing to me so I said it was fine. On the other hand, she was super respectful of my decisions (like never going to church, having my then-bf stay the night and kept the rest of her religious paraphernalia (SO MANY pictures of Jesus) in her room. So the other stuff didn’t really impact me.

      • K. is skittsh about disqus

        Do you think they’ll expect your child to pray, once they are old enough, even in your own home? That’s where it can really become a boundary issue. I plan on telling my kid (once she’s been out of my uterus for a few years) that sometimes they need to bow their head and be quiet/respectful in another person’s house. But it would definitely enrage me if she was expected to openly pray in her own home* simply to make others comfortable. And I also wouldn’t be thrilled about her being forced to “lead” a prayer in someone else’s home, especially if the hosts knew our personal beliefs (or lack thereof).

        [*Assuming she doesn’t want to – if she does, then I plan on of course respecting that.]

        • BSM

          I’m really not sure. They’re pretty flexible people, but I have found it a little odd that they’ve insisted on praying over meals at our house when they’re very aware of our secular beliefs. So I feel like it could go either way.

          Like you, I think the distinction between someone else’s house vs. our house is an easy one to make with a young child, and it happens to guide a lot of how my in-laws operate (just apparently not the prayer thing), so I’m hoping that we can go that route.

          • K. is skittsh about disqus

            I get that. I expect my MIL to talk to our daughter about religion a lot, and she will certainly use language that makes it a default rather than a choice. She’s culturally Catholic in major part from her Latin American upbringing, plus she’s a firm believer in Pascal’s Wager (i.e., belief is preferred because the outcome is better if you’re wrong) even if she wouldn’t use that terminology. My glass-half-full take on that is that it’s a good jumping point for private discussions around culture and beliefs, and how we respond to that as good citizens. But the second she starts trying to truly indoctrinate is when my husband steps in.

          • BSM

            My in-laws aren’t that religious, and, like I said, they’re generally pretty flexible, easy-going people, but my SIL is insanely rigid re: family traditions (I can’t wait to not go over to their house at 6:30am to sit in the dark and spend 6 hours opening presents this Christmas – thanks, baby!), and my FIL randomly will have not-insignificant freakouts about choices we make (like when he got really upset when we were considering buying a house not zoned for a “good” high school… before we were even engaged).

            So, it’s nice because they usually are really great, but it’s also hard because it’s tough to predict what will set them off.

            In-laws – so fun!

    • laddibugg

      “We actually are technically married. Due to me getting a good job and health insurance being a thing, we got married at the courthouse strictly for the benefits (though I did still cry).”

      Are you telling people? We really should go ahead and do this–his insurance is much cheaper than mine, but idk, I worry folks will see our wedding as less important if we’re already married, and I don’t want to be disingenuous

      • Amanda Smith

        Our immediate families, wedding party, and co-workers know (mainly because I took a long lunch to do it). I don’t really feel like spreading it around more than that but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if someone accidentally said something. I have mixed feelings about having done it this way. It was absolutely the right choice for us- he’s already used the insurance multiple times. I feel like people might feel that way and I’ve considered altering our invites to say “we invite you to joyfully celebrate the marriage of” but at the same time, I feel like that event will be our wedding day. It’s the day we’ll exchange rings and I’m taking his name. So in some ways it doesn’t feel “real” right now.

        Clearly I have lots of messy feelings about it!

        • Em

          We are off to be ‘legalled’ next week (for visa reasons!), and I am similarly having mixed feelings about it. Some of our close friends (and future wedding party members) know, but our families don’t know (and probably won’t ever know, or at least not for a long time?) I’m viewing it very much as a formality, although I still have bought a cute and reasonably casual white dress to wear (but I’ll do my own hair/makeup, won’t carry flowers, etc). But I am just weirdly not super excited about the whole thing, I think because it doesn’t really feel real to me? I don’t know. Mixed feelings about the whole thing – but it is realistically the only thing we can do to resolve this issue.

      • Anon

        Yes. I’m struggling with this, too. We’re having a long engagement, just over 18 months, and the legal benefits of marriage would be super helpful right now. My health insurance through my job is better than his basic catastrophic health insurance with a $7,000 deductible and a monthly premium double mine. His grandmother just passed away and I haven’t accrued enough PTO to go to the funeral across the country. If we were married, I’d be entitled to 3 days bereavement. And he’d be entitled to my excellent $500 deductible health insurance that is actually useful in everyday life, along with my dental and vision coverage which he does not have at all.

        Mostly I’m concerned about 1) we’re both documentation matters sorts of people and so we were planning on actually signing the marriage license during our ceremony since for both of us, it’s not actually legal unless you sign it. 2) related- that then means that we automatically put a lot of weight on getting married legally before the wedding. And that will somehow either diminish the importance of the day for us and/ or our guests. I understand lots of people have done this and it absolutely does not diminish their wedding, but I don’t know if I’d be that person. Maybe I’d have to compartmentalize it. Legal marriage is for benefits. Our wedding is to celebrate with our community.

        • Amanda Smith

          What you point out about the document is exactly why I struggle a bit with our decision. As our ceremony was never planned to be religious, being married in the eyes of the law was what I saw as making as actually married. I’m trying really hard to compartmentalize it just like you said. And saving things like rings and names for our “real” wedding helps a bit.

          But our marriage license will forever say March 16th and I don’t love the whole “two anniversaries” thing.

          • Ilora

            We solved the “two anniversaries” by doing the legal ceremony on our dating anniversary. That’s obviously past the point for you, but we celebrate it as our total cumulative years together anniversary and not as years married. Its a low-key thing, usually recreate our second date.
            Our ceremonies were fairly close together, legal in April and emotional/community oriented in August. We saved rings, vows, personalized ceremony for August. I changed my name on my ID but didn’t use the new name until August (our name change situation was unusual).

            I took advantage of having done the legal requirements having been met to really make the August ceremony ours. We couldn’t pick one specific person to officiate so we had several, both of our dads and my mom spoke, my best friend led us through our vows and his did the ring exchange. It was incredibly meaningful to involve our people in it. I remember whispering to my husband during the ceremony that it definitely felt like the ‘real’ wedding. No regrets about how we did it (and we didn’t even have what most people would consider to be a good reason).

            Having two days is like having two kids, I love them equally but differently.

        • AmandaBee

          I struggled with this a lot, and I don’t think there’s a right answer, but we ultimately did get married about 4 months before the wedding legally.

          We did not tell anyone except some immediate family members, and we asked them not to share. I did not want our legal marriage to be seen as the “real” date we got married, because that’s not how we saw it.

          Looking back, I sometimes even forget that our wedding day was not the day we legally got married. We’re actually coming up on our “legal” anniversary but we don’t really plan to celebrate it. I actually don’t even remember the date though I could look it up.

          So, I think it’s as important as it feels to you, but I was surprised at how unimportant the legal marriage date in the grand scheme of things.

          Also FWIW if it helps, my state gives you a ceremonial license that you could theoretically fill out at your ceremony, and that’s just meant for display. The actual license was a boring old piece of paper we wouldn’t want to display anyway. We totally forgot about ours, but if documentation is your thing I would ask your state about ceremonial licenses for framing.

  • Amanda L

    I was raised Catholic, but left that behind for Methodism in my mid-20s. Somewhere after that, I transitioned to ‘questioning’, so I haven’t exactly lost my faith, but it is not an active part of my life. Here’s what we did:

    -Got married outdoors, aka ‘not in a church’. When my mother questioned it, I said to her ‘you taught me that God is everywhere, so He’ll be on that golf course.’
    -Instead of prayers, we found readings/poems that meant something to us. Neither of them were religious, they just spoke to love and marriage and felt right in the context of our relationship.
    -We removed the common ‘God’ references from the wedding script. I believe I left one in (I can’t remember which one at the moment), but in honor of my non-practicing husband and our relationship, any more than that would have felt fake.

    We had planned for my FIL to read a prayer prior to dinner, but the DJ forgot it (and we didn’t notice at the time). Oops.

    My parents are still staunch Catholics, and many of my family members are also practicing Christians, and we did not hear a peep about whether or not our service included faith at all. I hope you are comfortable enough to design a ceremony that speaks to your and your SOs relationship. I also hope your family is accepting enough to respect your wishes on YOUR wedding.

    • Ashlah

      I was going to speak to the idea in your last paragraph too. If you come from a super duper strictly religious family, this might not apply, but if you come from a generally religious but mostly laid back family like I do, most of them won’t notice the lack of religion, particularly if you just do it without making it a topic of discussion. Our wedding was entirely secular as we are both long-time atheists, but both of our families are largely Christian and may or may not know our beliefs. Other recent family weddings have had references to God or perhaps a prayer, but actually none of them have been in a church, so secular weddings/locations are becoming pretty common these days*. If your ceremony is meaningful and full of love, most guests will feel that joy and have nothing but positive things to say about how beautiful your wedding was. Perhaps they’ll even connect the words to their own spirituality. This doesn’t really help with figuring out exactly what you want include in your ceremony, but perhaps it helps to quell a bit of the anxiety and pressure about what you think other people expect from it.

      *Side note: My boss (in his sixties) is not really religious (though I think he vaguely believes in a Christian God because that’s just what you do and atheism is weird), and was very confused about the fact that no one gets married in church anymore. We pointed out that not everyone wants to have a religious wedding (nor is everyone Christian), and he still seemed to think that a wedding is meant to be held in a church, and it’s so strange that people get married in parks (*raises hand*). But I’m pretty sure he’s an outlier :)

      • Jane

        Some things just get stuck in people’s heads. My aethiest and notnparticularly traditional or conservative FH at first assumed we would get married in a church. And I was like, that’s funny because neither of us is religious . . . How about outside somewhere? And he immediately got on board. But in a church was one of those default wedding things he must have picked up over the years.

  • Her Lindsayship

    I think an important factor here will be your partner’s feelings and beliefs. I too have deconstructed my beliefs over the past decade, and when I was in the beginning stages of this, I was with someone who was religious and wanted to be more actively so. For many reasons, it was DEFINITELY for the best that that relationship didn’t last, but if it had, I think I would’ve eventually really struggled with this. Instead, a few years later I’m an atheist engaged to an atheist. Our wedding will be completely secular but, like @disqus_xeTQVD0Bir:disqus said, that doesn’t mean nothing is sacred to us. We haven’t written our ceremony yet, but the last time we talked about it my fiancé was a little hesitant about doing readings – he thought those were only for Bible verses and if we chose to have someone read something else, it would just be weird and not solemn enough. (He obviously doesn’t read APW.) So we’re talking it out. I guess my point is, the things you guys find meaningful and sacred in your lives can take the place of religion, and for your wedding, the best way to make that happen is to really solidly agree on those things.

    To start, APW has an article about atheist weddings ( ) that I found really beautiful. I’m not sure we would take any of the content for our own ceremony because honestly, I’m not trying to scandalize my very-Christian family… but still, I think it provides some really good jumping off points for ways that your marriage can still be super meaningful (perhaps more meaningful!) without religion.

  • brittanymichele

    Great question. I feel like this must be such a common issue these days, with so many people in our generation leaving the church. I was raised in the protestant church and was incredibly involved in religious groups until my early twenties. But by the time my husband and I got married at almost 30, I had completely left my faith. He was not raised in church and has no specific attachment to any religion. So when thinking about our wedding ceremony, neither of us had any reason to specifically want a religious ceremony. I knew how important some things would be to my family though. So, we made some compromises.

    Before we even started planning, I made it very clear to my mom that I did not want anything long and drawn out. My husband’s immediate family speaks very little English, and we didn’t want them sitting through some lengthy service that they couldn’t even understand. My husband and I are also both somewhat introverts, and didn’t relish in the idea of the spotlight being on us for a long time. (I know, even on our wedding day!) So, we kept it short and simple. I asked our officiant (my cousin, who happens to be a pastor and public speaker) to speak a little at the beginning of the ceremony, but for it to be mostly about our relationship, and to keep it under 5 minutes. We also had one secular reading done by a friend. Then, after our vows, we took a moment to honor a tradition in my husband’s culture of going to each of our sets of parents and thanking them/showing respect to them. Then I had our officiant say a prayer (the most important thing to my mom) blessing our life together. And that was it!

    My immediate family completely understood our desire for the short ceremony we had, and I was fine with having a simple prayer at the end, which they appreciated. Even though I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of prayer anymore, I do agree with the idea of putting out “good vibes” into the universe. And what better time to do that than when you’re starting on a lifelong journey with your new partner?

    I think that for me, the importance of having my family together and happy was more important than me having a “totally secular” ceremony. Don’t get me wrong, your wedding day should be about you and your partner and YOUR happiness! But for me, that meant compromising a little on something that didn’t really matter to me, but meant a lot to the people I love.

    • AtHomeInWA

      “Don’t get me wrong, your wedding day should be about you and your partner and YOUR happiness! But for me, that meant compromising a little on something that didn’t really matter to me, but meant a lot to the people I love.”

      I wanted to highlight this. I think that the “It’s your day” ideology can get carried to the extreme of “does this appetizer demonstrate me, him, or our relationship?” Sometimes the thing that makes you the most happy is making the people who matter to you happy. I’m not saying that LW should have a religious ceremony to make her family happy if it feels wrong to her, but I am saying that if you feel “meh, not important” about something and your mom feels “OH MY GOD ALL I EVER WANTED” about that same thing, let her have it. Not because it is a compromise, but because seeing mom happy and knowing you got to help make that happen will make you happy.

      My mom is making my wedding dress because that has always been her dream and somewhere along the way I started to want it because she wanted it so badly. And that is beautiful in its own way (also, mom actually has the skill to sew said dress).

      • AmandaBee

        IDK, I draw a pretty strong distinction between party details (the dress, the food), and the content of your ceremony, which is the one part of the wedding where you and your husband are detailing what you individually promise to one another in your partnership. The party exists for your guests, but the vows and ceremony are very much about the couple.

        I would not use religious vows, for example, if I didn’t intend to be a religious family. That would be essentially making a promise you don’t intend to keep. On the other hand, you could adopt the format of a religious ceremony and change the content to reflect your priorities as a couple, and for some families that might be enough to meet both needs.

        So I’m not entirely disagreeing with your point – weddings are community affairs and if there’s a way to meet family needs you should consider it – but I would say with respect to the ceremony itself that it’s okay to draw some boundaries so that you and your SO aren’t making promises that don’t reflect your actual partnership.

        • quiet000001

          Good point. I also think it is possible to draw lines within the ceremony itself between things you are promising and things that can represent your community – for example allowing a religious reading can be a way to introduce a prayer from your community (family, etc) if it is important to them to have that moment and sentiment, without promising anything yourself.

  • Kelli

    I love this question. I really struggled with thinking about similar issues. My husband and I both grew up in a very conservative Christian tradition, and have both definitely moved away from, to different degrees (he is an atheist and I am…figuring it out?). Anyway, I love what one person said that just because you have moved away from religion doesn’t mean that nothing is sacred. So much yes! A few things we did:

    – I love singing and I desperately miss hymns and the music of church. So for our rehearsal dinner the night before, we had a bonfire and a hymn-sing-along with hot dogs and s’mores in one corner of our venue’s property.
    – We lucked out that our officiant was a good friend from our same conservative Christian college, who, while still religious, is incredibly open-minded. It was SO HELPFUL to have an officiant who understood both where we had come from and where we were in our journey. It was perfect.
    – Several have mentioned this, but I think an outdoor venue is ideal. Our wedding was on a spectacular 75-degre day in October, and I think those who wanted to, had no problem finding spirituality in that space.
    – I think I got this idea from APW, but we had a ring warming ceremony, and it was, hands down, the number one thing people complimented us on about the wedding. It was special and allowed everyone to bless our marriage in a way that felt comfortable to them.
    – In the end, we also had my FIL give a benediction. While not religious ourselves, neither of us are hostile toward religion, and ending things with a prayer felt like a way to honor many of our family and friends present for whom that is important, while also not offending either of us in any way.

    I hope this helps! I guess the one thing I would say is that, I stressed OUT about this issue during wedding planning. But, in the end, I think if your wedding is a thoughtful representation of who you are, no one’s going to leave thinking, but where were the scripture readings?!

  • K. is skittsh about disqus

    We were going to have a completely secular wedding, much to my Catholic MIL’s chagrin. I vigorously defected from the Catholic church myself at age 13 when I was handed a pamphlet by an usher that outlined why gay marriage and adoption was harmful to society. So to me, having any sort of Catholic or religious sentiments in my wedding would be an affront to my deeply held values.


    My 18-year-old cousin suddenly passed away 7 days before my wedding. And her parents still wanted to attend the wedding as a way to be surrounded by family and keep busy. They delayed her funeral by a week in order not to “ruin” my day (god I can’t even write that without choking up). They also happen to be deeply religious.

    We had a special prayer and blessing in my cousin’s honor, as well as a note in our program asking for prayers for her. To this day, I can barely talk (or write, like I said) without feeling overwhelmingly sad and grateful and a whole mess of emotions, and including religious sentiments in honor of a life taken far too quickly was honestly the absolute least we could do.

    All this to say that 8 days before my wedding, I would have said to *never* compromise your secular values for anything and that people need to respect your beliefs, especially on such an important and intimate day. Now, I feel very differently and believe much more in compromise for those you love, especially if/when they show you extraordinary love.

    • K. is skittsh about disqus

      RTA: This isn’t to say that you can’t have your boundaries, though. For instance: It would mean a lot to my MIL if we baptized our baby after she arrives, but because we have no intention of raising her in the Catholic church it would be disingenuous. It’s one of our lines in the sand. However, I also don’t feel strange or put out if someone gives us a mass card in her honor now. Balance, balance, balance.

    • Lisa

      I am so sorry about your cousin’s passing. That sounds like it was an incredibly difficult time for you all, and I’m glad you were able to find a compromise that worked well for you.

      • K. is skittsh about disqus

        Thank you. It was obviously a really difficult time for my family and I would have completely understood if my wedding took a backseat. The outpouring of bittersweet joy and celebration from everyone on my mom’s side of the family, including/especially her parents, was one of the most incredible affirmations of love that I’ve been privileged enough to experience.

  • Kaitlyn

    Oh man, I don’t think I can answer this question well because I didn’t want a church wedding and I’m having a church wedding haha I was pretty into being Catholic throughout high school, but after my cousin’s suicide at 17, I pretty much left it behind. As an adult, I have a lot of issues with it as well so while I would consider myself somewhat spiritual (I pray on occasion), I’m not religious.

    My fiance isn’t super religious either, but having a Catholic ceremony was incredibly important to him. When I brought up my concerns about it, he thought for a little bit, and told me if it bothered me that much, we wouldn’t do it. But I figured if he could that easily compromise, the least I could do is suffer through a 45 min ceremony haha Though I’m excited about the way it’s going to turn out: one of my favorite college professors/priests is officiating (I did somehow end up at a Catholic college haha), and thanks to APW, I’ve found some music/readings that resonate with us. While it’s not my ideal ceremony, I’m excited for it.

    What I feel bit disingenuous about is that his family thinks I’m religious just based on background (raised Catholic, Catholic college) and I haven’t had the heart to correct them. My family knows I’m not thrilled about the Catholic ceremony, but they’re excited on my mom’s side to attend one (both of my brothers got married outside).

    • Lisa

      You’ve basically summed up my religious situation. Husband and I were both raised Catholic, and I was very active in my church community through high school and college, though in decreasing amounts through college. I still went to church regularly in graduate school but felt myself drifting away from the religion. Once we moved to our current city, we never found a church community that fit, and we’ve stopped regularly attending services. My family thinks we’re still attending weekly services because I haven’t had the heart or stomach to disabuse them of the notion yet.

      All that to say, we did have a Catholic wedding because it was important to our community and felt like a right of passage for us. I would probably feel more conflicted about doing so now but would probably do it again if I was getting married tomorrow.

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  • LazyMountain

    This topic is pretty timely since we just wrote our first draft of our ceremony. I’m in the same boat- was raised a good Methodist girl and my parents are still very active in their church. I had a kind of “falling out” with the whole Christian institution in my early 20s, and would feel like an disingenuous, dishonest person if I tried to get married in a church or by a religious officiant. My future spouse was raised atheist, but has always been of the mind that if I wanted to get back into the religious habit, she would be supportive. I don’t really have an interest in practicing currently, but have tried to find my own way to find peace and reflection- mostly through being outdoors and spending time with my own thoughts in pseudo-kind-of prayer.
    To that effect, we looked at some ways that we could have spirituality included in our wedding as a nod to my upbringing without making it denominational in any way. Since we’re both of Celtic ancestry, we decided to do a handfasting that includes blessings (with no mention of Jesus or any specific deity). I’m hoping this will make the day special, meaningful, and give my parents the impression that there was at least some spiritual inflection and ritual in our ceremony.

    Granted, I haven’t run this all by my mom yet, so we’ll see!!

  • Lawyer_Chef

    I grew up Christian, but slowly turned into an agnostic after college. My husband is culturally Jewish and atheist, and so we wrote our own ceremony. We held it in a loft space in our city, and had a close friend of my parents be the officiant. We included a few Jewish traditions, such as (a totally secular re-writing of) the seven blessings. We wanted the theme of the ceremony to be coming together, so we had a lot of audience participation — all of our parents and members of the wedding party did small readings. Then we stomped on a glass and that was it! It was fairly short but we loved it. I was worried my parents would be mad about the lack of God or Christian traditions, and we even offered to get married in a Unitarian church for them, but they told me that they wanted me to do the wedding exactly as my husband and I wanted, and they would be happy to share in it. That was such a blessing!

  • Kate

    I come from a charismatic evangelical family (speaking in tongues holy rollers). We were at church 4-5 times a week, only socialized with people from church, and even spent a few years in a church that actually handled snakes. During college I drifted spiritually and now at 31 I’m an atheist. My family has absolutely no idea (I live 5 hours away). I know it would completely break their hearts, and they would totally feel like they failed as parents if they knew. I’m sure they’d also feel like we weren’t really married if there wasn’t a fully religious service.

    Balancing what they want is going to be very difficult. My brother married an Episcopalian and they were pissed off that the wedding was officiated by a priest in robes (anything that even smells Catholic is suspicious to them). They’ve had several discussions with my brother post-wedding about as the “head” of the household he has to be careful the “idol worship” of Episcopalianism doesn’t “lead his family astray” (yes they’re confusing it with Catholicism, yes it’s hilarious).

    I’ve floated some ceremony ideas past my mom (arguably the crazier of my parents) and tried to be firm on what I’d like for the wedding, but this is a woman who firmly believes the bride should wash the groom’s feet in front of everyone to display her submission and that there should be no alcohol.

    This is going to be fun.

    • Lisa

      Oh, wow. I knew my sister’s husband’s family had some issues with them getting married in a Catholic church, but nothing extended to this level! Best of luck to you as you navigate the minefield with your family.

      • Kate

        *takes a shot of whiskey*

    • BSM

      Wow. All the drinks and good vibes your way, my friend. That sounds like a doozy.

      • Kate

        I contemplated asking my mom if she knew a snake handler for hire but my brother always has to talk me down from letting my full sass out around her.

        • BSM

          You could get, like, an exotic animal show to perform during cocktail hour?

        • quiet000001

          I was gonna suggest having the groom wash YOUR feet during the ceremony, see what they make of that. But that is probably too much sass.

    • Jane

      You have got your work cut out for you. Good luck! The good news is that they went to your brother’s wedding anyway. And are still speaking to him – or are at least lecturing him. So, while they may not be happy with your choices, it doesn’t sound like they will boycott or anything.

      • Kate

        This is true. And they probably won’t walk out *fingers crossed*

    • CP2011

      Sending good vibes your way! It does seem like this might be a situation where there’s no good compromise though — in which case, this may be the time to forge ahead and do things the way you want them, knowing that anything short of a charismatic evangelical ceremony will never be good enough for your parents anyways. I know it must be a stressful situation.

      • Kate

        Bonus, they aren’t contributing financially so at least we can say our money our problems. But we probably will have to just let them show up and be surprised at the ceremony weeeeee!

    • AmandaBee

      You may need to consider, when push comes to shove, whether compromise between the type of commitment/relationship you have with your husband and their views is even in the realm of possibility. My experience with very evangelical families is that there’s not a whole lot of room for compromise, particularly if they are the type to be suspicious of any tradition that does not match their own.

      FWIW, this is similar to a situation experienced by some friends of mine who got married in a completely non-religious wedding. They took the approach of not speaking to the family about their wedding plans, and hoping that no one would walk out of the ceremony once it started (thankfully, no one did – but it was a real concern!). And I understood why they did that, because there was no way at all that his family was going to be okay with what they had planned – as it was, they pitched a fit and left the reception early because *other people* were drinking alcohol.

      Anyway, I can’t imagine how stressful that must be, particularly if you aren’t completely “out” to your parents about your beliefs. Best of luck in navigating it all!

      • Kate

        I think you’re right, this is one where we probably have to just go with one thing or the other, or not let them know anything beforehand. Asking for their input invites them to have a tushytantrum if I don’t do what they suggest.

  • Totch

    We just got married, and while I loved my wedding I do still wish I’d figured this out better. I was raised Catholic and really love Catholicism, but very firmly don’t believe in God.

    I didn’t want a wedding (definitely related to not being able to have a Catholic ceremony) and my husband did. He’s Chinese, and very much saw himself having a more traditional Chinese wedding. Since I didn’t want a wedding and couldn’t fall back on Catholic family traditions, I didn’t really have a vision for it. Because of that we hewed more closely to his idea of a wedding, which made us both excited and helped find meaning.

    We ended up deciding that our only nod to religion would be asking someone to say grace, which was really nice. But as a side effect of not incorporating my family’s religion, I think the wedding ended up feeling like it wasn’t very reflective of my side period. We balanced it fairly well in terms of White/western vs. Chinese, but none of the White traditions felt very deeply held or personal to my family. I don’t really have any advice here, but to say that even without religion you should try to find something to hold onto from your side.

  • KitBee

    I think the first thing is to figure out what kind of ceremony you and your partner really want. Do you enjoy the rituals of your faith even if you no longer believe in their spiritual significance? Will a nonreligious ceremony still feel like a wedding to you? Or are you upset at the very thought of a religious ceremony? Do you feel like it would be dishonest since you no longer affiliate yourself with that religion? Would you be OK with some kind of middle ground, like adding a few prayers or religious traditions to a mostly secular ceremony?

    Once you and your partner have made that decision, I feel like you may need to tell your family. Some commenters have said that they had nonreligious ceremonies, and their religious family members didn’t care or even notice because they were just enjoying the love and happiness of the day. If you think your family will react similarly, awesome! But for example, if I had a wedding that was not a full Catholic Mass, my very devout parents would DEFINITELY notice, and they would be super upset, especially if I didn’t tell them beforehand. So I think this is a “know your people” situation, but if possible, I would avoid blindsiding your parents.

    • Jane

      Really agree that this is a know your people thing. Especially with parents – who expect to know more about what is happening (and will presumably be there for a rehearsal). Extended family might just show up and shut up, but you don’t want a distraught and feeling-betrayed mother on your wedding day.
      Also – if your family is expecting a Catholic wedding and you aren’t having it in a church, for example, the cat will pretty much be out of the bag once the invitations go out.

      • AmandaBee

        Just jumping in to add to the “know your people” thing that, in addition to considering your parents’ wishes to know, you will also want to consider their likelihood of accepting it or causing massive drama over it. They might WANT to know that you plan not to have a religious ceremony, but if they’re the type to try to force a religious ceremony you don’t want on you because they don’t accept your choice, you may choose not to tell them anyway.

        This was not my experience, but I have had friends who knew that their families would not accept their choice to have a nonreligious ceremony and would spend all 18 months leading up to the wedding trying to force them to change their plans, and each of them said it was best to just keep a lot of their plans under wraps. I mean, it was pretty obvious that they weren’t having the wedding in a church, but they did not share their ceremony plans, readings, vows, etc with that side of the family ahead of time – so in that sense, their families did not know that it was 100% secular until the day of.

        In an ideal world, we could all be upfront and honest with our families and they would be accepting of our choices, but it’s not always an ideal world and sometimes the best way to hold your ground is to choose what information you share.

  • CP2011

    My husband and I followed a very similar religious path to each other — non-religious childhood, independently affiliating to a mainline Protestant church as early teens and being super-involved with religion through early college years. By the time we got married at age 24, neither of us felt particularly religious or even spiritual, but we both gained a lot personally from our time and experience in a religious community so we wanted to honor that aspect of our lives. I kind of look at the way we did our wedding as a way to say goodbye to a support system that carried us through our earlier years and usher in a new chapter of belief in each other. If that makes sense.
    We had my husband’s youth pastor officiate and we had a couple prayers, but our vows did not mention God and we didn’t do any specific rituals like communion or liturgical structures.

  • orienteeringirl

    My husband and I were both raised religious but are both atheists today. A few years before we were engaged, but when it was clear our relationship was headed in the direction of marriage, my mom had tried to negotiate with me on the wedding ceremony. She asked if we couldn’t at least get married by a religious officiant even if the ceremony didn’t take place in a church. I shut that down pretty quickly and it didn’t come up again once we were engaged and actually planning our wedding. I don’t recall when, but at some point in our two year engagement we also informed my in-laws that we would be having a secular ceremony. If it was a source of angst for them, they were kind enough not make it our problem. We both have aunts and uncles that are more religious and conservative than our families are, and some came to our wedding and other didn’t and that was fine with us. You know your family best, so do what feels right but we favored giving our guests more information and letting them decide. As it turns out my very conservative aunt (who didn’t have any dancing at her own wedding because it is a “sin” in her eyes) surprised us and not only came, but sought us out at the reception to tell us how happy she was for us and to get a picture with us. People have a way of overcoming a lot out of love, so I’d allow yourself to be open minded about that.

    We wrote our own ceremony and it was entirely secular, but we chose to have a ring warming ceremony and encouraged our guests to take a moment to warm our rings with their best wishes or prayers. Since we had so many religious guests, I was happy to give them the opportunity to privately send their love however they chose to. My husband’s cousin who sings professionally in some church choirs sang during the ring warming. We asked her about what she’d like to sing and one of the songs she suggested was Ave Maria. She sang it at their grandmother’s funeral and I cried at the beauty of her singing as much as I did in grief our loss. At first we were really torn about whether to ask her to sing Ave Maria or not, but in the end we decided it’s religious nature doesn’t matter. I will never hear that song without thinking of my husband’s grandmother, whom he was very close to, and so it was a nice way to be reminded of her on a day she would have loved to have been there for.

  • Pidge

    My husband and I got married in a Catholic church, in part because we both had always expected a church wedding (without really understanding what that would mean) and in part (on my end) because I wanted a family friend who is a Catholic priest to officiate, and a priest can only preside over a church wedding. But my husband stopped going to church after a scandal decimated his parish (and he got an after-school job so he was either at work or asleep during Masses), and I hadn’t ever gone to church regularly – plus many of our people are not Catholic – so we went straight for the wedding ceremony, which does not include the Eucharist.

    I carefully chose the readings to make it as secular as possible within the bounds of Bible passages; the music was much easier, since most of the selections I had to choose from were traditional rather than religious. Except for the origin of the readings, and a few moments of the homily my family priest uses for every wedding he officiates, I thought the ceremony itself was not really religious – and I was totally comfortable on my wedding day.

    It was actually the judgment I encountered on the way to the wedding that pushed me over the edge from “lapsed Catholic” to “not Catholic” – the opposite of what my husband’s parish (the location of our wedding) intended, I’m sure. We took a lot of flak from them for not having a Mass (by choice) and for not going to church on Sundays / practicing regularly, according to their definition. They were not remotely interested in understanding our choices (nor were they respected as personal and none of their business). I wish we had gone to “my” parish, through which I obtained my religious education (although they might have been equally judgmental), or maybe a secular venue (which I’m sure would have come with its own travails).

    I’m slowly letting my family know that I’m officially not going to refer to myself as Catholic anymore, and so far I have been unpleasantly surprised. I’m not looking forward to future conversations about the impact of my lack of faith on any children we might have – and while I’m glad I didn’t have to have those conversations in the thick of wedding planning, I do acknowledge my nominally religious wedding as an opportunity I didn’t take to start accustoming my family to the idea of a totally secular life.

    • Amy March

      I think many Catholic churches are making choices around marriage that are driving people away from the Church instead of welcoming them in. Which, do whatever you want, but I find it interesting that the Church as a whole isn’t actively trying to use marriage to welcome people back.

      • Pidge

        I don’t want to generalize, because I’m hoping that there are some lovely parishes out there, but that was absolutely my experience. They definitely wanted us back, but they didn’t endear themselves to us – and as I told my father the other day when I confessed my apathy, the old “You’ll go to Hell” refrain is not going to motivate me to rejoin the Church. Everyone else with whom I have discussed the subject has mentioned fitting in / getting an education / having a community and can’t seem to understand why I would think that I could have (and give a child) a full and well-rounded life without darkening the door of a church. Well, except to see the architecture, like in St. Pat’s.

    • Yet another Meg

      See, I think that is such a shame. I was raised Catholic and still attend mass on a semi regular basis (I should point out that my family are what my father calls grocery store Catholics, in that there are several major aspects of catholicism that are ignored entirely by our family ). My husband’s family is atheist, but we had a church wedding because it was important to me to get married in my home parish. We had a really nice experience with no judgment on the fact that my husband does not attend mass with me when I go. It was also assumed that we weren’t having a full mass and our priest even welcomed a family friend who is a deacon in another denomination to participate part of the ceremony. I’m so sorry you ended up encountering judgment from your husband’s parish.

      • Pidge

        I think the difference between what we faced and what you (and also my SILs, whose husbands are not Catholic) encountered was that on paper, both of us are full-fledged Catholics, so they couldn’t wrap their heads around a Catholic couple choosing to exclude as much Catholicism as possible – and neither of us would apologize that we don’t attend services regularly (we used to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with my MIL, but now I work that day and can’t stay up). They were also confused because it’s rare for the groom’s parish to host a wedding, so they really didn’t know what to do with me. The only thing they respected as a reason for behaving as we did was when my husband mentioned the scandal causing him to distance himself from the Church.

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  • Another Meg

    I’m a former Catholic married to an atheist. My husband’s parents left the church in a similar way to me, and they raised him without religion.

    We had two weddings, and the first was in a courthouse. Somehow, that “traditional” feel still worked in a courthouse. A judge presided, there were only a few guests with us, and my parents seemed fine with it. They’ve also been ok with the outdoor ceremony we held one year later with all friends and family invited.

    One thing that worked in my favor (kind of oddly): I am divorced. My first husband was raised Catholic, I was still Catholic, and we had a super traditional huge family wedding in the same parish where I went to parochial school, my parents and my grandparents were all married. It fell apart in less than two years. I never went through the (religious) annulment process because my ex was only a lip-service Catholic and I’d lost my faith by then.

    I’m coming up against new issues with my very religious family now- they still, somehow, expect me to baptize the baby when it arrives. NOPE. I’ve even had the heirloom baptismal gown foisted on me despite numerous objections. (You’ll change your mind, just get photography done it it, etc)

    My advise to LW is this – give your people some familiar landmarks in your wedding and it will help them accept everything else. We used a traditional structure in the ceremony so it felt familiar even though it wasn’t religious. I gave my dad the option to say a blessing before dinner, which he graciously declined. He made a speech instead. But use this as an opportunity, if you can, to gently lay the groundwork so that when you finally have that heart to heart with someone close in your family and they realize you no longer share their faith, they aren’t as shocked. It can take many coats of paint for your family to understand your point of view. Starting now will only help.

  • MeepMorps

    Ooh, ouch I really feel you on this especially as I am going through a similar scenario. When I told my mom we had set a date she immediately asked if we were having our wedding in a church (has to be Catholic). I have, for the past few years, avoided the “have you been going to church?” question, and I finally reached a point where I had to acknowledge that I was not the churchgoing child they thought I was (though I think there were suspicions there). It did not go well when I said no.

    I’m having trouble planning my ceremony around my desire to include a nod to something that was a big part of my life and my conflicted knowledge that my former religion is dismissive and hurtful to my queer family and friends. I’m trying to work through that by thinking of the positive ways my faith shaped me and the things I will continue to hold important even as I leave so much of it behind.

    Ultimately only you know your family. Will they notice a secular ceremony? You might want to prepare them if they are the kind of people who will (well at least the close family/parents/siblings.

    • Pidge

      I don’t know if this would help, but in high school and college I read sections of the Bible for English classes, and it completely changed my perspective to treat it as literature rather than Gospel. I was able to appreciate the poetry, and set aside the connection to small-minded Church leaders and parishioners. It was incredible freeing.

  • Colleen

    I was raised in an “actively, heart-and-soul religious” family and have struggled with my faith as an adult. Right now, I’m solidly in the “I want to believe there’s a god but sheesh, it’s hard for so many reasons, both personal and global” camp and married to a respectful-of-my-upbringing-and-roller-coaster-of-faith agnostic guy.

    When we got married, I felt a sense of peace from the idea of having god’s “blessing” for our marriage. My husband didn’t have an objection to that, but didn’t need it for himself. So, we worked to create something that felt true and right for both of us.

    We got married in a secular space, had secular readings – no 1 Corinthians, no Song of Solomon – and secular processional/recessional music. But, in what some would call a stroke of luck and others would call a blessing, my husband’s best friend from childhood is a minister and was happy to perform our ceremony. He opened with a movie joke, talked about our journey from friends to more than friends, and closed with a prayer of blessing and protection. We also asked my dad to say a brief prayer before dinner, which I knew would be very important to and special for my parents. The day felt like the perfect combination for us – I was at peace and my husband wasn’t pressured to participate in anything that felt false for him.

    I agree with the others here who’ve said that finding a balance for you and your partner – both in your relationship with each other and your relationship (or current lack thereof) with god – is what’s important.

  • Saxyrunner

    We had a secular ceremony in an outdoor space, with a tint exchange, and a brief speech from the officiant about marriage being a lifelong promise we are making to each other. My family (and in laws) are pretty liberal in general, and the deeply religious folks didn’t say a word about it not being a religious ceremony. Both of us were out atheists by this point, though. No one was surprised.

    My sister and her fiance may have a different situation, though. His family had a few whiners who weren’t even happy with the small religious ceremony held in the morning just to appease them. They complained that it was a shame the rest of the guests who were at the later large secular-ish ceremony weren’t invited to the “real” wedding.

    So, know your people. In our case it was easy to weather the few questions from my in laws before hand, and we weren’t stacking coming out of the atheist closet on top of the usual wedding stress. If the small church ceremony had made the whiners of my future brother in law’s family happy I’d say it was worth it. Since it didn’t achieve that I am hoping my sister and her fiance to what is right for them rather than fail to make anyone happy.

  • It’s interesting to read other people’s comments about the ceremonies being the part that has to represent the couple (more so than the reception). We’re in the UK and we’re getting married in a secular venue with a registrar. We don’t know who will be leading the ceremony until they get there, our vows are dictated by the registry office (though we can pick between the “you” version or the “thou” version if we want to fancy it up), and though we get to pick our own readings and music (maximum three of each) they can’t include any references to religion. You’d think, since we’re both atheists, this would be straightforward, but it’s caught me out in surprising ways. I’d have loved to play some Alabama Shakes while we’re signing the registry, but the venn diagram of “songs about positive relationships” and “songs that mention god” is pretty much a circle with them.

    At the end of the day, the ceremony represents us in that we’re choosing the venue, the decor and the people, and we’re choosing to get legally married on that day, which choosing to obey the format the law lays down. We could have chosen to get legalled separately, or swallowed our hypocrisy and found a church willing to accommodate us, but those choices would have been less true to ourselves than the one we’ve made even if it would have given us more flexibility in the vows, readings and music.

  • Amanda

    We had our wedding in a thoroughly secular place (garden greenhouse in a public park) and had a nonreligious officiant (harder to find than you would think in a place as filled with nonbelievers as Washington state). We still included family and friends reading meaningful texts about relationships and marriage.

    No prayers, but we borrowed from the Quakers the Community Circle, where each guest could talk about us or marriage if they felt so inclined. (It was a very small wedding which made this possible. Would also be good at a rehearsal dinner. Definitely tell people beforehand and get a person lined up to go first.)

    Also: my parents are more culturally religious than actually practicing and they knew my husband was not religious. Even though I haven’t officially told my parents I’m an atheist they kind of knew. The disagreements about baptism and Sunday School for my daughter have been much more fraught than anything with the wedding.

  • Katie

    Oh wow, this was me like two ish years ago. My becoming 10000% non religious had happened many years prior, but so much wedding shit is religious, like even down to the typical scripts. Also, in Illinois, you have to be a judge, county clerk in a county of more then a million people, or a religious leader to perform a wedding. I was so upset, and I figured I would have to go with a religious-but-open minister, which is great and a fine choice for lots of people, but it really felt disingenuous to me. I honestly felt weird about someone who even believes in god to perform the ceremony, and then I also knew it would just be some typical script that the person uses in a million weddings a year and it would mean nothing to me. I did find the Chicago humanist society, they also perform weddings on a donation basis. That probably would have been fine, but even still more “pomp and circumstance” then I wanted. Honestly, I didn’t want all the ceremony and emotion. I just wanted it to be casual and fun. A chance encounter with my husbands coworker (were all chefs) led to finding out that he was ordained through the church of friends and could do it! It actually means so much to me that a chef like him (he has cooked in some of the best kitchens in NYC, has this great resume, all these great stories, etc) was there to do it. It made everything mean something to me, which I guess sounds weird, but I just find ceremonies of anything, really, to be silly and not actually mean much, just people going through the motions. So, we got married by a chef. We told him to say a few words in the beginning, whatever he wanted, we really didn’t care. He ended up talking about how like boat captains, chefs should be the next class of profession to marry people, because chefs do marriages all the time with food. They take raw ingredients and put them together in ways that make them better then the sum of their parts. Something like that. Then we read each other’s (funny) vows, did the rings with a very simple promise that we wrote ourselves, and passed out bubbly and cheers-ed as our proclamation of being married. It was perfect. So, all this to say I guess, that you can find inspiration and meaning in the most unlikely of places. Think outside of the box.

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