By definition, secular humanists are more focused on life on Earth than religionists. They would do well to mark the milestones of that life by coming together to celebrate—or mourn—the milestones of life and thereby enrich and strengthen their community.
FILLING A NEED
Not long ago, a militant atheist declared to me, “A true atheist, secularist cannot be involved in the usual celebrations found in a church. They’re irrational, illogical, and irrelevant to honest freethought, reason, and being a true atheist!”
As a secularist, I have to ask, Is there anything more orthodox and rigid than a committed atheist? Since 1957, I have done hundreds of weddings and memorials. Not once did I read from scripture or offer a prayer or an invocation. As for these services being guilty of “just aping religion,” this is an unwarranted assumption and criticism. Above all, humanists ought to be able to serve human needs. They must consider the needs of the dying and the needs of the survivors following the death of a loved one.
You probably have heard the story of the very young nine-teenth-century preacher who moves into a small Western community. He is there less than a week when a lapsed congregant dies. The deceased’s mother wants the preacher to do the funeral. He protests, but to no avail.
The service begins, and the preacher, as expected, reads from the Bible for about 15 minutes, then offers a few Christian prayers. He then confesses that he never knew “Dirty Dan” and would appreciate it if a few people who did would “Come up front and say a few words.” No one stirs. Perspiration streaming down his face, the preacher begs for at least “one, honest testimonial.” Again, nobody moves. Finally, the awkward silence is broken by a gnarled old man in the last row who stands up and says, “Well, he wasn’t as bad as his brother.”
I have done almost as many services for those I never met as for those I knew and loved. Robert Green Ingersoll was frequently called upon for a funeral oration. Sometimes he did not know the deceased. He was there, as I have been, to serve someone in need. The loss of someone near and dear demands a period of grieving, of closure, and of support to all those most affected by the loss. As a secularist, I have received the thanks of hundreds of people for what my words had meant to them in their period of agony, of loss, mourning. Altogether too many folks are speechless in grief. “I don’t know what to say. He’s dead; he’s gone. What can anyone say? What good would it do anyway? You can’t bring him back with rhetoric!” Absurd. Only the most insensitive clod can treat death and dying in this manner.
From the first day of my ministry I have been a secularist. I had never spent a minute as a student in a divinity school. I was a teacher in a public high school when the People’s Church in Kalamazoo asked me to be a candidate for minister in 1957. I was elected by a vote of 60-4. The congregation was small, but 28 years later it numbered over 300 and had paid off two major building programs. Following in my predecessor’s footsteps, I had never held a Bible reading, conducted a prayer, or passed a collection plate.
The People’s Church was a thriving expression of organized secularism. We sought to meet human needs. We celebrated birth, graduation, membership, marryin’, and buryin’! Why? Because these are stages in life that we all go through. Not to provide for life’s passages is a disservice in meeting human needs.
Secularists must-have services that consistently express secularism and yet be sensitive to the emotional/aesthetic needs of people. Reason and emotion are not opposites from which we must make a single choice. Reason and emotion are two sides of the same coin—the human reality. Both need sustenance and cultivation, and celebrating the stages of life is one of the opportunities to serve both reason and emotion and thereby better serve the needs of secularists.
I remember, early on in my ministry, a mother who had lost her eldest son in a terrible car accident. We were sitting together at a church supper. The church’s summer hiatus was about to begin. She asked me, “And what will you be doing this summer, Roger?”
I replied, “Well, I’m working on a book dealing with the
problems of death and dying.”
She literally snorted and said with a sneer, “And what makes you think you would know anything about death?”
I was young, just 35, in fact, but I probably had seen more death and dying during 34 days on Iwo Jima than the whole congregation (except combat veterans) would see in their entire lives. What my critic meant, of course, was that I had never lost any member of my immediate family, so how could I feel her pain? I do not think we can ever feel anyone else’s pain, but that is not the point. Trying to provide real support, sustenance, and comfort is a task incumbent on secularists as well as the traditionalists in religion.
A POSITIVE PATH
Unfortunately, secularists frequently compound the problem by the manner in which they identify and represent themselves. Many years ago, when the Saturday Evening Post was still a weekly, available for a quarter an issue, a gentleman by the name of Robert Bendiner wrote an article entitled, “Our Right Not To Believe.” He made the point that freedom of religion really embraces freedom from religion as well.
No problem. At the time of this fine essay, I was just beginning my lifelong study and appreciation of the incomparable Robert Green Ingersoll. While I had often heard the terms disbeliever and unbeliever, I never had been comfortable with them. Why? The explanation is simple. When you say you are a disbeliever or an unbeliever you appear to admit that Christianity truly has a total monopoly on what constitutes “true belief!” I will never extend that privilege to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Muslim faith, or any of the world’s “great religions.”
We secularists hold many passionate beliefs. We are not disbelievers or unbelievers at all. No, instead we are people who have rejected any and all belief systems that are at odds with science, reason, and our growing understanding of the universe in which we live. We are rejecters, we have rejected the silly, cruel, horrible, palpable untruths, superstitions, myths, and miracles that have been codified into articles of faith in an attempt to ensure their immortality.
Robert Ingersoll left a huge legacy of affirmations and beliefs. The church and clergy labeled him an “infidel and unbeliever” when in fact, he was utterly faithful to his own impeccable belief system. Secularists should realize that our philosophy, cause, movement cannot expect to grow if it allows its public image to be fully represented by the sentiment, “This I don’t believe.” It is like getting in a taxi and telling the driver where you do not want to go! We have all listened, for several generations now, to the rantings and ravings of folks who, upon discovering the falsity and worthlessness of their religious upbringing, engage in endless recrimination against the “church of our fathers.” While this is a necessary phase through which most must go on their way to secularism, there is a distinct danger in stalling out in this stage. We must, as did Ingersoll, give evidence in our conduct of life and through our pronouncements that ours is an affirmative philosophy of living. We will be unable to offer any real service to searching secularists if our message and method is largely negative.
I do not often find myself criticizing Ingersoll, but, when he referred to secularism as “the religion of humanity,” I think he would have been much closer to the reality he was forging had he said: “Secularism is what freethinkers embrace in lieu of religion.”
Let today’s secularists build an affirmative movement that seeks to meet human needs yet insists on being true to the best of the freethought tradition that exhorts us to use reason, science, education, and justice here and now for improving the human condition on planet Earth. But we cannot serve secularists well if we are unprepared to meet their needs, needs that touch every life. We cannot settle for negative recriminations as our prescription for celebrating life’s opportunities, happenings, joys, and sorrows. A service of child dedication need not be a shallow aping of the rite of baptism. It can be an affirmation of secular humanists values regarding parental responsibilities. Secular couples get married too, and many want a custom-tailored service of joyful celebration. Coming of age and graduation offer yet another opportunity to provide an appropriate secular celebration. Should not joining a secular group involve something more than signing a membership book, a handshake, and a pledge card? Attentiveness to the terminally ill and services for the dead are absolutely essential if we are to serve human needs. Let us admit, the church was not wrong when it sought to meet human needs with rites. Those of us who accept a universe without God, benevolent or otherwise, still have many of the same hopes, fears, joys, needs, and aspirations of those who have become addicts to the drug of traditional, rigid, orthodox religion or who have sought escape in the fuzzy obfuscation of “liberal religion.” Let us strive to serve human needs in a creative, affirmative, secular humanist way!