Celebrating Life the Secular Way
International Atheist Conference in Reykjavik Iceland June 24 & 25, 2006
Margaret Downey’s speech:
Celebrating Life the Secular Way
Góðan daginn, everyone. I am very pleased to be here.
My presentation, “Celebrating Life the Secular Way,” will highlight many ways in which nonreligious people can celebrate holidays and special occasions. I also want to impress upon you the importance of living life openly and proudly as an Atheist. Some of us are more fearful of being open Atheists than others. That fear of disclosure revolves around the un-acceptance of a nonreligious life stance by a majority of people. Since I am not a
resident of Iceland, I can‘t speak for the levels of intolerance that prevail here, but in America, we Atheists are struggling.
Our very presence frightens the religious community because we make them wonder
about and question their blind faith. We make them uneasy about their commitment to a
story filled with superstition and implausible details. Our presence defies their obedience
to scriptural laws that seem antiquated in modern society. Disclosure of our philosophical
life stance is usually met with hostility and combative reactions. This is probably why
many Atheists are compelled to stay silent.
An unfriendly environment sometimes prevails in the workplace, at school, within a
community, and even within family dynamics. Secularists are often outnumbered, overruled
or belittled when their minority opinion is expressed. When we live our lives as
proud Atheists, we may suffer severe consequences. In a worst-case scenario, shunning
campaigns take place; jobs are lost; family members are disowned, and marriages break
up. Intolerance can prevail, all in the name of religion.
Today I want to talk about the positive outcomes of exemplifying a secular lifestyle.
Through our actions we can inspire and encourage those who are having difficulties
declaring their philosophical life stance. I hope that after my presentation today you will
be able to say, “I am an Atheist and proud of it!”
So you may wonder how you can live your life as a proud Atheist. First, you must make a
commitment to yourself that you will not hide or feel ashamed of your chosen life stance.
You have made an intellectual decision that brings peace of mind. That alone should
make you proud.
Yes, it is difficult to disclose your feelings in a public way, but if you do not hide your
chosen philosophy, you may find others who are just like you. They may be quiet simply
because they think that they are the only Atheist around.
Disclosure of your philosophy also provides an opportunity to find common ground in
which the religious and nonreligious can negotiate a more comfortable environment for
all. Chances are, the religious community will discover philosophical similarities with the
For instance, donating to worthy causes, feeding the hungry, adoptions of needy families,
and more, are all activities that bring all types of people together to help others.
On the other hand, popular holiday celebrations can bring to the forefront major
differences between the religious and the nonreligious. Atheists do not attend religious
services, but may be asked to do so by well-meaning people with whom they come in
contact at work, school, in a neighborhood, or in their family.
If you are not comfortable with attending religious events, make use of their invitation to
explain why you do not wish to participate. Look upon the encounter as a way to educate
someone. Tell them what the season means to you and how you celebrate it differently.
You might say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I acknowledge the season and celebrate
in other ways.”
This type of conversation is non-confrontational, educational, and allows Atheists to
reach a better understanding with religious friends and family.
Each one of you should think about common holidays and try to develop new and more
meaningful ceremonies that are beneficial to your philosophy. For example, during spring
or winter, you could choose to simply celebrate the beauty of nature and the changing of
the seasons. Seasonal celebrations establish kinship bonds and help establish fictitious kin
You may just want to take the opportunity to recognize the warmth of your family’s love
during that time of year. Normal activities are put on hold by seasonal holidays and, for a
day or two, we can suspend everyday duties. Most or all of us rather like that, I’m sure.
Please consider a new Humanist winter celebration called “HumanLight.”
HumanLight is the Humanist counterpart to Christmas and other winter holidays.
HumanLight is celebrated on December 23rd. It was established in 2001 by the New
Jersey Humanist Network. HumanLight is a secular celebration that emphasizes reason
and rational thinking.
The date of December 23rd allows HumanLight to connect itself to the December holiday
season without imposing over the other holidays, since many Humanists may participate
in a variety of celebrations with family and friends. HumanLight events can include guest
speakers, candle-lighting ceremonies, musical and dramatic performances, dinners,
dancing or video presentations. Because HumanLight is designed to resist ritual or
tradition, celebrations vary from event to event and from year to year.
So you see, the religious community does not own the rights to a holiday! Quite the
Looking back at Pagan celebrations, we see that most were filled with superstitions and
were centered around seasonal observations. We know that Christians and other religious
groups interjected their particular superstitions into the Pagan rituals and reinvented
We also know that celebrations are a natural product of human social needs. We are
social animals, and the interaction with others is central to all of our actions in the world.
However, the meanings attached to many of the celebrations have changed and mutated
throughout human history as our knowledge of the natural world has expanded.
Please visit www.secularseasons.org for ideas about celebrating in a secular way. You
will find a lot of seasonal information, monthly celebration ideas, and event suggestions.
As proposed by Dr. Richard Dawkins, memes that attach meaning to a celebration can
and will continue to evolve. It is up to us to make sure the adaptations are meaningful,
thoughtful, and honest reflections of our secular life stance. We need to reinvent the
holiday season and incorporate our own secular principles.
A reinvention of holidays is particularly important when we consider our children and
grandchildren. The peer pressure that Atheist children face can cause psychological
difficulties. Our children may already feel like outsiders when they realize that almost
everyone around them attends church, goes to Sunday school, and celebrates religious
holidays. If we celebrate for rational reasons and tell our children the truth about holiday
superstitions, we have not done any harm. There is nothing wrong with celebrations that
exemplify what we appreciate and ?cknowledge.
Please also visit my Secular Celebrations website at www.secular-celebrations.com. You
can see samples of a secular wedding ceremony, a secular naming ceremony, and secular
funerals at that site. Feel free to borrow any information to start your own website and
secular celebration services. We need more secular celebrants, and so I am happy to
Just twenty minutes from my home, three neighboring states do not issue Self-Uniting
marriage licenses. Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland laws reject any notion that a
marriage can be solemnized by a representative of the non-religious community.
Using me as an officiant guarantees the couple that a secular ceremony will be
performed. Using a clerk, Justice of the Peace or a judge does not necessarily mean that a
secular ceremony will be performed. Many Atheist couples have told me horror stories of
what happened when their request for a secular wedding was misunderstood or
maliciously ignored by state officials. So, I am closely watching the legal pursuits of the
Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association as they strive for recognition of their nonreligious
civil ceremonies. Please purchase their humanist pin sometime during this
conference. The profit will be used to assist with their legal fund.
Fortunately, I live in a state where a couple can obtain what is called a Self-Uniting
marriage license. That particular designation relieves the couple from using an official of
the state sanctifying their marriage. I step in to guarantee that the couple will receive a
beautifully executed secular ceremony. I also process the needed paperwork for the
I have had my share of difficulties, however. Some state officials think that because the
Self-Uniting license was a direct result of a Quaker legal challenge that only Quakers are
eligible. Half of the Atheist couples seeking my services have been rejected from
uneducated clerks. I have been forced to file several discrimination reports with the
Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Each complaint was resolved without legal
action, but I may need to file a federal lawsuit to resolve marriage license difficulties in
Celebrant USA graduates associate themselves with the Universal Brotherhood
Movement. This legalizing them as religious representatives in all states. The British
Humanist Association and the American Humanist Association are recognized by the
government because they are each listed and registered through legal channels as a
You may be wondering what I have done in order to perform marriages. Well, affiliation
through the Universal Life Church was inappropriate for me. I am uneasy about
affiliations with any church. For some, Humanism may truly be a religion and I respect
that declaration. I could not, however, agree with that statement so I have passed on that
When I perform marriage ceremonies for secular couples, I make sure that the
ceremonies are beautiful and that they are filled with reality-based words that highlight
love, honesty, commitment, and sincerity. We can combine ancient cultural traditions
with modern humanist and secular words. This approach is often used when a secular
family is in need of honoring their family heritage.
Most wedding attendees comment about the beautiful sentiments that are expressed
during a secular ceremony. Very few people ever notice that the ceremony was 100%
free of any mention of God. There are massive selections of Freethought prose, poems,
and music that can be used in your secular ceremonies.
For inspiration, we often turn to well-known writers and poets such as Robert Green
Ingersoll, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, John Keats, and Henry David Thoreau.
We have all the right components for secular celebrations, so we should not be reluctant
to utilize them in meaningful ways.
When a child is born, Secularists are not eager to sprinkle water on the baby’s head. We
want to welcome the baby into our family and introduce her or him to?friends. This is
truly a time to celebrate! Bring on the “welcome to the world” gifts, start the music, and
fill the air with song and laughter.
When a life has ended, we know that it is a natural occurrence that will happen to all of
us. We can take that time to reflect on the life of the deceased. We can also celebrate the
legacy of that person. I am often asked to deliver a secular message at a funeral and I
know that the need for secular celebrants to recognize life passages has grown.
We know there is a strong human need to celebrate or mourn with family and friends. As
Secularists, we need to embrace this understanding rather than reject it. Religion has
successfully capitalized on this human need, so we can do the same.
Secular celebrations can create social settings that induce positive effects in the
psychological needs of a nonreligious person. When like-minded individuals are in
contact with each other, they are able to fulfill their basic human needs. A close look at
religious gatherings reveals how this is used as a basis for appeal.
A welcoming attitude at nonreligious celebrations and events can create a feeling of
acceptance in the secular community. Think ahead about ways in which you or your
group can make a point of acknowledging newcomers.
You can also have a follow-up system so that those who took the time to attend will be
personally invited back. Religion may offer a feeling of order out of chaos with false
hope and easy answers. The nonreligious community can offer instead a peaceful
resolution to difficult questions through friendship, understanding, and truthful
A secular event or holiday can bring the same hope to lonely people who have a desire to
answer their questions with rational thinking. We need to provide an opportunity for this
A celebration or holiday event inevitably builds stronger bonds with family and friends.
The mere fact that people gather together in a positive way promotes these connections.
Becoming part of a group provides an opportunity to gain high status or honor in a
community. We should be looking for an opportunity to honor someone’s life, work, and
accomplishments. Creating a comfortable atmosphere with a holiday or celebration
provides the perfect setting for such acknowledgments.
Everyone needs a place to formulate and act upon ideals, whether it be in a group setting
or a simple discussion of current events with a friend. We can actually formulate
celebrations and holidays around a single issue or ideal.
Some groups in the United States celebrate “Charles Darwin Day.” This day promotes
scientific research and honors the person who devoted so much of his life to the study of
evolution. This type of celebration draws like-minded individuals together and continues
the avocation of their ideals.
While we are on the subject of connecting like-minded individuals, we should mention
that many single people use the church, mosque, temple, or synagogue as a place to find
romance and life partners. Nonreligious holidays and celebrations can do the same.
Many nonreligious events may provide a place and opportunity to eat together.
Fulfillment of this basic human need for nourishment guarantees that a celebration or
holiday event will be well attended. Think of any opportunity to provide food and
refreshments to community members. We have seen religious communities attract people
to their venues by hosting pot-lucks, pancake breakfasts, and holiday feasts. We can do
the same, but for rational reasons.
Celebrations and holidays can also include a chance to have physical and/or mental
exercise. We might think about including games and dancing at holiday events. The
inclusion of such activities has made the celebration of HumanLight a huge success.
Special events can provide a place for tranquility in an otherwise busy life style. When
our normal everyday activities are put on hold for a day or just for a few hours, we can
become refresh?d and renewed. Nonreligious holidays and celebrations can echo what the
religious community has done for centuries—minus the chanting, praying, and traditional
group think—secular celebrations can and do provide a place of refuge that is based in
The traditional holidays that are already recognized can be used to develop our own
memes that give meaning and joy to our lives. So how do we do this?
Well, if you are interested in learning the best way to conduct a secular celebration and
want to become certified, please visit a few websites. For European training, I
recommend the British Humanist Association’s Officiants’ and Celebrants’ Training
Program. For Americans in the audience, I recommend training through the Celebrant
Please avoid on-line churches that offer a title such as “Reverend,” “Minister,” or
“Pastor” to anyone who sends in $10 for the privilege just to perform a legal ceremony.
Instead, fight to have humanist/secular ceremonies legally recognized. We should be
increasing our numbers and increasing awareness of available secular resources. The
Humanist Society offers the title of “Humanist Celebrant” to qualified individuals.
I once attended a debate entitled “Does God Exist?” As proof that God exists, the
religionist showed slides of beautiful flowers, landscapes, a variety of gorgeous sunsets
and sunrises and of course, the faces of babies.
It is an insult to all of us when religionists credit God for the beauty of nature. They
hijack these natural phenomena as “God’s gift.” They also claim that the beauty of nature
is proof of God’s existence. We must, therefore, object to God getting all or any credit for
the beauty of nature. How better to acknowledge nature’s beauty than through secular
We must celebrate our human family and accept the natural world with joyful hearts by
celebrating human life, love, accomplishments, and friendship.
There are some Atheists who argue, “Why should we want to celebrate anything at all?
What is so special about the changing of the seasons or the fact that we have family and
My response to that is — humans are social animals. We need our communities, friends,
families, and associates around us in order to live happy and fulfilled lives. Celebrations,
holidays, and the recognition of life passages help us to maintain social bonds with one
We know that ancient human civilizations created and celebrated holidays. It appears to
be a deep-rooted need. Holidays and celebrations help humans connect with one another.
Atheists can bring people together who are like-minded. We can be outspoken, proud,
principled, and committed to meet that challenge.
As often as possible, you might consider talking about the way you celebrate holidays
with others. The media loves to highlight alternative lifestyles, but they can only report
things of which they are aware. You must tell them know about your secular holiday
I recommend that press releases be used to inform the media and explain secular
celebrations. You might also share a personal story with the media in order to generate
interest. You will surely connect with those who have not yet discovered that they are not
alone in their rejection of religious traditions. The media attention will enable you to
increase your group size, find more like-minded local friends or, at the very least, foster
and promote a better understanding of the nonreligious community.
There are many people who think about finding similar individuals, but just don’t know
where to look. Advertising a special holiday event might appeal to people who are lonely
and in need of connecting with others who think like them.
Some Secularists are just not joiners. They may be, for the most part, content to pass on
any type of celebration, but what about their everyday life?
As I previous?y stated, revealing one’s secular life stance is risky business. The fact is,
however, that the future success of secularism depends on those who are brave enough to
expose themselves to the prejudices that now prevail.
Those of use who are nonreligious understand that we have only one life to live and that
there is no afterlife. I say that there is an afterlife. Our legacy is our afterlife.
If you agree, then your goal in the here and the now should be to leave a legacy worthy of
Wouldn’t you want your offspring to say that you lived as a proud and principled
Atheist? How better to remember you than through the secular celebrations you helped to
Together, we can continue our goal of a better understanding between the religious and
the nonreligious; we can do our part to promote positive Atheism by enabling our secular
communities to embrace all that is beautiful about living, loving, and celebrating.
President, Atheist Alliance International
President, Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia
P. O. Box 242
Pocopson, Pa 19366
Phone: (610) 793-2737
Fax: (610) 793-2569