Recently I learned that CFI (Center for Inquiry) runs a program certifying secular celebrants, individuals who can serve as officiants for ceremonies marking milestones in life without any of the trappings of religion or belief in God. Once I learned about this, I decided I wanted to hear more. So I invited Galen Broaddus, atheist blogger at “Across Rivers Wide” and a secular celebrant for CFI for an interview. Our exchange is recorded below.
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Randal: Galen, thanks for agreeing to do this interview to discuss the work of a secular celebrant. But before we get there, I’d like to begin with your religious background. As I understand it, you were raised a Baptist. So why did you leave the church?
Galen: Like most of my stories, that’s a long one, but I’ll try to give the abridged version.
I was in fact raised Baptist; my father was an active minister most of my childhood, mostly in Southern Baptist churches in rural Illinois. My upbringing wasn’t particularly fundamentalist, but it was certainly conservative. I was also a fairly precocious child, and to their credit, my parents encouraged my curiosity and hunger for knowledge.
That curiosity came to fruition for me after I briefly attended a Christian college, where I was introduced in a more formal way to Christian philosophy and theology. Even though I left that college (for reasons unrelated to the education or institution itself), I was hooked, and I voraciously read whatever works of Christian apologetics and philosophy I could get my hands on. At one point, I even purchased the textbook Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland and read it cover to cover.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t content just to consume this material; I wanted to test it. So I went to the Internet and intentionally sought out places where I could debate with non-Christians, often with atheists. I didn’t know any atheists in real life (that I was aware of), so this was often an illuminating experience for me, as I encountered atheists who were both more knowledgeable and more adept at pointing out the flaws in my arguments. Many of them also challenged my preconception of atheists as angry, bitter, and depraved.
Eventually, I began to find that I didn’t have a solid ground on which to base the faith of my childhood (or indeed any faith, as far as I could see), and that led to a moment almost five years ago where I realized I didn’t believe in any gods — certainly not in the deity of Christianity.
It hasn’t always been easy since then, especially given that I’m (quite happily!) married to a Christian, but here I am.
Randal: Interesting. I always find conversion and deconversion stories fascinating, so maybe I can press you a bit on a couple points. First, was there some particular issue that you can recall as the tipping point toward atheism? Or was it just the gradual accumulation of smaller issues?
And did you move directly from Christianity to atheism in one big step? Or did you pass through various versions of Christianity and minimal theism before becoming an atheist?
Galen: There’s a line from the book The Fault in Our Stars by John Green that I always think of in this context: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” That’s sort of how I fell out of love with religion and with theism in general.
I probably started delving into my own personal studies in 2005, and it started out with issues almost tangential to theism or Christianity, most specifically evolution. I wasn’t ever really a full-blown young-earther, but I had grown up with a learned disdain for evolution, so actually learning about evolutionary theory — because I needed to know it better to debunk it, I thought — helped me understand what I didn’t know. There were a number of issues where that was true, from creationism to biblical inerrantism and so on.
It’s difficult for me to say if I moved through any stages because to me the change was almost imperceptible to me. If you had asked me literally the day before my own personal “epiphany,” I’d have told you I was a Christian. I wasn’t an evangelical, and I held a number of heterodox positions — for instance, the last conscious change of belief I can remember was a rejection of the traditionalist view of hell and an acceptance of universalism — but I still thought of myself as a Christian, generically, and I definitely identified as a theist.
Truthfully, I think I had mentally conceded the battle somewhat before that, but my emotions needed to catch up and (to use Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor) allow the elephant to move where my rider was already steering. After that, I was able (if I might switch metaphors mid-stream) to achieve escape velocity.
Randal: That’s really helpful Galen. Thanks for the quick overview. I have no doubt that we could spend hours hashing some of those topics out. I always find personal narratives fascinating, and it sounds like yours is no exception!
Having said that, I’d like to turn to a somewhat different topic at this point, namely your status as a secular celebrant. I was really intrigued when I discovered that you had this role. So I’d be interested if you could first explain what a secular celebrant is, how it might differ from a justice of the peace (if it does), and why an organization like the Center for Inquiry is involved with secular celebrants in the first place.
Galen: Let me clarify a few definitions right off the bat. A celebrant is, in general terms, someone who facilitates the various ceremonial aspects of life events, most notably marriages and funerals/memorials. (There are others, like coming of age and welcoming ceremonies, but they tend to be less in demand outside religious communities.) A secular celebrant simply differs from the religious celebrants most people are used to (clergy or lay leaders) in that she isn’t coming from a religious tradition.
That’s the general sense of the term. I happen to be a secular celebrant working under the auspices of a secular organization (the Center for Inquiry); you can find others who are authorized through explicitly religious organizations or organizations that have a religious charter of some kind, like the Humanist Society here in the US. This is a point I frequently have to explain because of the odd quirks of our state marriage laws.
Secular celebrants differ from a justice of the peace primarily in the fact that, like most religious celebrants, we’re not agents of the government in any fashion. (We actually don’t have JPs here in Illinois.) I’m just a private citizen providing a service to individuals and couples who might be non-religious or might be personally religious but don’t want to involve religion in their life events for whatever reason.
CFI’s involvement is a bit trickier for me to speak for, but the organization is really strongly behind the idea of humanist values, including finding rich meaning in a naturalistic worldview. CFI fosters secular communities through a number of branches and affiliate groups across the US and in several other countries, so there’s a need within those circles to train individuals who can perform that function within these communities.
There’s also a church-state issue because all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) permit religious officiants to solemnize marriages so that they carry the legal authority of the state, but relatively few allow secular celebrants to do so. (Secular celebrants authorized by a religious organization can also solemnize marriages by virtue of that authorization, which is why I’ll occasionally have people tell me — wrongly — that secular celebrants can solemnize marriages in the US.) Remedying that inequity has been right in line with CFI’s strong secularist position, and they won a federal court case in 2014 that opened up this right to secular celebrants in Indiana. For about two years, I’ve been deeply involved in CFI’s efforts trying to do the same here in Illinois.
Randal: Very helpful overview, thanks!
You described CFI’s commitment to fostering secular communities with “humanist values” and a “naturalistic worldview.” And the secular celebrant has a role in this mission by memorializing major life events. With that in mind, somebody might say, “This all sounds rather like the hallmarks of that which we traditionally call religion. And there are non-theistic religious communities, like some forms of Buddhism, for example. So should we think of the work of CFI and yourself as, in some sense, religious?
Galen: I wouldn’t go that far. But I will say this: My whole perspective on this is that secular humanism is at its core an ethical system; it does sometimes take positions on metaphysics and such, but it is an ethos based on Enlightenment values. Ethical systems are about how we live and derive meaning, and so it makes sense that secular humanism would sometimes concern itself with doing so in more collective ways.
However, that’s not necessarily a universal position; there are plenty of secular humanists who think that the role of a secular celebrant is best left in any required legal sense to a JP or judge or what-have-you and that any desire for ritual or ceremony is the baby that should be discarded with the rest of the religious bathwater. That’s fine with me, too. There’s no ethical imperative to engage in these activities, in my opinion, although I do my celebrant work with the belief that it’s better for there to be a means for secular celebrations to be available to those who want them.
I do concede that a lot of this is simply a dispute over definitions, and we could argue all day about the precise meaning of “religion” in this context. However, I think that both community building and celebrations of life can be clearly seen in non-religious contexts, so it would be fair to consider secular humanism to be non-religious even when it incorporates these aspects (which it doesn’t always).
(And, of course, as should hopefully be apparent, I’m speaking only for myself as a secular humanist, not for CFI.)
Randal: I do agree that much depends on one’s definition of religion. Typically when we are trying to discern whether an x should be identified as a y, we focus on whether x exhibits a set of precise necessary and sufficient conditions to be deemed a y.
But as Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, in many other cases we classify entities not by necessary and sufficient conditions but by overlapping similarities. Wittgenstein referred to this as family resemblance and he gives the example of a game. There is arguably no set of necessary and sufficient conditions by which we deem soccer, solitaire, and Sorry (the board game!) to be games. Rather, we group them all into the category “game” because of overlapping similarities.
Given the extraordinary diversity of communities and practices that are deemed religious, it seems likely that religion, like game, is a family resemblance concept. And among those resemblances are shared sets of metaphysical and/or ethical beliefs as well as ritualized practices that create community solidarity and mark major life events.
Do you find it plausible to think of “religion” as a family resemblance concept? And if so, do you think it plausible that secular communities could be deemed religious if they adhere to a set of shared metaphysical and/or ethical beliefs and they ritualize major life events, often by way of a class of designated representatives?
Galen: I don’t disagree with the notion of religion as family resemblance, per se, but there are a few issues that I do have with that analysis here.
First, imposing the notion of religion upon systems which reject (either explicitly or implicitly) religion as a moral or ethical authority puts us in the territory of affirming contradictions. Indeed, you even talked of whether “secular communities could be deemed religious”! We might thus talk of how Mr. Jones is in fact a married bachelor because he cohabitates with a partner and shares financial responsibility, family duties, and so on. Either we are faced with an absurdity, or our calculus is off.
Second, I think the key question for me is less whether religion can be defined (in this general family resemblance sort of way) to include secular humanism but whether religion is itself a subset of a broader and/or overlapping category (what is sometimes referred to as a lifestance). Consider that of the major humanist organizations in the world, you can find both secular charities and non-profits like American Atheists, the British Humanist Association, and CFI, as well as religious organizations like the American Ethical Union and the UU Humanist Association. I don’t think this is an accident.
But I will say this: If we are to speak about secular humanism as religion for a limited purpose, in the way that atheism and secular humanism are often considered religions for the purpose of protecting religious expression (as is the case with First Amendment jurisprudence here in the US), then I think I can personally concede that point. I just don’t think it’s the operative sense of that term as it is widely used, and as such, that’s where I resist the framing of secular humanism as a religion in general.
In the same vein, I’ve had people deride the idea of secular celebrants as “secular ministers,” and I don’t resist that in the sense that I perform a function that is often done by clergy. But I hold no organizational or particular moral authority; I possess no titles; I absolve no sins. The differences are relevant, regardless of the similarities, and that’s true of secular humanism as a belief system as well.
Randal: Traditional clergy typically go to seminary and are ordained as preparation for fulfilling their ministerial functions. But how does a secular celebrant attain their certification to perform their duties? Is formal training required or do you learn through informal mentorships, or…?
Galen: This again varies depending on who you work with. CFI does require training for its celebrants, which is typically a full-day session going through the various aspects of a celebrant’s responsibilities (including our legal responsibility, for those working in states where we are permitted to solemnize marriages). To my knowledge, that isn’t the norm; a secular celebrant who obtains an ordination from (for instance) the Universal Life Church probably won’t go through any training beyond some basic information supplied by the ULC at the time of ordination. I’m also not aware of any such requirement for the Humanist Society’s celebrants, although I do think the organization has offered celebrant workshops in the past.
My guess, since I can only speak for my experience, is that many secular celebrants do have training: religious training. I know several such people who were clergy or involved in ministry in the past and became secular or humanist celebrants in order to put that training to use after leaving religion. Obviously, there’s no liturgy to pull from and there’s a different worldview informing the practice, but the skillset does actually transfer pretty decently.
Randal: That makes sense. And presumably it’s not just the skills and practical experience they bring from religion, but also an appreciation for the importance of pastoral ministry, ritual, and liturgical form.
This has been an illuminating exchange Galen, and I thank you for your willingness to explain the role of the secular celebrant. As we wrap up, I’d like to end on a question that brings practice and theory together by getting your thoughts on one of your duties: conducting a funeral.
In a Christian funeral based on orthodox theology, the minister appeals to thankfulness for the gift of this person’s life, comfort that the person no longer suffers and thus is now in a better place, and hope that the person shall be resurrected in the future and reunited with loved ones again in the new heaven and earth.
I get that you believe this thankfulness (to God), comfort (in the peace of the interim state), and hope (in the resurrection) is misplaced. Needless to say, the defense of those attitudes is another question for another day. But what I want to know is how do you handle the funeral as a secular celebrant? How do you present thankfulness? How do you extend comfort? Can you offer hope?
In an oft-quoted passage from his essay “A Free Man’s Worship,” atheist Bertrand Russell eloquently summarizes his distressingly bleak picture of reality in an atheistic universe. He then concludes, “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” In today’s parlance: suck it up, buttercup.
What do you think?
Galen: First, let me say that this isn’t a new question to me; when I was first going through certification a few years ago, my believing mother outright asked me how I could possibly bring hope to the grieving. It’s not an easy question to answer because the subject of our human mortality is visceral, so it’s sometimes difficult to find a truly satisfactory answer (even with religion, in my opinion). I take that responsibility very seriously, as I think many religious celebrants do as well.
Second, I don’t actually agree with Russell entirely on the general point. Death is certainly a heavy subject, but I don’t think it has to be bleak for someone who doesn’t believe that one’s immaterial self survives physical death. (Indeed, Russell himself also spoke a bit more optimistically about how to grow old.)
To your points: You’ve framed funerals and memorials in terms of thankfulness, comfort, and hope. I don’t think there are necessarily the focuses of a secular memorial, but there are ways in which they still apply.
I often refer to these services as “celebrations of life,” and I don’t mean that euphemistically. Those who grieve come to honor the memory of the deceased, and without the shadow of a hereafter, that is what matters. I’ve been to funeral services where memorializing wasn’t emphasized, and it felt incredibly empty. It’s the care of others and the human connections that were made in life that make a memorial more than just a mere recognition that a life has ended.
In a sense, memorials are a way of reminding ourselves that, at base, we do have each other. We remember and we are grateful for each having had the opportunity to know the deceased. We share collectively in our memories and are comforted by our solidarity in grief. We hold the hope that our own lives can be indeed meaningful to others, as we recognize the meaning brought to us by the deceased.
Not all of these will be felt in that moment; grief is too complex for such a simple solution, religion or no. In the moment, remembering is about focusing that pain in a way that allows it to be felt, not alone but collectively.
In that respect, my job is first and foremost to allow that space for the deceased’s loved ones to share in each other’s memories and pain. The second is to work to honor the deceased’s wishes (including their beliefs) as much as possible in the service. To do so, I will generally include readings or reflections that emphasize our shared humanity (or sometimes our connection to nature) and the legacy we can still leave behind. Other circumstances may require a more delicate touch still.
Like so much in life, it’s messy and difficult to navigate. I’d rather try and do some of the heavy lifting for that so that the grieving can just focus on their grief. If I can do what I can to take some of that burden off them, I consider that one of the best services I can provide.