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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
by Robin Murray O'Hair
A general mailroom rule in The American Atheist Center is that if an inquiry is too odd for anyone else to answer it is given to your editor. Accordingly, all the questions concerning weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies, coming-to-age festivities, ad infinitum, land on my lap.
I would like to give pat answers, but usually I cannot. That is why we have \special\ issues of the American Atheist, to provide answers to questions and issues that crop up all too often and which no one can answer without a few months of research.
Some time ago, I received an inquiry from a member concerning weddings. His upcoming wedding was his second. His first marriage had been to a theist; it had been made miserable by her religion. He was determined, he said, to start this marriage out \on the right foot\ by having an Atheist wedding. Now, just what was an Atheist wedding?
I had little more idea than did he. I knew what I did not like about most weddings — I had developed definite ideas on that during the many dreary (and often inappropriate) weddings of Atheists at which I had been a spectator. What might be right? Ah, I thought, what a question to answer in June, the \wedding month.\
When the time came to prepare the June 1986 issue, I thought that it might be valuable to see the usual advice given to couples planning weddings. Having little idea of what is \normally\ expected at a wedding ceremony, I assumed that the problem of nonreligious and secular weddings might be addressed in the wedding literature of the popular press. So I set off to Austin's largest bookstore to see what was available.
To my surprise, everything which discussed the actual content of the ceremony (there was very little; apparently bridal showers and dresses are of greater importance) concentrated on its religious aspects. In the various books, little or no description of or advice for the secular ceremony appeared. Commonly, after pages detailing services for every possible religious rite — Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Methodist, Roman Catholic, interfaith, etc. — there would be a paragraph stating that, oh yes, one could get married without Jehovah himself in attendance. And yes, if you simply must do without a prepared statement from the clergy, you might find something to say in poetry books.
The books' advice concentrated on reminding the couple to retain the \holiness\ of the wedding ceremony. There were reminders that the ceremony was, after all, a worship of one's god. The language used was peculiar; the couple would be told to \choose the order of worship — the sequence of the service.\ And I wondered if I had accidentally picked up a book on masses. The couple was also told to review their choices \with the officiating clergyman or -woman . . . The minister may make suggestions regarding the order of worship . . .\ Even music should, apparently, be discussed with one's minister or priest.
As an editor, I have some trust in the editing profession. I rationalized that individuals concerned enough with the formal procedure of a wedding ceremony to purchase a book on the subject would be more conservative, more traditional (read religious), and books on weddings would be geared to that audience. But bridal magazines, I thought, had to rely on newsstand sales. They would be more responsive to the tides of life-style, more \modern,\ more willing to please all segments of society.
I was wrong. When I finally found the articles in the brides' magazines (the game between the trees of advertising), I found that they dealt with contraceptives and what to do with one's step-mother-in-law at the wedding. Ah, I thought, these issues are surely an anomaly; others would have something for the non-religious bride-to-be.
I was wrong. After acquiring the next issues of the two most popular brides' magazines, I scanned the contents pages, heart full of hope. In the second one, I saw there was an article titled \Planning Your Ceremony.\ I leafed to the page, and found — wedged between a full page ad and a three-quarter page ad — an entire column describing the different processions used in Christian and Jewish marriage rites.
What's the moral of this? Atheists, apparently, do not exist, just as Blacks did not exist before 1970. Well, we can't permit this. We are here. We need ceremonies of our own. As your editor and chief answerer for odd inquiries to The American Atheist Center, I have devised here an issue of the American Atheist magazine in which any Atheist with marriage on the mind can find surcease of sorrow and come up with an elegant, sophisticated, and Atheist wedding.