Celebrating the major transitions in life is as old as humanity. Even before there was organized religion, people marked key moments in their lives with ceremony and music, with solemn commitments and joyful celebrations.
The birth of a child is one of the most significant of these rites of passage. It is a time for family, friends and community to come together to offer love, support and encouragement. It’s a time for a party.
Rites of passage are also a time for reflection. They are moments when we step back from our daily concerns and look at our lives in a broader context. And when we think about the span of our whole life — the arc of its development through key moments of birth, adulthood, love, parenthood, and death – we try to make sense it of it all. We explore the beliefs and values that give shape and meaning to our lives.
For many people these values – and their underlying existential beliefs – are spiritual. Every religion has ceremonies for welcoming new children.
But there is nothing intrinsically religious about celebrating rites of passage. Atheists like me also have values and aspirations, family and friends. So after my twin daughters Lyra and Sophia were born, my wife Shannon and I decided to create a humanist “Welcome to the World” ceremony for them. We were delighted to hold the ceremony at the Atheist Alliance International annual convention, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30.
The ceremony focused on our commitment to raise our daughters to be creative, compassionate, critical thinkers. There was no commitment to encourage them to be atheists or humanists: while they will be raised in an openly humanist family, we want them to work out their beliefs and values for themselves. A central purpose of the ceremony was to appoint Mentors. These supporting adults, from outside the family circle, promised to take a special interest in our daughters’ welfare and happiness.
While few religious ceremonies include a passage from Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion”, our ceremony actually had Professor Dawkins taking part! Yet, I think our celebration had much in common with the infant naming ceremonies of the world’s religions.
It wasn’t just the inclusion of music and poetry, family and friends. Our ceremony welcomed our children to the world, and more specifically to the community of believers our family belongs to. It explained the children’s names and expressed our aspirations for their lives. And it appointed supporting adults, who promised to mentor these children as they grow into adulthood.
Above all, the ceremony touched something very deep inside all of us. It celebrated our humanity, as expressed through our love for our children and our desire for community. While expressing these values in our different ways, we should remember that they are shared by both the religious and the nonreligious alike, as members of the same family –the human family.
Matt Cherry is executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies and president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Matt and his wife, Shannon Cherry, contributed a chapter to the 2007 book “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.”