The Only Secular Life Altering Event23 August, 2008
Yesterday, (((Wife)) and I experienced another transitional moment in life. There aren’t that many truly transitional moments: marriage, birth of a child, death. Almost all of these important life moments have become religious moments. There is still one which religion has not co-opted.
Marriage changes ones life. Dedicating your life to a partnership means that your life is no longer singular. (((Wife))) and I were married by a Justice of the Peace. The simple ceremony, held in the living room of her parent’s house, was thoroughly secular (even the music (provided by a hammered dulcimer) was secular: Mary’s Wedding, The Golden Vanity, and other traditional folk songs). We did not mention god(s), nor did the JP. We recognize how unusual this is.
For a vast majority of couples, god(s) are an integral part of the ceremony — even to the point of promising to serve god(s) through their marriage. This has, of course, created a public mindset that views marriage as purely religious. They seem to mentally edit out the part where the officiator says, ” . . . by the authority vested in me by the state of (insert state name here), I pronounce you . . . .” Marriage is so thoroughly religious that the mere idea that two men or two women might be happily married sends a significant portion of the American populace into an incredible conniption. The partnership between religion and marriage is fixated in the mind of a vast majority of humans.
(((Wife))) and I have two children. Neither have been baptised in any church. Both kids have attended, on and off, a Unitarian church near my parents home. Both are naturalistic atheists, free-thinkers willing to accept the reality which their senses show them.
I was baptised High Episcopalian soon after I was born. It means nothing to me now, and really didn’t mean a whole lot to my parents. I think they did it to please my grandparents. (On a tangent, as a kid, I always thought the term ‘High Episcopal Church’ rather funny. I pictured a priest intoning: “Dearly (giggle) beloved, we are, like, y’know, standing here (giggle) in the, like, wow. Look at the colours, dude. etc (silly, I know, but I was a child)). (((Wife))) was baptised and was a member of the UCC until she was around twenty. For her, it was more of a way to be with friends.
The birth of a child has, like marriage, been thoroughly linked to religion in our culture. Baptism, bris, churching of the mother, godparents, naming ceremonies, and more, are all religious ceremonies — some inherently, some through rather amorphous linkages. Even in the hospital, it felt like (((Wife))) and I had to beat the preachers off with a stick to keep them from trying to religify(if that’s even a word (and spell check says it ain’t)) the birth of (((Boy))) and (((Girl))).
Death is also a life event with has become, almost unavoidably, religious. I have never been to any funeral, viewing, wake, etc., in which a central theme has become god(s). Sometimes it isthe central theme, to the exclusion of talking about the life of the dead guy. I have been to funerals in which the person’s life gets fifteen minutes (and she was in her 90s when she died) and the evils of homosexuality gets an hour (sadly, I’m not kidding). When my grandmother passed away (the Red Sox had won the World Series and she said, “Well, I guess I can die now,” and damned if she didn’t), we got together with the family and talked about her life. The good things, the bad things, the funny things. We celebrated her life and reinforced our memories so they would last. One of my favourite memories is Grandma Mary in downtown Salem at rush hour taking (((Wife))) and my hand and walking into busy traffic saying, “They have to stop. Its the law!” They stopped. I think that at under 5 feet tall, frail, and severely nearsighted, she just glared the traffic to a stop.
(((Wife)) and I both want to be cremated and have our ashes spread in Hayden Valley at Yellowstone National Park. Neither of us want a minister, preacher, pastor, imam, rabbi, or whatever other term they want to use, to come anywhere near our funerals. Remember our life, damnit. The good and the bad. But keep religion out of it.
Birth, puberty, marriage, death. Religion has a pretty good monopoly on life events. Except one.
Yesterday, (((Wife))) and I took (((Boy))) out to college. We filled the back of our mini-van with all of his shit (I went to college ten-hours from home and fit all my shit (including a massive computer) in a VW Rabbit) and drove out to Clarion.
He lives on the sixth floor of a 1960s-era dorm. Moving all of his shit meant dumping it in a parking lot, parking the van, moving all his stuff to the bottom of a 50-foot stairway, and then moving it up to his room (there is an elevator). Then we drove over to the strip-mall district to get a wireless router and some printer cords we forgot. After that (including some swearing while trying to get his laptop and the router to communicate) we went to a picnic and left.
As we pulled away, (((Wife))) was in tears. I fought the tears back. After all, this is what we were hoping for for the last 18 years. I felt happy and sad, proud and scared. I hope he flourishes.
During the drive home (four hours), I realized that this is the only major life moment which is not inherently religious in our culture. A child heading off for college, or moving to a new town to start life, or just getting a full-time job, is purely secular.
Perhaps this is because the idea of children moving away is fairly new. During the Middle Ages, unless you were nobility (of any level), your children stayed at home and inherited the farm, or the mill, or the smithy. Some girls moved to another town for marriage, but the population was stationary.
Here in America, we are more mobile. But even in the 1950s, college was for a select few and the jobs the rest of us took tended to be close to home. The 1960s introduced the idea of college for the many (my school up in New Hampshire was a Vietnam college — keep the boy in school and he won’t get drafted). Today, higher education is considered normal, as is leaving home to get it.
There is no religious ceremony wedged into our national consciousness for that moment when child becomes adult and heads off to college. It is a purely secular moment. And it is a bittersweet moment I will remember and cherish.
(((Boy))) is now, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, a full-time resident college student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in History and an Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education – Social Studies. And the best part is, no one expects a priest to be involved.