- Joseph and Fiona Long deliberately excluded religious texts from their wedding
- Experts say it's important to let religious family members know that the event will be secular
- Couples need to prepare for the possibility that not everyone will approve
- "I like that our wedding is going to be focused on us and our love," said one atheist bride
All the traditional elements were in place for Joseph and Fiona Long's 2009 New Year's Eve wedding.
She wore a white dress; he wore a tuxedo and her family wore kilts in honor of her Scottish heritage. After they exchanged vows and rings and sealed the deal with a kiss, an officiant in a black robe pronounced them husband and wife. Then, they dined and danced the night away at an Atlanta country club with their closest friends and loved ones, culminating in a midnight confetti drop.
Missing from the guest list: God.
The Longs are atheists who did not want gods or religious texts involved in their marriage celebration. But apart from the non-church setting, the only hint at an deliberately non-religious wedding was contained within their vows and readings. These included selections from Shakespeare, Robert Burns and the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, which they felt "beautifully expressed the social and secular significance of marriage without any appeal to religion," said Joseph Long, a lawyer in Tampa, Florida.
"We felt it made the point well that you can have the sanctity of marriage without having to fit into a particular group," he said. "It basically states that marriage is extremely important in society for a variety of reasons, regardless of what someone's god thinks about it."
As secularism continues to rise in the United States, more couples like the Longs are deviating from a traditional wedding blueprint that includes prayers, blessings and biblical passages.
"A secular wedding can be exactly like a religious wedding with two key differences: no mention of any deities and no recitation of supposedly sacred texts," said David G. McAfee, author of "Mom, Dad, I'm an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-Believer and Disproving Christianity and other Secular Writings."
"Many secular weddings have vows, flowers, rings, a reception, a kiss at the end," he continued. "Although most religions have incorporated marriage rules and ceremonies into their faiths, the act of marriage itself is not a religious one; it's a human one."
Venues, readings and vows are just some considerations for atheist couples or couples planning secular weddings. Others struggle with how to break the news to relatives or meet their demands, especially if those loved ones are helping pay for it.
Some couples provide relatives with opportunities to say a few words within set parameters during the ceremony or reception, said Ed Buckner, former president of American Atheists and current chair of the Atlanta Freethought Society. He has performed several atheist weddings over the past decade and emphasizes that it's important to talk about it ahead of time, openly and honestly.
"You need to stop and think about what you want to accomplish. Are you trying to publicly commit to a lifelong union with your partner on your terms, or do you want to please others?" he said.
"I would argue that if you don't believe in God and have God blessing the celebration, you're participating in a sham. But, there are ways to to acknowledge God for others, if that's what you want," Buckner advised.
Give fair warning
Buying a home was more important to Wendy Rank and her fiance than spending big bucks on a wedding. Instead, they went to a justice of the peace in September "for the official stuff" and held a "picnic wedding" in their backyard later in the day. Her mother paid for catering while more local guests brought side dishes.
"We wanted to get married, but we're not really comfortable with doing it in a church and all that stuff," Rank said. "We're introverts, so we didn't want a big wedding. Just a few friends and family. This way, we had a wedding and a housewarming party."
They wanted to keep it simple and inexpensive for everyone. Rank comes from a family of believers, so she felt like she needed to warn them on the wedding invitation with a message to the effect of: "This is a small, nontraditional secular service. If you're comfortable with that, we'd love to have you."
Most relatives ended up coming, though no one who didn't show up explicitly cited the secular event as the reason. "We wanted to put it out there so no one would book a flight and fly 3,000 miles expecting a pastor and a ceremony."
It worked out for the guests as well; several of her mother's religious friends said they enjoyed the wedding it because it was "short and sweet." Rank's sister and brother-in-law did a reading from Calvin and Hobbes before the couple exchanged rings and planted a tree -- their twist on a unity candle.
"No one said anything or seemed to or care that it was secular or atheist wedding," said Rank, who lives outside Nashville, Tennessee. "It was a perfect day."
Elope now, wedding later
Darren and Sheena Thomas are proud atheists who met on the dating site OK Cupid. Both come from deeply religious families.
As the son of a nondenominational Christian pastor, Darren Thomas grew up going on mission trips and attending church camp. At 16, he stopped going to church and became the black sheep of the family. In his 20s, he started identifying as atheist, meaning he doesn't believe in "anything supernatural: God, the afterlife, ghosts, spirits, supernatural souls, anything like that."
When he came out to his parents, they tried to convince him to return to Christianity for a period of time. Eventually, his father acknowledged that there was nothing he could say or do and decided it was up to God to change his son's mind. He would always love and support his son.
Still, after Darren proposed to Sheena in February, it was hard to tell his father that he didn't want him to perform the wedding.
"I tried to frame it in a positive light; I told him I wanted him to enjoy it without having to work it," said Darren Thomas, a high school English teacher. "But we're pretty passionate about our beliefs, and we want to have a secular service with no mention of God, Jesus, eternity or blessings."
Growing up in West, Texas, Sheena Thomas and her family were pretty much the only people of color, so religion was a way for her to fit in, make friends and be part of a community. In college, she was exposed to a broad swath of faiths, ethnicities and sexual orientations.
Sheena began to question her own beliefs and came to realize that atheism felt right for her. Her family still struggles with this decision; her mother periodically laments that she won't see her daughter in the afterlife, and her grandparents say they are praying for her. She keeps discussion of religion to a minimum.
Their attitude toward religion contributed in part to the couple's decision to elope in August, about a year before they'd originally planned to have a wedding. Everyone knew the couple had gotten engaged in February, but when Sheena Thomas lost her job, they decided to get legally married without the celebration.
"We basically decided that it would be easier to tell everyone after the fact," Darren Thomas said.
The Thomases made it official and then brought a wedding photographer to Denver's Red Rock amphitheater, the site of their first date in 2011.
They still plan on throwing a book-themed wedding in July 2014 to celebrate their relationship and their shared passion. Sheena, a librarian, is working on bouquets and centerpieces of book pages, and the save-the-dates are made from old library due date cards.
The Thomases haven't decided on readings, but they're leaning toward some of their favorite texts related to love and romance. Darren's looking at something from "Jane Eyre" or "Love in the Time of Cholera." For Sheena, it might be Kurt Vonnegut.
"What has bothered me about some weddings is, the focus becomes God and religion when it should be about the two of you and your and relationship," Sheena Thomas said.
"I like that our wedding is going to be focused on us and our love."