When I got married this past weekend, there was no mention of God, faith or heaven. My husband and I were married in upstate New York by a family friend who happens to be a judge, in a beautiful banquet center in Skaneateles, the town where I grew up. Why? A church was the last place we would want to commit to be with each other for the rest of our lives.
We purposely excluded religion on our special day, and that's why I guess you could say that we had an atheist wedding. What surprised me the most, in the end, is how hard that is to do.
But let's start at the beginning: I was 18 when I came out of the atheist closet. While growing up in a small town upstate, my brothers and I went to Sunday school at a Mormon church. This went on until we all just stopped going, for no particular reason, when I was about 8 years old.
After that, I felt like I didn't believe in God, but until I went away to college, I never really wanted to admit it. There was such a stigma against saying such a thing in my small, religious town. But when I went to college at Syracuse and met my best friends, that all changed. They were from all different religious backgrounds -- Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian -- but we could all bond over the same feeling: that a lot of things made more sense to us than religion. And suddenly, I felt like I could say "I don't believe in God" out loud to other people.
It was around that time that I met Eric, my future husband, and we didn't really discuss religion at first. Maybe it was because we were too busy wooing one another with our favorite lines from Will Ferrell flicks, getting to know each other's senses of humor and career ambitions (his related to construction management, mine to photography). But once we started living together, about three years into our relationship, we realized that we were on the same page: God had no place under our roof.
We also knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Soon, I was thinking, What will our wedding look like?
I considered the various details -- from what kind of dress I would wear to where we would actually say, "I do." Because, for us, it wasn't an obvious decision.
If Eric's parents' dream had been realized, it would have taken place in a chapel -- specifically Hendricks Chapel -- on the Syracuse campus, where they'd been married and Eric and I had gone to school. After we got engaged, his parents fervently hoped that's where we'd make it official.
"Absolutely not," we said.
Even though it is a nondenominational church, it didn't matter. To us, our wedding and our marriage really had nothing to do with a structure celebrating a higher being.
Then, last October, a couple of our friends got married. They don't believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, and they don't go to church. They, like us, don't do religion. And yet, they had a priest officiate their ceremony. He prayed, the guests sat in silence, and every single person in attendance could tell that the bride and groom were cringing. It was so awkward. I thought, Why? Not only is it so boring, but it doesn't make sense to them!
It made me so uncomfortable. When we saw our newlywed friends in their receiving line, Eric teased them by saying, "God bless you."
That experience made us even more adamant about applying our own beliefs and sensibilities to our wedding. It wasn't enough just to be married by a judge and outside of a church. We had to make sure that expressions like "under God," "faith in God," even the word "faith" weren't included. To be sure, we made a point of writing our entire ceremony, as well as our vows, ourselves.
Leaving God out wasn't as easy as we thought it would be. As I was researching, I Googled "nonreligious ceremonies," and there were examples that included passages from First Corinthians! And even though it has nothing to do with religion, we vetoed Elizabethan English, too. Nothing against flowery poets, we just wanted the sentences we chose to reflect what was in our own (contemporary) hearts and minds.
After hours of poring over various sample vows -- one of which actually read like the Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt forgive one another for arguments!") -- we finally pieced together a draft. One section began:
"Welcome family and friends to this beautiful spot, where the sky is clear up above ..."
At first I liked it, but then I read it over again, and I thought that people might think we were referencing God.
Like I said, this was tough.
On our wedding day, in front of our family and friends, what we did wind up speaking about was love -- recognizing our parents for helping us to know what the meaning of it was, and remembering family members we cared about who had passed on. We promised one another that we would do our best to fulfill our lives together.
In a way, it was hard to be open about our nonreligious beliefs with friends and family who don't necessarily know -- or are in denial about it. For some of them, like my devout Catholic aunt and uncle, it is probably a harsh thing for them to hear. Or not
hear, and I'm sure that there were plenty of judgments being made, even though in most respects ours was a pretty traditional wedding.
In my opinion, it was thoroughly modern, incorporating the traditions that worked for us but not those that didn't. I was escorted down the aisle by my father, while wearing a creamy white dress. On the other hand, Eric and I saw one another before the wedding to take photos, and we did not
do the Chicken Dance.
In the end, we figured the wedding was a reflection of how we're going to live our lives. Some people seem to think atheism and anarchy are one in the same. And, of course, if we were really rebellious, we probably wouldn't have had a wedding at all. But we did, because we wanted to share this occasion with our family and friends. We just left a particular omnipotent being off of the guest list.
This story was written by Maressa Brown, as told to her by Jaclyn Johnston