William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Secularists Solemnize? Abortion Sacred?

Some photographer kept abreast of the FEMEN protest.

Some photographer kept abreast of the FEMEN protest.

The Center for Inquiry sent me a solicitation asking would I like to be trained, for a modest consideration, to be a “Secular Celebrant.”

What is that?

As many as 20% of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion, yet our celebrations and ceremonies are dominated by religious leaders and officiants.

CFI created our Secular Celebrant Program to address this problem by training secular people to officiate for nonreligious marriage and commitment ceremonies, funerals and memorials, and other celebrations of the milestones of life.

The demand for secular ceremonies is growing fast, so this is the perfect time to build your skills and get certified.

Incidentally, in statistical terms “as many as” means “we don’t know how many, but we’re going to state the maximum possible number we think the reader will swallow.” Looks for this in advertisements everywhere.

Now one would have thought it natural that “celebrations and ceremonies” were “dominated” by religious folks. After all, solemn and solemnize are, or were, steeped in religious connotations. The OED leads with, “Associated or connected with religious rites or observances; performed with due ceremony and reverence; having a religious character; sacred.”

How can you solemnize a ceremony in which the participants are anxious to admit that there is nothing worth solemnizing? That the act does not point anywhere? Marriage to these folks is a living arrangement subject to whim and easy dissolution; certainly it is not a solemn, unbreakable institution. Well, CFI’s program is mainly an excuse to fill their coffers and to proselytize, I suppose.

What a weird change in language. But no odder than the FEMEN topless protesters who ran up to yet another church and chanted—well, screeched, to be honest—“Abortion is Sacred!” Abortion sacred? Before we get to that—word to wise, ladies. Running around without shirts is not the best way to get men to remember your message.

Anyway, sacred in the West used to pertain to “Of the Eucharistic elements: Consecrated” and elsewhere to that “Set apart for or dedicated to some religious purpose, and hence entitled to veneration or religious respect”. Rites were sacred, places were sacred, even certain words were, and others were forbidden as blasphemous. Oddly, FEMEN view killing, actual killing, as sacred. How is this different than sacred pagan rituals of human sacrifice? Answer: it isn’t.

The philosopher David Stove writing about twenty years ago said that religious words by that time came with built-in scare quotes, which are common in post-modern (and whatever we are now) writing. Scare quotes can be in writing, spoken by stressing a word in a derisive way, or even indicated by using finger wags. Example, spoken by our president, “Fox news reported on the IRS ‘scandal’.” Thus the IRS’s actions are not a scandal but only believed by others to be a scandal.

Consider (in Stove’s time) sacred: the punctuation or verbal stress were no longer necessary. Example: “Father So-and-So said the mass is sacred,” which to modern ears means “the mass is not sacred, but believed by the priest to be.” But that was two decades ago, and the invisible scare quotes are disappearing.

The once-religious words, which as Stove showed were entirely secularized, are morphing back to the secular equivalent of a special place. They are slowly being re-imbued with fear and awe, as words not to be spoken lightly, of whatever the non-theistic equivalent of holy is.

The process has only just begun and is nowhere near complete. For example, prophet is still entirely worldly. AOL boasts of a “digital prophet” (look at this picture only if you’re not drinking).

Worship has long been lost, as many are said to (for instance) worship bad musicians; but the word is never taken seriously, except as a synonym of fanatic. And many on-the-edge religious take worship to imply nothing more than going to church.

Blasphemy and blasphemous have not yet been re-vivified. Nearest equivalents which come to mind are racist or racialist and politically incorrect. The last is often used derisively, so it doesn’t quite count as a serious or awe-filled phrase. Perhaps hate speech? I’ve seen blasphemy used comically or sardonically, but blasphemous almost never.

One came secularly blaspheme, though. If you’re not an entertainer, try floating the “n-word” or say “women do not have the same capabilities as men” (other examples come easily to mind) and you’ll soon discover the secular version of crucifixion.

11 Comments

  1. “Rites were scared”, indeed. 😀

  2. “Running around without shirts is not the best way to get men to remember your message.”

    It works for me.

  3. Typo alert: “…seeped in religious connotations.” You must mean “steeped” I think.

    FE-MEN? Female Men? Weird construct, although maybe fitting given the behavior. Guys often act boorishly.

    Religious/Divine authority has long been appropriated. Every cult with half a wit for promotion claims Jesus as one of its prophets/wise men/inspirations without, of course, taking him at his word. The association, however bogus, gives legitimacy so why not do the same with language and words that have some majesty attached to them?

  4. “Running around without shirts is not the best way to get men to remember your message.”

    That depends on what their message is.

  5. Briggs

    February 8, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Hans, Gary,

    My enemies sneaked in and planted more typos. They’re everywhere.

  6. Thank you ever so much for that image. I guess a Digital Profit doesn’t look much like a Bitcoin after all.

  7. Briggs, no it is the Lord who punishes you for mocking atheists.

    Still waiting…

  8. Briggs,

    You need to re-learn the Roger Ailes formula. The women who adorn the news are supposed to be attractive!

  9. Fletcher Christian

    February 9, 2014 at 2:38 am

    A rise in secular ceremonies for various purposes might be better, and certainly more honest, than the current situation.

    I confess to not knowing whether this is the case in the USA, but over here in the UK there are very many people (including me, probably) who call themselves Christians but never set foot in a church unless there is a wedding, christening or funeral involved.

  10. It’s true the theists have the best hymns, music and ceremonies. However that’s because they have victimized the secularists by stealing more than their fair share. I think the government should redistribute the hymns, music and ceremonies so that the secularists get their fair share.

  11. Fletcher Christian

    February 10, 2014 at 1:29 am

    Depends on what you call a hymn, doesn’t it? One might call Lennon’s “Imagine” a secular hymn. Personally, I think it’s musically better than most of the boring dreck that passes for Christian hymns. (I said most, not all!)

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