Category Archives: On Being a Church

Seven Sacraments of an Atheist Church.

Christian churches celebrate things called ‘sacraments’, which either mark significant moments in life or promote the spiritual life of the church family. They meet a deeply-felt need, and we would be foolish to overlook them. What might sacraments without god look like? While we might want to develop our own “branding” (there might be things that we, as Epicurean Humanists, specifically want to mention) we should be big enough to recognise that Humanist celebrants have already created wonderful ceremonies that we can learn from.


Baptism has developed as a way of welcoming new children into the family, and there are already Humanist services for this; for example Humanist Baby Namings. These are a way of gathering the community together to commit to supporting the parents.


Baby naming does not confer membership of the church, as that should be the choice of the individual. But some kind of welcoming of an adult into full membership would be a good thing to have. We can draw on the Christian idea of Confirmation as a starting point, or perhaps the Jewish Bar Mitzvah.


This is one of those sacraments that’s not about landmarks in life but about nurturing the life of the community. We’re not yet ready to start prescribing how this might look, but a shared meal (a “fuddle” as they call it in North Derbyshire) would be just the sort of thing to look at.


Again, Humanist Weddings already exist, and can be inspiring and uplifting. I have a variant to suggest; as polyamory becomes a more open life-choice for people, where can they go for a ceremony that respects their commitment? As long as we don”t fall foul of the UK’s current marriage laws, I think we should be providing poly covenanting services.


One of the great sacraments, a fount of tenderness and forgiveness, is the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation (often called “confession”). Confession is good for the soul, and we should absolutely make room for it. Again, this is not a landmark sacrament but one that can be approached repeatedly to help a person break out of toxic guilt.

Consolation for the Dying

The Catholic sacrament of “anointing the sick” is not meant only for the dying, but it can provide great comfort. There’s no reason on earth why atheists should be denied consolation when they confront their own mortality.

Consolation for the Living

For my seventh sacrament I’ve ditched the Catholic one of ordination – I’m not sure that being commissioned to a role in our church should be given any such status – and instead raised the funeral  up to the sacramental level. It’s not only the dying who have to confront their deaths, the survivors need consolation too. Humanist funerals are well established and must be an important part of our ministry.

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Ethics and pornography

In July 2013, Archie Bland wrote an article in the Independent entitled The truth about pornography: It’s time for a rude awakening” (I do like that “rude awakening”!). In it he argues that pornography is a fact of life, that most people view it at least occasionally, and that it raises ethical questions which our squeamishness prevents us from addressing.

He writes:

In my own consumption of porn, I have always tried to avoid those tropes that I find unsettling. But in the writing of this piece, I have realised that I am not careful enough. I avoid the misogynist video, but I may be careless about avoiding the site that hosts it; I feel bad about the unprotected sex, but I don’t bother going to the great lengths it would require to find the alternative. I am really ashamed about this, and I’m going to take a great deal more care in future. The source of my shame, straightforwardly enough, is not some new-found moral clarity, but the fact that you are now reading this, and so my behaviour has been exposed. For me, at least, the use of pornography has become a semi-public fact.

In isolation, this doesn’t mean very much, except that everyone I know is going to laugh at me for a while. More widely, it might mean quite a lot. What if we ditched the stigma carried by pornography in general, and instead attached it, loudly, to the pornography that we consider to be unacceptable? We have seen this principle applied in so many other areas. People are, basically, too lazy to make ethical choices. The only way to get us to do so is to incentivise us with a little bit of shame.

He concludes the piece thus:

It is, I suppose, a call for a wanker’s code: a contention that being interested in sex is not the same thing as being interested in violent misogyny, and an appeal for a proper conversation about splitting the one off from the other. Because, yes, we are wankers. But that doesn’t mean we have to be shitheads.

Speaking as a wanker, I found this tremendously heartening. So now I want to ask: how can we promote ethical pornography? The traditional churches have contented themselves with denouncing pornography tout court, because their philosophy (pretty much universally – I certainly can’t think of any exceptions off the top of my head) mandates sex within marriage and celibacy outside it. Therefore anything that might stimulate sexual feelings among the sexually disenfranchised is to be abhorred.

But the Epicurean Church has no such qualms. We support ethical non-monogamy and liberality as being conducive to personal happiness; so on what grounds would we oppose pornography? We believe that, like anything else, it can exist in healthy and unhealthy forms; and we want to promote the healthy and deprecate the unhealthy.

Unhealthy pornography can damage relationships between the sexes by inculcating desperately wrong ideas about sex, by encouraging misogyny and objectifying what should be a human delight. This is not to oppose paraphilias such as submissive/dominant relations or fetishes; it’s up to individuals how they choose to relate to their own preferences. But a pornography that humiliates and degrades women as such, or that systematically discourages a taste for adult sex and encourages infantilisation, deserves to be challenged. And the best way to do this is to promote the good at the expense of the bad.

The church should take its stand on this genuine ethical question; given that there’s nothing wrong with masturbation or sexually stimulating material, how can we make sure that what there is is ethically sourced and has beneficial effects on young people’s ideas about sex? Similar questions might be asked about prostitution and other aspects of sex-work. We don’t have to engage in the business itself (unless we want to) but we could certainly seek out the good stuff and make it accessible.

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