Traditionally, rituals have not only been for holidays or personal practice. They also mark milestones in life, when something major is occurring and the community wants to acknowledge that change. Naming ceremonies, passages into adulthood, weddings, and funerals are all examples of rites of passage.
This is a tradition that appears to go back a long way. There is a Paleolithic cave in France which preserves the footprints of children dancing in a circle, and it is possible that this evidence, plus the hundreds of hand prints—each of a different person—found on the walls of many of these caves marks the traces of truly ancient passage rites. In such caves, the farthest and most difficult to reach areas sometimes contain art of part-human, part-animal creatures: most likely the “revelation” reached at the end of a ritual ordeal.
Mainstream culture pretty commonly celebrates only three forms of rites of passage: Naming ceremonies for babies (“Christening” or baptism, for Christians), weddings, and funerals. But arrival in adulthood (whether legally or biologically) is one we really should mark, as it helps young adults to know that they have new responsibilities and freedoms, and moving on from adulthood into elderhood is one we should consider, as well.
Atheopagans, too, can implement rites of passage into our practices. All of us are born and die. Most of us, too, get married and/or have children, grow into adulthood, and age. Rituals with our families and community to acknowledge these milestones can lend meaning and richness to the process of our living.
It is the “ageing” part of the arc of life that may be hardest for us to acknowledge. The cult of youth is so pervasive and powerful (in American society, anyway) that few of us acknowledge a point when we have become elders, preferring to persist in self-identification as “youthful”, if not exactly young.
But there is a value, I think, in acknowledging that we have arrived at a Certain Age. It may be easier for those with uteri to mark a definite point of change at menopause, but for those with testes, too, there are definite physical signs: onset of male-pattern balding, perhaps, or the beginning of accumulation of belly fat.
That said, we are living so much longer lives now than did many of our ancestors that the point of declaring yourself “old” may be deferred for awhile. For myself, I have decided that 60—presuming I get there— will be the age at which I declare myself “old” (though I intend to be a vigorous “old”). I’ll hold a special birthday party that year with a ritual marking my passage into elderhood.
For those of you planning or officiating at a rite of passage, remember to consider what the meaning of the transition is to the subject: is it arrival in the magnificent Universe, or in the sovereignty of adulthood? Is it the commitment of marriage (be it for some limited period such as “a year and a day” of “handfasting” (a Pagan term for marriage), or until such time as love no longer thrives)? Each rite of passage—even a funeral—is a celebration, even if there is loss sown into it. What are you celebrating, and how can that joy be brought out into the community of your friends and family?
Because Atheopaganism has no priesthood, in the U.S. you may need to acquire a legal ordination before being able to conduct weddings in your state. You can do this for free, online, through the Universal Life Church, the tenets of which are 1. Do only that which is right, and 2. All should be free to worship as they see fit. Perfectly compatible with us! Here’s a link to where you can register. The Internal Revenue Service recognizes the ULC as a legitimate religious organization and your state CANNOT refuse to allow you to conduct weddings as an ordained minister of the ULC. [EDIT: see the comments for two other options for free online ordination, the First Church of Atheism and the Church of the Dude, both of which are right up our alley!]
Depending on where you live, legal requirements for conducting weddings will vary. You may need to partner up with someone from a legally recognized religious organization in order to conduct this important rite of passage.
Speaking of which, divorces are important life passages, too. I’ve been to a couple of divorce rituals (including one of my own): they were beautiful and heartbreaking.
In each case, as you frame a rite of passage, be thinking about what the multiple meanings are for that passage. Life is complex, and no phase of it is just one thing. Particularly, be careful about assumptions about what the next phase of the person’s life is likely to be about, because frankly, you don’t know. Some people undergo gender transitions. Some people have children, others don’t. In all cases, a rite of passage should be affirming, describing the new phase as a positive step forward (or, in the case of a funeral rite, describing the life of the deceased in positive terms).
Our lives are precious, and a central element of Atheopaganism is about not letting them slip by unnoticed. Mark those important transitions for yourself and your friends! You’ll be glad you did.