I certainly cannot speak for all Atheists on this matter. I have met Atheists from one side of the spectrum to the other.
I think it is safe to expand this beyond funerals and weddings to include all religiously orientated events that also serve as social functions. This includes christenings, baptisms, weddings, funerals, church musicals, religious memorial services, potluck dinners, and other events where friends and family members are involved in a church function.
My personal rule is that I will participate in these events if someone invites me, with exceptions. When I do participate, I do it with the utmost respect. I also attend these functions without compromising my personal convictions. An action-movie buff does not compromise his love of action movies if he attends a “chick flick.”
I guess the question about whether or not Atheists celebrate Christmas equally addresses this issue. Why should religion monopolize all the good parties and holidays? After all, what is a wedding but a huge party that has an opening prayer?
I think Atheists that absolutely refuse to attend any of these types of events are missing out in important parts of the lives of their friends and family members. These Atheists are letting their friends and family know that they are not important. Regardless of the reasons, an Atheist decides to sit the function out, the family and friends see it as a form of rejection.
I can certainly understand refusing to attend events where proselytizing is the ultimate goal. I would not attend a Bible study group or tent revival if a friend or family member asked me. The proper response in those cases is not condemnation or insults. The best approach is to tell the person, “I appreciate the offer, but I’ll have to decline. I would feel too uncomfortable there. I hope you have a good time, though!”
That lets them know that you are not rejecting them personally. That is important to people, Atheist or not.
When I attend religious weddings, I do it for the love of the person getting married. If the wedding is overly religious then I just deal with it. If it is a Catholic wedding I will not do the “sit-stand-kneel” portion of any prayer or sermon, but I will sit quietly and respectfully. I do not pray when they pray: I sit quietly and respectfully. I do not sing hymns when they sing hymns: I remain quiet and respectful and if they stand, I will remain seated quietly. I am not there for the religious show: I am there to support my friend or family member. I am there to show them that my personal beliefs and convictions do not interfere with my love and respect for them.
Besides, weddings are fun. Once the religious part of the wedding is over the fun begins. The mood itself is romantic and emotional. Everyone is happy and full of joy. It is a happy time for everyone: religious or not. We cannot forget the post-wedding traditions, either. There is a lot to say for fun and entertainment at a wedding reception. You can dance, talk, eat, and enjoy the friendship of people. You can meet new people and perhaps even start a romance of your own.
The atmosphere at a wedding is usually not overly religious, anyway. The preacher giving the sermon is just a mouth that is making noise and after a while, everyone tones the preacher out. I know that at my wedding (it was religious because of my wife’s parents) I did not hear a word the preacher said. I was so oblivious to what he was saying that he had to ask me twice to “repeat after me.” How many people actually listen to what the preacher is saying? The couple is usually lost in each other’s eyes (as my wife and I were) and the attendees are watching the couple more than they are listening to any sermon.
The atmosphere is festive and joyful. The atmosphere is romantic. The atmosphere can even be sexy, especially at the reception.
Then there is the beauty of weddings. Religiosities aside, many wedding ceremonies are beautiful. Flowers, drapes, decorations, silk gowns, tuxedos, and other elaborate decorations make for a pleasant sight for the eyes.
The ceremony itself can be beautiful, as the couple says their vows and kisses, or as they walk off after the preacher or JOP introduces them as husband and wife. Weddings come in such a variety that each one is unique and offers something new for the senses.
Many weddings make use of stunning and vibrant colors. The wedding ceremony of Hindus can be incredible. Your senses feel overwhelmed with vibrant color, incense, food, laughter, and joy. If you have never watched a Hindu wedding, I highly recommend it.
Pagan weddings can be wonderful, as well. What better setting is there for a wedding than somewhere in nature’s grandeur? Even non-Pagan weddings performed outside can be especially joyful. Who does not dream about having a wedding like the one in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? Flower petals are falling from the trees onto the wedding party, items from nature accessorize everyone, the wind is blowing softly, and the birds are providing the music? It is a fairy-tale wedding that many people dream about; even Atheists. A wedding does not have to be religious to be beautiful or meaningful.
I have not attended any baptisms because no one has invited me to one. Of course, I attended my baptism, but that was for show and to complete a facade in order to gain the favor of my soon-to-be father-in-law, but that is another story…
If an adult friend or family member asked me to attend his or her baptism, I would go. He or she is asking me because it is an important event in their life. I would go because it is important to them. I would go to show them that my personal convictions and my Atheism do not affect our friendship; what is important to them is also important to me.
Attending a baptism for an adult friend or family member is not a compromise of an Atheist’s convictions. Will you convert to Christianity by attending a baptismal ceremony? You are not there to be converted or to get baptized; you’re there to support your friend or family member at this important part of their life: even if you think it is absolutely ridiculous.
Of course, if your friend asks you to be baptized then that is another issue.
If the baptism is for a child, I will not attend. I think baptizing a child into a religion is wrong. How can you baptize someone that has no knowledge of the religion or has not had the chance to arrive at his or her own conclusion? How can a baby accept Christ as his personal savior? How can a 12-year-old that has no experience or enough knowledge about religions accept Jesus and all the baggage that comes with him?
As I often point out to Christians that are considering baptizing their children: all the people that John the Baptist dipped into the River Jordan were adults.
What ever happened to the real funeral party? One would think that with the religious view that the deceased goes on to a better place that a funeral would be a more festive and celebratory event. Why are they not?
They are not festive because even with the consoling psychological crutch of an after-life, it is still human to grieve and be saddened. It is still human to want the person to come back and to need closure.
People need a funeral to say goodbye. Religion is just a byproduct of that. If anything, attending a funeral service will remind you of one more of the many reasons that you left religion in the first place.
You do not have to be a religionist to offer your condolences, sympathies or to offer a shoulder for someone to cry on and lay their head. Even Robert Ingersoll, the Great Infidel, attended funerals.
Yes, funerals can be depressing. It can be depressing to see all these people grieving over the loss of someone. It can be depressing to see all these people seeking solace in an afterlife to make him or her feel better. It can be depressing to listen to remembrances and eulogies. It can be depressing to see everyone dressed in black.
The last funeral I attended I wore khaki pants and a blue and white stripped shirt with tennis shoes. I will attend a funeral, but I am not going to wear all black. What is the point? I do not see black as the color of grieving. I was surprised when I got there to see that many people were not wearing black. Even a few of the close family members were dressed more casually and not wearing black. It is good to see that ridiculous tradition going away.
Remember that you do not have to stay for the entire affair. Go and offer your condolences and let the friends and family know that you care. Let them know that you are there for them if they need you. They need physical support from friends and family, not from some imaginary man in the sky. You are the tangible support that they will actually need. Let them know they can count on you if they need your help.
Go out, have fun, and support your friends and family. Your show of support is more important than your brief period of feeling uncomfortable during a prayer or religious speech. Just keep in mind that after the “service” there will be opportunities for great conversation, fun, and even parties.
There are limitations, of course. I would be reluctant to attend a religious social event at a radical church like the Assembly of God. I can handle a small sermon before a social event and a couple of prayers, but the waving of hands and the “happy Jesus dance” are a little too much for me. Any religious event with talking in tongues, handling of snakes, drinking of arsenic, or burning of books is not a religious event I would attend.
Of course, I would not attend any religious social event put on by a cult or deviant church. In other words, you would not find me at any service where people like Rev. Phelps, Pat Robertson, or Jerry Falwell attended.
Ultimately, you have to weigh your commitment to your friends and family with the degree in which you would be uncomfortable. You also have to consider your personal moral convictions and scruples.
Would you attend the church musical that your neighbor’s daughter is in if invited? What church is holding the performance? Is the musical at the end of a regular service? Can you arrive after the service just to see the musical?
Would you attend the ordination ceremony a friend that just graduated from seminary? What are the pros and cons? How deep is your friendship, love, or respect? Does the ceremony violate any ethical standards that you have? Is your friend getting his ordination to preach for the Army of God?
Only you can ultimately decide. If you leave here with two bits of information let them be these; 1) you know yourself best and you know your own limitations, and 2) don’t discount every religious service just because you are an Atheist – some of them can be a lot of fun and very entertaining. Besides, they will often help you remember why you are an Atheist in the first place.