Ask Richard: Atheist Asked to Include Religion When Performing a Wedding Ceremony June 9, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Asked to Include Religion When Performing a Wedding Ceremony

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.


I am an open and outgoing atheist. Years ago, as a joke, I got an online ordainment just to be able to tell people I can perform weddings. — but now one of my friends is taking me up on that claim. She and her husband-to-be are only moderately religious and are fully aware of my religious status — but they have one request: in order to avoid as much drama with their very religious families, they want me to bring religion in at least superficially. Since this is their day, I am willing to accommodate their wishes as long as I don’t have to openly lie to their families. I am interested in hearing how other people would address this situation.


Dear Glenn, In the unknown words of a 7th Cavalry sergeant as they rode toward the Little Bighorn, “This is not a good idea.” Religious people generally do not want a non-believer representing their beliefs in a ceremony, even if he is accurate and respectful. They would consider that a condescension, an impropriety, or even blasphemy. So if you don’t want the families to be upset, you will have to leave them with the impression that you believe what you are saying. If you don’t want to overtly pretend that you believe it, you will have to slyly dance around the truth with carefully worded equivocation, ambiguity, hedging, and evasion. In other words, deceit. Not a good thing to include in a wedding. The couple’s “very religious families” will very likely notice the odd pussyfooting and soft-pedaling of whatever religious ideas you mention, even if they are exactly the ideas that the couple shares. The deception will not be about your friends; it will be about you. After the ceremony, you’ll probably be approached by several in-laws curious about your ordainment, your religious affiliation and whatever else they would consider your qualifications for performing the ceremony. They may pose straight-forward questions about your beliefs. Unless your tongue is as slippery as an eel, you’ll either have to lie like a rug or reveal the disingenuous attempt to placate the families with someone who got “ordained” as a joke.

That insult would probably be more upsetting to them than if the couple chose to have a ceremony with no religion included at all.

Your friend has complimented you by asking you to preside over the event, but she is also asking you to have a low standard for what honesty is. We should encourage each other to have high standards for our integrity. All the clever weasel-wording we can do won’t change the fact that intentional deception, passive or active, is lying.

I suggest that you respond to your friend’s compliment by offering to act in some other capacity to help their wedding be a happy and drama-free experience for everyone. Perhaps you could be the facilitator-expediter, the person who goes around before and during the wedding making sure all sorts of problems are solved before they’re even problems. It’s not as flashy as being in the spotlight, but it would be a wonderful gift.

If the bride and groom want to please their families by having religious material in their ceremony, they should ask someone to officiate who shares those beliefs, and who can adjust to their liking what he or she mentions without any kind of misrepresentation. That way no one is fooled, no one has to lie, and no upsetting truth eventually surfaces.

One other issue: Regardless of the content of the ceremony, if you all decide to go ahead with this, double check that the laws in your state actually permit you to legally perform a marriage. In spite of whatever the online ordination website claimed years ago, laws that regulate such things vary widely from state to state. Secular Celebrants or Humanist Officiants are gaining recognition for such authority, but they may be required to have some kind of certification.

I wish your friends a successful wedding, a long and happy marriage, and I wish you a friendship with them that cultivates the best in all three of you.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Alternately if they want Glenn to marry them, they might want to think about having 2 separate ceremonies. One where Glenn does the ceremony and you limit who you invite to those they would like to share it with. It can be as religious or non-religious as they want it to be and there is no false pretenses. Then later they get a real preacher to do the one for all the family. This would also get around any problem associated with the legality of Glenn performing the wedding.

  • Trace

    A year ago I attended my brother-in-law’s funeral. The pastor did a great job. I felt I did NOT have any connection with what she was saying. I decided then and there that I wanted a secular/Humanist funeral when I die. I think that minister could probably do a great job, but wonder if she would feel true to herself omitting the whole Christian spirituality angle.

    Conversely if you officiate a secular wedding ceremony for a very religious audience, they may find it hollow, no matter how spiritual you try to make it.

    Good luck to you and your friends.

  • T-Rex

    If you value their friendship, don’t do it. Either that or wed them privately prior to the “official” ceremony and let them have a “man of the cloth” do the religious parts to appease their family. Like Jim and Pam did on The Office. Being hypocritical and/or deceiving everyone will only come back to bite you and/or your friends in the ass.

  • Noel

    It’s not much of a friend to “know” about your rationality (which entails not just awareness, but acknowledgment and respect), and ask you to compromise your integrity for the sake of other people.

    It also begs the question how a person, of sufficient conscience to question the validity of the request, could and would remain friends with a couple who pragmatically modulates the rigor with which they conduct ther beliefs.

    It’s perfectly possible to fashion a proper and spiritual wedding devoid of reference to a god’s sanction. The attendees would probably not even notice, or care enough to raise a stink. If they’d rather not risk it, inviting you to attend the wedding is ample evidence of their esteem. Religious wedding are left administered by clergy.

  • Ed

    I agree it is not a good idea for Glenn, as an atheist, to perform a wedding where religious faith is to be included in the ceremony. It is too easy for some misunderstanding to detract from the beauty and solemness of the occasion.

    An Atheist can say they hope their friends faith will strengthen their commitment to each other.

    I can see where the faith my religious friends have in their God has made their life better. In some case I know where finding religious faith has saved the lives of friends, such as former drug addicts.

    To have a source of faith that helps you believe your life can be better is important. Atheist and people of religious faith should be happy for any friend who has found that source, be it a god, or a force in nature like evolution.

  • If you are inclined to do it, I would recommend two things.

    1. Have a good talk with the couple to come to agreement on how “superficially” you can get away with bring religion into it. Make sure it is something that you (and they) are comfortable with. Perhaps find a secular template to work from and spice it up with a few humanistic bible passages that everyone will recognize.

    2. Don’t actually do any deception. I wouldn’t consider it a deception to read or refer to bible passages that are truly humanistic in nature. There are a bunch of them. I wouldn’t, though, say anything like being “wed in Christ” or any other language that the marriage is actually between three people (husband, wife, and Jesus).

  • Walter

    ” they want me to bring religion in at least superficially. ”

    In what way, specifically, do they want to bring religion into the wedding ceremony conducted by an atheist?

  • JulietEcho

    We had a mostly non-religious ceremony, although it was officiated by a Methodist chaplain from our college. He knew we were atheists/humanists though, and had no problem doing our counseling and supporting us in a faith-free ceremony.

    To keep my religious family from being rubbed the wrong way, we had one of my attendants (my sister, who is a Christian) read the popular passage from 1 Corinthians, and we also included a hymn in the ceremony: Morning Has Broken, which has more words about the beauty of nature than about God, really.

    Almost six years later, and we have no regrets!

    ETA: So my advice is to suggest that they include religion by using religious attendants to do readings or by including a favorite hymn/psalm/etc. That way you aren’t pressured to lie and they still get to appease their families.

  • carlie

    Along those lines, is there anything that anyone can suggest as a reference for performing secular weddings? There are a few books and things out there, but if anyone has personal experience with any references, it would be helpful to know about.

  • KP

    This is a very important day for your friends and quite frankly, it’s a day solely about them. Be a good friend, that’s the only advice you really need on this issue. Don’t make this about you.

  • MammaG

    I am also ordained and have politely declined requests to perform religious ceremonies. There are already plenty of religious celebrants available. I am reserved for non-religious ceremonies. I have to be true to myself above all and I cannot look at myself in the mirror with a hypocritical conscience. Those who care about me respect that.

  • Keljopy

    Another option, if they really want you to do the ceremony and you don’t want to fake it, would be for the things you talk about be religiously neutral and have them ask other friends and/or family members to do a prayer and/or religious reading(s) somewhere in the ceremony.

  • Patrick

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the hypocrisy issue. There are ways to bring in religion without feeling like you’re doing something wrong. After all, you’re performing a service for someone else. It genuinely isn’t about you and what you believe.

    But maybe my perspective is a little off what’s normal since I’m an attorney. I’m used to the idea of representing other people’s beliefs and interests without sharing them. Plus my mother is a church organist, and they play for every denomination under the sun without worrying about it. So that ethos has rubbed off on me.

    What I would worry about is making sure that you don’t create a situation that’s ultimately more problematic for your friends than just plain having an atheistic wedding, or lying to a priest to get a religious ceremony. So I’d suggest finding out exactly what they’d like you to do in order to include religion, and thinking very carefully on how people will react to it. I think Mehta is correct that you will be asked about your beliefs. People will want to know what church you run, or what denomination you’re in, and what it teaches. Figure out whether your answers to those questions will give offense, or whether they’ll undermine your friend’s efforts to not fully come out of the closet.

    That’s your biggest risk, in my opinion. You don’t want to cause problems for them.

  • Adam

    I agree with MammaG. I’m also ordained (yeah, be careful about your state’s laws, they can be tricky) and I’ve had to turn down wedding requests also. I even turned down a hand-fasting ceremony. I just tell the people I’m not comfortable doing such things.

  • Lion IRC

    Dan Barker says there are heaps of atheists pretending to be Christian priests.

    Just get one of them.

    I must say, I was a bit amazed to hear a prominent New Atheist admitting that the priesthood might have atheists in the closet.

    Still, I hear there are pedophiles hiding in the priesthood as well.

    Wait a minute!!!!!!!!

  • Laffin

    @ carlie: I am a ULC minister and performed a wedding ceremony for two friends last June. I used a reading from Plato’s Symposium about love and marriage and followed it up with an Apache wedding blessing after the couple exchanged their self-written vows. Everybody was quite happy with the ceremony.

  • Gib

    I agree with JulietEcho. Don’t say anything religious yourself, but get another religious person to say a nice fuzzy reading from the bible. One that mentions God about once, and is full of other nice stuff.

    Or how about this one from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous, love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. Love does not come to an end.”

    The religious love that one, and it sounds nice.

    And a slightly religious song stuffed in there for good measure.

    If they want you to mention God in the actual vows or anything, then politely decline.

  • LV

    To me it’s a question of respecting yourself enough to be true to yourself. And of course some will claim having respect for the friends – but they are asking you to be untrue to who you are – that type of deceipt is characteristic of the religious … As one who isn’t, therefore someone who can afford integrity, why would you even excercise the idea? I’d question the worth of the friendship if someone asked me that “favor” knowing my point of view, no matter their excuse/justification. Family charades should be kept out of honest friendships …

  • Miko

    As long as we’re using military quotations, remember what army chaplains say when asked their religion: “yours.”

    It’s possible to talk about religion without belonging to the religion. Performing religious rituals under false pretenses is a bit of a different story, but if they’re aware of your beliefs and are okay with you talking about religion anyway, I don’t see a problem. Since they asked an atheist friend, clearly they care more about the friend part than the religion part.

  • crystalspin

    My cousin was married in a jointly administered ceremony: the legal part by a justice-of-the-peace who happened to be a family friend, and the spiritual part by the groom’s step-father’s ex-wife, who is non-denominationally ordained but apparently not authorized to perform weddings in that state.

    Your friends’ ceremony could be something like that, or the opposite of that (if indeed you are not legally able to wed them), with one of the parents’ clergy member doing both the legal and the woo, and you providing an anchor to reason and reality… or whatever the couple wants.

    Just a thought.

  • I would go with what a few others have suggested, having a religious counterpart to help out. Since the families are religious maybe get a brother or sister (assuming they aren’t both only children) to do a bible reading and lead a prayer.

    Also be up front about your beliefs in a respectful way, say something like “The happy couple and I don’t share the same faith but we share a great friendship and I’m honored to be marrying them today. I’ve asked X to help me by reading a selection from the Bible and leading us in prayer.” Then continue on with the ceremony.

  • Personally I would not view this as a big deal. Perhaps that’s hypocritical. When my wife and I got married we were both more or less atheists but we had a christian ceremony. Why? Because my wife had a child hood minster who had been a good mentor growing up and she wanted her to marry us.

    This required god to be mentioned a few times in the ceremony oh well. It was worth it for the personal connection.

    If your friends are seriously asking you to marry them (for genuine personal reasons and not because its simpler to hire you than a local minister) I’d accept it as the honor it is. If there are few words they want you to say involving God then okay but make it clear you are not a minster. There is no need to stand up and make anyone uncomfortable. A marriage isn’t about you, it isn’t about atheism, its about two people making a (hopefully lifelong) promise to one another and having a great party.

    One fairly laid back Atheist’s opinion.

  • Gib

    Noadi, I’m not sure that you even need to address your own faith during the ceremony. I think it’s probably better without doing so.

    Those who know you’re an atheist will continue to know, and those who don’t, might not even think to wonder.

  • I see a few options.

    Read the Song of Solomon out prior to the exchange of vows. That should get the blood pumping.

    Perform the ceremony like Peter Cook did as the priest in the Princess Bride movie. It brings religion into the event so everyone should be happy, right?

    Alternatively you could just say that you aren’t qualified to perform a religious service but you’ve dressed up an elderly virgin in a tall hat who will do those parts for you.

    I’m not being serious in case there is any doubt. Seriously the wedding is for the people getting married. Whatever they choose to do should be what the officiant does. If that means flying monkeys then, damn it, get those monkeys and sew wings on to their backs.

  • Matt H

    Personally, I would politely decline.

  • JB

    In extensive consultation with the bride and groom, we were able to compose a ceremony that pleased the Jewish parents of the bride, the Roman Catholic parents of the groom, the lapsed Christian family members, the atheists, skeptics, and agnostics, and a number of relatives with other varieties of beliefs.

    It is possible to find words and rituals in the standard ceremonies that are familiar to the participants and make them feel included without invoking their Gods or religious prejudices.

    By exercising careful consideration of each passage and elevated prudence, the result was a ceremony that everyone felt had been written to respect their particular faith.

    We also included a version of the Martian water sharing ceremony which was considered “very moving” by those who did not recognize the source, and appropriate by those who did.

  • @carlie – My husband and I also had a completely secular wedding – I think what we loved most about it was having so many friends involved, through doing readings, playing music (a musician friend sang our “processional” & “recessional”), etc. The ceremony was officiated by a friend who was ordained through an organization accepted by our state. He’s UU and was awesome about crafting the kind of secular ceremony we wanted – he discussed with us at length about how we wanted our ceremony to celebrate the joining of two individuals and creating a larger community/family. Our friends are especially important to us as neither of us is very close to our blood relatives, so at the wedding he talked about how our coming together was more than just a joining of two people, it was about creating a larger community of people, bringing them together through their common bonds with the two of us, and how they would play a part in supporting and contributing to the growth of our marriage. He wove what we thought about marriage and partnership – how we valued our individuality and saw our partnership as 1+1=2, not 1+1=1, how we would take strength from each other and from the larger “family” created by our marriage and how our differences would inspire us to grow together and as individuals.

    We also asked 4 friends to read short passages we had chosen – 2 of his choice, 2 of mine. I can never remember where his came from but they were lovely and spoke about how unions between two people are about building community and vulnerability. I chose a short passage from the Velveteen Rabbit about “being real” and another from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet about how both partners must be whole on their own before they can truly come together. I can’t find the source of the long version that we used in our ceremony, so here it is (apologies for the length!).

    “Marriage is in many ways a simplification of life, and it naturally combines the strengths and wills of two young people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than they did before. Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness, – a new demand on the strength and generosity of each partner, and a great new danger for both.

    The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of their solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

    That is why this too must be the criterion for rejection or choice: whether you are willing to stand guard over someone else’s solitude, and whether you are able to set this same person at the gate of your own depths, which he learns of only through what steps forth, in holiday clothing, out of the great darkness.

    Life is self-transformation, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, they rise and fall from minute to minute, and lovers are those for whom no moment is like any another. There are such connections, an almost unbearable happiness, but they can occur only between very rich beings, between those who have become, each for his own sake, rich, calm, and concentrated; only if two worlds are wide and deep and individual can they be combined….”

    I don’t think secular wedding ceremonies are complicated to put together at all. Work with an officiant who will craft the ceremony YOU want. I would guess that it helped alleviate any potential pressure from family about religion in the ceremony that we were footing 90% of the wedding costs ourselves – we pretty much made it clear that we were going to have the wedding that we wanted and if anyone was uncomfortable with that, they didn’t have to come.

  • zzbenz

    Why don’t they just not have him do any religious stuff and ask 2 or 3 trusted family friends who ARE religious to do a few readings or lead in prayer or sing a song?

  • Freemage

    The folks on here suggesting that the writer should be all butthurt about being asked to include religion are, frankly, coming across as a bit oversensitive. I’m not saying he should accept their request without serious consideration (and possibly some negotiation–the “Let a sibling do a reading” idea is a strong one), just that there’s no reason here to go hunting for offense.

    I suspect the couple in question are, at most, lapsed churchgoers. After all, they didn’t have a minister on-hand to ask to perform the ceremony, and they didn’t just go to one of their parents and say, “Would Pastor Such-and-so perform our ceremony?”

    So they probably don’t WANT a strongly religious ceremony, but realize that a completely secular one would entail throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of their clan. They are thus very likely caught between a rock and a hard place, and they turned to the letter-writer for help in wriggling out of it with their family relationships intact.

    Even if he ultimately feels he cannot abide by their request, he should simply take the fact that they turned to him as the compliment it is, and offer to assist in whatever way he can without compromising his ethics. (Personally, I think that a ceremony where the religious elements come from someone else–a reading or two, the music–would be a fairly decent way to go, but the writer may still feel compromised with that.)

  • CayVoo

    There is plenty of the human experience that is positive, entertaining and inspirational to use as material for a wedding. I think it is best to stay away from all mention of some higher power.

  • Grifter

    I don’t understand why the letter-writer shouldn’t perform the marriage…as an earlier poster said, military chaplains don’t say “Oh, I’m can’t do your last rites because I’m of a different faith”.

    If they want him to reference their parents’ beardy sky god, he can. He doesn’t have to say its his faith or be dishonest in any way, unless that’s what hey ask for, and if that’s what they ask for I’d say THAT’S when you say no. But something to the effect of “They feel their faith in god and jebus will bless this marriage” is not dishonest, and he’s perfectly capable of saying it.

  • I’m one of those “militant” atheists, but honestly I wouldn’t mind doing this.

    Richard’s answer seems to assume Glenn is being asked to pose as a priest or minister. But how Glenn actually words it is that the bride and groom are “moderately religious” and want to “bring religion in at least superficially.”

    Here’s what I’d do (after checking the laws in your state to make sure you can actually do this): Don’t present yourself as a minister. Present yourself as a friend. If someone says “Hey, I heard you were a minister,” just say “Oh, that was just a joke, I’m just doing this as a friend.” Make the main thing you do be giving a short speech about what wonderful people the bride and groom are and how good they are for each other.

    You could make the mention of God be something like “May God bless them both, and I ask you to keep them in your thoughts and prayers.” Or just ask your friends what they want you to do–if they’re “moderately religious” they should be able to suggest something that honestly reflects their brand of religiosity.

  • Atheist Andrea

    It was very nice of your friend to ask you even knowing your non-religious opinions. It won’t hurt to add a few religious things to make her family happy. Just oblige. Put your ego aside and be a good friend. You will be happier in the end. Good luck.

  • A Christ Killer (Jew) and a Slave of The Pope (Catholic). Yeah, that marriage is going to work out.

    That was sarcasm, for the uninitiated.

error: Content is protected !!