Category Archives: On Being a Church

On Involvement

So far the church has consisted of a couple of meetings, with one sermon and a lot of conversation. Nice enough, but nothing special.

If we want this to take off, if we want it to really fly, we have to look at how to give the Gatherings a bit more zing. Now, I don’t want to be the only one doing this, because (a) I don’t think I’m great at it and (b) the whole point of the church is to be a community. Ways of doing things need to emerge organically.

So I want you to be thinking about what kind of celebrations we should be having. Readings? If so, what sort? Sermons, perhaps, and music. I’m a big fan of liturgy and ritual, but I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I think we can get a lot of psychological leverage from litanies and responses (“May the Lord light up your hearts!” “And up yours!”. That kind of thing). I’d be opposed to dance and theatre, I think, but some sort of regular components would be nice. Have a look, too, at the post on Sacraments.

At some (I hope not too distant) time, I’d like to imagine that we could offer weddings and funerals. But we have to walk before we can dance.

Right. Over to you. There’s a reply form below. Use it. Come up with suggestions, objections, reservations, questions, vigorous denunciations and rebuttals. share this page with friends that you think might be interested, and ask them to throw themselves into the fray.

Let’s get this discussion going.

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Filed under Ceremonies, On Being a Church

Ethical Non-Monogamy

I suppose we should be getting used to changes in marriage by now. Fifty years ago (when, according to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began) ideas like “living in sin” were taken very seriously. Homosexuality was punishable by prison, single mothers had their children forcibly adopted, and sexual liberation was pretty much confined to the aristocracy.

In the twenty-first century, gay marriage is about to become real, the ratio of births outside marriage is about to cross the 50% line, and nobody blinks an eye at casual sex.

But taboos remain. Incest and polygamy are still viewed with horror across the board. I’m not going to say anything here about incest (except, having children with someone you share a grandparent with is a really bad idea), but polyamory is a more pressing issue.

During the parliamentary debates on same-sex marriage, the Labour  MP Jonathan Reynolds, supporting the bill, said said:

Some people have raised the prospect of “polymarriage” between three or more people if this change goes through. I find that objection quite offensive. Comments of that kind degrade the loving relationships of many of my constituents, and I feel that they make a poor contribution to the debate.


while Matthew Offord, opposing the bill, said:

The unintended consequence of the Bill will be allowing the introduction of polygamous marriages, as advocated last night on television by Peter Tatchell. Therefore, I will vote against the Bill on behalf of almost 1,000 of my constituents who have made clear their opposition.


So it’s clear, I think, that ‘polymarriage’ raises hackles all round.

Why is that?

  1. Some of the commentary I’ve seen focuses on polygamy – i.e. one man, several wives. I think it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t what I’m talking about. Rather, polymarriage (to take Jonathan Reynold’s charming coinage) is about a group of people, of whatever mix of genders, who want to enter into a loving relationship, who want their commitment to each other to be recognised, and who want to form a family unit together.
  2. A second, and better, objection is about the legal minefield that awaits when a polymarriage breaks up. I would say this will be a genuine problem – one person leaving a household of three will inevitably be more fraught than two people breaking up. But, if we do ever go down this road, I suspect we will use something like a pre-nup or some dissolution contract to head-off the risks.
  3. On that point, I think it’s very likely that polymarriages will be less stable than monomarriages. In a marriage of four people there are six pairs of relationships going on (not all of them will be sexual or romantic). That’s six times the number of ways for a marriage to break down. Again, we have to look this stuff full in the face and not shirk it. What happens to kids? What happens to joint property and pensions and bank accounts and inheritance? Who gets to stay in the house and who has to move out? But of course, this is just a bigger version of exactly the same issues that plague traditional monogamous relationships when they fall apart. And sometimes it will be cordial and sometimes it will be the war of the Roses.

I declare myself to be prejudiced in favour of poly relationships and their recognition by society. I really don’t care about marriage as such, but it functions as a seal of approval on a choice of life; the fact that person A can marry person B is the legal recognition of the OK-ness of these people loving each other and of them raising children together.

It also allows the law to have some say in how they divide up responsibility for their children, who gets to make medical decisions for whom, who has to (or doesn’t have to) testify against whom in court and lots of other things.

But for me, the reason I want polymarriage is, to stop people treating my relationships as being unimportant. I want ward sisters and police officers and immigration officials and my children’s teachers to accept that these people go together and can’t be arbitrarily broken up and treated separately.

So when the person I love is sick or in trouble I can’t be sent away and told it’s none of my business.

Further Reading:

Why Is Polygamy Illegal? by Wendy Kaminer

Good reasons why polygamy is a bad idea. by John Durant

The Secular Case For Plural Marriage. by Bret Alan

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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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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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