Civil vs Spiritual Weddings: What’s The Difference?

Beach wedding

For most of recorded history, the majority of couples marrying each other did so according to the guidelines of their religious faith. However with the rise of interfaith couples and with the steady drift of people away from allegiance to any particular religion, more couples are deciding on civil or spiritual wedding ceremonies. But how do you know the difference and decide which type is best for you? As an independent celebrant, I offer both types of ceremonies and this blog entry presents the key differences so you can decide which is right for you.

Civil Ceremonies:

Civil ceremonies are also known as secular ceremonies. Typically these ceremonies make no mention of Deity or Higher Power. However they may address such concepts as the Higher Self.

Civil ceremonies are more likely to appeal to atheists as many times they focus solely on the relationship between the couple and/or their community rather than on any relationship yof God.

Depending on your jurisdiction, a civil ceremony may be solemnized by a judge, mayor, notary public or other public servant. They can also be performed by an independent celebrant or wedding officiant.

Spiritual Ceremonies:

Some couples may not adhere to any particular religion but may still consider themselves to be spiritual and opt for a spiritual ceremony. Such ceremonies will not follow the restrictions of any particular faith but may combine the elements of different faiths and spiritual systems. Some spiritual couples may elect to add wedding customs from their own culture or borrow from other cultures. They may even add religious elements from the faith that they grew up in, such as a Jewish Glass Breaking or the reading of a Christian Bible verse. Spiritual ceremonies are normally performed by officiants and celebrants who are also ordained as interfaith or nondenominational ministers.

Different states and jurisdictions have different requirements that determine who is allowed to perform legally binding wedding ceremonies. If you are marrying outside an established house of worship, it’s always prudent to do your due diligence to ensure that your officiant is legitimate.

How To Have A  Meaningful Atheist Wedding

Atheist weddings, Los Angeles,  Los Angeles wedding officiant
International Symbol of Atheism

Merriam-Webster online defines atheism  as a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods “or” a philosophical or religious position chacterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods. It defines an Atheist as a person who subscribes to or advocates atheism.

The belief in God or gods is at the center of most religions and belief systems. These religions and belief systems in turn lay the foundations for ritualized life cycle celebrations— such as weddings, funerals, baby blessings and bar/bat mitzvahs—that offer a sense of belonging, community and make life meaningful to  their adherants.

So where does that leave the wedding couple that is Atheist or for other reasons wants to have a wedding that does not acknowledge the existence of God yet still be meaningful ? If you, dear Atheist, feel that your only option is  a cold courthouse style wedding–bereft of any sense of joy, community or the ritualized pagentry of a church wedding–I’m happy to tell you that you are wrong.

Atheist weddings, Los Angeles wedding officiants. African-American Wedding Officiants

While a religious wedding is a celebration of religious tradition, an Athiest wedding has the potential to be a celebration of love and joy. Whereas a religious wedding ceremony usually focuses on “God’s” rules concerning marriage, an Atheist celebration is free to focus on you and how you view marriage. In this type of ceremony you have greater freedom of expression that allows you to include music, readings and traditions that may not be allowed in a more traditional ceremony but hold great meaning for you. An Atheist ceremony will also allow you to invite friends and family to participate in your wedding ceremony in non-conforming ways.

At it’s simplist the word  atheist means “without God” so an Atheist wedding ceremony is one that does not mention God or any Higher Power. Many of my couples are interfaith or don’t follow any particular religious doctrine. They thus choose a ceremony that avoids reference to any form of Deity as a way to avoid discomfort or resentment on either side of the aisle.

Atheist weddings are structured much the same as religious weddings. Your officiant  will begin with an opening or welcome, usually followed by words that reflect your shared values, your hopes and intentions for your marriage and your vows to each other. There may also be readings from poetry, historical or current events or cultural references that are relevant  your wedding ceremony. Friends  and family may participate as readers or they may sing songs that are important to either partner.

As the ceremony draws to a close, the officiant may perform secular versions of such wedding traditions as the unity candle or wedding lasso. An experienced officiant can secularize almost any typically religious unity ceremony or may opt for something that is less likely to be viewed as religious, such as a sand blending. This is also the segment where cultural traditions like jumping the broom may be added.

You will then be prounouced as married before your friends, family and guests. As you can see, just because Atheist means without God is no reason that your Atheist wedding has to be without the joy, beauty, meaning and sense of community that is inspired by a religious wedding.