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The rise of humanist weddings and the impact on divorce rates

Posted on 30 July 2019

Recent statistics obtained through a freedom of information request (which can be found here), have revealed that in 2017-18, Scottish couples who have a humanist marriage ceremony are, on average, three and a half times less likely to get divorced than other couples. They are around four times less likely to get divorced than couples who had a civil marriage ceremony, and around three times less likely to get divorced than couples who had a religious marriage ceremony.

We consider the legal positioning of humanist marriages and question how can this particular type of wedding ceremony may affect the success of a marriage, and why they are on the rise.

What is humanism?

Humanism is a system of belief that encourages and promotes positive moral values in society, but with no religious affiliation. Humanist beliefs are rooted in scientific teaching with human welfare and happiness at the core of their ideology.

Humanists do not believe in concepts such as heaven, hell or the afterlife. They view this life as the only one we will get and that it should be embraced without fear of divine judgement. Our ethical decision making should therefore be guided by what will allow us to be happy and fulfilled, and how we may support others in doing the same.

What is a humanist wedding and how is it different?

A humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony conducted by a humanist celebrant. It differs from a civil or religious wedding in that it doesn’t follow any set script and instead and reflects the beliefs and wishes of each individual couple. Couples are therefore free to choose whichever readings, vows or symbolic acts that reflect their relationship. Similarly, whereas civil and religious weddings must take place in designated venues such as registry offices or churches, humanist weddings can take place at any location that is special to that couple, including outdoor spaces and unregistered buildings. 

How do humanist weddings affect divorce?

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how humanist weddings affect divorce rates. A key influence may be the way in which the couple's wishes and preferences are celebrated, allowing them to start married life as their true selves and surrounded by the things that have meaning in their relationship. This is enhanced by the role of humanist celebrants, who get to know each couple throughout their engagement, so that they may deliver an intimate and bespoke ceremony. When meeting with the couples, celebrants encourage them to discuss their story and their hopes for the future, giving them an opportunity to reflect on their relationship and the meaning of marriage. This can have the benefit of moving the focus of the wedding away from party planning for the big day and back to marriage planning for their joint lives. Following the marriage, humanist celebrants often stay in touch with the couples they have wed, providing ongoing support for the marriage.

Humanist marriages may also be successful as they make room for modern day couples. As humanist ceremonies are not bound by tradition, they have the flexibility to honour and embrace committed relationships, in whatever form they take. For example, humanist celebrants have long performed same-sex weddings, even dating back to before the decriminalisation of homosexuality.  For couples from different faiths, a humanist wedding allows them to design a ceremony that incorporates elements from both of their traditions and emphasises what they have in common. Similarly, for atheistic or agnostic couples, they have the benefits of being part of a community that respects and supports the role of marriage in society, without reference to a specific religion.

The legal position

Humanist marriages are still not recognised in England and Wales. Couples wishing to have a humanist ceremony in England and Wales must also arrange a separate civil ceremony.

In Scotland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2005, when the Scottish Registrar General concluded that denying them would be a breach of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. Since 2005, numbers of humanist weddings have risen from 85 in the first year to over 4,900 in 2016.

In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012 and by 2016, around seven percent of legal marriages were humanist. In February 2018, the States of Jersey Assembly passed a law giving legal recognition to both same-sex and humanist marriages. The changes also moved Jersey from a premises-based to a celebrant-based model for wedding licencing.

There is now growing pressure on the UK Government to implement legal humanist marriages in England and Wales. Parliament almost passed legal recognition during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, but the Government instead saw the Act amended to mandate a public consultation first as well as the power to bring in humanist marriages by statutory instrument. Since 2015 there have been two official reports, one from one from the Law Commission and one from the Ministry of Justice, which found overwhelming support for a change in the law to establish non-religious belief ceremonies as a third type of legal wedding ceremony. Both reports however raised concerns about outdoor venues for humanist ceremonies. It was felt that permitting this would be discriminatory to religious groups who are required to marry in designated venues. Other considerations were raised about the legitimacy of ceremonies, including forced and sham marriages, and the risk of profit-making enterprises becoming involved.

The Church of England has also expressed concerns that, whilst there may be a case for enabling humanist celebrants to conduct wedding ceremonies, caution should be given towards opening the door more widely to other organisations. Although humanists support the institution of marriage, other organisations, which are counted as belief organisations under the Equality Act, are defined by beliefs about what they oppose rather than positively promoting their understanding of good. The Church of England has proposed that it would not be conducive to the support of marriage for weddings to be conducted by organisations which are not underpinned by social good.

However, there remains strong demand for a change in the law in England and Wales, with a recent YouGov poll revealing that nearly 70% of the British public support legal recognition for humanist marriages. Further, the latest British Social Attitudes Survey in 2016 found that 53% of the population do not identify as belonging to a religion, rising to 71% amongst those aged 18-24. It is therefore likely that demand for non-religious wedding ceremonies will continue to grow.

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