Secular Invocations

In addition to the major rites of passage, humanists and other nonreligious people often find themselves asked to contribute to other types of ceremonial event: a benediction after a banquet, an invocation at the beginning of a legislative session, or a toast at a retirement party. Sometimes the standard wording is religious, and secular participants struggle to find an alternative. This website provides examples of secular invocations and helps to answer the questions: What is a secular invocation? Why would a humanist or secularist want to give an invocation, i.e. are these so-called secular invocations aimed at sticking it to religious people or do they serve some deeper purpose? And finally, where would these invocations be given?

What is a Secular Invocation?
In a way, the concept of a secular invocation is quite simple: It is essentially a short speech that calls upon the audience’s shared human values for assistance and authority in their public discourse. Unlike a traditional invocation, a secular invocation does not call upon a supernatural entity as a guide. It redirects our attention away from those supernatural entities towards those common human values that we do in fact share for guidance. It emphasizes the bounds within which our public discourse should be held, without disenfranchising certain groups. It reminds us of what is important and of our responsibilities to each other and the world around us. In a sense it is calling upon all those involved to exercise their humanity in a way that is dignified while allowing the same for others.

Why Give an Invocation?
Andrew Lovley, president of the Southern Maine Association of Secular Humanists at the University of Southern Maine, makes an important distinction when reflecting on a secular invocation he had given during the inauguration of a local official in his area. The distinction is between the structure and the function of an invocation. When we talk about the structure of an invocation we talk about its components and how they fit together. The function of an invocation, on the other hand, is that which it tries to accomplish. While the structure of a traditional and secular invocation may differ in regards to what is invoked, invocations as such aim to unify and inspire the audience and provides a chance for everyone to reflect on the important values relevant to public discourse.

In the aim, there is clearly no necessary reference to any supernatural entity. Based on the definition of secular invocation given above, it’s clear that such an invocation is capable of accomplishing the purpose of an invocation even better than a traditional one. Furthermore, there is no need to stick it to religious people in the course of these invocations, since in the course of fulfilling that aim, such talk becomes unnecessary. Its aim is noble in itself.

Where Are These Invocations Held?
Generally, invocations are performed before important public events. These events can include the inauguration of a public official, the start of a public meeting, etc. They are widely performed during government proceedings, but unfortunately they tend to be overwhelmingly religious. While they are normally required to be non-denominational, that alone doesn’t ensure that it is applicable to all, especially since non-denominational invocations still tend to invoke supernatural entities. For public, government events, it makes sense to go one step further towards secular invocations.