As part of their aim to provide secular alternatives to popular traditions with religious histories, the HEF performs nearly 10,000 confirmation ceremonies a year.Confirmations are traditionally a Christian ceremony, which are seen as a ritual of initiation that bestows full membership to the Church and validates the individual’s bond with god.
Different denominations of Christianity interpret the meaning of the ceremony in their own ways; Catholics see them as sacrament and an essential follow-up to baptism, Protestants view confirmations as more of a symbolic rite of passage. Whilst confirmations can be performed at any age, they are typically a coming-of-age ceremony for both boys and girls at around 14 years of age.
For a large part of Norway’s history, Lutheran state churches had a monopoly on confirmation ceremonies, but as a sign of becoming an increasingly secular and atheist country, the first civil confirmation was performed in 1951, with the Norwegian Humanist Association taking responsibility for 1956 to the present day.
Whilst the BHA offers officiants for naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals, confirmations (or the secular demand for them) are not popular enough in the UK to warrant specific attention, but for the HEF it is one of their key public services, with around 17% of Norwegian 14-year-olds undertaking the ceremony each year. The chart above shows the number of confirmations performed by HEF over the last few years (top) and a comparison with the overall number of Norwegan 14-year-olds (bottom).
For HEF, the purpose of Humanistic confirmation is to strengthen humanist values n society. As part of their confirmation, the confirmants must attend a mandatory course (of weekly 1.5 to 2-hour sessions, or intense courses run in the summer) which cover topics such as religion, humanism and human rights, individual and social responsibility, racism, tolerance, youth and sexuality, substance abuse, gender roles. The objective of the course is to develop the confirmants' capacity for independent thinking and ethical action, by promoting:
- insight into their own experiences, attitudes and behaviour
- ability to reflect and to ask critical questions
- awareness of their beliefs
- their ability to care, respect, tolerate and to take responsibility.
I think these kinds of courses are an excellent idea, and if I was still back in the UK I would be doing my darnedest to get the British Humanist Association or the National Federation for Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies to put together a course like this, not just for 14 year olds but for any and every one.
As part of my fledgling involvement with HEF, I have been asked to run as session with a group of around 15 confirmants later this month on my experience of becoming a humanist and the differences between secular/humanist organisations in Norway and Britain. One of the things I found most fun, and a great reflective exercise, was thinking about why I am a humanist and not just someone who doesn’t believe in god. I had actually written up some of my thoughts on this as a blog post but my wife dismissed them as “too dry and academic”, and after reading it again I was inclined to agree with her. I hope the prezi offers a more personal and relatable explanation. If the Prezi doesn't work, try the 'Humanism in Britain' link underneath it.
The important thing about the course is that the confirmants are not mere students to be talked at and taught and so I’ve also been asked to chair a discussion on a topic that is relevant to them as teenagers and one that they can really sink their teeth into. I have chosen to debate the merits of faith schools because I’ve rather have had my fill of academic debate and talking to these confirmants is an excellent opportunity to hear what teenagers themselves have to say about attending religious schools or having friends and peers that do.
The final question for them to discuss “Should we have humanist schools for humanist children/families?” is the one I am personally most interested in, after having had some stimulating and heated discussions with fellow HEF members on the matter. I have in mind my answer to the question, but I will save expressing my thoughts until I hear the thoughts of the people that matter the most: the kids themselves.