Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

An earlier post presented nine theses on the possible future development of atheism and neo-paganism in America.  The third thesis is this: As the atheistic community grows larger, social and practical pressures will compel it to begin to develop rituals and ceremonies.

As support for the third thesis, I gave various examples of atheists celebrating holidays (such as the winter solstice and spring equinox).  And further evidence keeps coming.  After all, many atheists like to socialize.  And, if they want to have a socially coherent community, then they’re going to have to develop activities for social bonding.

Some atheists have recently been performing de-baptism ceremonies.   And Dan Harris, a reporter for ABC News Nightline, provides a nice title for his article on de-baptism: “Atheists Break Out New Ritual Tool: The Blow-Dryer”.  Atheists have ritual tools!  Well, you might object to the way Mr. Harris is presenting this.  Or you might recognize that this is exactly how the larger American society perceives something like de-baptism.

The de-baptism described by Harris took place at the annual American Atheists Convention in 2010.  Harris reports that, during the convention, Edwin Kagin used a hairdryer labeled “Reason and Truth” to blow dry the hair of those who wished to be de-baptized.   And indeed in an earlier post I suggested that, for atheists, truth is sacred, holy, and divine.  It’s perfectly natural to add reason to this list: for atheists, reason is also sacred, holy, and divine.  Step by step, the atheist pantheon emerges.   Of course, reason and truth are both Platonic ideals – they aren’t things, they aren’t gods.

And the great internet tells me that some of these atheist de-baptisms have involved atheist communion wafers.  What’s going on here?  An atheist mass?   Or an excursus ritual for those engaged in a new excursus religion?   It’s just fascinating to look at American atheism through the lenses of commitment theory or costly signaling theory.  Well, as a philosopher, I leave those studies to the sociologists and anthropologists.

But surely I’ve missed the point!  When they perform de-baptisms, these atheists are just mocking the Christians.  The de-baptisms are silly, all in fun.  Sure, why not.  But a social activity like this is indeed a social activity, which establishes emotional bonds among the participants.  As long as we have the brains we have, with their lovely limbic systems, we’re going to come together to establish in-group emotional cohesion through the performance highly scripted and coordinated group activities.

Does the joke become serious?  I’m told that some atheists believe in theoretical entities called memes.  I don’t know what they are, but they look like abstract objects.  And de-baptism looks like a meme.  Will it spread?  Will communal energy be invested in it?  Will people commit resources to its performance (like driving long distances or renting hotel rooms to attend and participate in de-baptisms)?   When does it get serious?  When does the joke turn into an essential identity-marker for group membership?

One of the more distressing aspects of atheist de-baptism, and atheist communion wafers, is the degree to which it absorbs old Christian ritual content.   But that’s not surprising: the Christians absorbed lots of Mithraic symbolism and ritual content.   But you may prefer an atheism whose symbolic and ritual content  does not merely invert Christianity.  And, on that point, it’s interesting to see that some Christians have been developing rituals that are increasingly open to purely atheistic interpretations (and have been so interpreted).

Back in the 1990s, some Catholics began developing a ceremony now known as the Cosmic Walk.  As far as I can tell, the Cosmic Walk was designed by Sister Miriam Therese McGillis, and first performed at Genesis Farm in New Jersey.  These Catholics are working in the tradition of Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, and Chet Raymo.  You might call it the tradition of Catholic pantheism (which has lots of pagan affinities).  For more on the Cosmic Walk, see Taylor (2007: 249-252).

The Cosmic Walk uses a large spiral.   This spiral may be drawn into the ground or even laid into the ground using stones or other markers.    Or it may be formed using a long rope that is laid out as a spiral on the ground.   The spiral is used to illustrate the evolution of the universe.  The spiral is a time-line.  The central point of the spiral refers to the Big Bang.   Using some time scale, points on the spiral are marked with events such as the condensation of matter out of radiation, the formation of the first stars, the formation of the earth, the appearance of life on earth, and salient events in the history of life on earth, leading up to and passing through human history.  The end of the spiral is the present.  The marked points on the spiral are typically indicated with large unlit candles.

The performance of the Cosmic Walk involves two people: a reader and a walker.   As the reader narrates the history of the cosmos, the walker moves along the spiral. As the walker passes a candle, a gong is struck, and the walker lights the candle.  There are plenty of variations on this general ceremonial script.  Of course, the entire ceremony is watched by an audience, who may also one by one walk the spiral after the candles are lit.

Although the Cosmic Walk has origins in Christian liturgy, it doesn’t have to involve any Christian content.  It’s just a dramatic re-enactment of the evolution of the cosmos.  And it can be presented as such.  Religious naturalists may present it as the history of natural creative power (natura naturans) in our universe.   And at least one Unitarian Universalist group presents the Cosmic Walk as a ceremony for atheists.

People form their identities socially.  And maybe there’s some truth to the meme theory.  So atheists, compelled by their own brains to form social identites, pick up some memes from Christianity (de-baptism) and some memes from pantheistic Catholicism (the Cosmic Walk); and some memes from neo-paganism (the solstice and equinox celebrations).  One of my theses is that, since Wicca is so highly focused on nature, Wicca contains lots of memes that are easily adapted to the purpose of atheist social-identity formation.  The conceptual and practical affinities of religious memes may well lead to the evolution of a highly successful atheistic nature-religion in America.  Ah, evolution . . .

References: Taylor, S. M. (2007) Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Other posts in the series so far:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

On Participation in Being-Itself

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • SAWells

    Your continued insistence that atheists must form a coherent community — just like all the people who don’t believe in ghosts form a coherent community, right? — is baffling. Why should atheists form an atheist community? Do people who agree that 2+2 does not equal 5 form a coherent community?

    You also don’t seem to have grasped that there are frameworks for social interaction and group identification which have nothing to do with religion. Words like hobby, sport, pastime, club, interest — do these mean anything to you? I happen to be an atheist. I also do ballroom dancing. Which of those do you think is more relevant to forming a social identity? Do you really think I’m going to stop doing things I enjoy, with people who share my interests, in order to go join an atheist circlejerk, sorry, Cosmic Walk?

    Your whole series of posts makes it look like you want to be John the BaptAtheist; a voice crying in the wilderness, saying, just because you don’t believe in gods is no excuse for not having a religion.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Where did I say that atheists “must” form a coherent community? Please feel free to dispute my data, which I am merely reporting. Atheist groups are doing exactly what you say they should not do. Perhaps you should talk to them and point out their flaws.

      As an atheist, you are free to be as anti-social as you like. However, at least in the USA, atheist groups are highly politically active, and face well-organized social and political opponent groups. If atheists want to succeed in securing their rights and freedoms, they will have to form equally well-organized social and political groups.

    • SAWells

      Eric, take a look at the accommodationist/Gnu division, e.g. ove the Tom Johnson/You’re Not Helping affair, to see exactly how coherent “the atheist community” is.

      And please don’t keep up with this little kabuki show where you Propose Your Nine Theses and then say “I’m just reporting”. You have an agenda, you keep showing it, and it’s very tiresome.

      Your problem is that when you say things like “…come together to establish in-group emotional cohesion through the performance of highly scripted and coordinated group activities”, you seem to be assuming that “atheists” should by default form an emotionally cohesive in-group, whereas in fact there is no reason we should. Atheism is only a unifying factor against a background of religious privilege; if that background weakens, there’s no drive for unity.

      Hey, case in point for you (actual data – see, I’m just reporting). We take our daughter to a Russian-language children’s group weekly, and last time we did a New Year celebration. Banners with S Novym Godom, a puppet show, a visit from Det’ Moroz and Snegurochka, bit of a sing song. Lots of fun for the little ones, play-acting and make believe and, of course, presents.

      Now, this was an entirely secular affair. But it wasn’t an atheist affair; atheism was not a unifying factor, because nobody’s religion was ever relevant. There was a lot of in-group emotional commitment generated by coordinated group activities (that’s philosophowank for “We had fun together”). The in-group wasn’t “atheists”, it was “Bilingual Russophone families with small children.”

      And in a few days we’ll have the Christmas Ball among us dancers, and we will have fun together, and the unifying factor will be waltz and foxtrot and rumba, not atheism or religion, because the occasion is secular and religion is irrelevant.

      Maybe you should take a slightly wider look around the world and see what “the atheist community” actually looks like in places where there’s a lot of atheism. The pervasive religiosity of the US at present – which leads to this little games with debaptism ceremonies and what have you – may be preventing you from seeing that religiosity itself is quite dispensable. There is no need to create an atheistic religion to fill the void left by theistic ones, because there is no void to be filled.

    • Gregory

      I didn’t see anything about “must” but the fact is, humans are social and we do form coherent communities. When people come together for any reason, the group develops habits, which become traditions, which become rituals. all serving to bring and keep the community together. When the community identifies as a unit because they are on the same bowling team or collect stamps, their habits, traditions and rituals will revolve around bowling or stamps. When the community identifies as a unit because of shared beliefs — including a lack of belief — their habits, traditions and rituals will revolve around those beliefs or the lack thereof. That is just the way we have evolved as a species.

  • http://www.NoYourGod.com NoYourGod

    I will not be taking part in any of these rituals. Although rituals can be seen at participating in a communal activity, they reek of religion.

    My personal “de-baptism” is ongoing – trying to get the catholic dioces of Buffalo to remove me from their records. Without my knowledge and without any desire from me, my parents approved of a religious ceremony that linked me to the catholic church – I want to reverse that error. I have tried writing them, but have not had any response. (I wonder what “evil” I must do to get officially excommunicated?)

    • SAWells

      Now, now – Eric says we’re antisocial (see comment above) if we don’t take part in atheistic religious rituals.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    @NoYourGod – Taking part in anatheist de-baptism probably would get you excommunicated, if you sent them proof of your de-baptism; I suspect you would have committed apostasy. (Of course, I can’t speak for the Catholic Church – I can merely conjecture.) So the de-baptism ritual might very well serve your purpose!

    • mas528

      Since I know that baptism is meaningless, how much more meaningless is debaptism?

      Baptism is a meaningless mindless activity for the deluded.

      If a rational person is “debaptized”, they have just given power and credence to religious baptism.

      In fact, it smacks of Laveyism, which is just catholicism turned on its side.

      How about creating a film group and watching first-run movies?
      How about a neigborhood group to the zoo/aquarium/planetarium/museum?

      Atheism, by itself, is *not* enough to build a community around.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1127827774 neleabels

    Just for a short intermission to interrupt Eric’s tedious process of heaping meaningless phrases upon meaningless phrases.

    Here is a nice and enlightening collection of those “theoretical entities and abstract object called memes”:


    Please, fellow atheists, take great care to fully appreciate their divinity…

  • geocatherder

    I was baptised as a baby in the Catholic church, and re-baptized as an evangelical Christian as a young adult. (Sigh.) So do I have to be unbaptized twice to be a full-fledged atheist? :-)

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Good question. Better safe than sorry. Perhaps just one de-baptism with an extra-powerful hair dryer.

  • sumdum

    These proposed rituals smell too much like magic to me. Something we can all agree doesn’t exist or do anything, right ? I don’t see the need for it. Come together for lectures, form a book reading club focussed on atheist or skeptic literature, have a bbq party, whatever, but these rituals seem utterly pointless to me.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I would not endorse magic, but it’s not incompatible with atheism. Atheism is merely the denial of the theistic god, not the denial of magic. Atheists are free to perform as many magical rituals as they like. Atheism does not entail scientific naturalism or rationalism. As for myself, I’m a rationalist, so, no magic for me. But don’t confuse atheism with something else. The rituals have significance for quite a few atheists.

    • sumdum

      You’re right. Maybe I’m too quick to assume that people who are atheist are also skeptics, and doing so assume they don’t believe in such silly nonsense. And now that I write this, I’m reminded of the fact that while my home country is quite secular, plenty of people still daily read their horoscope in gossip magazines and newspapers and take homeopathic ‘medicine’. Le sigh.

  • F

    When you start performing highly scripted traditional rituals, You’re Doing It Wrong.

    Fake rituals are fun to make a point and mock ritual. You don’t keep doing the same thing repeatedly, because it becomes boring, meaningless ritual. It becomes an expectation and a demand. And then atheism, which really should become a non-thing if you’re doing it right and if most of the world becomes non-theistic, will become the caricature that Parker and Stone moronically portray in that episode of South Park.

  • Belial

    >And, if they want to have a socially coherent community, then they’re going to have to develop activities for social bonding.

    cf (the yummier version)

    If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (If You Give…) [Hardcover]
    Laura Joffe Numeroff (Author), Felicia Bond (Illustrator)

  • Red Ree

    So our brains are wired for ritual, and now we have an atheist apology for ritual behavior. Well, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with ritual, so long as it’s all consenting adults, etc. Why the horror?