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: