Atheism and the Need for ‘Sacred Spaces’ for Ritual: Are They in Conflict?

No eating the ceremonial babies, guys.

Suzanne Moore at The Guardian writes about the thought process that went into holding some kind of celebratory ceremony for the birth of her third child (congratulations, by the way!). In doing so, however, she found that her desire for some form of ritual to mark the event conflicted with her desire to be “a good atheist.”

Here’s how she explains the problem: She worries that “New Atheism,” whatever you believe that to be, “fixates on ethics, ignoring aesthetics at its peril,” and that “ultra-orthodox atheism has come to resemble a rigid and patriarchal faith itself.”

Now, I bristle at the very notion of “ultra-orthodox atheism” as much as I suspect many of you do, primarily as a concept that for the most part doesn’t even exist (how could it?). But she makes a strong case for setting some place aside that is akin to “sacred” to mark life events of great import:

We need to create a space outside of everyday life to do this. We can call it sacred space but the demarcation of special times or spaces is not the prerogative only of the religious. . . . We may not have God. We may find the fuzziness of new age thinking with its emphasis on “nature” and “spirit” impure, but to dismiss the human need to express transcendence and connection with others as stupid is itself stupid.

I’ve seen Unitarian ceremonies for new (and less-than-new) babies, and without much hint of religion, they felt very meaningful, a sweet way to say “welcome” to a new human from a community of people who wish it well. They didn’t offend my atheism.

But this is a hot point of contention among nonbelievers, whether ceremony has a place in our movement and community. Some believe strongly that it does: witness the rise of Sunday Assemblies and the work of the Harvard Humanists for example. Others reject congregationalism of any kind, such as Tom Flynn, one of my bosses at CFI. (There’s a great new issue of Free Inquiry that covers this debate in rich detail.) A lot of it is generational, a lot of it is personal.

It so happens that CFI-Los Angeles will host discussion on the topic of ritual, but at the other end of life. On January 5, they’ll host Caitlin Doughty to talk about death rituals for secular folks. But whether we’re talking death, birth, marriage, or Sunday mornings, we’re obviously all trying to figure out how or whether to add ritual and ceremony to atheist life.

Image via Shutterstock.

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