High Octane Ritual

Yesterday I made a case for authority among atheists and today I’m addressing ritual without religion.

In the big discussion about Greg Epstein’s humanist chaplains and the twitter forum on #humanistcommunity, PZ Myers claimed setting up atheist rituals that paralleled religious tradition was “a cheat and a waste.” At their essence, Myers claimed, ritual is just another world for “waste of effort, feel-good displacement activities that take the place of thought.”

It’s easy to think of fairly harmless secular rituals that might not meet with Myers’s ire. My technically-Jewish family still sticks by the highly traditional custom of going out to a movie and eating Chinese food on Christmas Day. Other deracinated rituals I can think of off the top of my head include graduation ceremonies and the recitation of entire Monty Python sketches.

At their heart, these toothless rituals are jargon. They are enacted by members of some group and not by others. They may not be particularly emotionally resonant, but they are shorthand for some kind of community bond.

It’s the use of shorthand that I suspect puts Myers off. Compressing and ritualizing ideas can be a pretty good way to make us stop thinking critically about them. A person used to mouthing a prayer may not notice they no longer mean the words they’re used to saying. And, in the secular world, plenty of academic disciplines end up so turned in on themselves that they look more like performance art than scholarship.

But shorthand is too valuable to be cast off because it’s risky. If we’re all on the same page, it’s nice to be able to talk about ideas paying rent without having to summarize Yudkowsky’s formulation every time. That’s a convenience; ritual becomes a necessity when it’s a way of gesturing at ideas we don’t know how to express and formalize. I can reach for a parallel in literature when I don’t know how to work through a feeling on my own. When I want to comfort a friend, sending flowers, or some other ritualized act can express my empathy more effectively than an explicit declaration. And, for people who don’t have time to master every subject, shorthand can give them enough of a grasp of a difficult topic to get by.

But shorthand and abstraction don’t really capture all of what ritual is about. If regular old discourse is prose, ritual is poetry. It’s emotionally charged and cognitively sticky. So why should we want to imbue these inside jokes with content and emotional resonance? I’ll definitely concede to Myers that it will make it harder to abandon them.

But most of us aren’t striving for a world of detatchment. We’re going to become emotionally attached to something, we’ll decide some group memberships are essential parts of our identity. Shouldn’t the constraints we embrace be tied to some actual content? Embracing ritual means doubling down on the thought patterns/traditions/values you want to embody.

If you don’t have a philosophy/ethics/telos you feel comfortable turbocharging, get looking.

Again, this is getting long, so I’ll hold for a separate post a few briefer thoughts on ritual and historical continuity, along with an example of secular ritual from my summer camp

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • John Morales

    1. setting up atheist rituals that paralleled religious tradition
    2. fairly harmless secular rituals

    Why do you speak about (2) when your starting point was (1)?

    If you don’t have a philosophy/ethics/telos you feel comfortable turbocharging, get looking.

    If you do, you should consider weaning yourself from such, rather than embracing such nonsense.

    (Especially telos)

  • keddaw

    We’re going to become emotionally attached to something, we’ll decide some group memberships are essential parts of our identity.

    Well perhaps, but not believing in God is not something I really need to be emotionally attached to – isn’t that exactly what we complain theists do?

    Besides, is it good to become emotionally attached to an idea? Surely that makes you irrational and defensive of any criticism of it. Especially if you’re daft enough to make it part of your identity.

  • Charles

    A lot of people who are not atheists often make the comment about “Organized Religion” that they ‘like’ the religion but not the organization, the old “I am spiritual/I believe in god I just don’t like the church/cult/whoever telling me what to do” argument.

    Personally I like the “organization” and can do without the “religion”. Give me meaningless ritual with incense, latin, and fancy robes any day. Just keep the non-critical thinking to your self!

    In some way all culture includes leftover ritual that has long lost its original intended meaning, its one part of what being human and part of a human society is all about. What percentage of Christmas trees are erected with the intent being whatever the original pagan or Christian intent was? Personally I put up a Christmas tree because thats what ‘you’ do at Christmastime, with no other ulterior inspiration for the ritual.

    • Gilbert

      On the Christmas tree I think the original meaning is obviously still there. It is also entirely secular. The pagans probably placed their feast there for the same reason we Christians did:
      That time of the year is cold and dark (more so in Europe most of which is north of most of the US) and lets nature seem dead. In other words it’s the natural depression season. So we have a maximally sappy feast with lots of candles and a tree that is still green when all the other plants aren’t. It just makes psychological sense and every sane tradition will provide a pretext to do it.

      So I understand the atheists who (want to) turn it into a secular holiday. That basically copies the strategy we Christians used. On the other hand those who want to get rid of the presumption of everyone celebrating Christmas can just take the fight to the ecliptic rather than to me.

  • http://s2solutions.us/wordpress Seth Strong

    I think some rituals are fun. I think community centers are important. I even think taking back Sundays is a good way to get community time on often granted days off. But this is a really difficult topic for me to deal with in the abstract because I do not like rituals for rituals sake. I don’t like ceremonies and weddings. I like improv and karaoke. I tend to focus more on things like letting people have their own moments, delegating authority where you must onto educated reasonable people and finding ways to encourage productive yet candid discussions.


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