On Ritual Without Faith

On Ritual Without Faith October 1, 2014

coat450When I first encountered paganism of any real substance, I had just left the army. It appealed to me for several reasons at the time. Without belaboring things, I will just say that any glimmering faith in supernatural, preternatural, mono-, di- or poly-theistic entities/power/beings never took root for me. I suspect that it may be my tendency to reason and think deeply that is at fault.

This is to say: despite my love and friendship with many religious and spiritual folks (Jason Mankey included) I consider religion in all forms to be counterproductive at best and somewhat-to-incredibly harmful in most cases. But I’m not here kicking around Jason’s blog to crap on your altars. I would instead like to talk about the tools of religion that I find useful… tools that have led me to be a better person, better scientist, better husband and better friend. With any luck, there will be something here that is useful enough to help someone leverage already existing ritual skills towards getting better outcomes in traditionally non-religious environments.

Defining Ritual

Definitions are fun, right?

“a prescribed or established rite, ceremony, proceeding, or service” – Dictionary.com
“a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way” – Merriam-Webster

What these definitions lack is any comment on intent. However, it has been my experience that all rituals, excluding minutia like things undertaken unconsciously or subconsciously, are manifest due to intent. While it is easy to dismiss this intent by claiming it is rote or merely ‘custom’, the active execution of ritual is never dismissible. This active state always makes ritual meaningful. Sometimes it symbolizes an emotional reset (I think of mantras and meditation), sometimes it is for the growth of community (I think of non-believers that still take communion) and sometimes it is a desire to expose one’s self to a higher power (any earnest religious sanctimony). Often these goals/outcomes are sought expressly, sometimes they are merely implied. Either way, there is intent AND there is purpose to ritual, something not often addressed in a textbook definition… though perhaps this is a thing that is known or instinctual for some of the readers.

For me, ritual is expressly to allow me to act like the person I want to be, regardless of manifestation. In long form, this looks like the following:

I enact rituals that allow me to act like the person I want to be for the express purpose of better actualizing desired outcomes.

Without Faith

Minor Rituals

There are many small rituals that religious or spiritual people make use of that can be directly translated to effective non-religious rituals. My first examples are what I call little prayers. Small requests for recognition or assistance with daily activities or minor honorifics to the divine displayed at appropriate moments. It took me many years of refining my own processes to recognize that what I was doing was actually ritual. Once I did it became easier to crib from some of the better religious rituals. And it is the minor faithless rituals (that mimic little prayers) that I find most beneficial to my life. I have two rituals that replace prayers – one that replaces requests for assistance and one that replaces honorifics.

Rituals of Assistance

For undertaking a task where the outcome is dubious:

(1) Pause
(2) Take a deep breath while you perform a trivial physical action to bring you into the moment (I rub my wrists as a reminder of bailing hay as a child)

(3) Actively remind yourself of what you have accomplished before
(4) Actively make a note about what you may be lacking for the upcoming challenge
(5) Attempt action

Outcomes: reduces the chance of rushing in the ‘this is probably going to fail anyway’ fashion and increases disposition towards acquiring the skills needed to deal with the situation next time

Ritual of Acknowledgement

For allowing time for good thing in your life to be appreciated:

(1) Pause
(2) Take a deep breath while you perform a trivial physical action to bring you into the moment (I close my eyes and hold for three to ‘reset’ my senses)
(3) Actively observe your surroundings to include the mundane things in the context of whatever you are acknowledging (natural beauty, a good memory, a niceness done to you).
(4) Actively carry your acknowledgement in your mind until you can’t any more.
(5) Go about your day

Outcomes: mood enhancement, increase in active observation skills

Major Rituals

These rituals are ones you must take time to accomplish. More often than not, these are comparable to deep meditative techniques and the clearing of ritual space in many pagan, Native American and Abrahamic traditions. Basically, you take the power to dictate you’re surroundings and change future outcomes into your own hands. My two examples of how major ritual manifests for me are about healthy output and healthy input.

Ritual of Production

For clearing a space that is productive for you to work in:

(1) Pause
(2) Take a deep breath and look around you (REALLY look) – determine if the space you are in could ever be fully cleared or if the time is appropriate for full productivity on the project at hand: IF NO TO EITHER, do not perform the ritual – you will not like the results!
(3) Actively make a list (written is best) of what you cannot have in your space and what you must have in your space
(4) Make adjustments to your space STARTING with your smallest problem and working up to bigger concerns until your space is made – this will prevent you from quitting early because it is ‘good enough’ (I find that this MUST include turning off all technologies that allow for social interactions… phone and email for certain, but also include putting labels on doors and losing any media that contains voices/words)
(5) Pause
(6) Take a deep breath while you perform a trivial physical action to bring you into the transition (I do judo chest stretches, similar to a sun salute in yoga)
(7) Undertake your production process until concluded
(8) Take a deep breath while you perform a trivial physical action to bring you out of production

(9) Replace the things you removed or remove the things you placed in reverse order
(10) If you find yourself interrupted and you cannot ignore it, force yourself to do 8 & 9… this will reinforce that you are in a ritual space and that the space is of value

Outcomes: You get shit done and feel good about it.

Ritual of Learning

For being a receptive learner

(This is a big one… I thought I was a good student until I taught and mentored. Without reservation, I can say that most of you are shit students probably not deserving of instruction. I was. I’m getting better though. With that said, I still often end any ritual of learning with a ritual of acknowledgement.)

0) If you are actually about to learn something from a person, do all of this beforehand if possible and be early – no mundane excuse is sufficient when a person is taking time to bestow knowledge as a gift; Also have all requisite materials and do anything that was requested in preparation
(1) Pause
(2) Take a deep breath and look around you (REALLY look) – determine what can be done to allow you to focus exclusively on the source of your learning – this is both based on your focal point and potential distractions in your peripheral

(3) Actively make a list (written is best) of what you could be worrying or thinking about and then remove it from view – that is for later, not for now
(4) Make adjustments to your space STARTING with having your materials orderly and in front of you – then move through your largest problems first (possibly asking to change seats, definitely turning off your phone/facebook/email) and work on the smallest issues last (this allows you to stop ritual space preparation on a dime if things start prematurely; do not wait to do these things – do them first, then wait as appropriate)
(5) Pause
(6) Take a deep breath while you perform a trivial physical action to bring you into the transition (I wait until this moment to open my notebook or laptop)
(7) Pay attention only to the learning process (with notes) until concluded or you feel like interacting with the process in more than a spectator fashion
(7.1) If you feel like interrupting or interacting, ask yourself the following questions…
– Is your interaction needed or do to being antsy?
– Is your comment significant or just for your edification?
– Is your mechanism of interaction well timed or disruptive?
(7.2) If you can earnestly say the first, then go ahead; if the latter, pause and go through your physical action again – and say nothing

(8) Take a deep breath while you perform a trivial physical action to bring you out of the state of attention
(9) Reintroduce your distractions in reverse order to remind you of this transition from a learning phase to a doing phase, specifically pull out your list – this will force you to acknowledge that those things can and did wait
(10) Finish your relationship with the space by thanking anyone that accommodated you in a formal fashion and consider doing the ritual of acknowledgement

Outcome: enhanced learning, better disposition in learning environments and active engagement in dictating that learning environment

Common Themes

You will note a common theme in the faithless ritual: pausing and assessing the now. Ritual is active, or else it is merely rote (passive). Most people reserve ritual for religious activities and do not think it has a place in mundane activities. I would like to propose that it is the ritual that makes a thing non-mundane. By being in any place, and taking any action, in a disposition of active intent is sufficient to make our actions, minor and major, significant.


I am not qualified to say why people have a very active, intentional disposition during religious activities. But they do. Consider, even if you are unwilling to disengage from (ugh!) religious rituals, using those same skills to make your life better by finding that same headspace during your daily life via faithless ritual.

I’m Jason, I usually write most of the stuff here at Raise the Horns but I’m on vacation pilgrimage in the British Isles. Since I won’t have a lot of time for writing anytime soon I got some of my friends to help me out! Today’s guest contributor, Jeff Raymond, has been one of my best friends in the entire world for the last 15 years. He was best man at my wedding ten years ago, I stood next to him at his wedding eight years later. Jeff is also the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, and I know a lot of smart people. When he said he was interested in contributing to RtH I was both surprised and over-joyed. Thanks my friend.

About our guest: Jeff Raymond is currently a faculty member at the Seattle Academy of Arts & Sciences and an atheist. He holds degrees in physics, chemistry, engineering and public policy. Previously he spent time as a dairy farmer, infantry soldier, development engineer, DoD researcher and faculty member at Texas A&M. He has published more than fifty peer reviewed scientific manuscripts and holds several patents in the area of nanotechnology.

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