The Comfort of Ritual

The Comfort of Ritual January 20, 2020

By Linda LaScola, Editor

This past Saturday I attended the “Celebration of Life” of the brother of an old friend of mine.  I’d only met the brother once, but I’d heard about him often from my friend and more recently as he suffered multiple setbacks with various forms of cancer. I always intended to go to the funeral.  It was a no-brainer.  The family lived locally and I knew my friend would appreciate the support.  What I didn’t expect was the positive effect the experience would have on me.

Part of it was because it was an Episcopal service, not a Roman Catholic service. Thus, I knew it would be familiar – and I also knew I wouldn’t be offended, as happened at the same friend’s father’s funeral more than ten years ago.  In that case, the priest prissily stated from the altar that only “Catholics in good standing” could take Communion.  The effect of his admonition was that I and another friend – who actually is Catholic, but not “in good standing” (i.e., had not been to confession recently) – rushed up to take communion.   We knew that our friend, an atheist, would see us, understand our motives and delight in our disobedience.  We knew that the presiding priest had offered no comfort during the Catholic funeral planning and instead had badgered our friend to make a good confession in order to qualify to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion in such an auspicious moment.

I also knew I could pull it off.  I can look like a very pious little Italian-American Catholic lady when I want to.  It’s a skill I attribute to early training and years of practice.

It just occurred to me as I was writing this, that there was no communion moment in this Saturday’s service.  The presiding priests, both women, just left it out! This was probably at the request of the family who knew there would be people there representing various religions, and no religion. The purpose this event was not to repeat an ancient ritual that excluded the uninitiated or the apostate.  Instead, the purpose was to honor the deceased and those who came to mourn him.

Perfect, but this could never happen in the Catholic Church.  A mass without communion is not a mass.

But this service was the best of any mass I ever attended, with beautiful, familiar hymns, like Lord of all Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy, On Eagles Wings and Amazing Grace, the traditional order of service (minus the communion segment), eulogies by family members (including my friend, who spoke beautifully and touchingly) and by a childhood friend who added humor and spontaneity to the occasion.  This was all in the lovely setting of a small, well kept and charming church.

There was no casket, but I spied a small covered urn in front of the altar.  Yes, we were there for a funeral, but we weren’t focused on the dead body.  We were focused on the life of a person who had left us but who could still bring joy by recounting memories of him.

And yes, it was still a Christian service – with numerous references to God and “life everlasting” and “Hear us Lord” in the call-and-response part of the prayers.  I noticed that I was not offended by it.  Instead, I found myself thinking of how secular words could be substituted for the god-talk, thus allowing for the calming rhythm of the service without the repeated reference to God.  Liberal Christian Churches have been watering down the language of the service for decades, century’s maybe.   The Unitarians have worked on it too, but in my opinion have excised the comforting essence of the service along with the god talk.  The few humanist Sunday Assembly services I’ve attended were more like old-fashioned hootenannies with people singing and clapping to mediocre modern music with uninspiring, inoffensive words.  Such humanist gatherings serve a useful purpose for some people, I know, but not for me.

As I write this, I’m listening to a You Tube recording of Lord of all Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy

and thinking about how to keep its essence while excising the religious references.  I’m also listening to my all-time favorite religious music, Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus, with no desire to change anything about it.  Perhaps it’s because it’s in Latin, and the music is so ethereal that it doesn’t matter if I’m aware of the religiosity of the words.

After this experience, I think there may be hope for atheists like me, who appreciate ritual and the beautiful music that centuries of Christianity has provided.  Maybe we can develop something lovely that provides the ritual hit we crave without the crazy beliefs.

Then again, perhaps I should just bask in the comfort of this moment – this unexpected gift of a thoughtful 21stcentury Episcopal funeral service. When I want another hit, I could just drop in at the occasional Latin Mass at the nearby Roman Catholic Cathedral and call it a day.

What do you think?


Bio: Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2015) and “Preachers who are not Believers”(2010). They are also co-producers of a play in development, “Adam Mann – Not his Real Name” written by Marin Gazzaniga, that is based on their research.  Linda lives in Washington, DC and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America.  She is a co-founder of The Clergy Project and Editor of the Rational Doubt blog.

>>>>Photo Credits, Linda LaScola ; FFRF photographer ;  (Featured image) By Juan de Juanes – [2], Public Domain,

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  • Brianna LaPoint

    I dont feel right in a church, too confining. Life has a lot of unexpected surprises, and thats just another good reason to shun the ritual (routine?) of christianity

  • Jim Jones

    The Concierto de Aranjuez will suffice.

  • Thanks for the article. I’m thinking quite a bit about death and funerals because of my mother’s recent death, and the in-family quarreling over how to do a funeral.

    I must admit though, unlike you, I never liked rituals in church, not even low-church ones, not even when I was a Baptist minister!

    Being an ex-Christian for, basically, about 10 year, not attending any church anymore, one of the best aspects is not having to do Sunday morning rituals.

    For a while I tried out UU churches but found that they emphasize familiar church rituals (though of course with a non-theistic meaning).

    What I majorly miss about church is the social interaction, informal sing-alongs, and a positive world story (instead of all the focus on what we don’t think is true). On the website of one local UU, the minister states right at the start that she is an atheist.

    Hmm…It’s her page, but instead of emphasizing what she doesn’t believe, how about a focus on what she does think is true?

    All of this reminds me of our agnostic teacher in our secular high school philosophy class who had a Vonnegut sense of humor. Besides, his scathing ironic comments about religion, he stated that UU’s were “religious orphans.”

  • Tawreos

    I think that if one wants to find comfort in things of the past it is best to do so in small doses. This helps to keep us focusing on the things we like about the experience where if we stay with it for too long we get reminded of exactly why we left in the first place.

  • Linda LaScola

    Thanks for chiming in, Daniel. I assume you’re a member of The Clergy Project.

    Reading through the comments here, it looks like people have their one or two things they liked about church, but don’t like a bunch of other stuff, including the beliefs. I guess I’m in that category too. There are good reasons why I rejected church overall, but there are still some things I like, in small does, at the right time.

  • Linda LaScola

    You’re right – there certainly aren’t a lot of surprises in church! You can pretty much count on being offended, or soothed in the same old ways, every time.

  • Linda LaScola

    Excellent point! And pretty much describes my experience at the funeral.

    If I were a regular church goer, the ritual may not have been as soothing. And hearing “Lord hear our prayer” every Sunday would get old fast for a non-believer.

  • Thanks for the quick reply, Linda.
    No, I’m not a member. Just a visitor to the blog as I like to read articles by other ex-Christians, enjoy hearing other people’s life journeys.

  • Linda LaScola

    Daniel – this is not a Clergy Project membership drive. (I’m not a member, at any rate) but please consider checking out their website and applying for membership.

    There are members of many different religious traditions, different personalities and levels of involvement. The only requirements are to be a current or former religious professional who does not believe in the supernatural. Members are as involved or uninvolved as they want.

    As a founder, I like to see that non-believing clergy are counted – and TCP does that. We started with 52 in 2011 and now have over 1,000.

  • Linda LaScola

    Just found it

    pretty nice, Thanks

  • There are some things I miss about church – the music in particular – but not enough to actually go to a church and risk people trying to talk to me or recruit me!

    It sounds like your friend’s brother’s funeral was quite nice.

  • Thanks, though actually I’m a Process-theist and moral realist.
    (when it comes to cosmology, some of my speculations are along the lines of philosophers such as Alfred Lord Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne).

    It’s organized religion and doctrine that I think is false.

  • Jim Jones

    Pretty good for a blind man who lost his first child.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Thanks for this perspective Linda. Good experience and good reflection. When I’ve been asked to do a memorial service I write one that tries to befit the occasion and the people involved. No theism. I was asked recently to do a service for a friend whose son had committed suicide. Again that was a challenge but because I knew she was not a traditionalist I was able to craft something that expressed a tribute to her son as well as the family members and friends in attendance. It is possible to do. I appreciate your experience and many of those here.

  • Linda LaScola

    And there was no recruiting at this funeral, or any Episcopal funeral I’ve been to. At regular services, the presiding clergy may mention a welcoming class for newcomers, but it’s not at all heavy handed.

    Catholics do anti-recruiting, as far as I’m concerned. Their communion restrictions clearly exclude all those not already in the club.

  • Linda LaScola

    Hmm — sounds interesting – and new to me. Please contact me at doubtisrational@gmail if you would be interested in writing a blog post about this.

  • Linda LaScola

    As for why a UU minister would state upfront that she is an atheist —- maybe as a recruiting tool, to attract “out” atheists to their congregation. Atheists who want community are naturals for the UU.

    Or maybe to tacitly encourage other atheists in the congregation to be more upfront about their lack of belief. I’ve noticed that it’s “OK” to mention one’s specific religion in mixed company, but less OK to state that you’re an atheist (or maybe a Process-theist).

  • Good points. Also, like various religions–think of the vast difference between Reform Judaism versus Orthodox Judaism–Atheism is a huge tent, so atheists who go to UU tend to be quite different from atheists who hate all religion. The UU principles would be denied by many of them.
    And, sort of funny, not too long ago, several atheists told me that I am really an “atheist.”:-)

  • Linda LaScola

    Hard to believe any atheist would deny the UU principles, though they’d likely object to the use of” spiritual” in #4

    1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
    3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
    4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
    5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
    6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
    7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

    As for atheists telling you that you’re one too — I think that could be a way of saying they like you and/or they don’t see any difference in outlook between you and them.

  • Linda LaScola

    I’m thinking it might be a good idea to have a repository of secular funeral services – to give people ideas of how it can be done.

  • mason

    The comments I’ve read over the years on TCP about UU is that the congregations vary greatly. Many found the UU they sampled with way too much woo woo belief, God, & “spiritual” stuff. TCP does have members who are UU active. I attended one out of curiosity and everything seemed more political-social activism than anything else.

  • Scott R. Stahlecker

    Hi Linda. I think it a sign of a “maturing” atheist when we can feel comfortable in settings such as these. My last experience too was at a funeral service this summer when my father-in-law passed, and I was also honored to speak a few words on his behalf. Your article also hints of our desire to still feel and enjoy spiritual experiences, although as atheists we are still hard-pressed to find other words and terms for our feelings other than “spiritual.” I hope in time we unbelievers will be able to better define and articulate our feelings in a way that supersedes what religions have to offer regarding this human experience.

  • Linda LaScola

    I hope so, too, Scott. I don’t like the word “spiritual” because I don’t believe in spirits and don’t like that “spiritual” has become a substitute for “religious.” People use it without seeming to know or care what it means. Unitarians, in particular, seem to use it quite liberally, as if it really means something important.

    Maybe “calming” or “feeling at one with the universe” (whatever that really means) would do.

    Scott, could you contact me at I tried to contact you with the email address that shows up on the blog, but it’s been rejected twice.

  • Scott R. Stahlecker

    “Feeling at one with the universe,” is a good way to put it.

  • Mark Rutledge

    i like your phrase process theist. can you give an example or 2? I’ve sometimes referred to “god” as a process of love and justice; the problem comes when we personify a process.

  • Mark Rutledge

    how about gretta vosper’s church? a canadian pastor who is an atheist.