Ritual without the religion

I recently attended a funeral (my first for some time), and I was struck by the potency of the ritual aspects of the service. From the well-worn routine of the service to the familiar words of liturgy, and – yes – through to the wake afterwards, something about the familiarity and the shared understanding of what was going on seemed to hit the mark, both easing the grieving process and allowing those present to begin to move on with their lives once the service was complete.

In fact, the one part of the service which didn’t seem to fit or serve much purpose was the brief sermon. I know, I’m awkward, difficult to please, a notorious quibbler and all that sort of thing, but this isn’t any sort of theological objection – I don’t recall any actual theology at all, apart from a passing mention of eternal life, which was mentioned in the funeral liturgy in any case. It just didn’t have any obvious point – it seemed to be there because you have to have a sermon, rather than because it was actually necessary or useful – and it got me thinking about which aspects of ritual are actually important, and which could be dispensed with.

I’m interested in the role ritual plays, both in and outside religion, and whether its influence is good, bad or mixed. I think as a species we find it useful to have some sort of communal and recognisable way to mark significant events. People who have no interest in religion turn to the church so often for that sort of commemoration of life’s landmarks that there’s even a term for it – “hatches, matches, dispatches”. Some would say that this reveals a deep religious sensibility, but I think it shows that what really matters to us is ritual – religion just happens to have been the dominant provider of ritual throughout history.

Could we have secular, religion-free ritual? Sure, why not? There are plenty of rituals which have no religious content, or where any religion is entirely incidental to the ritual. Remembrance Day is one example, however much religious content has been added to the basic idea, and New Year’s Day celebrations are another, albeit fairly trivial. Maybe religion offers a stability that allows ritual to flourish, but there’s no evidence that those rituals would disappear altogether in its absence.

In the context of funerals, it’s true that some may be after the sort of reassurance about the deceased that a non-religious outlook can’t offer – obviously, there’s no afterlife to appeal to – but the same could be said of religion, for different reasons. Standard Christian doctrine is that a departed soul may be sent to heaven or hell, and only God knows which. Any honest Christian response should therefore acknowledge that the deceased may be hellbound, or at least admit to an uncertainty on the matter. The image which comforts most mourners – the idea that their loved ones are looking down from heaven and waiting – is effectively folk religion.

Maybe over time, religion will become a minority interest and there will be a move towards marking these occasions in a secular environment. I don’t say that’s necessarily a good thing, or that it’s likely to happen soon, but I can imagine it, and it’ll be interesting to see if it happens in my lifetime.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

4 responses to “Ritual without the religion”

  1. Wendy Scott says :

    A great topic to address, ritual and its impact on aetheists. I have always thought ritual is an important aspect of the human experience, and it is a subject that receives little attention from those writing on aetheism.

    I have seen or heard mockery directed at those of us who still mark significant dates such as Christmas, but history tells us many of those rituals (at the least their timing) existed long before Christianity.

    Should we look at our environment for creating new rituals, such as Earth Day, solstices in honour of life, wakes and life-celebrating in honour of death? Can we gain support at the community level?

    Not to be too cynical, but I can’t help wonder if it is the commercialism as much as the calendar date that keeps these rituals relevant in today’s society. I think people are afraid to be judged if they do not follow tradition — wouldn’t it be just as meaningful to invite family and friends to a private remembrance/celebration of a loved-one who has died, without the sermons, funeral expenses and graveside attendance. Where I live, a marriage is only legally recognized if conducted by a religious official (ie priest / minister / rabbi, etc.) or notary public (none available in my area), which doesn’t leave much choice as to type of ritual. Should children be baptized without their permission or understanding?

    I don’t know answers to these questions, yet still find myself marking the year’s progress through the rituals I learned and experienced from childhood, albeit without the religious aspect.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I think the cycle of the seasons is an obvious place to start if you wanted to establish secular festivals, taking back some of the dates the church has been attempting to monopolise for the last 2,000 years. And I’m fascinated by the number of people I know who have no belief in anything themselves, but get married in church because it’s nice, or it’s what you do, or it’ll keep granny happy.

  2. Chris says :

    My friend Tara Bailey would probably have a lot to say here: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/people/phdstudents/index.html

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