In the Winter 2013 issue of the excellent New Humanist magazine, Suzanne Moore wrote a piece about the importance of ritual, and that, as she sees it, (New) atheism, with its focus on ethics and rationality, leaves little room for the appreciation of beauty and its important role in human experience.
As a follow-on to the piece, the New Humanist sent out a request for reader’s contributions to the Spring 2014 issue’s Big Question: Do non-believers need rituals? The deadline was January 31st, which I have obviously missed, but I thought I’d share my thoughts anyway. Submissions to the magazine were supposed to be capped at 200 words. I haven’t strictly stuck to that word limit (because I don’t have to!) but I have tried my best to keep things short.
As actions that have symbolic, emotional meaning, of course non-believers need rituals. Atheism and rituals are not mutually exclusive and nor do they negate one another. Rituals are important because they help shape and share the powerful emotions that accompany births and deaths (and things in between like weddings and anniversaries); they strengthen social bonds and provide structure occasions to, both collectively and individually, comprehend and reflect on crucial life events. God does not need figure in any of these things. As with many other things, religions most likely co-opted rituals because they are important and they work, rather than actually inventing them.
Not believing in god doesn’t mean the birth of a child or the death of a loved one become unworthy of marking as significant events. Life and its passing are worthy of celebrating whether you believe in a deity or not – in fact it’s perhaps even more important if you believe that this is the only life we have and that we won’t be meeting loved ones again in the afterlife.
Over hundreds of years, one of the things that religion has probably done for rituals (at least related to births, marriages and deaths) is given them a sense of power by making them more uniform. Familiarity increases the impact of the shared aspects of the experience and can make them more meaningful to all involved. The freedom to create your own meaning is of central importance to those do don’t have meaning prescribed for them by religion. As non-believers have no dogma, practices and rules to strictly adhere to, the room is open for rituals that matter to those directly participating in them. The positive side is that rituals can be more personal - if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it. The negative, if you wish to see it as one ( I don’t), is that in being unfamiliar some of the shared experience may be lost.
My wife and I had a humanist ceremony in a library. One friend recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and another sang Can You Feel the Love Tonight. My wife chose to walk down the ‘aisle’ alone, as she didn’t want to be ‘given away’ by her father, and as a surprise to everyone in the room, we walked out together to the sounds of the Super Mario Brothers theme as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Those that got it laughed, those that didn’t just thought it was nice, if slightly odd orchestral music.
In her article, Moore, in emphasising the central role of rational thinking to atheism, confuses not believing in god with asceticism, which unfortunately plays right into the hands of the religious, who think that you need god to be able to appreciate beauty. It’s sad that words like spiritual and transcendent are being lost (already lost?) to the religious/superstitious. The importance of celebrating important events during the one life we ever have, of empathy and shared experience, shouldn’t be lost to them too.
As soon as my Norwegian is good enough, I'll be signing up with HEF to become a humanist celebrant.