Ritual and Atheism

Posted by on August 28, 2010 in Thoughts | 8 comments

When a life altering event happens in a person’s life, we can sometime be left asking questions, or feeling alone and confused. When things like death and catastrophe happen, we will often reach outward to others to try to makes sense of our situation, or simply to banish this feeling of aloneness. And being the social animals that we are, being alone when we don’t want to be is scary.

Likewise, when an event of great joy occurs, we also find ourselves reaching out to others, to share this. The birth of a child, the marriage of two people who are in love, the harvest of crops, etc. make us want to share in our good fortune. We are social, and part of this is the fact that we share our joy and pain with others.

Humans also like predictability in their lives. We use a calendar to tell us what day of what month of what year it is, and by this have some expectation of what the weather conditions will be like. Clocks tell us what time of day it is, we all follow the arbitrary numbering system to know when we’ve worked long enough, or whether our food is cooked. This repetitive cycle we use every day feeds our need for predictability.

For as long as humans have been able to recognise that we all feel the same way about the great events in our lives, and we feel the need to share these event. We celebrate achievements in our lives, and collectively commiserate anniversaries of momentous dates in human history. And a way to make these celebrations and commiserations more powerful, we ritualise them, using props, objects, movements and phrases, collectively, which binds us together in a shared experience.

Humans have ritualised every big occasion in our lives. A graduation ceremony celebrates the end of a learning journey and the transition to another part of life. A funeral celebrates the file of a person who has died, and helps us remember who that person was. A birthday marks the anniversary of the birth of a person, and celebrates looking forward to achievements and potential in a person’s life. A wedding celebrates the joining of two people, and the intense emotion of love that humans can feel for one another. At harvest festivals we gather in joy of having enough food to last us through winter, and in spring we celebrate the end of winter and the potential for new life in our families and communities, as well as in our livestock. These vary from culture to culture, and even within individual societies.

And some of these rituals are outdated, hardly any of us in the western world even have crops, or have to worry about food for the coming winter. As societies change the way they do things, many of the old rites seem to lose their initial meanings, and become so ritualised that we just do them because that’s what we do. But most rituals serve a purpose, even if that purpose is blurred under the veil of dogma or time.

Some of our rituals, which once served a purpose of celebration or commiseration have become loaded with ideas outside of their intended meanings. Religions have loaded our rituals with their own agendas, making our special occasions a way to pander to their beliefs. Religions have hijacked our human rituals and used them as a way to reinforce their ideals, to make the person see them as an integral part of their lives. Prayer, communion, christenings, bar mitzvahs and attending worship ceremonies all lend to this feeling that these religious rituals are necessary. The greatest example of this would be the idea that Muslims need to pray to the east (an arbitrary idea for the location of Mecca) five times a day, or risk being thrown into hell when they die.

Where once people would sing to communicate ideas to their children and others, people now sing hymns to their god figure to reinforce his magnificence. Where we once celebrated the time when the days was the same length as the night in preparation for winter, the Christians celebrate the supposed birth of their man-god. Where we once celebrated the coming of summer, Christians now commiserate the death (and supposed rebirth) of their man-god.

And apart from these obvious usurping of ritual from humanity into the hands of religion, the very structure of our weeks in the west harken to the biblical account of creation, seven days with rest on the sabbath.

I suggest that ritual is a very important part of being alive. We need to feel as though we are part of a community, a society and a culture. And we can still have our rituals, but we should not forget why we are having these celebrations or commiseration. We celebrate being alive, not the glory of a god-head. We celebrate our lives, because each of us has only one, and it is fragile and special. We celebrate our continuance in life, and remember those who came before us, not because they are in heaven, but because they represent the shoulders of greatness upon which we stand now. Atheism does not mean throwing away what we have learned from the past, rather the opposite. And don’t forget that just because religions have hijacked the great moments in our lives and imbued them with their dogma and agenda doesn’t mean they are useless to us in humanity.

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8 Comments

  1. Totally agree. Ritual is necessary for many of us to celebrate significant moments in our lives. I’m sure you’ve been to atheist weddings or funerals where g0d is not mentioned, but people still want ways of connecting with each other and expressing emotion.

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  2. Very nicely put. I think ritual and ceremony can be very important, and I like the way you’ve written about them being basically human/humanist things – adopted (or usurped) by various religions, which then tend to add “going to hell” or “give the church lots of money” overlays.

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  3. Interesting blog. Aren’t many modern monotheist rituals just old pagan rituals revamped? Where now people appease a god who was resurrected back when they were appeasing fertility gods. Seems like there was always some god involved in many of these rituals and holidays. I’d be interested in knowing how other atheists mark significant life events.

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  4. You are so right and these are the very things that make atheist mad. “They” have also hijacked ethics and morals. I can’t believe there are people who believe that you can only have ethics, morals or even be human, with out the invisible sky daddy beaming down the laser of all that is good to usd. Nail. Head.

    Kriss

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  5. I love ritual. But I consider it more to be “Rites of Passage”
    I have had celebrations for the birth of my children, important birthdays, graduation and most recently the marriage of one of my kids. These were all secular, but had ceremony and celebrated the importance of my child taking their steps towards adulthood.
    When I die I hope they have a big celebration of my life – but definitely no religious overtones.

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  6. Hi, I just stumbled on this post from a Google search. Really interesting, and I agree that rituals can be an important part of the human experience. When we disregard religion, we should be able to keep those elements that are not superstition, divest them of their supernatural components and make use of them.

    Personally, I celebrate the solstices and equinoxes in a sort of Pagan way, but as an atheist it isn’t to pray to any gods, but simply to celebrate being alive and to celebrate nature, of which we are all a part.

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  7. This subject is near and dear to my heart! As a buddhist, it is oftn asked, “how can you be a buddhist and an atheist?” The answer should be simple. First, I don’t believe in a creator or benevolent friend who is their to help or save me. But, I must also denounce ‘faith’ as a method for rationalizing my world. If faith isn’t how I view the world, and a more pragmatic scientific approach is better, howmcan Imjustify the belief in rebirth? So, not so simple.
    But the anser lies in the fact that the ideology of karma is tha life “arises, abides and ceases” in evy moment. Every second comes and goes. We can’t get it back, except in memory. In fact, the probelm with tiem itself is that it is conceptualized – the whole world we perceived is perceptually created. Now, this sounds like buddhist empiricism and, in a way, buddhist are similar to positivists and empiricists. But, there is one place where we break ranks: ritual.
    Ritual can be defined as a repetitive action that is performed to create minimal short term amd maximal long term results. There are two fundamental forms of these rituals. 1- ritual that has rational tangible perceivable result. 2- Ritual that has assumed, intangible and mostly internalist tactile results. The dirst type,of ritual ismusually repetitive practical as it aims to have finite result: brushing teeth, results in clean teeth. But the second has nomtsngibility: they are there to make the pratitioner feel better about their wolrd, regardless if they believe it will have tangible effect. Religion is the primary culprit in non-practical ritual.
    So, how does buddhism fit into this. Is it “an atheist religion”? I say no, it isn’t. It has believes in intangibles as reality, supported in various level of ritual chanting, objects and practitices. It may be non-theistic, but, in it’s cultural essence, history and place in global culture, it has to be a religion….but a religon that, as the 14rh Dalai Lama states, believes in its own self- destruction.” Why? Because its philisophical foundation is that the world is mever as we think it is, as it has nompermanence or definitive reality beyond our ability to,agree on its constructs.
    Indeed, most religious activities have nothing to do with the functioning of the world, except the inner lives of those practicing these rituals. Ritual can spur on believe as well. Most religious people gain their beliefs by having been repetitively (ritually) trained to believe that the world is fill-in-the-blank, construct because of a fill-in-the-blank construct. Most since birth, but many weak minded people follow the “lemmings off the cliff” on their own to be, -”reborn-”. There is no external prove of this beyond faith that it is true. The teachers of such faith goes on to point out that seeking external answers only results in straying from the faith that the object(s) of faith are the only reality.
    The issue of rebirth is complex, but the habitual repetition of rituals that often depict the horrors of death, retribution for non-belief and punishment for not following “the way,” creates a mindless drone. Emphasis on mindless.
    This is very true in the theistic traditions, but also so on eastern religions, of which buddhism cannot escape being part. The attraction of cyclic existence (samsara) is great in buddhism, despite efforts to convince practitioners that the whole point is -not- to come back to this life. So, instead, some sects decide that the goal is to be “reborn in the pure land.” In truth, this is only another play at the same type of faith based illogic as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic model of rebirth. Other buddhist traditions reference “attaining enlightenment in this very life.”
    But, what is enlightenment? Ritual practices of tranquility and insight midfulness meditation are the key. They are not about shutting ones mind down, “sleep of reason, and of Buddhists as discarding their minds as well as their sandals” as Christopher Hitchens, only partially got right (because he nails many buddhist practitioners right on the head). It is actually about applying the rituals of meditation to awaken one’s mind to the themreality the every day world “as it is” without the construct of opinions, judgements and mindless pondering past events and planning for the future. It is gaining the habit of being here and now, so we can work reasonably in the everyday world.
    -That- is really what enlightenment is about: the realization of the mind, as it is. It isn’t some fantasy that we are going to transcend this world or reality. And it surely isn’t some idiosyncratic knee-jerk idea of being reborn in another body. Buddhism in any school of belief has no definitive ideology of self or other as real. So, how can we be reborn in another body after the death of this one?!? So, rebirth makes no sense, and thus, enlightenment after life makes no sense…that is unless one decides that the death of the individual kills the ego – now, that makes sense…because, at least in this relative world, its true: there is no person there anymore, ergo, no ego.
    I will say, buddhist dharma and many doctrines are clear that we cannot describe an absolute world, because it has no more inherent existence than this one. This is provable by the impossibility of observing it. (If one could observe the absolute, it would then be proven relative, thus not absolute.) The difference is that this world’s existence may not be inherent, but it -is- observably tangible, (regardless if our senses have no inherent existence either)!
    Thus, any ritual we do, from the uppati/sampanakrama pratices of Vajrayana, to the Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Middle Way, Shamatha Vipassana you name it: they are buddhist rituals. But beliefs don’t exist in the rituals themselves; they are within the heurism and epistemology we apply to it. They may make no sense to anyone but the practitioner. I don’t practice buddhism to gain some sense that I am doing to transcend this world. i practice because I know I a much more in tune with myself and the world around me. if allows me a more open, but also -much- more discerning view of of the world and myself. This is the more practical view of “enlightenment, in my view. But, I don’t eat with my fingers as they do in Ethiopia either: most people simply don’t come to it, nor practice it in that way. Therefore, my view of buddhist practice is as an atheist. If someone wishes to practice dharma to get to the land of Dewachen, that’s their business. Personally, I don’t find it compatible with buddhist logic, but neither is my view of believing that rebirth is merely an archetype for the everyday world.
    -Philip

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  8. This subject is near and dear to my heart! As a buddhist, it is often asked, “how can you be a buddhist and an atheist?” The answer should be simple. First, I don’t believe in a creator or benevolent friend who is their to help or save me. But, I must also denounce ‘faith’ as a method for rationalizing my world. If faith isn’t how I view the world, and a more pragmatic scientific approach is better, how can I justify the belief in rebirth? So, not so simple.m in fact, the question of “rebirth” is a big attraction for those looking for answers outside of reason and rationality.
    But the answer lies in the fact that the ideology of karma is tha life “arises, abides and ceases” in evy moment. Every second comes and goes. We can’t get it back, except in memory. In fact, the probelm with tiem itself is that it is conceptualized – the whole world we perceived is perceptually created. Now, this sounds like buddhist empiricism and, in a way, buddhist are similar to positivists and empiricists. But, there is one place where we break ranks: ritual.
    Ritual can be defined as a repetitive action that is performed to create minimal short term amd maximal long term results, whether intended or not. There are two fundamental forms of these rituals. 1- ritual that has rational tangible perceivable result. 2- Ritual that has assumed, intangible and mostly internalist tactile results. The first kind of ritual is what a child does when learning something new. So, tangible ritual states “I brush my teeth therefore my teeth will be clean. Therefore I am happy and will repeat the task of brushing my teeth as a ritual.”
    But, buddhist ritual has no such tangibility, and further contains unprovable,belief: by faith and religious logic justifies the belief in “rebirth” and posthumous, “enlightenment”. It, therefore, cannot be thought of as anything except a religion….save one caveat…It uses tangible logic to make conclusive assertions.
    So where is the key to being an atheist and a buddhist? Ritual
    Indeed, most religious activities have nothing to do with the functioning of the world, except the inner lives of those practicing these rituals. Ritual can spur on believe as well. Most religious people gain their beliefs by having been repetitively (ritually) trained to believe that the world is fill-in-the-blank, construct because of a fill-in-the-blank construct. Most since birth, but many weak minded people follow the “lemmings off the cliff” on their own to be, -”reborn-”. There is no external prove of this beyond faith that it is true. The teachers of such faith goes on to point out that seeking external answers only results in straying from the faith that the object(s) of faith are the only reality.
    The issue of rebirth is complex, but the habitual repetition of rituals that often depict the horrors of death, retribution for non-belief and punishment for not following “the way,” creates a mindless drone. Emphasis on mindless.
    This is very true in the theistic traditions, but also so on eastern religions, of which buddhism cannot escape being part. The attraction of cyclic existence (samsara) is great in buddhism, despite efforts to convince practitioners that the whole point is -not- to come back to this life. So, instead, some sects decide that the goal is to be “reborn in the pure land.” In truth, this is only another play at the same type of faith based illogic as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic model of rebirth. Other buddhist traditions reference “attaining enlightenment in this very life.”
    But, what is enlightenment? Ritual practices of tranquility and insight midfulness meditation are the key. They are not about shutting ones mind down, “sleep of reason, and of Buddhists as discarding their minds as well as their sandals” as Christopher Hitchens, only partially got right (because he nails many buddhist practitioners right on the head). It is actually about applying the rituals of meditation to awaken one’s mind to the themreality the every day world “as it is” without the construct of opinions, judgements and mindless pondering past events and planning for the future. It is gaining the habit of being here and now, so we can work reasonably in the everyday world.
    -That- is really what enlightenment is about: the realization of the mind, as it is. It isn’t some fantasy that we are going to transcend this world or reality. And it surely isn’t some idiosyncratic knee-jerk idea of being reborn in another body. Buddhism in any school of belief has no definitive ideology of self or other as real. So, how can we be reborn in another body after the death of this one?!? So, rebirth makes no sense, and thus, enlightenment after life makes no sense…that is unless one decides that the death of the individual kills the ego – now, that makes sense…because, at least in this relative world, its true: there is no person there anymore, ergo, no ego.
    I will say, buddhist dharma and many doctrines are clear that we cannot describe an absolute world, because it has no more inherent existence than this one. This is provable by the impossibility of observing it. (If one could observe the absolute, it would then be proven relative, thus not absolute.) The difference is that this world’s existence may not be inherent, but it -is- observably tangible, (regardless if our senses have no inherent existence either)!
    Thus, any ritual we do, from the uppati/sampanakrama pratices of Vajrayana, to the Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Middle Way, Shamatha Vipassana you name it: they are buddhist rituals. But beliefs don’t exist in the rituals themselves; they are within the heurism and epistemology we apply to it. They may make no sense to anyone but the practitioner. I don’t practice buddhism to gain some sense that I am doing to transcend this world. i practice because I know I a much more in tune with myself and the world around me. if allows me a more open, but also -much- more discerning view of of the world and myself. This is the more practical view of “enlightenment, in my view. But, I don’t eat with my fingers as they do in Ethiopia either: most people simply don’t come to it, nor practice it in that way. Therefore, my view of buddhist practice is as an atheist. If someone wishes to practice dharma to get to the land of Dewachen, that’s their business. Personally, I don’t find it compatible with buddhist logic, but neither is my view of believing that rebirth is merely an archetype for the everyday world.

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