Why non-believers need rituals too

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The last time I put my own atheism through the spin cycle rather than simply wiping it clean was when I wanted to make a ceremony after the birth of my third child. Would it be a blessing? From who? What does the common notion of a new baby as a gift mean? How would we make it meaningful to the people we invited who were from different faiths? And, importantly, what would it look like?

One of the problems I have with the New Atheism is that it fixates on ethics, ignoring aesthetics at its peril. It tends also towards atomisation, relying on abstracts such as "civic law" to conjure a collective experience. But I love ritual, because it is through ritual that we remake and strengthen our social bonds. As I write, down the road there is a memorial being held for Lou Reed, hosted by the local Unitarian church. Most people there will have no belief in God but will feel glad to be part of a shared appreciation of a man whose god was rock'n'roll.

When it came to making a ceremony, I really did not want the austerity of some humanist events I have attended, where I feel the sensual world is rejected. This is what I mean about aesthetics. Do we cede them to the religious and just look like a bunch of Calvinists? I found myself turning to flowers, flames and incense. Is there anything more beautiful than the offerings made all over the world, of tiny flames and blossom on leaves floating on water?

Already, I am revealing a kind of neo-paganism that hardcore rationalist will find unacceptable. But they find most human things unacceptable. For me, not believing in God does not mean one has to forgo poetry, magic, the chaos of ritual, the remaking of shared bonds. I fear ultra-orthodox atheism has come to resemble a rigid and patriarchal faith itself.

Written By: Suzanne Moore
continue to source article at theguardian.com

24 COMMENTS

  1. Jerry Coyne has already demolished Suzanne Moore’s article, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/atheist-bashing-roundup/ and is quite right to say she is as entitled to her views as the next person, but that doesn’t give her the right to slag everybody else off. Where are these ‘New Atheists’ who believe nobody needs ritual and ceremony in thier lives? Surely the point is that those rituals and ceremonies need not be based on the presence of a non-existent deity, but on common human cause, community feeling and endeavour.

  2. I’m not sure if the author picked the photo; it certainly represents her view “I fear ultra-orthodox atheism has come to resemble a rigid and patriarchal faith itself.” Certainly that billboard does not reflect my views. “Who need Christ during Christmas? Nobody” has to be one of the least intelligent, negative slogans that has come from an atheist organization. When will it become common knowledge that winning bonus points is best achieved with “yes” comments instead of “no” “never” “nobody” “don’t” “shouldn’t” “not” and other “downer” words. Yes, Christmas is secularized, but it is a religious holiday. Instead the board could have conveyed a more positive message — Here’s a few I just thought of!

    “Holidays, Meant for Everyone.”

    “Christmas includes Everyone’s Reason for the Season.” Happy Holidays from atheist.org”

    “Enjoy your holiday. We will too! -atheist.org”

    “There are many for reasons for the season.”

    Happy Saturnalia, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza, Happy Festivas, Happy Solstice, Happy Chanukah from atheist.org

    Instead, the board reinforces the view that atheists are socially inept, negative, fundamentalists. Thanks atheist.org for perpetuating a negative atheist stereotype.

    Yes we need more rituals and now everyone needs to work a little harder because some atheists are too arrogant to pay a decent ad agency to come up with their slogans.

  3. On one hand I agree that we should connect the symbolic with the emotional and bind our social networks together with the ceremonies of life. It might even be that our culture is so entwined with past religion that we continue with the same symbols – flame, flowers etc – but ditch the magic for acknowledged metaphor. On the other hand, I’m not sure there is quite the resistance from the high priests of new atheism that she thinks. Perhaps these alleged high priests are straw men?

    • In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

      On the other hand, I’m not sure there is quite the resistance from the high priests of new atheism that she thinks. Perhaps these alleged high priests are straw men?

      I think she is conflating issues here. She is conflating socially inept comments with earnest effort directed against a powerful opposition. The high priests of atheism just are not necessarily experts at the poetry of life- they are better debaters and confrontationalists. She is conflating an atheist “movement” with a holistic, inclusive approach to life. Currently we are dominated by individuals with a more logical approach and this is slowly changing. Unfortunately, as people fall away from religion they are left incapable of being “artists” of their own life. We still have much to learn as a society and she is a representative of what is to come. We think people need to learn to think for themselves, but we also need to learn to respond emotionally with intentional ways rather than the rote ways that religion has taught us. How do you make a meaningful mark on a blank canvas when you’ve been taught to color in the lines?

      suppose she got well paid for writing this rather woolly piece.

      It certainly isn’t anything that will will awards, but she seems to have pointed out a sore spot.

      • In reply to #8 by QuestioningKat:

        In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

        We think people need to learn to think for themselves, but we also need to learn to respond emotionally with intentional ways rather than the rote ways that religion has taught us. >

        Thanks for your thoughtful posts on this thread Kat. The sentence above, while I agree with it, highlights a problem that I think lies behind some of the disparaging comments made against people like Suzanne Moore: that while such people may not be religious believers, their instinctive preference for an emotionally based response to life’s problems makes them potentially vulnerable to other kinds of woo — Chopra-esque quantum silliness, for instance, or cultural relativism at the expense of human rights — that are in many cases just as corrosive as organized religion to the honesty needed to address real problems.

        • In reply to #20 by Jonathan Dore:

          In reply to #8 by QuestioningKat:

          In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

          We think people need to learn to think for themselves, but we also need to learn to respond emotionally with intentional ways rather than the rote ways that religion has taught us. >

          Thanks for your thoughtful posts on this.The sentence above, while I agree with it, highlights a problem that I think lies behind some of the disparaging comments made against people like Suzanne Moore: that while such people may not be religious believers, their instinctive preference for an emotionally based response to life’s problems makes them potentially vulnerable to other kinds of woo — Chopra-esque quantum silliness, for instance, or cultural relativism at the expense of human rights — that are in many cases just as corrosive as organized religion to the honesty needed to address real problems.

          Yes, which is way reason balanced with emotions and visa versa need to be emphasized if not trained.

  4. I fear ultra-orthodox atheism has come to resemble a rigid and patriarchal faith

    Who are these ultra-orthodox atheists? I thought the whole point of not believing in gods that demand certain rituals, was that one was able to follow one’s own path? We have developed our own set of family customs that suit us. Birthdays and special days all get the restaurant treatment. Were I a better cook, we’d have a lovely family meal at home, but it’s fun trying new venues and we like to splash out on occasion.

    The wedding of our daughter was a beautiful secular affair. Nobody could have wished for a better setting, or a more fitting celebration of such a big step in her life. The white dress, flowers and bridal party were all there, but there was no mention of ‘giving away’ or promising to ‘obey’ her new husband.

    Both my parents were given secular funerals that surpassed any church service I’ve attended.

    I think that giving up traditional rituals makes things a little harder for those involved because people have to find their own way , but the compensating factor is that it’s more relevant and authentic. If flowers and candles help set the scene then go for it.

  5. In reply to #1 by phill marston:

    Jerry Coyne has already demolished Suzanne Moore’s article, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/12/29/atheist-bashing-roundup/ and is quite right to say she is as entitled to her views as the next person, but that doesn’t give her the right to slag everybody else off. Where are these ‘New…

    Oh really?I will certainly post a comment letting Jerry know he missed the boat on this one. Moore touched on an issue that tends to make people put up their defenses rather than try to listen and read into what she is really saying. I don’t think even she really knows how to formulate exactly what she is trying to say nor does she knows how to fully incorporate ritual of her own making and meaning due to living in a religious society where most people are incompetent at making their own meaning in life. I’ve made similar comments in the past and now realize that atheists need to start focusing on the bigger issue and stop pointing their fingers at each other focusing on petty details of an argument that lead nowhere expect for “I dislike atheists that bash other atheists.” – said while bashing an atheist.

    Moore overlooked an issue by not realizing that there are many personalities trying to do many things. Isn’t that clear by now? Everyone is needed since we need harder and softer approaches. We need those who demand truth be taught in schools and stand up to political issues even though the opposition is strong and at times overwhelming. We also need those who focus on people rebuilding their lives after they have lost their religious views. Let’s face it, currently atheism is comprised of individuals who lean towards political and scientific endeavors. Look at the name of this site and Jerry’s blog. It’s not “the spiritual atheist” or “Finding meaning in a meaningless world.”

    Problems pop up when someone with the personality of sand paper takes on issues of personal growth and meaning or unknowingly slam other people personally under the assumption that they are defending their position. Additionally, someone focused on personal meaning at times get ticked at someone with a hardline approach – usually sighting “paternalistic” reasons. (Yes, we are still an unbalanced “movement”.) We complain that we are stereotyped into a category of unfeeling automatons, yet some of us cheer on comments that take on a “negative cause”, completely clueless that we are giving the religious plenty of ammunition. Atheists are growing and we are split like that episode of Southpark where one atheist faction was warring against the other. Something is amiss and no one wants to talk about the elephant in the living room. In a nutshell, as far as I see it “assholery” should not be acceptable and people need to know what strengths are best to contribute – otherwise we end up with inept billboards like the one above. People with more logical views need to stop bashing people who want to have an “atheist church” or light a candle. Communication is crucial.

    We need to recognize that each person is trying to build or rebuild their life in a society that is built around religious values and not our own. If we truly lived in a just world, these problems would be greatly lessened. Our politics, education, social interactions, holidays, traditions, families, personal meaning, reflections of life and self is likely to be tainted by religion whether it is realized or not. Most of us build our view through a childhood of indoctrination. Working towards the clearly defined injustices like separation of church and state and religion in the schools is usually more obvious, tangible need requiring individuals with “hard” personalities that endeavor over time. The softer more personal issues are much more difficult to pinpoint since they tend to be highly subjective like most aesthetic qualities of life. We’ve been taught how to view certain life events through the lens of our culture in addition to our indoctrination. We are likely unaware of many of our aesthetic choices and choose “packaged” experiences over ones that emerge from our own artistry. As much of a challenge it is to create our own meaning, ritual, and softer aesthetic qualities of life, those of us with who prioritize this endeavor, need to stop conflating “assholery” with earnest efforts such as the recent victory made by the FFRF or honest, non-personal comments made about certain religious claims. Those of us who have the skills to tackle tough political issues need to stop bashing people who want softer aesthetic approach to life.

    Happy New Year everyone. May we finally find some common ground.
    (Sorry folks, much of my comments come from reading Jerry’s comments.)

  6. I suppose she got well paid for writing this rather woolly piece. I did agree with her last sentence:

    What can be richer than the celebration of our common humanity? Here is magic, colour, poetry. Life.

    • In reply to #10 by Light Wave:

      Well atheists are human after all and humans do have daily rituals……Infact – all animals have daily rituals its called being alive …..

      Your morning ROUTINE is not what it being talked about. Animals instinctively collecting nuts are not what’s being talked about either.

      • In reply to #13 by QuestioningKat:

        In reply to #10 by Light Wave:

        Well atheists are human after all and humans do have daily rituals……Infact – all animals have daily rituals its called being alive …..

        Your morning ROUTINE is not what it being talked about. Animals instinctively collecting nuts are not what’s being talked abou…

        Begone non-believer ! My daily devotions to Floss and Brush assure me that when I die my teeth will be in place. While outside amongst the non-believers there will be wailing and gnashing of dentures and implants.

        Michael

        • In reply to #14 by mmurray:

          In reply to #13 by QuestioningKat:
          Begone non-believer ! My daily devotions to Floss and Brush assure me that when I die my teeth will be in place. While outside amongst the non-believers there will be wailing and gnashing of dentures and implants.

          Nothing’s special about your magic paste, everyone uses flouride toothpaste. …Well, almost everyone. I was considering the idea of bring a luggage of the stuff along with whitening strips to London hoping to make a killing in a much needed market, only to learn that they are in greater need of alcohol rub.

          But IMHO it sure beats some priest who never knew him reciting a load of mumbo-jumbo over atheist grandad.

          I recall most priests performing mass like they were brushing their teeth. No “mindfulness” whatsoever.

      • In reply to #13 by QuestioningKat:

        In reply to #10 by Light Wave:

        Well atheists are human after all and humans do have daily rituals……Infact – all animals have daily rituals its called being alive …..

        Your morning ROUTINE is not what it being talked about. Animals instinctively collecting nuts are not what’s being talked abou…

        Awe damn it …you mean there’s something more important than collecting nuts…….??

  7. Suzanne Moore is one of my least favourite writers. In fact, I think she is an imbecile.

    I really did not want the austerity of some humanist events I have attended, where I feel the sensual world is rejected.

    Well, Suzanne, you’ve been to the wrong events. I organised the humanist ‘funerals’ (actually, celebrations of life) for my father and my wife and we all had a fabulous, uplifting blast, that even a few religionists complimented us on and said they wished they were allowed to do that sort of thing.

    Atheism gives you freedom to do what you think appropriate. Religion puts you in a straitjacket.

  8. First it’s worth noting that the Guardian CiF likes controversy because controversy generates page hits and page hits bring in advertising revenuer. Times are hard in the newspaper industry as it struggles to find a reliable business model. Reliable topics include Strawkins (any straw man version of Dawkins), feminism, war on terror, Islam, Snowden, etc. So I think this article reflects a deeply held genuine concern … about declining newspaper revenues.

    Second who cares what straw atheists think of you welcoming your new child into the community with Zen Buddhist chanting and anointing with gluten free yak milk? If that works for you great. I might not want to do this for my child but that’s just me. I don’t have plans to lock up anyone who disagrees. There aren’t any rules.

    That I think is the third point. There aren’t any rules. We now have a choice of what kind of rituals to undertake and that can make things difficult. But IMHO it sure beats some priest who never knew him reciting a load of mumbo-jumbo over atheist grandad.

    Michael

  9. Ultra orthodox atheism, what a glib phrase obviously trying to bait the gnu atheists who might be reading the guardian online. Whether atheists need rituals is a matter of opinion and in her case who gives a shit.

  10. I really don’t understand her arguments. If she wants to celebrate the birth of her child, then just do so. I really don’t see how you need superstition to celebrate the birth of a child. I mean, the religious connotations of most christenings are quite trivial, at least in my country. A priest says a few prayers and that’s basically it… The real importance of these events though, is that people get together and celebrate the birth of a new child. I really can’t imagine that removing a few religious rituals, that most people really don’t care about anyway, would make much of a difference. I actually don’t think people need rituals in the sense that religions portray rituals. Yes, there are important events in our lives that most people want to celebrate or in other ways memorialize. But, the religious aspects of these rituals really, at least in my country, seem to be quite impersonal and emotionally empty. Most funerals I have attended aren’t memorable events because of what the priest says. Most people don’t give a damn about these boring rituals. They are important because people who loved and cared about the person who died get together and remember that person’s life. I am quite certain that most religious rituals are actually quite irrelevant to the actual event, from an emotional perspective. Hence, I don’t understand this argument that we need religious rituals to take care of important events in our lives.

  11. For me, not believing in God does not mean one has to forgo poetry, magic, the chaos of ritual, the remaking of shared bonds…
    Sorry – but if you don’t believe in God, then you do have to let go of magic.
    As far as your hankering for some ritual, or ceremony, I’m with you there. I’ve listened to RD speaking about the behaviour of cuckoos, and have been totally enthralled as he develops the observations and interpretations. At the end RD says “Isn’t nature wonderful?” I couldn’t agree more!
    And in the same way the religious have of thanking their mythical creator for the quality of their life and provision of their victuals, I sometimes feel that an acknowledgement:- of the stars that burst to make heavy elements; the primordial soup that gave rise to the first self-replicating cells; the double-helix molecule that brought us to consciousness; and those wonderful universal constants that make all things possible (that are possibly possible) -:should be made to recognise how wonderful it is to be alive. (In a single pledge we can do away with teenage angst).
    Many public events are bookended by a short oration (or prayer) offered by a cleric or layperson, the point of which is to focus the collective mind on the task to be addressed. Such an oration by the atheist should be just as beneficial, and just as welcome.

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