Ritual and Atheism

August 28, 2010 § 5 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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§ 5 Responses to Ritual and Atheism

  • 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.

  • Tsuken says:

    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.

  • Laurel says:

    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.

  • 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.


  • Kat says:

    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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