Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt
This week we have something new: a “challenge” piece. Jake airs many concerns common among those who question naturalistic ritual. He says: “While it may reflect a dissenting opinion on HP, I feel it could be valuable as a point of discussion and a way for people to examine their beliefs.”
So, this is an opportunity to listen, question oneself, and develop thoughtful responses.
Remember, this is offered in the spirit of dialogue, so let’s make the most of this chance for a meaningful exchange of opinions!
- B. T. Newberg, editor
Let’s get a few things out of the way first.
I’m not a Humanist. I’m not a Pagan. I’m certainly not a synthesis of the two. I’m an atheist of no particular stripe or affiliation. I suppose you can consider this an outsider’s perspective.
There’s some mention about the role of ritual in Humanistic Paganism. I suppose that with the word Paganism in the title you’ve set yourselves up to invoke some ancient tales and mystical rites. The question to ask is this: what’s the point?
How to justify it?
Since HP isn’t meant to be a literalist movement, I’m assuming a lot of people reading and contributing don’t believe that gods or spirits actually exist. The word ‘metaphorically’ comes up a lot, but all that really means is ‘I find this to be a useful and/or clever philosophical/literary construct to get my point across, so there’. I set my hand to writing fiction occasionally, so I can appreciate a good metaphor as well as the next person. I just don’t find them particularly relevant to real life.
For those of you who believe the gods actually exist, ritual makes sense. It’s a way of bribing, blackmailing or pleading with an entity vastly more powerful than yourself, who’s just as likely to accidentally squish you as give you the time of day. You probably need all the help you can get.
However, for those of you who don’t believe the gods are actually real, how can you justify ritual? If you do a sunrise ceremony to welcome the sun, while acknowledging that the sun 1) Cannot hear you across the vacuum of interplanetary space, and 2) Is not capable of caring even if it could hear you, then what are you really doing? Well, to be frank, you’re performing a religious or spiritual rite that you don’t believe has any impact or effect on the world around you: that makes you a religious hypocrite, of one form or another. When Christians do this, we sneer and call them “Sunday Christians.”
Just because it makes you happy…
So why do the ritual, if it doesn’t have any real impact? Most people will say they feel a sense of fulfilment, wonder, comfort or satisfaction, and use this to justify the performance. So essentially, you’re doing repetitive, physically meaningless motions, while repeating certain phrases, in order to provide a sense of comfort to yourself. This sounds suspiciously like obsessive compulsive disorder, or some related medical condition, which is generally considered unhealthy. What I’m saying is, just because it makes you happy doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
The problem with ritual is that it takes up time, which has value, while producing nothing of value other than a sense of ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’. I’m not against time-wasting in general (I quite enjoyed wasting days away playing video games in my youth) but I think we have to call a spade a spade. We can’t pretend that ritual is inherently more valuable than, say, watching a movie, or going for a jog, or sitting down and reading hours and hours of webcomics (my own personal vice, alas).
A thought experiment
Here’s an example. Two people lock themselves in separate rooms for the rest of their lives. One sits down and begins a lifelong meditation ritual. The other boots up the computer for a lifetime of World of Warcraft. Eventually, as humans do, they die, leaving the inevitable stinky corpses. Out of the two, which life had more meaning? One person sat in a room thinking all day, the other spent all day pwning n00bs. Neither of them had experiences that they might otherwise have had. Neither of them accomplished anything real, since the meditator and the gamer lived and died in isolation. Neither have spirits, so there’s no way for the one who meditated to achieve some kind of nirvana or spiritual reward, and I think that we can all agree that the gamer didn’t do anything spectacular with their life either.
In fact, one could argue that, in the absence of a soul, the gamer accomplished more, since they at least were interacting with other people through the game. For better or worse, they, however briefly, touched the life of another. The world did not even notice the death of the meditator, while perhaps the gamer’s guild still tells tales of them in some digital tavern somewhere.
Contributing to humanity
The point, then, is this: ritual may give a sense of fulfilment and happiness to people, but it’s empty. It produces nothing, and you learn next to nothing from it. It’s no better than a potent drug.
The danger in ritual is that it has a way of supplanting actual experience, because people believe it has intrinsic meaning. It’s dehumanizing, when you think about it. It creates nothing, encourages conformity and mindlessness, and makes individuality irrelevant.
If you want to spend your time doing something meaningful, go out and climb a mountain, or read a book, or chat with a friend. Go out and make something, write something or fix something. Learn! Do! Create! These are all human experiences, through which we can contribute, even in small ways, to the species as a whole.
If that’s not fulfilment, I don’t know what is.
A few ground rules for comments
Since this is the first time we’ve had a challenge piece, let’s set it up right.
- Use “I” language, not “you” language. Talk about what you think or feel, rather than making accusations against others.
- Keep it civil. Comments that stray toward rants or flames will be deleted.
- Speak your truth.
Jake Diebolt works as a GIS Technician (translation: map guy) on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. By night he reads, writes, and cooks (he does the best he can). He also enjoys archery, hunting and getting pushed face-first into snow banks (see photo).