Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

YSEE ritual

Rituals make sense for those who believe, but if you don’t take it literally, why bother?

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.

The Author

Jake Diebolt

Jake Diebolt

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).

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91 Comments on “Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

  1. I’m not a big fan of ritual, so I’ll have to let others speak to what rituals mean for them, but I see a bias toward action instead of contemplation in your values, Jake. All things in moderation. I wish more people would take more time to think about what they’re doing.

    • I think about what I’m doing all the time. I contemplate the morality of my choices, their impacts, and my place in the world quite critically every day. But contemplation just for the sake of contemplation seems flawed…if you don’t change your behaviour after a period of reflection, what has the reflection accomplished? Think first, then act if appropriate. But the action is as necessary, or more so, than the thought. Instinctive action is often better than no action at all.

  2. “Learn!” you exhort. Well, one learns a lot of lessons through meditation: patience, discipline, humility, just to name a few. That makes it a worthwhile endeavor which has ripple effects, for instance, in one’s everyday interactions with other people. Further, nirvana as a non-theistic brain state is quite life-changing. You are never the same afterwards.

    And that doesn’t even include the proven health effects of meditation, such as alleviating insomnia and lowering blood pressure. Surely self-healing can be seen as meaningful action.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, ritual takes me out of my small, ego reality and gives me a sense of the sacred. As do the use of traditional spiritual tools such as chanting, drumming, singing, and ceremony. One can get the same effect through engaging in repetitive activities such as running or dancing. The same transcendent feeling I used to get moshing at a punk show I get dancing around a bonfire today, many decades later. There are specific brain chemistries involved in all these types of activities but I couldn’t tell you those specifics not having studied them, but we humans seem to be wired for a sense of the divine, however one defines it. Feels good, seems healthy, gives meaning to my life, that’s good enough for me.

    Lastly, ritual connects me to other human beings in the flesh. Our species evolved over hundreds of thousands of years engaging in these types of interactions, and computer-based “relationships” are a piss-poor approximation, IMO

    Further, your recommendations to go out and “produce something” of “value” are thoroughly Western-centric and materialistic, just so you know. Not everyone operates from that perspective. Other cultures recognize that there is great benefit in “just” being. My heritage is West African, Seminole Indian and Irish, and I am thankful for all the ways I can engage with this crazy, awesome life. That includes doing stuff, and being as well.

    • Meditation, as a form of relaxation and contemplation, can be useful from a psychological point of view – I myself have used it in archery to overcome serious mental blocks. I used the example of meditation as the purely ‘spiritual’ point of view. The meditation is meant to fulfill some spiritual purpose – and, in the absence of spirits, gods, or an afterlife, doesn’t seem to accomplish anything.

      Ritual to ‘escape’ the ego seems strange – isn’t it indulging the ego by stirring up all that brain chemistry? It seems to actually indulge the ego by instilling a sense of euphoria and importance. When you feel taken out of yourself, remember that that is a feeling that you, WITHIN yourself, are having. Nothing wrong with that – but I don’t see it as any more pure or divine than the punk mosh pit you mentioned.

      “Humans seem to be wired for a sense of the divine.” – Not sure I agree. After all, who ‘wired’ us? If you’re speaking from a theistic point of view, then I can appreciate the point – a god, spirit or other entity created in us an ability to experience the ‘divine’. From a non-theistic point of view, who wired us? Evolution? What, in fact, is the divine? We seem to spend a lot of time dividing the world into the divine and the profane. I don’t accept the divine-profane duality. It’s just another way to impose human divisions on the natural world. The idea of sensing the divine is drilled into us, whatever our spiritual background. Divine experiences seem to trigger the same neurological reactions, generally speaking, as enjoyable non-divine ones. That makes me think we’re wired to feel pleasure. The pathways to this pleasure aren’t very restrictive.

      As for my ‘western centric’ viewpoint: yes, I am western-centric (insofar as cardinal directions mean anything on a sphere – if you go west far enough you hit China). I grew up in Canada. I’ve never been to the ‘East’, but I have studied their cultures. Buddhism rejects the world as a place of suffering – the sole objective of all that enlightenment is to escape this horrible world we live in. The same viewpoints seem to be across the religious spectrum – the world is bad, the spirit is good. Paganism, animism, and more naturally-oriented religions don’t seem to have this material-spiritual duality, but still insert gods or spirits to make the world ‘good’ – rather than just accepting it as it is.

      My ‘western’ point of view is this – by creating things and learning things, we can make our lives, and more importantly the lives of others, fundamentally better. By achieving Nirvana, even in a non-theistic sense, who have we helped? Only ourselves. Is the Buddhist monk who achieves enlightenment on a mountaintop more praiseworthy than the bitter old woman who spent her life making ‘material’ things to keep her friends warm in the cold winters? Why is the material bad at all?

      • Oh, and I’m not advocating for consumerism – a nasty, addictive drug if ever there was one. That, if nothing else, is the cancer of the ‘west’ (worth noting: it seems to have spread to the east now as well). ‘Things of value’ include works of art, craft, stories, songs, dance moves – things that allow you to interact with the real world – the one made out of materials.

      • On the mosh pit experience…

        I actually have felt something spiritual in a mosh pit before. But it wasn’t the kind of spiritual sense you get from the virgin Mary… it was Dionysos, god of revelry and sensuality. It was the spiritual profundity of being embodied, feeling the rush of adrenaline, and acting on instinct. That too can be spiritual. From a polytheistic perspective at least, hardly anything exists that cannot be spiritual from the right point of view.

        But not all gods are gods of revelry. Often what comes to mind is a more virtuous or just or loving image. Isis, for example, is a Mother goddess for me, and embodies compassion, authority, love, affection, guidance, and so forth. That kind of deity, that embodies the highest and best, offers profound advantages too. When you invoke that kind of god, what comes out is an image of what is highest and best in yourself. Without necessarily even realizing it, you manifest your ideal self before you in that god-image. And in a strange circular way, as in a dream, that image from your own mind can talk to you, and you can talk to it. What a conversation. :-)

        • Your spiritual experience sounds very much like a physical one to me but given different imagery that is projected outside yourself. Why not accept that it is what it is, a fun fantastic physical experience.

        • >Why not accept that it is what it is, a fun fantastic physical experience.

          That’s exactly what it is. And that’s exactly how I accept it. But “a fun fantastic physical experience” conveys only the most hedonistic of overtones, and none of the depth nor the connection to the deepest values in life. At the same time, it’s not just a matter of conveying the right meaning; it’s also about psychological effect. We are hardwired (some of us more than others, probably) to respond to person-like stimuli such as the anthropomorphic images of gods (they may be what Tinbergen called “supernormal stimuli” in fact), so that projecting Dionysos onto the mosh pit experience calls up a natural response as with a person. It not only conveys depth and value, but also participates in an ongoing relationship that develops between you and that deity. It’s not the same as love of a human being, nor can it take the place of loving a human. But it does activate the same neural pathways, as research on imagining things vs. actually experiencing them has shown, and it creates a unique experience that is much more than hedonistic pleasure. It is genuinely life-enriching.

        • “We are hardwired (some of us more than others, probably) to respond to person-like stimuli such as the anthropomorphic images of gods ”

          I honestly doubt that anybody is ‘hardwired’ in that way as I’ve found no evidence for such a claim.

          “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” as it were.

          “It not only conveys depth and value, but also participates in an ongoing relationship that develops between you and that deity. It’s not the same as love of a human being, nor can it take the place of loving a human.”

          This is were I agree with Jake here, “It’s no better than a potent drug”;”…producing nothing of value other than a sense of ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’.” “This sounds suspiciously like obsessive compulsive disorder, or some related medical condition, which is generally considered unhealthy.”

          “That’s exactly what it is. And that’s exactly how I accept it. But “a fun fantastic physical experience” conveys only the most hedonistic of overtones, and none of the depth nor the connection to the deepest values in life.”

          You have inserted the dreaded ‘but’ and that may imply denial. Some hedonists may take offense to you saying that their philosophical way of living is not deep or not connecting to the deepest values in life. I would rather like to see a hedonist debate this aspect here. Is it really any different?

        • >>“We are hardwired (some of us more than others, probably) to respond to person-like stimuli such as the anthropomorphic images of gods ”
          >I honestly doubt that anybody is ‘hardwired’ in that way as I’ve found no evidence for such a claim.
          “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” as it were.

          Perhaps it is the context of god-images that makes it sound extraordinary. I only mean that we respond to anything person-like. Nevertheless, the challenge for evidence is appropriate.

          Now I do *not* mean that we are compelled like puppets somehow to respond, nor that we respond to person-like non-human things *exactly* like people. Both would be absurd. I do mean that anything anthropomorphic seems to grab our attention, and in some cases even push our emotional buttons to an extent, more than if they were completely alien or abstract.

          Here is a short list of evidence off the top of my head:
          *Researchers have found it takes very little for us to recognize a face. Pretty much just eyes and a mouth. The smiley face is pretty abstract when you think about, but we recognize it. To illustrate, how do you respond when you see this? Even an electrical outlet is enough, if framed right, for us to recognize a face. This shows we recognize human-likeness in some pretty non-human stuff.
          *Advertisers have clearly figured out that human-like imagery can be used to manipulate our affective response. If you want to associate a feeling of cuteness and comfort with your otherwise bland and abstract business, use a little cartoon character as a logo or mascot. If you want to create the impulse to buy (“I want” impulse), use a sexy person or character (doesn’t necessarily have to be completely human – Jessica Rabbit’s pretty damn sexy). The same response is not equally provoked by something abstract, like text. This shows that human-like stuff can provoke specific affective responses in us.
          *Tinbergen researched animal behavior and found that he could manipulate their responses, getting them to do some pretty odd stuff, using what he called “supernormal stimuli.” These are images recognized by the species, and which provoke a specific response, but which are bigger, better, faster, more. His supernormal stimuli could be pretty bizarre-looking and still get a powerful response. For example, he got some bird species to feed a giant beak on a pole over its live young. The beak is a “releaser” for the response. He got other birds to sit on a big, round, speckled ball over its own actual eggs. The releasers are “big”, “round”, and “speckled.” Male cuttlefish attacked wooden models of competitors if their undersides were redder, and butterflies mated with cardboard cut-outs over live butterflies if certain features were more defined. Now, when we come to humans, the research is much less clear because we are such nuanced creatures and testing on us can be morally problematic. So this is where the evidence gets controversial. But I would venture to say chances are pretty good that our basic wiring is similar. If you think about the heterosexual male sexual response, it is not too hard to guess which features of the female body might be releasers. This line of evidence reinforces the claim that human-like stuff can provoke specific affective responses in us, and further suggests that certain features of the human-like stuff may act as releasers.
          *Finally, all this together suggests to me that god-images might be supernormal stimuli acting as releasers of certain human responses. This part is highly controversial, and I do not in any way claim it to be proven conclusively. A healthy skepticism is appropriate. But it seems worth considering. Many of our divine images resemble parental figures writ large. “God the Father”, “Mary, Mother of God” (aspects of whose imagery was modeled on Isis, Mother of Horus), etc. These parent-like deities tend to display parent-like traits such as power and authority, but on a superhuman level. The Christian God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-seeing), and demands obedience and love, just like a parent. Could these traits be releasers, exaggerated to supernormal proportions? If so, we may be dealing with supernormal stimuli.
          *Now, if we are simply responding to these god-images unconsciously and unreflectively, there is a real danger here. We could be manipulated into doing some pretty silly stuff, much like the bird feeding a beak on a pole. This is where a lot of ridiculous religious behavior may come from, like selling off your possessions in anticipation of the apocalypse, or flying planes into buildings. Such use of supernormal stimuli is totally irresponsible, maladaptive for the species, and dangerous to society. On the other hand, if we become conscious of how we respond to these images, engage them critically and experiment with them, we can learn to produce positive and adaptive behaviors in ourselves. This, I suspect, may be the underlying mechanism behind the ability to self-soothe that I’ve discovered by praying to Isis.

        • The ‘supernormal stimuli’ is quite fascinating, and I understand how humans can be stimulated by human shaped or human like images. My objection stems from the concept of being hard-wired to respond to deitic images. Perhaps you may be right about supernormal stimuli that is geared toward human triggers, but that wouldn’t make anything a deity, just a psychological/biological response to an image. And I do find it worrisome about how such images can have such control over behaviour. Then again, I suppose that is the goal of artists, or at least some of them. Fascinating really.

        • That’s right, it has nothing to do with it being a deity and everything to do with it being an image with exaggerated releasers.

        • I always advocated talking to myself when wanting intelligent conversation. That sounds like something similar…:D

        • I find your way of talking with yourself through things by way of projecting an ideal you as a god figure an interesting way of self talk that makes sense. Not for me, but it obviously works well for you and knowing how much I self-talk I know it is a great help in whatever form it takes.

        • “I know it is a great help in whatever form it takes.”

          As long as you know it is self-talk that is.

        • As an example, if someone were to come up to you and ask what you were doing while you were in ‘prayer’ (I presume you are not asking for direct intervention in this case), you would say that you were just talking with yourself. Not a deity or other supernatural form.

  3. Jane Doe is ill. She asks for my prayers. I light a candle, burn incense, and ask the archangel of compassion to help her. Does the archangel exist? Of course — in the bodies and using the hands of medical professionals, ministers, family and friends. Would these archangelic agencies do their thing without my asking them? Again of course. So why do I ask?

    I can’t speak for how this works for others, but if I take praying for Jane seriously I can’t just leave it at a few words lobbed towards the ceiling. I have to be one of those who helps her — whether by calling or writing, bringing food, walking her dog, taking her to her appointments, arguing with hospital administrators, whatever I can do.

    In my religion, you become what you pray for and whom you pray to.

    Your mileage, I suspect, may vary.

    • This one hits close to home for me, since prayer to Isis is one of the main practices that would distinguish me from just any old Humanist/Naturalist/Atheist.

      First, let me agree 100% that an intention to help someone, whether or not it has anything to do with prayer, must end in action with your own two hands. I’ve toyed with a personal maxim that says a ritual is not over till someone or something material benefits.

      That said, why do prayer in the first place? For me, there are two reasons that I’ll highlight here, out of the many that could be said.

      First, motivation to act is not always at the beck and call of our rational decision-maker. Often we know what we *should* do, but can’t get over the fear or laziness to do it. Prayer seems to help me focus my motivation, so that I can actually manifest intention into action. So focusing motivation is the first reason.

      The second reason I do prayer is for my own psychological well-being, which is indirectly related to the well-being of others with whom I interact. For whatever reason (I could go into a very long scientific discussion of possibly-related factors, but we’ll skip that for now), I respond well to verbalizing aloud my thoughts and feelings to an image that embodies qualities I consider highest and best in humans. For me, that image is the goddess Isis. I sit before the statue of her, light a candle, chant to enter a relaxed and ever-so-slightly-altered mental state, then tell her what’s bothering me. It’s a kind of self-talk, but more effective than just sitting down and talking to myself because the technique seems to get around certain blocks thrown up by the rational ego. Very frequently this kind of prayer leads to creative new ideas, new insights, or just a sense of emotional release. I usually leave with a new sense of strength and clarity. So it is clearly therapeutic for me.

      Then, when I go from there to interact with my wife, my friends, or anyone else, I am in a better emotional place to relate to them and give them what they need, since I’m no longer as muddled with my own unresolved emotional muck. I would like to think that whatever good behavior we achieve around others is also contagious, so that the influence of my better behavior spreads to those around me, which spreads to those around them, etc. So the second reason for prayer leads to direct benefit for me, and indirect benefit for others.

      There is no particular reason why prayer must specifically be engaged to achieve these same results, except that for me it has proven effective and I like it. It does seem to have certain powerful advantages as already alluded to (getting around ego blocks), but I can only speculate on the science of it so I’ll leave it out for now. To make a long story short, it works for me. Other people coming from different experiences and contexts may not find it as effective as another means, but for me it has proven by straight-forward empirical results to be highly effective.

  4. This is a good challenge piece. It’s difficult to debate the benefit of something that is only experienced by one side. But even so… I’ll bite ;-)

    I find ritual beneficial for many of the same reasons meditation has been cited as a healthy practice. In fact, most of the ritual I do is of a meditative nature. It helps me feel centered and the myths that I use during ritual greatly aid in stepping into my own head.

    Ritual is a way of peering inside for a moment, and if I’m not mistaken, this is more what Lynn meant by “stepping out of (her) small ego reality”. Ritual is definitely ego based, but focuses inward, leaving the external everyday reality aside. There’s a lot of baggage that we pick up in our day to day lives, and it’s good to step away from it from time to time. Granted, there are other ways to do this – such as the punk mosh-pit (must admit I’ve enjoyed many mosh pits in the past) but for me there is a certain experience in ritual that I don’t find elsewhere.

    Also, as an artist, ritual is an invaluable tool. I couldn’t begin to tell you how beneficial it is to my creativity. Not speaking for others, but I know that there is a lot inside of me that would go unnoticed if all of my attention was constantly focused on the material. That said, ritual most certainly impacts my creation of “things of value”.

    There are times that I have even made the entire act of creation (painting is a prime example) a ritual. It gets me into the right mindset… the ideas flow onto the canvas unfettered once I get to that point.

    • I probably used a bad example with the ‘meditation’ thing. Meditation, as a way of clearing thoughts and reflecting, is a useful thing.

      By the way, for the meaning of ritual I’m going by wikipedia:

      “A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.”

      This, then, is a ritual. Meditation CAN be a ritual, but isn’t necessarily one.

      • Good clarification. I knew you were only using it as an example earlier, but wanted to stress to what end that I personally use ritual. It’s good to point out that mediation can be used with and without it.

        • “It’s good to point out that mediation can be used with and without it.”

          I like that distinction as well. I never really thought about it being one or the other before.

  5. I once asked a monk at a Buddhist temple why he bows before the statue of the Buddha. He said (paraphrasing as memory allows), “That statue is just a piece of wood. We do not worship Buddha, so bowing is not even to ‘give’ anything. I bow because, as I enter this space, that action helps me to discard all of the distracting matters in my mind as I enter this space and this time. It helps me to reset my focus on the teachings of Buddhism, which is what I have come into this space to do.”

    For the spiritual naturalist, the purpose of ritual is to create a sacred (sacred = “set apart”) space for certain principles and subjects of deep value to be focused upon. Through a multi-sensory outward physical experience, these values and principles become more deeply engrained into our perspectives and responses than mere intellectual-level data, thus helping to facilitate character development and helping us on our path toward better spiritual practice.

    If ritual and practice does not represent and reinforce specific philosophic principles, and help to internalize those perspectives more intuitively, then it is disconnected from its function, and meaningless. While disconnected activities may still be of value for entertainment or fellowship purposes, I would not call these true ritual, but rather cultural celebrations.

    This is why we must ask with each ritual: what specific perspectives, values, or principles are being represented? How does the enactment of this ritual help me to internalize them more intuitively and habitually, rather than merely intellectually? How does practicing this ritual change me as a person, and is that change conducive to the spiritual practice I have set before me?

    No offense intended, but I found this quote comical, “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’.”

    Happiness and well-being are the one – and only – purpose of spiritual practice. They are the ‘holy grail’ of our entire endeavor. So, the line above is true. Ritual produces nothing of value, other than the very goal of all spiritual practice.

    What makes this ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ different from the mere pleasure of video games, or many other transitory condition-dependent pleasures, is that true spiritual practice is a specific method of developing our character, our internal judgment responses, and our value systems such that we achieve *True Happiness* – that is, the equanimity of the flourishing ‘good life’ which allows contentment *independence of circumstance*. This is freedom from the slavery of the vicissitudes of external condition.

    If this is of no interest, or seen as an impossibility, then it is better to go play video games.

    • “For the spiritual naturalist, the purpose of ritual is to create a sacred (sacred = “set apart”) space for certain principles and subjects of deep value to be focused upon.”

      I have to wonder about that. I tend to agree with the quote, “there are no unsacred places, there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

      When it comes to principles and subjects of deep value, I cannot understand why you would only focus on it in one physical area. If it is so important to your life, why not focus on it everywhere you go?

      “If ritual and practice does not represent and reinforce specific philosophic principles, and help to internalize those perspectives more intuitively, then it is disconnected from its function, and meaningless.”

      In any practice I do, I do not want to have to reinforce my principles through ritual. I would rather have my principles challenged to show that it still holds firm and has no weakness or if a weakness is shown, that it is made to be stronger or that element of my principles is removed, and in that way have my philosophic principles remain in my life.

      “While disconnected activities may still be of value for entertainment or fellowship purposes, I would not call these true ritual, but rather cultural celebrations.”

      In that I agree. But think ‘entertainment’ would be sufficient enough. Although, any thing that you are being involved with has an impact on how you view things or interact with things. For something that is considered a ‘disconnected activity’ it can very well have you make many connections in various ways. Psychologically or socially for example.

      “Happiness and well-being are the one – and only – purpose of spiritual practice.”

      How can one have a ‘spiritual’ practice if one does not have a spirit? I think that being happy is good, but certain ways of obtaining that happiness can be considered unhealthy. I think that is the point that Jake is trying to make. That ritual is an unhealthy way of obtaining happiness or a sense of well-being. Because happiness and well-being can be obtained in more productive ways, is what I got from Jake’s argument. And as I’ve said before, I’d rather not have my philosophical principles rely on reinforcement through ritual. As I think that would make their soundness questionable.

    • “Contentment regardless of circumstances. This is freedom from the slavery of the vicissitudes of external condition.”

      I don’t believe people should be content regardless of circumstances. This can justify the most horrific living conditions, or living under a dictatorship. The logic leads people to pursue ‘spiritual’ happiness over improved living conditions. This is, incidentally, a good way to keep people from challenging the status quo or existing power structures. Since we have taught ourselves to be content regardless of the state of the world around us or our standard of living, those who have no such scruples or enlightenment can continue to wield power and accumulate wealth without our challenge or consent.

      This is another example of the old ‘spiritual vs. worldly’ values thing, where the material realm is seen as slavery or an imposition, and we should turn inwards to find happiness. Through this thinking, worldly suffering is somehow transformed into spiritual virtue and reward.

      Contentment is not something I strive for. Happiness, I’ve found, comes through satisfaction with accomplishment, cultivating good and healthy relationships with friends, and knowing that the world is better for having me in it.

      The real world is not slavery. It is freedom, with real consequences. Often it is unfair, unpleasant and brutal. Often the consequences we receive are from the actions of others, or through natural processes we have no control over. But we are born into this world with choices, and I believe with a duty to try and make life better however we can. A retreat into our own thoughts or feelings, and a disregard for the physical world, is exactly that: a retreat. We are giving up. We turn inward, where thought and prayer can make us content without having to deal with discontent.

      Perhaps this is the dreaded ‘western-centric’ worldview that I’ve been criticized for. Once again, I’m not advocating for consumerism,, or endless development, or even for an unfettered free market. I’m arguing that the real, physical world is important. I’m arguing that the freedom to choose implies the responsibility to act, not just to quest for our own happiness, or to seek enlightenment.

      This is my worldview, summed up shortly: What you do defines who you are, not what you say or think.

    • “If ritual and practice does not represent and reinforce specific philosophic principles, and help to internalize those perspectives more intuitively, then it is disconnected from its function, and meaningless. … This is why we must ask with each ritual: what specific perspectives, values, or principles are being represented? How does the enactment of this ritual help me to internalize them more intuitively and habitually, rather than merely intellectually? How does practicing this ritual change me as a person, and is that change conducive to the spiritual practice I have set before me?”

      DT, I see the value in this perspective and I shared it at one time. However, I came to find that this was an overly-cerebral approach to ritual, and as a result I found it difficult to genuinely dwell in the ritual and my rituals felt inorganic. I was too busy thinking about the meaning and making sure it all “made sense”. Over time, I came to appreciate the need to let go and give myself over more to intuition when creating ritual. I recently heard someone at a Unitarian church describe Unitarians as singing their hymns with half of their brain while analyzing the lyrics with the other half to make sure they don’t sing anything they can’t intellectually assent to. This is how I was doing ritual for a while. I’ve come to believe it is important to shut off the discursive self (at least partly), not only in the ritual act, but also in the ritual creation.

      Also, for me, the goal of ritual is not so to much to realize those values and goals of my conscious self as to create a space where the unconscious parts of myself can find expression. So it is less about internalizing intellectual concepts, and more about externalizing unconscious influences.

      • Hi John :)

        I don’t think there is necessarily inconsistency in what we have both said here. I did not mean to suggest that we think about these cerebral matters in the conducting of the rituals, but rather, in the design of them and in thinking about what kinds of rituals are useful to the naturalist. While performing ritual, I completely agree with you that ‘letting go’ is, for many of them, an essential element. The subjective experience in which we utilize many other parts of our minds, creativity, emotion, intuition, etc. than just the intellectual – these are the things of ‘profound experience’ and are a big part of what helps to deeply internalize helpful perspectives as I was referring to. I love what you said about the way many Unitarians engage in their services – great example haha.

        I first noticed what you refer to about letting our unconscious speak to us when engaging in an animal guide spirit quest. Although I interpret it quite differently before and after the fact, than does the supernaturalist, the experience has had great insightful benefit for me. My ‘intellectualizing’ of these matters may seem dryer than the actual rituals themselves, but sometimes I find this is necessary to bridge the gap between those of us who have had such experiences, and those still trying to intellectually understand what the big deal is, how or why it works. My apologies if that approach made made me unclear.

        Sincerely,
        Daniel

        • “My ‘intellectualizing’ of these matters may seem dryer than the actual rituals themselves, but sometimes I find this is necessary to bridge the gap between those of us who have had such experiences, and those still trying to intellectually understand what the big deal is, how or why it works.”

          I understand. In fact, I experienced the same thing in my own development. There were experiences I subconsciously would not let myself have until I first rationalized them. When my rational mind was satisfied, it seemed I could finally let go and have the experience. Since then, however, I’ve come to the point where I am able to seek out the experience first, and then rationalize it later.

  6. *have a sneaking suspicion that these constructed deitic images for ritual are simply another form of imaginary friend*

    • >*have a sneaking suspicion that these constructed deitic images for ritual are simply another form of imaginary friend*

      You might be right. There is certainly some resemblance.

      However, does characterizing this practice as interacting with an imaginary friend recognize the aspect of responsible action involved in it? I’ve already discussed in my reply to Peter earlier how, in my case, prayer to Isis produces benefit both to the individual and to those with whom the individual interacts. I’m not sure this aspect of social responsibility is manifest in a child’s interactions with imaginary friends.

      Furthermore, does such a characterization recognize the conscious awareness and critical engagement with the process that is involved in intentionally working with an image you know is manifest only in your own subjective experience? I’m not sure this awareness and intentionality is manifest in a child’s imaginary friend experience either.

  7. Rua,

    “I cannot understand why you would only focus on it in one physical area”

    Sorry for my lack of clarity. I meant a ‘sacred space’ in the sense of a ‘space in our schedule’ or making a space for it in our lives, in a more general sense. Sacredness is not a trait which exists intrinsically more or less in certain physical locations. It is a subjective human activity.

    “In any practice I do, I do not want to have to reinforce my principles through ritual. I would rather have my principles challenged…”

    With all principles and concepts, they should be based on rational examination and experience, tested against evidence and argument – and provisional on that basis. This is, in fact, a revered principle for the spiritual naturalist in itself.

    The ‘reinforcement’ is not to get one to believe what they otherwise would not. Rather, once a perspective or principle is found to be worthy, there is a difference between intellectual knowledge and intuitive deep knowledge of something. Much of the true benefit of the principles of contemplative thought and practice can only be experienced through a deep application of them in one’s character and responses as we go through life. And that kind of application requires practice.

    People unfamiliar with contemplative practice often imagine they can read about Buddhism, critique it, then decide if it is ‘right’ or not, and if they decide it is right, then apply it. This is completely misguided. There is no amount of reading and thinking you can do regarding ancient contemplative arts that will ever inform you enough to make such a judgment. They must be put into practice before you can see for yourself whether they are beneficial. If you think those who have found it beneficial are just making it up, or deluded, that’s fine. But practice is an essential element in investigating the truth of contemplative claims. Only through practice can the transformative benefits of the concepts be experienced. Ritual is one (of many) such practices, but not sufficient on its own.

    This is the difference between two people in a torture prison, one of whom is broken and in despair, and the other who has fortitude and inner strength. It is not because they have different intellectual beliefs. It is because they look at the world in a certain way, deeply – and transforming oneself deeply and intuitively in that manner requires application and practice – not mere intellectual consent.

    Jake,

    “I don’t believe people should be content regardless of circumstances. This can justify the most horrific living conditions…”

    Contentment, by my use of the word, does not mean refraining from action. Rather, the action is taken from a different source, and that source is one of greater foundation. I cannot control whether injustices occur, but only what I do, whether virtuous or vicious. But to let injustice happen without action is a moral choice, and that choice IS something I control. Therefore to do nothing is what harms my contentment, not the outer condition of injustice. In other words, the focus is not “I must change this” but rather, “I must be the kind of person that tries to change things”. Through this shift of perspective, we are not crushed when things do not go our way – we are in alignment with the truth of impermanence and what we control and what we don’t. But we act virtuously because it is appropriate to our nature to do so, and in so doing gain contentment. The results of our vigorous attempts are not fully in our control and not something to which to attach ourselves or our happiness. This is why so many Western activists get ‘burnt out’. Their attachments to circumstance as a source for their inner peace and happiness are confused.

    Sincerely :)
    -Daniel

    • “They must be put into practice before you can see for yourself whether they are beneficial.”

      If there is a teaching that jumping off a bridge is beneficial, I don’t need to jump off a bridge to know that it is not.

      “Only through practice can the transformative benefits of the concepts be experienced.”

      Yes, and there are plenty of practices that I would gladly avoid as I feel that the results of such transformative things are not beneficial. Scientology for example. Such methods could be described as brain washing. I don’t have to go through any things to know different. I would question any practice that would have to have me go through their teaching for me to understand that theirs has benefits. If it is a good solid practice, then I should first know this intellectually before becoming involved. Otherwise, I am up for grabs.

      As for the torture prison circumstance. I’d be fighting my arse off to get the hell out and not be a sitting duck making myself feel better. I’d be using my intellectual self to plot and scheme and establish outside contact or means of escape. And I wouldn’t just be looking that the world in a different way, I’d be doing my damnedest to get back into it and make an impact so that I and others wouldn’t go into such places again.

      The practice described speaks much of accepting hardships instead of working to change those hardships. In that I very much disagree with the approach.

  8. Provocative. Two immediate reactions.

    1) It’s worth understanding that much of human life is suffused with ritual, especially social life. “How ya doin’?/Fine.” Everyday greetings are ritualized. Shaking hands? A symbolic gesture. A simple ritual. Clearly, these implicit rituals are not the target of this essay, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all do ritual to some extent. Thus I’d re-frame the question to ask “How can ritual be helpful and healthful, and when precisely does it become otherwise?” Rituals do have power, and that can work for good or ill.

    2) The primary function of religious ritual, in my understanding, is to communicate and affirm a shared sense of value amongst the participants. A supernaturalist might contend that the body and blood of Christ are actually present in the Eucharist, if I may draw upon a well-known Christian ritual; the humanist interpretation would be that the wine is a symbol of universal love, and that by drinking together we affirm our participation in an intentional community. Or something like that. My Christian theology’s a little rusty. The pagan rituals in which I’ve participated serve to reinforce participation in a community, respect for the natural world, honoring the memory of ancestors, and so forth. To take Jake’s example of the sunrise ceremony, I would frame that not as an attempt to communicate to the sun, but as an expression of our delight in the sunrise.

    After a good ritual we indeed go out to do! learn! and create! And in a great ritual we do all three right then and there as a part of it.

    • This is my idea of ritual. A group of people coming together celebrating and affirming their shared views of the world and inspiring ways of taking action.

      From Jake’s argument I took that he was addressing other forms of ritual, more pointedly rituals addressing the supernatural.

      But you are right to say that ritual takes many many forms.

    • Affirming a shared sense of value can also be interpreted as reinforcing a status quo or current social order. The shared sense of value is imposed on the group gathered for the ritual, because of the reinforcement of the people around you. It can be used to crush dissent, inflate the authority of certain social groups (e.g. priesthoods), reinforce repressive gender roles, etc. Ritual is as much a political tool as a spiritual one – look at all the secular rituals engaged in in totalitarian states. But I digress.

      The point I was trying to make (and that most people seem to have missed) is that ritual is not inherently more meaningful than any other activity pursued for the purpose of pleasure. If you get something out of it, great, go for it – but don’t think that it’s somehow time better spent than going to a rock concert or reading. I don’t see it as necessary to the whole human experience.

      • Jake, you write “The point I was trying to make (and that most people seem to have missed) is that ritual is not inherently more meaningful than any other activity pursued for the purpose of pleasure. If you get something out of it, great, go for it – but don’t think that it’s somehow time better spent than going to a rock concert or reading. I don’t see it as necessary to the whole human experience.”

        Point taken. But the thing is, you didn’t settle with that but also wrote stuff like this: “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.”

        So, do you think reading is ‘dehumanizing’ too?

        • Reading as dehumanizing? Perhaps it is. If that’s all you do, and you never apply what you’ve learned in the books (and you can learn even from fiction) then it is dehumanizing. So too for video games, movies…simple consumption of pleasurable images, words and things without giving anything back is problematic…it is too easy to get wrapped up in entertainment. We have to take care.

          I do ‘de-humanizing’ things all the time. I usually do them as a ‘break’ from productive activity . I don’t see them as particularly important. If I do too much of them I get depressed, so I then go and do something constructive, like fixing something (I find equipment maintenance quite therapeutic) or writing something. I do them as a self indulgence, and don’t let myself believe any differently. If I learn something, all the better….and I try to apply it as soon as possible. I’m not a shining example of humanity…but if you think of all the people in history that are now remembered, the common factor is that they a) went out and did something or b) wrote something down, which someone else used to go out and do something. I think that has to our ideal: leaving the world a better place, or enabling other people to do so.

        • “that has to our ideal: leaving the world a better place, or enabling other people to do so.”

          That is my goal. :D

  9. Rua,

    Please let us know when you have learned how to prevent all hardships. This will be valuable knowledge indeed! :)

    Best wishes,
    Daniel

  10. “Why bother to do ritual?” One might as well ask, “Why create art?” Why paint a painting when you can take a photograph? (although photographs can be art also.) Why write a poem or a story when you can outline a logical argument? Why dance? Why sing? That’s what ritual is for me: in Sabina Magliocco’s words, “Ritual is my chosen art form.” It is dance and poetry and song all wound together.

    Jake, your argument begins with by denigrating metaphor as merely clever word games. But surely you can understand that poetry is more than flowery language and clever word games. I understand ritual as a form of poetry (and in this I am indebted to David Miller and Matt Guynn for their discussion of “theopoetics”*). If poetic language is understood as merely metaphorical language, then poetry is just flowery language, and you are justified in wondering what the point is. But if, rather, poetry is understood, not as metaphor, as pointing to a referent, but rather, in Heidegger’s sense of the word, as opening a horizon of possibility through language, then I think it becomes easier to appreciate what ritual is. Ritual and poetry point to something that cannot be fully expressed in representational language. Or rather, instead of pointing us to a referent, ritual and poetry invite us to experience something. Good poetry can never be explained exhaustively for this reason. And the same is true of ritual.

    When I invoke a deity in ritual, I am not invoking an idea that I have personified, i.e., Dionysos = wine. I am invoking an experience, i.e., Dionysos = the experience of ecstasy, in the same way art is intended to evoke an experience, an experience of something that transcends rational explication. Ritual isn’t about pretending the gods are real, any more than a painting is a pretend photograph. But if you cannot grant that there are dimensions of human experience which transcend representational language, then you are right to wonder what the point of ritual is.

    I found it interesting that, in addition to denying the literal existence of deities, you assumed the non-existence of the “soul”. Now, I do not think one needs to believe in the existence of anything like an individual “spirit” which survives the death of the body in order to appreciate that human experience cannot be fully accounted for in strictly materialistic/mechanistic terms. Even if there is no thing which can be identified as a “soul”, there are experiences for which I can think of no better term than soul. Soul experiences include the experiences of beauty, awe (including terror), transcendence, love, ecstasy. If you think these things are delusions, then it is difficult to know how to proceed, because we really are living in two different universes of experience. To me, these are the experiences which make us human.

    You ask what is the point of all this if it doesn’t contribute to the a betterment of the world. I agree that an aesthetic religion can be problematic if it ends up forgetting about the other people in the room. Still, I would respond that art is one of the most human things that we do. It is perhaps one of the things that makes us human. In a sense, I think we are all alone in that room you spoke of in your thought experience, and filling that space with paintings, or music, or dance is all we can do. What is the point? For me, the point is to become more fully human. For me, a religion without ritual would no religion at all, and a human life without ritual would hardly be human at all. And this is part of the reason I call my religion “humanistic”.

    If I may digress for a moment, in 1889, William Robertson in his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, argued that the religious practices of the Old Testament were not theological, but ritualistic. A few years later, Jane Ellen Harrison and others in the “Myth and Ritual School” applied this theory to Hellenic religion.  In her book, Alpha and Omega, Harrison contrasted theology and “religion” (by which she meant ritual). It is this distinction which is at the heart of what I am talking about above:

    “To be an Atheist, to renounce eikonic theology, is to me personally almost an essential of religious life.  I say this in no spirit of paradox, but as a matter of deep conviction.  The god of theology is simply an intellectual attempt to define the indefinable; it is not a thing lived, experienced; it almost must be a spiritual stumbling block today. … It is not only that the particular forms of theology are dead, but that the idea of theology – i.e., a science of the unknowable – is, if not dead, at least, I venture to think, dying.  God and reason are contradictory terms.” 

    Harrison went on to write that “all theology is but a thinly-veiled rationalism, a net of illusive clarity cast over life and its realities”, whereas “religion [ritual] is our reaction to the whole, the unbounded whole.” “Theology,” she writes, “is the letter that killeth, religion the spirit that maketh alive.”  Again, for Harrison, “religion” meant ritual. 

    Jake, respectfully, I think you make the same mistake as religious literalists in confusing “eikonic theology” (i.e., representational thinking about God) with the religious experience (which ritual invites us into). The religious literalists make the mistake of confusing the symbol with the reality of the experience, and I think you make the same mistake when you equate ritual with metaphor. But there is a third option, which sees ritual as simultaneously an expression of and an invitation to an experience — an experience of something indefinable. You may find this to be mushy-headed, obscurantist, mysticism. But I am on the side of the romantics who affirm the irreducible value of human experience as such.

    • “I found it interesting that, in addition to denying the literal existence of deities, you assumed the non-existence of the “soul”. Now, I do not think one needs to believe in the existence of anything like an individual “spirit” which survives the death of the body in order to appreciate that human experience cannot be fully accounted for in strictly materialistic/mechanistic terms. Even if there is no thing which can be identified as a “soul”, there are experiences for which I can think of no better term than soul. Soul experiences include the experiences of beauty, awe (including terror), transcendence, love, ecstasy. If you think these things are delusions, then it is difficult to know how to proceed, because we really are living in two different universes of experience. To me, these are the experiences which make us human. “

      There is no soul, as there is no spirit in the literal sense of the word. Even if those words are used to express something different, then that means that they are something different. What is being referred to is the Psyche, the Mind, the Brain. Beautiful and Brilliant as is, no need to try to fluff it up.

      “a science of the unknowable” wouldn’t be science. That is contradictory to what the word means and what it entails.

      What I understand is being done in ‘spiritual rituals’ is that its a dose of a feel good experience, which would be a form of psychological conditioning. Which is something that could very well be considered a “… obsessive compulsive disorder, or some related medical condition, which is generally considered unhealthy.”

      From what I understand the point of Jake’s post is that ritual toward something that you know is fictional for the feel good outcome is not healthy, when these good feelings could be created through more healthy outlets (like art).

      If someone were to come up to a naturalistic person and asked what they were doing while they were in ‘spiritual ritual’ (I presume they are not asking for direct intervention as that would imply believing in a literal deity), they should say that they were just talking with themselves. Not a deity or other supernatural form.

      But those in ‘spiritual ritual’ don’t normally have that response. It is in essence tricking themselves and denying reality. There is no need to go through a process of deitic worship if it is not believed that deities exist. For a naturalistic person, there really isn’t even a need for ‘spiritual ritual’ as there is no belief of spirits. Other rituals make sense though.

      Ritual has functional, rational, practical places in our society. A swearing in of a new leader, wedding ceremonies, etc. are ways of enforcing vows, holding those in presentation accountable, and to communicate and affirm a shared sense of value amongst the participants.

      I personally don’t think there is a spectrum between Deism and Naturalism. As it is either believed that there is no deities, or that there are deities, otherwise its some form of agnosticism and not naturalism. A naturalistic person going through ‘spiritual ritual’ comes off as a form of denial. Trying to hold on to falsehoods.

      Religion for Naturalistic people can make sense so long as it focuses on social and psychological needs, and not spiritual.

      • “Religion for Naturalistic people can make sense so long as it focuses on social and psychological needs, and not spiritual.”

        The thing is, without the spiritual aspect, would it even be a religion? As religion is defined by addressing spirituality. So I’m thinking likely not, unless religion is somehow redefined.

        • I agree with this, and I personally think Humanistic Pagans are in a unique place to look very deeply into what being spiritual really truly means. We need to provide new frameworks for understanding mysticism, beyond the tired idea of the supernatural and all the rhetoric that goes with it.

    • Definition of metaphor from wikipedia: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea”. In other words, clever wordplay, Entertaining, and perhaps able to get an idea across, but not more sacred or important than say, simile or hyperbole in that they all seek to get the point across.

      In terms of ritual as an art form – why not just do the art instead of the ritual? If you dance during a ritual, that’s dancing – dancing outside of ritual is just as meaningful. Same with singing. Same with anything. The problem I have is that people think that doing ritual dancing vs. regular dancing, for example, is better.

      I get that many people like the romantic viewpoint. They want to experience spiritual things, invoke spiritual beings, live lives infused with cosmic meaning. People want the comforts of religion while rejecting some of the premises (i.e. deities). It can be somewhat depressing that the world can actually, for the most part, be defined by physical and chemical phenomena, but there you are. Ritual and religion have been coping mechanisms in the absence of knowledge of the world around us – now, increasingly, I think they are becoming coping mechanisms for the uncomfortable truths concerning our own make up. Mundane explanations feel unsatisfying when faced with thousands of years of mystical thought.

      • “Mundane explanations feel unsatisfying when faced with thousands of years of mystical thought.”

        Because they don’t adequately describe our experiences. Science is marvelous and challenging, but it is limited when it comes to telling me anything useful about my everyday experience of being human. Like any other construction we use to understand the universe, like math or language, it is very good at describing certain parts of what being alive is like, and not very good at others.

        It’s not that mystical thought is sparklier and shinier than mundane explanations. Mystical thought gets just as weird, and scary, and unsettling as science at its weirdest and scariest and most unsettling (though science of course makes none of these assumptions you’re describing). To be honest, I have a hard time tackling this idea of ritual and religion as a coping mechanism because it’s so incredibly contrary to _all_ of my own experiences of religion and ritual, and so much of what I’ve read in anthropology and in myth. I realize it functions that way for certain people, but virtually anything can be a comfort if you ignore the deeper, darker aspects of it.

  11. John, you took the words out of my mouth. As Ross Nichols (Nuinn), the first chief and founder of OBOD put it, ‘Ritual is poetry in the world of acts’.

    • I’m glad to hear I’m not alone. According to Jake’s piece, we are hypocritical, unproductive, navel-gazing, drugged, inhumans.

        • “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.”

          I can only presume this was meant to be provocative. In which case, it was successful.

      • As a member of the human species, you cannot be ‘inhuman’, unless you’ve had your DNA spliced with another creature. Then you would be transhuman. It is possible to lead lives that do not fully exploit the potential of a human being…and certain activities that may squander that potential (I do activities like that all the time – I just don’t think they’re more important than productive work). That is ‘de-humanizing’. I guess I was trying to come at this from a ‘humanist’ angle and failed.

        I don’t know you personally, so I wouldn’t say you were any of the above things. However, many people self-medicate as a coping mechanism. A way to get by. I think the analogy with drug addiction is a solid one. People get chemically addicted to sex. Why not ritual?

        I don’t say that people who do ritual are unproductive. the ritual itself is unproductive. When it takes the place of work that can create things of value – when it is seen to be more important – then it is problematic. Many religions extoll the spiritual life over the physical world. Thousands, if not millions of people, embrace a life of pure contemplation, ritual and thought. Taken to that extreme, they are unproductive.

        I stand by my comments: if you’re invoking gods that you don’t believe exist, that is hypocritical. If you said it out loud, and someone heard you, they would believe you worshipped that god – when in fact you do not. As far as I can tell, many people use it as a metaphor for an abstract ideal – in which case you are worshipping a concept wrapped in a human form – which is really, when you get right down to it, what gods are. It seems like a very convoluted sort of thing – a kind of non-theistic theism?

        As far as navel-gazing….I’m somewhat puzzled as to what that actually means. If you mean ‘inward-looking’ then yes, I do mean that. It is definitely possible to spend too much time delving into yourself and not experiencing the world around you. It is much easier to learn about the stuff you’re made of through challenging experiences. Contemplation is useful, but can become self-indulgent.

  12. I would never give up ritual and think of the gods as metaphorical. However, my impression is that I take metaphor much more seriously than you do.

    Ultimately I think subjectivity is as valid a reality as objectivity, and that’s where our differences lie: the tacit assumption here is that objective, external reality is more important than what’s inside our heads.

    • >Ultimately I think subjectivity is as valid a reality as objectivity, and that’s where our differences lie: the tacit assumption here is that objective, external reality is more important than what’s inside our heads.

      Differently important is how I would put it, rather than more important. The whole project of HP is about finding a balance between the importance of objectivity and subjectivity, between science and myth.

      • I’d commit to that on a philosophical level, though I am committed to the value of treating subjective experiences as real, at least within appropriate bounds, of which ritual is one.

        When I’m discussing philosophy, the gods are very likely imaginary. When I’m in a ritual, the imaginal is as tangible and unaccountable as the ground underneath my feet.

      • OK, let me see if I can put my concerns this way, in light of your comment about ‘balancing':

        I agree that they are “differently important,” but I think devaluing the subjective– and our cultural tendencies toward thinking of metaphor as “just metaphor”– results in an imbalance between the two, namely a lot of the delusional thinking that atheists tend to decry (faith healing, New Age quakery, etc). Conflation of the subjective and the objective is bound to happen when people are told that the sense of meaningfulness they derive from subjective experiences, such as an experience of God, is invalid because God doesn’t objectively exist.

        Our instincts are self-protective. What most people do in that situation is block it out and refuse to think about it, or come up with the likes of Aquinas’ Five Proofs, or abandon God and place wildly unreasonable expectations on science. As that elegant post by John indicated, this is beside the point: the point is that subjectivity is important. If we can accept that, I think it will be easier to keep our investigations into both worlds, subjective and objective, pure, because we are not hinging linchpins of our worldview on something with objective validity and we are more likely to accept ambiguity between the two. (And anyway, as I’m sure we all know, marking out a distinct line between subjectivity and objectivity is quite a task.)

        • Why do we have to accept that subjectivity is important? Haven’t you just categorically, in an objective sense, said that subjectivity is important? I agree that there isn’t a clear line between the two. A clear line can be drawn between physical reality and conceptual structures, however. That is where metaphor comes in.

          Metaphor is a kind communication – it is an attempt to describe what cannot necessarily be encapsulated in precise language. It is difficult to accurately convey precise image, feelings or smells through the written or spoken word. Metaphor links reality with a memory of a feeling we have, and that makes the communication more solid. Think of it like trying to communicate the color red. We might use fire as a metaphor…but the metaphor cannot capture reality. If you’ve never seen fire before, and cannot imagine it, the metaphor for the concept ‘red’ is useless. THe metaphor is only useful in that it reflects real life. The metaphor can be elegant, beautifully constructed, but it is the idea it carries (the payload, if you will) that is truly important. Without the real world experience the metaphor is useless.

        • Well, saying subjectivity is important is one of those cases where the line between the two is ambiguous. Yes, I believe that objectively, subjectivity is important, and that the science and philosophy I’ve read backs me up on that. Likewise, objectivity has a role to play in one’s internal universe that should not be underestimated. It’s all a little like proving with reason that people are deeply irrational, but there you are, it’s a rational conclusion. :) I suppose I’m not sure where you’d like me to go with this, though? What you seem to be gesturing at is the conclusion that even subjectivity needs objective validity, but without subjective utility, objectivity is nothing. All the reams of data science presents us have no use or meaning soever unless they are used to make our lives better, or to enrich our imaginations– unless they are measured by mostly subjective criteria.

          You’re conceptualizing metaphor quite differently than I am. To me, metaphor itself has a reality of its own– a metaphor of fire is, in a sense, an expression of our _experience with fire_, our _perception of fire itself_. Naturally, the metaphor does hinge on the fact that fire exists, but our experience of fire (as the psychology of perception will tell you) involves much more than just the physical processes of fire.

          And what about a metaphor about something more intangible? Surely a metaphor about wrath is just as valid as a metaphor of fire.

          A good metaphor also has the incredible capacity to transform our experience of reality by altering our perception. A poem about fire can and will transform my next experience of fire. And I’ve read plenty of metaphors of things I’ve never experienced before, strictly speaking– how life was thousands of years ago, what war is like, how it might be to live in a medieval fantasy world with a magic sword, . All of those experiences, no matter how silly, have been as real as real gets to me, even if it’s a different experience of reality than my literal experience with physical reality.

    • This highlighting of the importance of metaphor, for me, touches on a broader subject of ‘modes of communicating’ about various phenomena – and for what purposes or functions. I believe there is importance in what I call “Sacred Tongue”, a way of talking about certain things of importance to spiritual naturalist practice that is designed specifically to touch those parts of our minds, feelings, and memories that are not touched with technical or precise language. My assertion is that these more poetic forms of communication are not ‘less accurate’. In fact, they are MORE accurate in the sense that they help reproduce ‘what it is like’ to experience the thing being communicated first-hand. They are multi-channel streams of highly complex data that rely on the receiving mind to utilize its complex ‘baggage’ to fill in the gaps, resulting in a more robust form of communication than is possible through dry description. Is Sacred Tongue “better” overall? It depends on the function and purpose at hand. If one is trying to communicate how to build a bridge, technical language is superior. If one is trying to communicate a sense of awe and wonder about the cosmos, or a sense of appreciation for compassion, etc. then technical language is far, far, inferior and less accurate at conveying the full experience.

      • Exactly. Thank you, DT. It’s similar to how Michael Dowd distinguishes between Day language and Night language.

      • This is where I agree that myth making to convey meaning is great. The post by Jake is directed specifically toward ‘spiritual ritual’ toward deities not metaphors.

        There seems to be confusion on the difference.

        • The Jungian line of thinking points to deities as remarkably complex, vivid, and even (if you go as far as James Hillman) nearly autonomous metaphors. Anthropomorphization is at least related to metaphor-making, isn’t it?

        • Anthropomorphizing is a metaphor so long as it is used in the form of story telling. Once it is viewed as literal, or something that has control over you, it is no longer metaphor.

        • “Says reason” is appealing to authority, and in a very dangerous way, IMHO. My argument is that my understanding of metaphor extends past the idea of an image-as-representation; it is a thing in and of itself, the way the word “red” is a thing, even though it has a relationship with the physical expressions of red.

  13. I’d like to respond to Jake’s article directly this time.

    Although I would not personally couch arguments in the terms used here, or exaggerate them to these proportions, Jake does touch on many points that are at the heart of the HP project.

    1. The problem of hypocrisy, metaphor, and what’s real.

    The question of hypocrisy may be precisely why naturalists come out of the closet as naturalists, admitting they just don’t believe literally in gods, magic, and so forth. There are lots of naturalists around in various religions, especially Paganism, though they are not always visible or publicly open about their beliefs. Naturalists at Humanistic Paganism specifically go public with it. No hypocrisy – we’re attempting to state as clearly as possible what we mean when we speak of gods or engage in ritual.

    As for metaphor, it has more dimensions than its use as a clever device in literature. Metaphor is at the root of how we understand the world. Much of Western scientific materialism uses a mechanistic metaphor for how things interact. The question is: how does that metaphor shape our experience, and how would using alternative metaphors alter experience? The mechanistic metaphor has proven quite useful for creating reliable theories predicting interactions of matter/energy in the universe. However, it’s utility for fostering a fulfilling subjective sense of being-in-the-world is not as clear. Sometimes alternative metaphors, used judiciously and for appropriate ends, can be powerful. I find the personal metaphor of gods an obstruction for the first purpose, that of crafting objective explanatory theories about the universe, but useful for the second purpose, that of crafting a fulfilling subjective sense of being-in-the-world.

    So, the project of HP answers the charge of hypocrisy by being honest and forthright about what’s real, and using alternative metaphors where appropriate without equivocation about what those metaphors mean.

    2. Then, why ritual?

    The motivations for naturalistic ritual are multiple and complex, vary with the individual, and are best understood by reading the many excellent articles and comments on the subject posted here at HP. Suffice to say they are not in the least represented by the statement: “you’re performing a religious or spiritual rite that you don’t believe has any impact or effect on the world around you.”

    First of all, rituals can and do have an impact on the world around you, but that impact comes through your own two hands, not some supernatural force. In a previous comment, I described how ritual can motivate action, clear your emotional muck so you’re in a better state for when you interact with others, and create a positive state of mind that is contagious and spreads from you through others. So, it does effect the world around you.

    Second, you, the individual, are part of the world around you, of equal worth and value with other parts of the world, and your own well-being is just as worthwhile a goal as that of others. There is value in that. I would not at all suggest that ritual is “inherently” more valuable than other activities, such as “watching a movie, or going for a jog, or sitting down and reading hours and hours of webcomics.” However, it is differently valuable. Each activity gives you different benefits.

    Now, there’s a very important caveat to be considered. There is no reason why ritual that only improves your own happiness and well-being is necessarily bad, or a waste of time. However, there is danger in promoting your own happiness and well-being if it is done in a way that harms others. That is why Humanistic Paganism includes “responsible action” as one of the four key elements of the Fourfold Path. Our responsibility to the world is specifically emphasized and affirmed. A recent Thing on Thursday poll asked “To whom or what do you owe responsibility?” The most popular response was to all of humanity, followed by environment, family and close friends, and finally oneself. That ought to illustrate that we have much more than our own personal enjoyment in mind.

    If ritual can be demonstrated to have no effect, direct or indirect, on these other objects of responsibility beyond the self, then the criticism may be valid: ritual is inappropriate in HP. However, I believe ritual does have direct and indirect effects on these things, as I’ve already explained above.

    3. Thought experiment

    The thought experiment of the meditator and gamer uses a very extreme and exaggerated scenario in order to make a point, but it’s not a bad point. I too am uncomfortable with the question of the final meaning of a life spent completely isolated from others and others’ benefit. What is interesting, though, is the alternatives promoted at the end of the article, specifically climbing a mountain or reading a book. What if the thought experiment were altered to include a person who spends their whole life only climbing a mountain, or their whole life only reading a book? How would that be any different? Doesn’t the individual activity of climbing a mountain or reading a book change you in some way that has effects when you return to interact with others? If so, why is it so hard to believe ritual might change you in the same way?

    What’s really at the heart of this thought experiment, I suspect, is the implied assumption that the individual is not changed or bettered by the experience of ritual, nor is the world around them changed or bettered. These assumptions are absolutely untrue, as shown above.

    4. Learn! Do! Create!

    This could be the motto of Humanistic Paganism. It expresses exactly what we are after, as illustrated by the elements of the Fourfold Path. We learn about our world and ourselves through exploring the Five +1 and developing a relationship with mythology, we do through responsible action, and we create a sense of wonder in ourselves that may become contagious, reverberating from us to our friends to the world.

    • Climbing a mountain gives the climber a direct personal experience with the mountain, rather than a ritual giving an indirect experience (e.g. communing with the mountain through a group rite or meditation). The climber can then tell others about the climb, new techniques can be learned from them. Such information may even save someone’s life.

      Ritual used to increase your own happiness is not necessarily bad, but falls under the same category as anything else you use to increase your own happiness – which is any activity you engage in purely for pleasure. They can be dehumanizing, in that they reduce the importance of real-world experience in the face of symbolic experience. Ritual is often touted as more important, and more meaningful. I have never personally found it to be so. A life full of varied experiences, as well as constructive activity, has the best chance of positively affecting the world.

      The idea of affirmation and reinforcement is common in the responses here. The danger lies in excessive self-affirmation .You do the ritual, you feel better, and you feel that because of this feeling of well-being that you have become a better person, that you have made contact with meaning. You have affirmed your own correctness. This discourages people from questioning their motivation in the ritual. Do you ever do a ritual and then step back and ask: why did I do that ritual? Why did it make me feel happy? What are the consequences of linking my happiness or ability to interact well with others to a series of actions or prayers? Is it a crutch or a prosthesis? Is it masking some larger issue within me?

      On my gradual descent into atheism (from catholicism, to a protestant church, to vague spirituality, and then to where I am now), my beliefs and practices were increasingly linked to comfort. By the time I had abandoned Christianity (for not making sense to me) I was clinging to a hope of life after death and some intrinsic cosmic meaning. But once started down the slope I couldn’t stop. I thought to myself, why do I do and believe these things? Is there any proof that is more convincing than all the other beliefs I have felt forced to abandon? To my great chagrin, I found myself forced to discard beliefs in the importance of humanity in the universe and a life after death. These beliefs comforted me; I am afraid of death, afraid of the absolute cessation, but I will not comfort myself with illusions. They were crutches. They masked my larger issues, which was excessive anxiety, guilt and fear of death. They helped me deal with my fears obliquely. Now I have to face them. Facing them does not make me happy. It does not make me a better person. But I do not believe there are hidden ideals within me, that can make me better, or speak to me in some way. Could they not be my own conceits, or comfort mechanisms? Critical thinking is best applied to one’s own thoughts and motivations, long before applying it to others.

      (and before you point out that my essay is critical thinking about other people, be aware that the substance of this essay is a product of my own experience, and the sometimes brutal application of criticism against some of my own closely-held beliefs.)

      I try my best to live honestly. By rejecting religion and spirituality, I find myself forced to reject other things that may comfort me by the same criteria. I don’t have a Path, or a set of criteria for how I interpret the world. There is nothing between me and the world; no metaphor or illusion, no symbolism. There is the world, and there is me. Sometimes the world is wondrous and awesome. Sometimes it is a place of horror. There is death, and there is life.

      Some may find my outlook bleak; on some days I have to agree (and I haven’t even digressed into my opinion on human history yet!). But for me it is honest, and that is all I have.

      • “Ritual used to increase your own happiness is not necessarily bad, but falls under the same category as anything else you use to increase your own happiness – which is any activity you engage in purely for pleasure. “

        Sooooo…..Hedonism?

        This kind of keeps coming up. There has to be something to it.

        “Do you ever do a ritual and then step back and ask: why did I do that ritual? Why did it make me feel happy? What are the consequences of linking my happiness or ability to interact well with others to a series of actions or prayers? Is it a crutch or a prosthesis? Is it masking some larger issue within me?”

        You know what. I have stepped back and asked if something was a crutch and other things in rituals. Through that I’ve found that there are many underlying problems in many rituals. One that had really bothered me is the sexism in some of the rituals I’ve partaken in, when in reality it doesn’t matter at all, so why even have it in a ritual??? Much of this stems from a fear of one thing or another. It is hard to question things that are uncomfortable, but they need to be asked. It is imperative to courageously seek the truth in order to grow and develop, otherwise you stagnate.

        This in honesty is what lead me to my atheistic views, hence me being Naturalistic, because I still see value in pursuing a life style that is harmonious within Nature. Nature is no less important even though I do not have any supernatural elements in my life.

        “I try my best to live honestly. By rejecting religion and spirituality, I find myself forced to reject other things that may comfort me by the same criteria. I don’t have a Path, or a set of criteria for how I interpret the world. There is nothing between me and the world; no metaphor or illusion, no symbolism. There is the world, and there is me. Sometimes the world is wondrous and awesome. Sometimes it is a place of horror. There is death, and there is life.

        Some may find my outlook bleak; on some days I have to agree (and I haven’t even digressed into my opinion on human history yet!). But for me it is honest, and that is all I have.”

        I try to be honest with myself. I forced myself to question things that are not comfortable and I agree that sometimes it is bleak, but it is real and that satisfies me. This could be compared to the Matrix. A comfortable illusion to a hard reality, but its real. Which pill do you choose?

      • >Ritual is often touted as more important, and more meaningful.

        This point you keep coming back to, and I couldn’t agree more that ritual is *not* more important than non-ritual. Not better, not more valuable, and not necessary to live a complete and full life as a human being (that last part’s in the original What Is Humanistic Paganism? article, by the way). But ritual does have a unique value of its own, and it has instrumental value for psychological wellbeing, character development, and making a positive impact on society. I think the repeated disparagement of ritual activity here assumes too little of what it actually has to contribute to both individual and society.

        But even more than that, like most things that are worthwhile in life, ritual is not just useful in an instrumental sense. It is also a valuable as an end itself, as an experience in and for itself. Yes, climbing a mountain may end up helping people somewhere along the line by the information you bring back, but climbing that mountain is also an end in itself. And that is valuable. Ritual is the same. I feel that is being overlooked.

        Furthermore, the point keeps getting emphasized that ritual is de-humanizing if it’s *all* you do. I can pretty confidently venture that no one, and I mean *no one*, on this site is promoting anything remotely like a life alone and apart, devoted entirely to ritual (even monks in monastic religions usually have some kind of contact with society and have far-reaching social influence). Between this and the point about ritual not being better than non-ritual, I wonder who the thrust of the argument is aimed at. It’s starting to seem like it attacks a straw man. No one here resembles what’s being criticized, so far as I can tell.

        >Do you ever do a ritual and then step back and ask: why did I do that ritual? Why did it make me feel happy? What are the consequences of linking my happiness or ability to interact well with others to a series of actions or prayers? Is it a crutch or a prosthesis? Is it masking some larger issue within me?

        Yes, I do. Evidence: virtually every article I’ve written for this site, plus years of similar posts on my personal Livejournal going back years. These are excellent questions. They are among the sort of questions one might ask oneself in the “Exploration of the Five +1″ part of the Fourfold Path. I get the impression that it’s being assumed that those who do ritual must be neglecting such questions. That would be an extremely faulty assumption.

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