Why do we do ritual?

Pagan circle, Autumn Equinox, beneath The Long Man, on Windover Hill, Sussex Downs, by Chris John Beckett

There are many effects that reveal the multivalent meaningfulness of ritual.

– by B. T. Newberg

It’s often claimed that ritual without literal deities or magic must be meaningless.

This post aims to explode that idea.

Many Pagans say that ritual is beneficial, whether or not deity “exists” or the magic “works.”  If that’s so, then why would ritual without these things be meaningless?

Naturalists simply subtract the element of literal divine communication or magical efficacy, and concentrate on the other parts.  What others may consider side effects, we consider primary effects.

Effects of ritual

First, the hypothesized psychological and social benefits of religion in general, in which ritual plays a key role, are many.  Some of the most academically well-traversed are:

Arguably, none of these preclude a naturalistic view.  The scientific, psychological, sociological, and anthropological literature is rich with studies on them.

In addition, religious practitioners often claim specific effects of ritual.  The following are exclusively from Naturalistic Pagans, gleaned through links or personal conversations*:

All of these effects contribute to the meaningfulness of ritual.  All of them potentially make for better, more virtuous, more responsible citizens of the universe.

A note on ritual etiquette in interfaith situations

There maybe some reading this who say, that’s all well and good, but my rituals are for the gods, and if you’re not there for them you have no reason being there at all.

While I can’t speak for all naturalists on this issue, my personal response is simple:

I agree absolutely.

In my opinion, we should have the right to have closed ritual events aimed at like-minded folk.  My only stipulation is that it should be advertized as such, and not merely assumed.  Nobody should be made to feel like they have to ask the ritual organizers for permission to participate.  That creates a power differential where minority views are more likely than others to feel like they’re there by the organizers’ grace rather than because they are valued.

If an event were to post a sign that said such-and-such a view only, personally I would respect that.  If it said all views welcome, I would respect that too.

Also, it’s worth a reminder to all: use common sense and sensitivity in ritual.  This should go without saying, but it’s a good point raised to me by Bart Everson: during or immediately following ritual is probably not the best time to strike up a theological conversation about how you view deities and magic.  That can be a real “buzzkill” (Bart’s term).  Save it for a more appropriate moment, like around the campfire or in a discussion group.

So, I implore all my Pagan co-religionists to just be open, honest, and respectful of the feelings of others in ritual.  And understand that ritual is full of multivalent meanings.

*Thank you to all those who helped generate this list!
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7 Comments on “Why do we do ritual?

  1. A good list. This is right on.

    It took me a moment, but I recognize your closing note is correct: Creating belief-exclusive rituals is a basic right. At least in the U.S., it’s actually a constitutional guarantee: freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. But I must say, if Pagans started doing a litmus test on belief it would make me sad. My local group has always stressed inclusive values; the gods are venerated “however you understand them.”

  2. >But I must say, if Pagans started doing a litmus test on belief it would make me sad. My local group has always stressed inclusive values; the gods are venerated “however you understand them.”

    Indeed. And for some organizations, like ADF which has enshrined inclusivity and non-dogmatism in its founding principles, belief-exclusive rituals may not be appropriate.

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  4. Was really busy with a class and have been trying to catch up on my favorite blogs — just wanted to say that I really needed this! It’s a long list, and each item is very important.

    • I’ve also been walking a fine line lately between naturalism and… something slightly other than. But this is still very relevant to me.

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