Like many naturalistic religions, the Earthseed described by Octavia Butler in her Parable series is light on ritual. The gatherings of the Earthseed community in the books involve readings from the Book of the Living and rational reflection, but precious little in the way of ritual. This is not surprising, since naturalists tend to be skeptical of anything that reminds them of theistic religion — and this includes ritual.
Consider a 2012 article from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, in which Greg Epstein documented the critical reaction from other humanists to his idea of consciously creating humanist rituals.*
“Even the most seemingly innocuous forms of ritualized practice, like starting each meeting of a group with the reading of a poem of significance to a member of the community, came in for heated criticism. Lighting candles to represent the Humanist values of reason, compassion and hope … was declared strictly off-limits. And singing songs celebrating Humanist narratives and principles was, by some, never to be considered. These ideas are, we are told, ’empty’, ‘senseless’, ‘a distraction’, even ‘nauseating’.”
But Epstein defends ritual. Ritual, when understood as activity which has a primarily symbolic meeting, is ubiquitous. From giving birthday presents to wedding ceremonies to visiting the graves of ancestors, rituals help us express and share the meaning and significance of all the joys and sorrows of life. Far from being “empty” and “senseless”, Epstein explains that
“Ritual, at root, is a creative response to the deep human need to generate and share meaning. The desire to express, share and mark the most significant moments of our lives, our deepest values, does not go away simply because we let go of God. As the ranks of the nonreligious grow, and as we encourage more to embrace Humanism, there will be a need for ever more symbolic means to explore our lifestance with each other, and present it to the world.”
As Naturalistic Pagans know, ritual is known to have many psychological and social benefits, which are not affected by the absence of belief in supernatural beings. These include the management of anxiety, the fostering of personal growth and group cohesion, and the cultivation a felt sense of connection to something greater than ourselves — whether that “something” is the human community, the larger community of life, or planet earth. Ritual enables us to cultivate certain subjective states of mind which are personally healing and socially and environmentally integrative. This is especially important in our time of widespread alienation.
Rituals also teach and reinforce a community’s values. Sometimes rituals can be a bad thing, like when dogmatic and authoritarian institutions use them to maintain their influence. But there are also rituals which can cause us question structures of oppression and compel majorities to take notice of injustice, such as Pride marches and Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
“What separates good ritual from bad?” asks Epstein, “What makes some regular symbolic practices rich and life-affirming, and others stultifying, void and degenerative of critical thought and individual freedom? How can we harness the positive aspects of ritual without encouraging its darker side?” Epstein’s answer is what he calls “rational ritual”. He recommends that communities make a commitment to experimenting with ritual in a reflective and critical way, remaining open to changing or discarding any ritual practices that doesn’t prove beneficial.
“Just as we submit every idea to the test of reason, so we shall submit every ritual. … By separating ritual itself from the hierarchies and dogmas that often accompany it in religious organizations, and by making an explicit commitment to questioning and changing our rituals, we have a potent guard against some of its worst elements.”
Ritual can be a useful tool for Religious Naturalists like Earthseed. It can help us feel in our hearts and bodies, what we know in our minds — in a way that just talking does not. Through ritual, we can express their sense of wonder and reverence at the universe and experience our connection to the natural world on a more visceral level. This in turn can also give rise to experiences which help motivate socially and environmentally responsible behavior toward the fulfillment of the Destiny.
∞ = Δ
* Unfortunately, Epstein’s article is no longer available.