Successful Religions Have Rituals Which Saturate Everyday Life

“The two things we have most trouble with are singing, and candles.” 

This comment was made by the organizer of the St. Louis Ethical Culture Society, a non-theistic humanist community.  Many humanists and naturalists are uncomfortable with ritual.  Even Religious Humanists and Religious Naturalists tend to be minimalists when it comes to ritual.  The fictional Earthseed of Octavia Butler’s Parable series is no exception.  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 intentional ritual.  This is one way that I hope the real Earthseed diverges from its fictional origins.

Earthseed is a naturalistic religion.  Unfortunately, from where I stand, many naturalistic religions seem headed down the same path of other liberal religions.  There is much speculation about the reasons for this.  One common explanation for the decline of liberal religion is that they let people believe what they want, when in fact what people want is to be told what to believe.  But the literalism and dogmatism of more conservative religions is simply not an option for religious liberals — especially Religious Naturalists — and it hardly makes them popular with religious moderates either.

But perhaps the issue isn’t really belief, but practice.  Defining religion in terms of belief is really a modern, specifically Protestant, invention.  Ancient pagan and indigenous religious were less concerned about what people believed, and more concerned about what people did.  In a 2015 article in The Spectator entitled, “Paganism is alive and well – but you won’t find it at a Goddess Temple,” Andrew Brown argues, “What successful churches have is not demanding doctrine but demanding practices, rituals and observances which saturate everyday life.”  In spite of the derisive tone of much of the article, I think Brown is on to something. 

What many liberal religious are lacking is not orthodoxy, but orthopraxis.  Rabbi Eric Yoffie argued in a 2015 article entitled, “The Coming Renaissance of Liberal Religious Life”:

“religions ultimately shape, inspire, and console with day-to-day sacred acts. It is these acts that build community, give structure to the holy, and provide religion with its true power. But liberal religion has often favored doctrine while ignoring liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals. It has often assumed that belief is enough, without recognizing that we need rituals to seduce us and to draw us to the sacred. … Liberal religion must therefore build for itself a rich ritual life.”

I think the same could be said of Neo-Paganism generally.  Pagans can be very adept a constructing ritual, but having eight rituals a years is just not enough to sustain a religion.  So I think one of the first orders of business for new naturalistic religions like Earthseed should be the creation of “rituals and observances that saturate everyday life”.  The key word there is “saturate”.  We need seasonal rituals surely, but also rituals for major life events, as well as weekly and daily rituals — rituals for rising and retiring, rituals for eating, rituals for working and rituals for playing.

So get your candles out folks … and get ready to sing.

∞ = Δ

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4 thoughts on “Successful Religions Have Rituals Which Saturate Everyday Life

  1. One of my current reads, Religion Is Not About God (Loyal Rue 2004) posits a naturalist theory of what religion is and how it works. I am finding it very interesting and it seems a valid approach to me. In it, he names Ritual as one of the five ancillary strategies that are essential to a successful religion. Central to all religions are the cosmological and moral ideas that make up the narrative core or myth of a religion, but it is through the ancillary strategies (institutional, intellectual, aesthetic, ritual, and experiential) that “a pattern of piety is nurtured in the lives of individuals” (p. 126).

    One small ritual I see beginning in our interchanges/communications is the use of God Is Change/Shape God as greetings/farewells between Shapers, To me, it brings to mind the Muslim/Arabic phrases “As-salamu alaykum” / “Wa-Alaikum-us-Salaam” that form a part of their daily ritual (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As-salamu_alaykum). I think it is a great practice and one we should consciously observe as a reminder that God IS Change, and we CAN Shape God.

    1. Shape God.

      Tony, I so agree! The greeting/farewell is a ritual, albeit a simple one. We should put it at the top of the list of our rituals.

      I think perhaps Rue’s 5 strategies might structure our conversation about how to move forward. We should at least address each of the strategies to see what we need to do to make Earthseed successful

      God is Change.

  2. Yes, I agree that we need practices. I don’t think that the decline of liberal Christianity is due to “people don’t like being told what to believe”. First, the question is the decline of liberal Christianity. After all, we don’t have significant liberal Hinduism, etc, and what we have there isn’t in decline. Second – people are “told” what to believe often- such as at a University, or when a large study comes out, and are fine with that. The big difference is that Christianity tells people to believe things that are obviously false. That’s more a problem in liberal congregations because in liberal congregations, more people know how to think critically. To fix that, we simply need to stop trying to tell people to believe things against their own reason and available evidence. To support your point about the importance of practice, I’ve found that my daily morning practice has become a significant part of my spirituality saturating my life. I wouldn’t want to try to live my life without it.

    1. The argument I referenced is that people do want to be told what to believe. Liberal Christian denominations are usually very science-friendly. They interpret Biblical texts metaphorically and have sophisticated understandings of deity. But those very denominations are shrinking. If people wanted religion that was consistent with science, then liberal Christian religions and the UU would be thriving. They’re not.

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