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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Deborah Strod and Humanist ritual

Deborah Strod asks, Should Humanists Do Ritual?
(c) The New Humanism.
Scientist, health consultant, and social worker Deborah Strod has written a wonderful article for The New Humanism entitled, "Should Humanists Do Rituals?" After sharing various ritual ideas and examples, Strod says that, for her, what makes ritual special is the repetition and predictability of it. She claims that we need such "primal cues" in the various settings of our families and community lives. Here she sometimes slips into speaking about traditions rather than rituals, but then these two concepts have much overlap.

The article reminded me of the time I asked a Buddhist monk why he bowed to the statue of Buddha. He said the statue was just a piece of wood, and they don't even worship the person of Buddha in any case. Rather, he said, the reason he bows to the statue is not to give anything to the statue, or even to what it represents, but rather because of what it does to him and in him. He said that it helps him focus his mind, attention, and thoughts on the teachings he is about to practice. From that day on, whenever I enter a Buddhist temple or begin meditation, I bow to a symbol of the teachings on which I'm practicing. This realization about ritual also has made me think about how I behave and think when I am among people who pray. I do not pray, myself, since I do not hold a belief that communion with any such being is taking place.  But when I am in the company of those who are praying (and when they are doing so on their property or on their time when it is within their right and not an imposition or in an inappropriate manner), then I show respect by remaining silent, but not closing my eyes so as to mislead them into thinking I am praying. I have always done this. However, since coming to this realization about a natural practical role for ritual, I have taken to doing something else too.  Most of the time, group prayers lead by one person will include pleas that God help them to... (insert wise things to understand, focus on, or do here). When this happens, I use the words as a way to help me to focus on the same principles or ideals. I take that time to allow the priorities being invoked to come to the forefront of my mind. I still do not close my eyes but I have found that I indeed can get something out of the situation when I find myself in such crowds.  Of course, if the prayers are something strange like, "Lord help us to keep those homosexuals from marrying" that would be different, but I am not generally around such people.

Strod's article also reminded me of a Humanist Contemplatives Club gathering we had back in 2007. The topic of that discussion was also Humanist ritual. In that discourse, we came to a few conclusions.

1) We acknowledge that Humanists already engage in many rituals. These include various meetups, weddings, funuerals, baby namings, etc.

2) There seems to be a major distinction between rituals, based on why they are conducted. In one sense, you have the 'superstitious ritual' in which the practitioner believes these acts to be accomplishing something disconnected from the typical natural cause-and-effect we know of empirically. Examples include rain dances and prayer. The second sense of ritual is the 'symbolic ritual' in which the practitioner is conducting an activity in order to symbolize a concept. These rituals are designed to create a sense of solemnity, help us adjust our mindset and focus on the reasons behind the ritual, cement social interactions, and mark special events or notions. It was concluded quite easily that Humanist ritual must be exlusive to this latter form.

3) Future Humanist rituals should take advantage of the rich cultural lineage behind it. This includes elements of art, music, poetry, literature, and other elements by past Humanists or humanistic artists and thinkers. This should bring in a sense of tradition such that the ritual does not feel extraneous or contrived.

4) Rituals should be 'multisensory' experiences. They should tap as many of our senses as possible; having visual, audial, olfactory, and possibly tactile elements. Internally, they should tap both the intellect as well as the emotional, intuitive, and imaginative.

It was also mentioned that science fiction can be an inspiration for creative ideas. At the same time, a Humanist ritual must be something with real functional purpose - even if merely social or emotional - or else it will seem contrived.

I would recommend reading Deborah Strod's article. It is but one of many excellent articles appearing in The New Humanist lately and soon to come. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my own work will be appearing in the magazine soon. It is a magazine I'm proud to support because I think their take on Humanism and its future is right on course.

[Read: Should Humanists Do Ritual?]

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