Posted by Richard Rawlinson, religious correspondent
Vale makes interesting points in the thread beneath my Beyond the Abyss post, which discusses the gap between secularist individuality and religious communal ritual:
We (I) believe that community and the communal celebration of key events is important – yet secularism, at least as it finds expression in the west today – tends to be individualistic. Not surprising, perhaps when the only common bond is a lack of belief. My own feeling, though, is that we are in a transitional phase and will over time evolve new and meaningful rituals to reflect the reality of people’s sense of personal meaning and purpose.
At first these will ape the religious ceremonies we are familiar with – because they are the ones we know. But they will diverge and in time consolidate new norms, patterns and meanings.
Actually, look at any civil ceremonies, the start has already been made’.
I’m trying to be open but find it hard to imagine meaningful death rituals devoid of any spiritual belief in an afterlife. I agree that non-religious funerals help bring comfort and closure, but wouldn’t a truly atheist ritual do this while professing the faith that God and souls don’t exist? Would it not be crucial to celebrate the fact that the deceased, however fondly remembered, is now nothing, incapable of pleasure or pain?
Some political and intellectual atheists can cope with such a nihilistic philosophy, but we seem some way from popular demand for rituals reflecting such secular realities.
Each year, around 500,000 people in the UK die, according the annual mortality statistics published by the Office for National Statistics. Over 30,000 funerals a year are currently non-religious, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors. This is around 6 per cent of deaths, or over one in 20 households affected by death.
This figure is increasing as families turn to celebration-of-life ceremonies rather than services conducted by a priest, either in church or crematorium. There’s certainly a growing willingness to admit non-belief, encouraged by secular educationalists, politicians and media pundits.
Of the four in 10 Brits who claim membership of the Church of England, it’s clear many are secularists, who increasingly see hypocrisy in using their church simply for baptisms, weddings, funerals and the Christmas carol service.
The NAFD has confirmed that most of those choosing non-religious funerals were ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ Protestants. Lapsed Catholics remain more likely to uphold the ceremonial traditions of their forefathers, hedging their bets, so to speak. This is borne out by weekly Mass attendance figures among the genuinely faithful – for the first time in the UK, CofE and Catholic attendance is neck and neck, each attracting between 800,000 and 1m a week, even though the starting pool of Catholics is smaller than those claiming to be culturally CofE.
But just as there are people of half-baked religious faith, so there are ‘atheist-lites’ for whom the fond belief in some sort of afterlife prevents them from totally parting ways with religion-inspired ceremonial.
The muddled masses are only likely to reach clarity on one side or the other by authoritative guidance. In a nutshell, they need to be evangelised by fundamentalists, not in the nutty Creationist or Islamofacist sense but in the sense of inspirational leaders persuading others of their creed, be it religious or godless.
This is where the problem lies for anyone trying to devise new rituals devoid of quasi-religious elements. In the case of civil funeral celebrants, it doesn’t matter if they settle for a client-driven compromise. Who really cares if high priest of atheism Richard Dawkins disapproves of them perpetuating religious rituals? After all, he’s a biologist, not a philosopher or social worker, and, even then, considered a sloppy intellect by most of his academic peers.
In the case of priests, their vows in the Sacrament of Holy Orders mean they must serve God and the faithful of His Church by obeying and teaching God’s laws, handed down by the Holy Bible and Apostolic Tradition – the Mass with its divine liturgy and rituals as the focal point.
It’s at this point that Catholics must briefly digress – yes, there are priests who attempt sacrilegious ministry, and, of course, a minority who have committed vile crimes in the eyes of secular law, as well as mortal sins against God. But the point I’m making is that the way forward for the Church is not the same as for secular ritualists: a priest who dons layman’s attire for a civil funeral should be defrocked; a civil celebrant’s a la carte service, complete with religious appetiser, offers choice.
As Gloriamundi makes clear in his/her recent blog, ‘What You Need to be a Celebrant’, such choice forms a compassionate collaboration between celebrant and the bereaved. By the same token, the Church is being compassionate and indeed true by being relatively inflexible, as touched on in my post, ‘Individuality in the Requiem Mass?’.
True atheists and theists are dogmatic, not pragmatic. They are not relativists as they believe in orthodoxies: that we are just physical beings, or that our mortal bodies are vessels for eternal souls, saved by the grace of God.
Some religions do indeed seem to be committing slow suicide, but there are also fresh buds, a growing hunger for reverence among many younger Christians. In a parallel world, generations are growing up not even as cultural Christians, meaning they’re less likely to behave as their grandparents would have done when confronted by death.
But this seems more social consequence than conscious movement: has the average person really embraced the belief that a world without religion would be a better place, even if they do prefer living in the moment and banishing thoughts of life after death?
Apathy has wounded religion but a creed that denies belief cannot equal it, certainly not communally. True atheist diehards (die-easies?) will never replace religion as you have to fill a void with something, not nothing.
‘Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen’. (Matthew 28:20)