Fit for purpose

Charles 5 Comments


By Richard Rawlinson


‘Whether they were lapsed Christians or non-believers such as me, what struck us all was that this ceremony met a deep need to have our emotions evoked and expressed. Believing in God was not the point. We just wanted the response to our own lives and to those of our friends to be as serious and as purposeful as this’.

Jenni Russell’s words in The Times following the funeral of Philip Gould at All Saints in Westminster will strike a chord among those non-believers who are moved by ritual without embracing faith. See here.

There are, however, more fundamentalist atheists who remain cautious about raiding religion to develop secular ritual. They perceive prescribed wording for some of the most important moments in our lives as a form of bondage that they’ve just begun to escape – releasing them into the exciting quicksand of bespoke ceremony. Rather than just resolidifying older traditions, they claim this process might be more valid when undertaken with each group of people in mind, rather than bland design by committee.

‘Rip it up and start again’ or ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’? Those non-believers less cautious about ritual, influenced by religion, sometimes question the feasibility of truly bespoke ritual. Ritual is, after all, an oft-repeated, yet extraordinary, symbolic act with communal meaning – an act that brings comfort and hope by enhancing the seriousness of the occasion.

Both sides are faced with the dilemma of what ritual is fit for purpose. Those receptive to more ritual claim elements are already in use – processions, candles, prayers and hymns when requested – but seem stumped when confronted with the task of further developing a formalised set of prescribed words and actions that might resonate with meaning for secularists. Those less receptive to embracing ritual emphasise the power of unique compilations of words that celebrate an individual life.

Christopher Hitchens, the atheist polemicist who recently died of cancer, said, in an interview with The Atlantic: See here

‘I do think people need ritual, and probably particularly funerals. Because no one wants to be told, “Okay, you have a dead relative. Go bury him someplace.” They want to know that something will kick in now. It will be taken out of my hands, and everyone will know what to do… It was very clever of the churches to take control of moments of this kind’.

With the cynical Marxist view that God is a man-made construct designed to control the masses via the fiction of a divine authority figure, Hitchens continues that a monopoly on hatchings, matchings, and dispatchings is ‘what I would want to do if I were the ruling party. You control that, and you have people more or less where you want them’.

He adds: ‘Religion is saying that you know the mind of God and you want to obey His revealed commandments, on pain of losing your soul, at least. People who really live their lives in fear of that—God-fearing, as they used to say—I can respect. People who are somewhere between Unitarianism and Reform Judaism—it just seems weak-minded to me. Why bother?’

Hitchens, while right about a la carte Unitarianism, misses the point about why more orthodox Christians strive to obey teachings: the Church, which reveals divine truth to the faithful, is about the love of God and mankind, and is not a bully using the fear of God to dominate mankind. It’s embraced by free will because it both fulfils a purpose in life and indeed gives purpose to life.

In the same way, if people increasingly choose secular funerals – with or without ritual, in crematoria or elsewhere – it will be because they feel that their official ceremonies are fit for purpose; that they meet the deep need to have our emotions evoked and expressed; that they’re a serious and purposeful response to our own lives and to those of our friends. 

In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see if ritual comes to the fore, or if meaning is increasingly interpreted as something more personal. If communal ritual returns, it will also be interesting to see if more secularists return to religion, which gives true meaning to ritual. 

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Rupert Callender
Rupert Callender
10 years ago

It is a common response after attending one of our secular ceremonies for someone to say, ‘that was the most religious service I have ever been to,’ but there will have been no mention of god or an afterlife whatsoever. I say this, not just to give a little toot on our trumpet, but to show that by talking honestly about a life in all it’s rich complexity, and by specifically referencing love as the most important thing in our lives, something Humanists can shy away from to ensure they are not mistaken for Christians, it is possible to channel… Read more »

gloria mundi
10 years ago

Sense and eloquence, Rupert. I feel the way ahead is not some sort of abrupt invention, but evolving all the time with what we do. Just as Richard’s beloved rituals evolved in their time.

Charles Cowling
10 years ago

Isn’t this a beautifully written post by RR? Very balanced and thoughtful – with that very RR stingette in the final subordinate clause. Important not to fall into the supposition that religious = ritualistic. Quakers do nothing, in silence. There’s a spectrum of practices among religionists; so it will be for secularists, I am sure. Clear decks (brilliant image) suit some. I too favour anarchic, creative process, but that doesn’t do for a lot of folk; clear decks may even terrify them. I have a feeling that they might feel more comfortable with a more orderly process, a ceremony more… Read more »

10 years ago

Good ending – but nonsense nonetheless. Religion provides the basis for the symbolism in religious ritual, but it’s simply ludicrous to go on to imply that without religion ritual has no true meaning. I’m also growing more and more concerned that the only model of ritual referred to in these debates are the high church/catholic practices. These are relatively specialised even within the Christian context. The Baptist or the Methodist wouldnt recognise them – or the standardised wording of the liturgy that they use. I think we are beginning to bark up the wrong tree – the real issue is… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Richard Rawlinson
10 years ago

Vale, I agree the real issue is the need to come to a better understanding of how you express meaning using words and action, that bells and smells and high sounding phrases are not the template, and that secular ritual has meaning. Instead of talking about the ‘true meaning’ of religious ritual, I should have said the ‘sacred meaning’. No offense intended. I came to the same conclusions as you in different ways. As an exercise aiming to be helpful, I read a funeral mass, deleting the inapplicable and attempted to adapt a few lines to secular taste. The exercise… Read more »