The extra-rational power of ritual

Charles Cowling


By Richard Rawlinson

Our host has suggested I write a post on the ‘extra-rational power of ritual’ – extra-rational being the function of the brain termed our imagination as opposed to the function that’s purely rational; ritual being the act of sanctifying actions – even ordinary actions – so that they have meaning.

To sanctify, of course, means to regard to be holy, to set apart to sacred use. In non-faith terms, the extra-rational power of ritual takes on a different meaning. The rituals are not sanctified in the holy sense, but they are nevertheless actions loaded with symbolism, set apart from the ordinary.

For example, both religious and non-religious can say: ‘I light a candle because I need the light or because the candle represents the light I need’. In our imagination, the candle’s flame can symbolise God’s light of hope; or Life itself; or an individual’s life, its beginning or its end.

In both religious and non-religious circles, there’s the danger that rituals lose their meaning and shift to the realm of the ordinary. Without thoughtfulness of purpose, a ritual becomes a mere habit, whether it’s receiving the Holy Eucharist at the Sacrament of the Mass, or sending a birthday card to mark a loved one’s rite of passage.

Thoughtfulness of purpose makes powerful what would otherwise be an everyday activity. The shift in consciousness imbues our actions with a special kind of energy.

So the potency of rituals is clearly in the eye of the beholder. For some, they’re beautiful and comforting as symbols, but devoid of magic. Others, whether pagan or monotheistic faithful, believe certain rituals take on miraculous powers, mysteriously forming a gateway to grace or enlightenment. Some sneer at this as mumbo-jumbo, others see it as plumbing their deepest, multi-dimensional selves to discover hidden truths about our being, and the spiritual meaning of life.

If this is to lead to developing any debate about secular funeral ritual (See here) it is for secularists to take up the mantle.

It might be useful to revisit BBC Radio 4’s Points of View by philosopher John Gray, publicised and linked to here

Gray dismisses the assumption held by the likes of Richard Dawkins that human thought has advanced through a series of stages, starting with magic and religion and culminating in science’s rule by universal laws.

‘The idea that religion is a relic of primitive thinking strikes me as incredibly primitive,’ he says. ‘In most religions… belief has never been particularly important. Practice, ritual, meditation, a way of life is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary if it matters at all’.

While I personally do believe in God and the Catholic Mass (control yourselves, usual suspects), I understand where Gray is coming from when he adds that when atheists ‘attack religion they’re assuming that religion is… a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification’.

He is effectively giving hope to meaningful secularist ritual by saying you don’t have to believe a ritual is true in order to use it. Art and poetry aren’t about establishing facts; and even the latest scientific consensus can turn out to be riddled with error. Ritual tells us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories – ‘the ‘ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself’

5 thoughts on “The extra-rational power of ritual

  1. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    I’d be interested to hear from these people about their funeral rituals for all faiths and none.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    I can start a hare but I can’t keep up with the pursuers, Richard. I am that bottom portion of the rocket that falls away as the it enters space. Over to you guys.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    PS I’m glad you’re busy. Not surprise you’re in demand, I’m sure you’re a jolly good celebrant.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Hi Gloria

    Oh do, do write a post about your thoughts on ritual. It’s an important subject for the secular and religious. In that, we all agree with and are led by Charles. Another important subject is multi-faith funerals, how much they should compromise/dilute to appeal to all. But let’s not go there now!

    An anecdote to consider: an agnostic chum joined me for mass this Sunday. Over coffee afterwards, he observed how much the ritual had a bodily component, not just words, whether spoken or sung. He saw how we cross ourselves with consecrated water offered at the entrance in order to be worthy of the sacred place; how we genuflect at the altar before taking our seats; how a bell is rung to start the mass; how the robed procession of clergy, choristers and alter servers is part of the ‘theatre’, how we know when to sit, stand or kneel; how we strike our chest during the Confiteor (I confess….that I have sinned…); how we bow during the Credo at a specific time (He came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man)… and know when to do it even when it’s in Latin!

    He observed how these bodily gestures formed a communal act, collectively expressing spiritual realities through physical signs (he didn’t go as far as saying realities!).

    Religion is a system of symbols and liturgical rituals that form belief by revealing a bond between us and the sacred. These rituals allow us to enter the realm of the sacred. They transcend the physical as one can’t see, hear, taste or touch God.

    There are rituals that must resonate with secularists, that define the culture, and the communal humanity. Don’t be bashful, embrace them. Noone will giggle!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    This is very interesting stuff, and the reason I haven’t blundered in with my usual huff and puff is that I’m having a little mull about it – may generate something longer, by way of a post, if I get more of a gap between funerals. Most of which contan little enough real ritual….

    Charles Cowling

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