Heathen on earth

Charles 16 Comments

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Posted by Charles


We’ve talked a lot about ritual on this blog recently and, dang it, we’re going to do it again. 

In an article in the Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini announces:

I’ve recently started praying … This is, I think, a pretty worthwhile practice and it is not something you can only do if you believe you are talking to an unseen creator. Many stoics did something similar and some forms of meditation serve the same kind of purpose. My version is simply a few minutes of quiet reflection on such matters each morning.

Nevertheless, I do think that prayer, like many rituals, is something that the religious get some real benefits from that are just lost to us heathens. One reason is that many of these rituals are performed communally, as part of a regular meeting or worship. This means there is social reinforcement. But the main one is that the religious context transforms them from something optional and arbitrary into something necessary and grounded. Because the rituals are a duty to our absolute sovereign, there is strong reason to keep them up. You pray every day because you sense you really ought to, and it will be noticed if you don’t. In contrast, the belief that daily meditation is beneficial motivates in much the same way as the thought that eating more vegetables or exercising is. Inclination comes and goes and needs to be constantly renewed.

Also, practices that are created ex nihilo can fail to have the same purchase as those which have a long history and are validated by tradition and doctrine. I once spoke about this and after the talk a woman came up to me and explained how she had tried to instigate a secular grace before her family meals. This is a kind of prayer I feel is particularly valuable. In a world of waste and taken-for-granted western plenty, to remind ourselves of our good fortune before a meal seems to me morally right. The trouble was that as an invented ritual, it seemed artificial, whimsical. In the end, she gave up. Had the family been religious, no one would have had to have asked why are we doing this, and if they had, the reason would have been clear enough, even if it would not stand up to close scrutiny.

We heathens may be proud that we have refused to sell off our reason to pay the unacceptably high price of faith. But we should admit that as a consequence, others are enjoying the rewards of their purchase while we have to make and mend do with alternatives that are adequate, better in some ways, but very possibly inferior overall.

This is a very abridged version of what Baggini wrote. Read the whole article here

The example of the invented ritual of the mealtime grace is interesting. It failed, in my opinion, not because it is ‘artificial, whimsical’ but because the woman simply lacked perseverance and conviction. Dammit, I might even take it up myself.

In the context of funerals I think Baggini is plumb wrong about the inferiority of heathen prayer. Prayer can be used for many different purposes: to offer praise, say thank you, beg a special favour, ask for guidance, confess sins, proclaim belief… 

In the context of heathen funerals, the most useful form of prayer might be communal, public declaration. For example, mourners might make a vocal, communal pledge of commemoration. They might also, communally, offer up thanks. 

Heathen funerals tend not to be good at involving audiences. Vocal, unison prayer would help. Only don’t call it prayer, too confusing, call it, erm…


  1. Charles

    Fascinating stuff, thanks Charles. Communal, public declaration – valuable thought. I suppose something along the lines of “(celebrant:)In the winds of autumn and the frosts of winter, (all:) we will remember him; in the…”etc might do two things for us. It may help tie our lives and their inevitable ending to something larger, the turning of the earth and the passages of the seasons; and it is also a kind of “communal pledge of commemeoration.” We WILL remember him.

    And I daresay they do. It seems to have gone well when I’ve used something like that, once they get over the apparent oddness of everyone speaking out loud together.

  2. Charles

    I think the problem here may well be the use of the word ‘prayer’. Its just the wrong word, dammit. Prayer is very specifically comunion with the Divine. I might even go so far as to say communication with a personal Deity. For someone who has no belief in such a being prayer is simply nonsensical. ‘meditation’ has no such connotations, it may or may not involve a divine being, it certainly doesn’t have to.In terms of ‘saying grace’ or declaring, at a funeral for example, that you will remember someone, the purpose is different. It is to remind yourself of something, to publically acknowledge something or commit to something, or to bear witness to something. All entirely worthy things to do, but not prayer. ‘Contemplation’ might be a better term, or, where appropriate, ‘bearing witness’?

    I’m also not entirely sure what the author means by ‘heathen’. In some of the circles I move in it has a very specific meaning that is very different to the way in which he uses it. I don’t think it is particualarly useful that as a society we have fallen into the habit of using words like ‘Humanist, heathen, secular, atheist and materialist’ as if they were interchangable and all mean the same thing which is very far from the case! (Its like one of my personal bugbears that people say ‘religious’ when they mean Christian.) For some heathens, and indeed, humanists or materialists, prayer might be entirely appropriate!

  3. Charles

    There are two kinds of Unitarianism. The Unitarian Church is monotheistic. Is is broadly Christian but rejects the godhead of Christ and several other doctrines. Unitarian Universalism grew out of this movement. Universalists seek spiritual growth and personal truth but reject all doctrine and draw on a number of theologies. They are non-theistic rather than atheistic in that there is no one single model of God that all Universalists subscribe to. Something similar has happened within the Quaker movement.

  4. Charles

    In the late 1980’s I lived for four and a half years in a lay monastic community among a transient population that included Franciscans (who had their own monastery but came to us for tips about running their own house and livestock) The Sisters of The Love of God and ‘The poor claires’ (or is that Claire I’m never quite sure) not to mention the exiled Chaplain of the Zairan Army.

    We didn’t go the whole hog like Terse but each morning I arose to a bell summoning me to the chapel for morning prayer, before lunch and especially the service of Complen(sp.?). We had our own proper ancient church as well.

    I stopped praying several years ago after researching the activities of Joseph Kone. I simply told God that He should focus his concern on these children and I forfeit His Eternal love(in any case I have always taken a more Wittgenstein view of eternity) I have sung the last verse of ‘Amazing Grace’ enough times to know that eternal life is a complete nightmare.

    Of course I participate in the religious funeral but when (other than the Lord’s Prayer, which the attendant often has to lead) I practice mindfulness and awareness of the whole community of people around me. Sometimes it is a small child becoming uncomfortable before committal or an aged person desperately trying to stifle a persistent cough.


  5. Charles

    In an interview, Mother Teresa was asked what she says to God when she prays. “I don’t say anything,” she said. “I just listen.”
    Then the interviewer asked her what God says to her.
    “He doesn’t say anything,” she responded. “He just listens.”

  6. Charles

    When working with a family, I almost always explore the idea of ‘non-religious words of thanksgiving’.

    Where the circumstances of a life and death are conducive to feelings of gratitude, it is a notion which is very well received and acted upon. There is almost always an overwhelming sense of delight that we are able to thank the person directly for their life, or even just express our gratitude in more general terms.

    People seem to imagine that a secular funeral will be devoid of such sentiment, but in practice many seem to me to be simple and heart-felt expressions of love and affection for the deceased, with very little external codswallop to form barriers between the family and the one they have lost.

  7. Charles

    ‘Amazing Grace’ actually talks about everlasting life, not eternal life. (always found it a little daunting myself) Something that is eternal, does not merely inhabit a never ending linear time track, it is actually outside of time so that the concept of time ceases to have any meaning. A different proposition altogether.

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