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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…