The near-universal presence of rites of passage in almost every human culture is a strong sign that these rites serve an important psychological and social function, helping communities to understand, encourage, and celebrate the roles of their members. These rites also discourage actions and attitudes that go against right behavior, helping individuals understand their role and responsibility with regard to themselves, their tribes, and their communities.
Traditional religions have come to monopolize rites of passage, but in doing so, they have also transferred their long lists of unnecessary restrictions, bigotries, falsehoods, and fear-based superstitions, turning important rituals into degrading instances of brainwashing, and diluting the utility of these rites.
“Marriage is a holy sacrament … and it’s only between a man and a woman.” “Unbaptized babies go to Limbo/Hell/Purgatory.” These are some of the errors that have insinuated themselves into some of our culture’s most common rites of passage. The most universal psychological features and existential vulnerabilities of human beings are exploited by supernaturalism and superstition: people add unnecessary taboos to ceremonies that merely require simple covenants. We need not dismiss these rites of passage, whose universality sometimes points to great utility; but it seems that we need to clearly understand what that utility is in order to create healthier, pragmatic rites of passage. What I suggest is that we apply Epicurean theory and methodology to them, and that we reinvent them—in short, that we “Epicureanize” them.
In my studies of Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines, one of the insights that I had recently concerning the Doctrines on justice had to do with the utility of agreements and contracts as non-superstitious ways to articulate what it means to undergo a rite of passage:
There never was an absolute justice, but only an agreement made in reciprocal association in whatever localities now and again from time to time, providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.
— Principal Doctrine 33
The main point of Principal Doctrine 33 is that there are no God-given or absolute laws that fell from Heaven, and that we see no gods enforcing them. The immediate result of this Doctrine (and the main observation on which it is based) is that it is we human beings who create our rules, laws, and agreements, and that we may change our laws or agreements with each other depending on utility and mutual advantage.
Let’s look at a few examples of how to apply the Epicurean Doctrines concerning justice to the problem of rites of passage. Baby namings, or baptisms, are agreements between the members of a community to acknowledge a new member by a certain name (the infant acquires an identity within his/her tribe), and agreements by parents and godparents to raise that new community member according to certain agreed-upon values.
There is no need to imagine that a baby will burn in Hell if he/she is unbaptized: these terrors are easily discarded if the ceremony is simply understood as a contract, and one valued on the basis of its utility. With the Epicurean contractarian approach, we also do not need to discard the ceremony, or to give up certain symbols and aesthetics that may be of great value to our families or communities, or to the parents themselves.
Marriage too is a contract. In our culture, the convention is to swear to be loyal to each other in this manner:
I, ___________, take you, ___________, to be my lawfully wedded spouse, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.
Many secular celebrants today experiment with customized wedding vows. In truth, there is no reason to use the vow that is commonly used. Communities and individuals have different values, and their wedding vows should reflect those values. If marriage is a contract, then it is up to the contracting parties to come to an agreement that satisfies all parties. In this way, by clearly understanding rites of passage as social contracts, and by giving up all supernatural claims about them, we maximize the potential benefits of optimizing, contextualizing, and customizing the details of the contract.
Furthermore, friendship is holy to Epicureans. Many cultures have ceremonies that seal friendship. The Taínos had a ceremony known as guaitiao, whereby a new friendship is born or tokenized through a gifts-exchange ceremony. In my home, I have many objects that remind me of the friends who gave them to me. Other Native American tribes smoked the peace pipe with their allies. Ancient Scandinavians also used gifts-exchange to seal friendships, while other cultures have culinary rituals. In the Pacific islands, kava-kava is shared under a holy nakamal tree as a way for enemies to reconcile, or to celebrate important occasions. And in South America, a tea-like natural beverage known as yerba maté is considered the drink of friendship. If our values include the sacredness of friendship, why not honor our values via a ceremony?
Passage into adulthood comes with an agreement between the community’s members to have certain expectations of a new adult, and an agreement by that new adult to accept his new responsibilities. Similarly, many other rites of passage can be expressed and carried out as social contracts.
In Epicureanism, we have the idea that in order to live pleasantly, rather than follow Pleasure blindly (instant gratification is not Epicurean), we should also practice Prudence, Justice, and Nobility. This notion is enshrined in Epicurus’ Principal Doctrine 5 and, in the Society of Friends of Epicurus, we call these virtues the Four Sisters. We have also begun to create legends and parables in order to illustrate (or “place before the eyes”) these concepts. This helps people who learn visually, and creates a greater emotional connection with the teaching by providing a case study.
One way to celebrate a rite of passage into adulthood for a young Epicurean might be to receive or enshrine symbols that represent the Four Sisters (perhaps tokenized as goddesses, books, or objects) in order to mark that a young person understands and is ready to uphold these principles in their lives, rather than pursue instant gratification, or pursue virtue without it being rooted in our pleasure ethics. This might also be a way for someone who has formally undergone an ethical education to celebrate their “graduation” as an Epicurean, and a way for the initiate to acknowledge that he/she understands and is willing to adopt Epicurean values.
Sometimes after a rite of passage has taken place, individuals may take on a new name or title, or earn the right to wear certain status symbols. Prior to initiation, they may have to prove themselves in a trial of some sort. A doctor may need to pass a licensing exam. A young tribal member may have to hunt down prey. And so on.
It’s possible that lack of ceremony is having a detrimental effect in many parts of our society. We see in gang culture how certain unwholesome activities hijack the tribal instinct and the need for ritual. Instead of hunting prey, a young man in an urban environment who lacks a healthy father figure may be invited to attack or kill a member of a rival gang to prove his manhood. Gangs often also take the place of a traditional all-male tribal society of hunters, teaching young men how to “survive” in their environment (usually by illegal means). So why not create ways to channel these ancestral drives in our psyche in the healthiest manner possible? Why not teach young people wholesome and useful skills, and wholesome ways of being a successful adult in our communities?
The point is that these rites of passage play an important societal and psychological role and should not be dismissed. If we throw the baby out with the bathwater, this may harm the strength and stability of our social relations with each other. It is advantageous for individuals to have a clear sense of some of the roles that they play in their social network, and a clear sense of what their responsibilities are. Psychoanalysts like Carl Jung have argued that there are additional psychological benefits to these rites of passage, and contemporary psychological research backs this up. An individual needs to feel valued, feel needed, and have a sense of one’s own importance and honor within one’s community, or may feel a greater sense of purpose and belonging if his/her role and responsibilities are clearly defined.
 The argument on the near universality of ritual is one that Jung made to justify the existence of archetypes of the unconscious. This is beyond the scope of my essay, but the argument is that just as we inherit bodily traits, we also inherit psychological traits from our ancestors. Whatever one might say about psychoanalysis itself, I think this is a sound argument. There are birds in Galapagos who experience panic and call for their parents whenever they see a large plane flying over them, although they do not have a large-bird-predator among those islands (although their ancestors in South America were prey for the condor). So the argument is that this is an inherited instinct (i.e., an archetype), and epigenetics research supports this much. Even apart from direct scientific evidence that some psychological or behavioral traits are inherited, everyday experience supports it, too; otherwise babies would not know instinctively to suckle a nipple.
 That people need to feel needed and as a part of their community is supported by abundant research establishing that isolation is a health risk factor on par with obesity or smoking.
The above essay was originally posted on Secular Web.
3 thoughts on “An Epicurean Approach to Secularizing Rites of Passage”
Very good essay, Hiram. Thank you. As a Unitarian Universalist Humanust, I have had many positive experiences with secular rites of passage. And I appreciate the perspective from the Epicurean tradtion, as I am also a member of the Society of Friends of Epicurus.
Hi! I’m happy to see you enjoyed the essay. (You’re probably a member of the Garden group on FB–membership in SoFE is much more involved than a forum and requires a stronger communal component, you have to spend some time studying with us, submit three essays, go through a process of evaluation by the Friends, etc.)
I just discovered Epicureanism and am deeply impressed by the philosophy and acknowledging all the “Epicurean without knowing it” people in my life that have influenced me, and I am also looking into joining my local UU.
Also this blog is wonderful and I look forward to drinking it all in.