The sociologist of religion, Mircea Eliade, observed that religious ritual is a powerful means of creating “sacred space” and “sacred time,” pulling the participants out of the normal confines of the mundane moment.
The question I’d like to explore is what meaning and purpose might ritual play from a spiritual naturalist approach?
For those who subscribe to a supernatural worldview, religious ritual is often an actual opportunity for encountering God or the gods, for working and channeling religious energy or power or grace, and for bringing real change to the world.
Consider the Mass in the Catholic tradition. For the ardent believer, the Mass is the performance of a set of rituals that have salvific power in the world and in which God acts directly.
But what role does ritual play for those who don’t affirm a concrete, personal God, or deities, or supernatural powers or realities? If there’s no god listening or interacting, if there’s no supernatural power of any sort being unleashed or directed, then what’s the point of the ritual?
A Spiritual Naturalist Approach to Ritual
When one steps back and asks what is religion in the general sense, then the purpose of ritual begins to come into sharper focus.
Religion uses the tools of myth, narrative, symbol, metaphor, ritual, and moral and existential insights to increase a person’s awareness, sense of self and place, and to convey wisdom on how to live a good and meaningful life.
The unified goals of these practices is to foster wholeness in individuals and communities. These goals are operative whether one affirms a supernaturalist or naturalist understanding of religion and spirituality.
Even without a supernatural basis, ritual provides practical benefits; from a naturalist perspective, these benefits are primarily psychological and social.
Ritual implies repeated actions of significance made to convey meaning. Often rituals are used to make mythic narratives concrete and part of the present moment. Other times, ritual is used to alter consciousness, open awareness, direct focus, and challenge our hearts and minds, consciously and unconsciously.
Ritual seeks to evoke what some call a “peak experience” – the integration of the diverse parts of the mind, specifically those called consciousness and the other unconsciousness.
Participation in ritual activity allows people to embody a sense of their place in a larger order of things. Ritual is a powerful marker of identity and group membership.
A ritual may have a history that links participants with ancestors as they perform a sequence that has been repeated innumerable times. It may connect participants with community through sharing the repetition of familiar words, songs, gestures, sounds, and dances. It may be something new, created specifically for a particular time, place, and purpose.
Ritual provides a frame for expressing and celebrating what is meaningful and reclaiming connection with self and others. The order imposed by meaningful ritual allows us to reflect our values and convey messages to self and the community about who we are and what we are experiencing.
Ritual and Celebration
Humans have a deep seated need to celebrate. Celebrations often mark transitions. It acts as closure of the past and initiation for the future. We celebrate births, marriages, graduations, even the lives of those who have passed. Some celebrations have historical events connected to them, others have religious or cultural content, some blend all of these elements.
Holidays are scheduled, regularly occurring celebrations. They commemorate some event, anniversary, or happening and do so on a regular basis on the calendar. Holidays vary since they are religiously, culturally, or nationally based celebrations. Think of the 4th of July or Memorial Day or Thanksgiving or Christmas and the various associations that ground such celebrations becomes clear.
Many holidays, if not all, have ritual aspects. The notion of ritual tends to evoke overt religious rites and practices such as church attendance, candle lighting, communion, and so on. But special meals, trick or treating, putting up a Christmas-Solstice tree, drinking apple cider in the Fall, having turkey at Thanksgiving – these too, are all rituals which are meaningful, and fun, with or without overt religious content or association.
You don’t have to believe in any particular mythological or theological doctrines to do such celebrations. The seasons themselves have inherent themes and evoke natural moods and emotions that lend themselves to understanding the meanings within.
Everyday life is stressful, somewhat disorienting, and full of uncertainty. Having a special time of the year when we know exactly what to do, the way we’ve always done it, provides a comfortable sense of structure, control and stability.
Ritual and Creativity
Rituals need not be held in churches or religious buildings and led by clergy. Family Sunday dinners are a ritual. Putting up a Christmas tree is a ritual. Making certain foods for certain occasions is a ritual. Singing Happy Birthday with cake and candles is a ritual. Our lives are filled and punctuated by rituals.
Many, although not all, spiritual naturalists practice an eclectic or highly personal spirituality. In these circumstances, given the lack of an established specific tradition, those seeking to develop some form of new or personalized spirituality will have to face the challenge of creating new rituals.
No one need reinvent the wheel. Candle lighting, meditation-prayers, celebratory meals, storytelling and poetry reading – these, and other common religious activities can be augmented to create meaningful rituals of one’s own.
To conclude, I’d argue that no spiritual practice fulfills its meaning unless it make us a better, more whole and loving person.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.