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Should Humanists Do Rituals?

Deborah Strod

It's the Season for Reason.

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by Deborah Strod

"Doing something once is not a ritual. The repetition of ritual is what makes it special

It is winter, the season of ritual! It seems there are more religious celebrations packed into these months than any other time of year: Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and a bit earlier, Diwali and Eid. There are religious rituals you're invited to out of friendship and other rituals you may feel obligated to join at work or in the neighborhood. What's a Humanist to do? Join in or pass? Create alternatives? In my case, both.

Here's how I look at it. Most humans reach out to each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow. I always attend weddings and funerals whether or not I am comfortable with the religious framework, because there is something fundamental about being there for my friends or family. It is part of being in a pluralistic community.

It takes a special mix of humility and chutzpah to be a member of such a diverse group—humility to admit that you may not have all the answers, or the only answers; chutzpah to present your convictions and personal joys, and expect that others will share them. Many interfaith families have made a life together by celebrating what they cherish in each other's beliefs and tolerating some discomfort. If we are going to ask that those with religious beliefs see the values nonbelievers can share with them, it behooves us to do the same.

A core set of values, enacted, make me who I am. I believe we should be kind to each other and try to make the world a better place. I believe that both rigorous thought and intuition are important in these efforts, as well as laughter and community and a sense of the past. It is true that I don't feel I need a god to hold these values dear, and there are other people who cherish the values and believe they derive from a god, but I concentrate on what we value in common and how we embody it. That is often my entrée into shared experience.

I participate in some rituals exactly because of the values they allow me to bring out in my family and with friends. I am married to someone who was raised as a Conservative Jew and had explored many religions later. We celebrate Hanukkah with candles and presents, but I want to share the story of our Shabbat ritual because it gets more to the core of what I am talking about. Shabbat is the Friday night through Saturday celebration of the day of rest, traditionally begun on Friday night with the lighting of two candles, blessings over the candles, bread and wine or grape juice and often over children. It's completed on Saturday night with a single, braided candle, the sweet scent of spices and more blessings. It is a 24-hour period when no "work" is supposed to be done, which in modern life can leave a lot open to interpretation.

My husband wanted to have a Friday night Shabbat tradition with our children, as he had done with his family. I was raised as a secular Jew, without a Shabbat tradition, and see myself as secular. We started a Shabbat when our oldest child was quite small. I liked the idea of a special meal to celebrate family. I liked candles and the symbolism of light in general. I liked a special time-out from the other activities in our life (which can easily expand across any family time). I liked that my kids learned a little bit of Hebrew. I liked the connection to other people in other countries and times, which also meant a lot to my husband. I wanted to share in something important to him, just as I wanted him to share in things that are important to me.

We personalized some elements of the ritual. I added a family journal in which we recorded the highlights of the week. We used the opportunity to think about where our food had come from: the wheat of the challah from the ground, the grape juice from vines, the people who had harvested it, the energy to ship it, the work of preparing the meal, the work that earned the money to allow us to purchase the food. My husband hoped we might adopt the tradition of singing together he had known in his family.

There were elements I was uncomfortable with. Momentarily hiding the light from our eyes during the candle blessing always felt like hiding from knowledge or waiting for revelation–even though others view it differently. I stopped hiding my eyes after a while, and though I think it bothered the rest of the family a bit, they accepted it. It bothered me to say words that name an entity, even when those words can be reframed to "nature" or "energy" by others, but I participated for the sake of connection with people I love. We were all willing to tolerate or work through such moments of discomfort for that very reason, and there were compromises that went both ways.

As I imbued this ritual with my own values—talking about the way Judaism is practiced in different cultures across the world, discussing the shared values between Judaism and other religions and cultures, talking about what it meant to have Jewish heritage and the other multitude of heritages we have as humans and in our families in particular, picking up a challah or making one, the prayers and tunes becoming familiar and the kids mastering them, and writing in our journal—I found it so valuable to me. I held the ritual, partly out of commitment and partly out of joy, even when my husband was not home, because I thought consistency was important.

Although I describe these adaptations we worked out on our own as an example of what individuals can do together in many settings, I could have looked for resources from Humanistic Judaism, a branch of Judaism established in the 1960s by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Humanistic Jewish communities provide a non-theistic celebration of Jewish identity that affirms the power of individuals to shape their own lives. Rabbi Adam Chalom, Dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, recently visited the Harvard Humanist community and spoke about his experience leading a Humanistic Jewish congregation. In the newsletter, The Shofar, (pdf only) he wrote, "One of the easiest ways to summarize our approach to our personal beliefs and our Jewish practice is we say what we believe, and we believe what we say. We recognize that what we believe is different from what our ancestors believed, so we have decided that speaking our truth and celebrating our Jewish identity honestly and consistently is more important than saying the same words or performing the same rituals as our ancestors." Look for more by Rabbi Chalom in an upcoming article in The New Humanism.

There are multiple ways I share myself. I once had a party for my 10,000th day alive, and I celebrated my 40th-and-a-half birthday much more than my 40th. It's just who I am. I also love sharing who my friends are. We have friends who hold an annual "pizza veet," a family celebration passed down from Italian grandparents involving yummy fried dough and good cheer. We have friends whose annual Christmas/Hanukkah party is complemented by rounds of raucous singing and a play written and put on by all the kids and some parents—although not religious, the play is most certainly in the spirit of the season. I have a dear friend who is of African-American and Native American heritage—married to a man who is of European-American and Native American heritage, and a Jew by choice—and they make the most beautiful, involving, loving and consistent rituals. There is the Kwanzaa ritual of course, in which we light candles and talk of community economics and our ancestors, and the children search for the African drumming which fills the home. There is the annual trim-a-tree/Hanukkah/New Year's/Kwanzaa party, with the same collards and sweet potatoes every year, and to which I have added my own broiled tofu and vegetarian Arizona Caviar upon request, and the same candy cane hunt for the little ones, followed by watching "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and a new holiday greeting video the family makes every year. We laugh until our ribs hurt as they make fun of their own quirks or the events of the year and show how glad they are that we are all in their lives. I have been attending these parties for the better part of two decades. They are part of my life rituals, as much as Shabbat has been more recently.

There are some rituals that go against my values, and those are harder or impossible to share in the manner I am discussing. I can also feel distanced witnessing empty rituals—actions performed by rote out of duty or codification that do not engender the intended feelings or connections.

Funnily enough, it was easier for the person who was raised in religion, and the person who started the rituals, to let them slip than it was for me, the "non-observant" one. Friday nights sometimes give way to work or sports practices or sleepovers. My friends have had to cancel their winter gatherings two years in a row, limiting themselves to family activities. I miss being able to count on family dinner and writing in our journal on a regular basis, and I have felt bereft without those annual rituals.

I hope that these tales let my religious friends know that although I am secular, I take the practice of core values seriously, and that there are many we share. I hope that these thoughts let my Humanist friends see they might share rituals that are important to their religious acquaintances and still find meaning. But I also hope that these musings support discussion of the role ritual can—I would argue must—play for Humanists who hope to gather in groups and form a history together. I do not believe that all Humanists or nonbelievers will wish to do this; there are plenty of people who do not want to join in any organized anything. I do believe, though, that there are many people who have wished to find or form a community where the ins and outs of life can be shared with like-minded people, either for the sake of debate, or comfort, or both.

What makes a ritual for me is the predictability—the same time every year, the same purpose, many of the same people, mostly the same activities and foods. Doing something once is not a ritual. The repetition of ritual is what makes it special—doing something again and again, creating the emotional and muscular memories related to meaning—and at the same time each repetition is a new experience, this year's version. There is a neurobiological basis to what ritual does for us. It is what the marketing profession explicitly does so well—training those who watch or listen to respond at a primal level to stimuli of the marketer's choice. The purpose can be for good or ill depending on your point of view, but it involves manipulating a natural process that is not inherently bad itself. I think that in developing a deliberate Humanist community, we need those primal cues just as much as we need them for family, school, and in political and faith settings.

I am sure that Humanists will create some annual, universally observed celebration days over time—the Day of Service and Darwin Day are approaching that status, and some people are looking to initiate others such as a memorial day for Humanists who died or a day to teach Humanist history. In terms of lifecycle rituals—sometimes the deepest moments connecting individual lives with community—there are many Humanist resources already. Greg Epstein's recent book, Good Without God, has a whole section on humanist weddings, baby namings and funerals.

In a 2007 speech at The New Humanism conference, Rabbi Wine talked directly about how many humanists negotiate a delicate balancing act between continuity and integrity, when the faith and culture they were raised in conflict with their individual beliefs. Some people easily drop what doesn't fit, and for them, a de novo "Atheismas" type holiday would work as winter celebration, but others feel the pull of their heritage and don't want to lose that grounding completely. Wine emphasized the need to not sever people from their ancestors in building humanistic community. Seeking and supporting the humanistic in many faiths and cultures is an important dimension of the growth of Humanism.

I am equally sure that local groups will continue to form their own idiosyncratic, meaningful gatherings such as weekly or monthly meetings purely for the purpose of sustaining and deepening community. Our rituals might vary more over time and place than some religious or cultural rituals—they certainly will not be subject to rigid codification that could lose meaning—but the values they embody should be consistent. For regular gatherings of local Humanists, I would consider incorporating:

  • A time to share joys and sorrows, and get support from our community. It might look different in many Humanist gatherings but the goal for the emotional experience would be the same.
  • A time to consider larger events in the world, our thoughts about them, and our actions to help make the world a better place.
  • A time to learn and practice skills in how to be kind, to listen to others with different opinions.
  • A time to be social and a space for the contemplative.
  • A time to teach about Humanists in many time periods and cultures so that new generations of Humanists will feel the strength of heritage and shared effort.

I think that as long as we can rely on a ritual of some kind holding a place for such values, Humanists will find them attractive, and comforting. Some communities or groups might do the same set of things every meeting; some might incorporate something different exactly for that experience of difference. But I think we should have the expectation of something reliable and the embodiment of a core set of values. Without that, it is hard to form community. With the work to create that, we create community—to share with everyone. Humanist ritual may be just the entrée a person of faith finds to share a moment and demystify Humanism. Enjoy the season!

Please comment about a tradition you have as a Humanist, or a ritual you have observed.

Photo credit: Deborah Strod

Comments (now closed)

Paul Creeden

17 Dec 2009 · 12:05 EST

Thank you, Deborah. It has been my hope that the Humanist Contemplative Group at Harvard could evolve into a regular ritual by which humanists of all stripes could form a relaxed and conversational community. Consistency and routine are basic elements of ritual. Diverse groups need a common focus to form fellowship. And, centering that fellowship on contemplation or meditation, an acknowledged form of health-promoting activity, seems to me to be consistent with general humanist ideals of peace and well-being.

Jessie Steigerwald

17 Dec 2009 · 15:12 EST

This beautifully captures the joys (and delicate tensions) inherent in families where multiple spiritual celebrations co-exist or intertwine! As host of one of the aforementioned parties (the one with the play), I note that our seasonal celebratory performance tradition owes as much to the traditions from my childhood (my mother, our extended family and friends) - as it does to personal beliefs I hold in helping children establish connections with others, exercise creativity and find meaningful work. When we held holiday gatherings and the children were very small it made sense to involve them in creating decorations, costumes or props for the play. Ten years later they hold lead parts and help write, direct & do lighting! Best of all, the older children are now learning how to help engage the littler ones -- introducing each other, and generally exercising the quality of kindness that changes the world.

Dwight Jones

18 Dec 2009 · 03:45 EST

I think you have something here, Deborah, whose time has come. See the recent article in Time Mag on "home churching". Could that phenomenon be adopted as a Humanist function? My only concern would be stasis - i.e. sitting around contemplating etc. is a mite close to worship. Can we be activist like the Quakers? Example: the New Humanist puts out a weekly "sermon" around an activist project, that these Home Humanism meetings discuss. If we were Quakers, it might be about a campaign to get more countries to declare themselves militarily neutral. You get the idea. We would then discuss, across the country that week, that initiative, supporting an eventual national poll in that regard. Anything that brings people to us instead of driving them away in the name of atheism works for me. Keep up the good work. - Dwight

Dwight Jones

18 Dec 2009 · 03:52 EST

Same guy, different issue. :-) Given that "The New Atheism" is a recognized movement obviously centered on atheism, how are you going to differentiate "The New Humanism"? Surely not more atheism, or atheism at half-throttle? Can you go so far as to embrace inclusive Humanism, and allow that someone's religion should be reserved as a private matter, and should not preclude their being (single word, capital H) Humanists?

Dan

30 Jan 2010 · 09:03 EST

No! Please, no! I didn't have time to read this article, so I'm just answering the title's question. NO! Just, no!

Jonathan

02 Feb 2010 · 07:50 EST

"No! Please, no! I didn't have time to read this article, so I'm just answering the title's question. NO! Just, no!" I'm sorry, but that really is in poor taste. You haven't even taken the time see what the author is talking about, and you're reacting with prejudice. That's just rude, and meatheaded.

Jon Dreyer

04 Feb 2010 · 14:50 EST

Excellent article. Ritual likely predates religion and, with luck, will postdate religion too.

Rob Miller

22 Feb 2010 · 03:40 EST

Other.