Spitting with the Wind
"individuals appear compelled to ritualize the life-course without the backing of supernatural beliefs
The American sociologist N.J. Demerath did something peculiar. In 1966 and then in again 1969, he published the findings of research conducted on irreligion, a topic that otherwise received virtually no attention from social scientists. Two years later a young sociologist from across the pond named Colin Campbell upped the ante by publishing Towards a Sociology of Irreligion, an entire book dedicated to understanding how some moderns have managed to live without or in opposition to religion. Campbell observed that sociology had "entirely ignored irreligion," a situation he hoped to rectify. Yet in the thirty years that followed, neither Demerath nor Campbell took up the mantle, nor did virtually anyone else. As Phil Zuckerman observes in the introduction to the edited volumes Atheism and Secularity, the project initiated by Campbell "fell on deaf ears,"— deaf ears, that is, until a fresh crop of scholars came along in the 21st century to resurrect it. Atheism and Secularity which was published in 2010, features papers by a cadre of social scientists, who have helped kindle a renewed interest in the study of irreligion, and they are not alone. Recent years have also seen the founding of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College and the birth of the collaborative blog, The Immanent Frame, where theoretical and empirical perspectives on secularism and the secular life are hashed out by an ever shifting interdisciplinary crowd of academics. Irreligion has even garnered the unlikely attention of some of the sociology of religion's old hands, like William Bainbridge who has now published a contribution to the sociology of atheism. Yet the most invigorating work in this area has come from Zuckerman himself, whose recent monograph on the secular lives of Scandinavians, Society without God, has been received with such interest that it is the subject of a panel discussion at this year's annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
Society without God provides an exuberant account of how rich, fulfilling lives are commonly lived in Denmark and Sweden without theistic beliefs. Yet surprisingly, to both Zuckerman and his American readers, these godless lives are not devoid of traditional religious ritual. Modern Scandinavians still utilize the Lutheran Church for life-cycle ceremonies from cradle to grave—and not just weddings and funerals, but also baptism and, in Denmark, even confirmation. Confronted with this Scandinavian version of "cultural religion," Zuckerman quite aptly notes its similarity to the practices of secular Jews the world over. In both contexts individuals appear compelled to ritualize the life-course without the backing of supernatural beliefs. It is worth also considering that both Scandinavian and Jewish cultures excel in producing individuals with a strong sense of community, something that is suggestive of one of the most enduring truisms of ritual theory—namely that ritual strengthens social bonds.
Yet irreligious Scandinavians are not alone among non-theists in yearning to ritualize the life-cycle. Some American atheists and agnostics may be quite surprised to discover that organized irreligion in the United States has struggled with the question of community rituals since before the advent of the 20th century. On May 15th, 1876 in an address called to organize the first Ethical Society in the United States, Felix Adler proposed to "entirely exclude prayer and every form of ritual," because he considered them a "mode of expressing religious sentiment," and he didn't want the Ethical Society to interfere with the sentiments of either believers or non-believers. In the early years of Ethical Culture Adler's stance on ritual remained firm. In the 1881 publication, Creed and Deed, Adler added that religious ritual and ceremony were "dead forms," that failed to "stir" and "invigorate" non-believers precisely because they were tied to religious doctrines. Yet despite Adler's initial anti-ceremonialism the various societies of Ethical Culture soon began grappling with their own need for ritual, particularly in relation to the life-cycle. The ceremonies they inevitably developed were highly personalized, unbound to form, and without theological referents. In Towards Common Ground, humanist historian Howard Radest writes that "[t]he ties of life, the obligations of human beings to each other, the sacredness of personality, and the quality of human dignity became the symbols of Ethical Culture ceremonials."
Ethical Societies across the United States soon discovered that all measure of disaffiliated and non-religious Americans outside of their communities had a need for their ritual services. By the time Demerath conducted the research on Ethical Culture that led to his aforementioned 1969 essay, "Irreligion, A-religion and the Rise of the Religion-Less Church," it had long been standard practice for Ethical societies to provide "ceremonial observances of the life-cycle" to members and non-members who desired a funeral or wedding devoid of religious doctrine. In fact the "leaders" of Ethical Societies still do so today, although they are now joined by Unitarian Universalist ministers, Humanist celebrants, non-denominational ministers and justices of the peace, and, last but not least, the celebrants of the Celebrant Foundation and Institute. It is with this last group of civil celebrants and their clients that I have been conducting my own ethnographic fieldwork in an attempt to deepen our understanding of why disaffiliated Americans still choose to ceremonialize the life-cycle and what they are achieving by doing so.
Inlaid in the foundation of the Celebrant Institute's emerging tradition is a slightly older practice of secular ritual that has its roots in Australia, where "civil celebrants" now create custom tailored, client-based ceremonies for nearly 70% of all weddings and an equal proportion of funerals. While Australians may not disbelieve as completely as Scandinavians, over the course of nearly forty years they have quite successfully replaced some of the ritual traditions of the dominant religious institutions with an Australian original: Civil Celebrancy. In the wedding arena, similar trends can be seen in the nations of Great Britain, with around 50% of official marriage ceremonies in Scotland and well over 60% in England and Wales being of the civil sort. And there is even more to the Scottish story, since the weddings performed by celebrants of the Humanist Society of Scotland are classified as "religious." These marriages only became legal in 2005, but already contribute to 15% of all religious weddings, which is second only to the Church of Scotland. There is also an interesting correlation in England and Wales between the allowance in 1995 of civil marriage ceremonies to take place on "approved premises" other than the registration clerk's office and a subsequent drop in religious ceremonies Does this trend suggest that some Brits had been marrying in churches not out of religious conviction but for some other reason, like the aesthetic qualities of the location? Such an explanation would, of course fit nicely with what wedding historians claim about the rise of the church wedding in the Victorian era—that it is wasn't due to religious revival as much as a quest for beauty and romantic sentiment.
The idea that profane motivations may have underwritten a good portion of Western church weddings in the modern era highlights an important question applicable to the study of contemporary life-cycle rituals. What larger social practices and cultural concerns impinge upon the meaning-making activities of religious, irreligious and religiously indifferent communities? A comparison between Scandinavian and American contexts might, for instance, consider how much more value we Americans place on the sincerity of our (ir)religious beliefs as we engage ritual. Indeed the modern history of non-religious life-cycle ritual in the United States contains a series of institutional motivations aimed at offering the disaffiliated the gift of ceremony while allowing them to stay true to their deeply held convictions. But does tailoring rites to the whims of individuals, however sincerely felt those whims may be, somehow conflict with the very idea of ritual?
Some contemporary ritual theorists, like Adam Seligman et al would argue that it does. Their book, Ritual and its Consequences, presents a view of social practices that enable the sincere expressions of authentic selves as the antithesis of ritual because, among other things, ritual is at its core a collective enterprise. They would undoubtedly argue that Felix Adler's rejection of religious ritual, influenced as it was by post-Enlightenment rationalism and individualism, should be seen as part of a historical progression beginning with the anti-ritualism of the Protestant Reformation and culminating in what these authors claim is a modern tendency to "read ritual as an authoritarian, unquestionable, irrational set of constraints on the individual." Yet while we know that Adler argued against ritual for some of those very reasons, we also know the ethical societies found it necessary to keep rituals going, especially the ceremonies of the life-cycle. Indeed the sects of Protestant Christianity, save perhaps the Quakers, have been no different. In order to make life-cycle rituals work within their communities they have had to make accommodations and in doing so they have kept these rituals alive. It is therefore imperative to investigate the emerging traditions of secular ritual practice in the West with sensitivity to just these types of accommodations. Of course before that can happen, the even more basic failure of dealing with these traditions at all must be overcome. This failure is not only present in the ritual theory described above, but it is ubiquitous in contemporary ritual studies, as well as the resuscitated study of irreligion.
The first paper mentioned, published by Jay Demerath in 1966, explored the organizational woes of a free-thought movement in a small Wisconsin town and was aptly titled, "On Spitting Against the Wind." Perhaps Demerath's title also aptly foreshadowed what doing social scientific research on irreligion would be like in the first few decades that followed its publication. Yet today we know the direction of that wind has changed dramatically, and I therefore suggest that it is time for scholars and community leaders alike to start paying attention to the emerging traditions of non-religious life-cycle ritual all around them.