Another installment of Heathen’s Progress. It starts with prayer and then generalizes to religious ritual compared to secular ritual.
I’ve recently started praying. Well, not exactly praying, but doing something that fulfils what I think are its main functions. Prayer provides an opportunity to remind oneself of how one should be living, our responsibilities to others, our own failings, and our relative good fortune, should we have it. 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.
I don’t see why that should be called prayer at all. It looks to me like thinking, which is not the same thing. Reflection is more like thinking than it’s like prayer, and adding “quiet” doesn’t make it more like prayer. Thinking generally is quiet.
Prayer, after all, is a form of asking. “I pray you” is an archaic way of saying I ask you, I beg you, I beseech you. It’s not a way of saying I quiet-reflect you.
Maybe Julian thinks it’s like prayer because he does it each morning, so that makes it prayer-like. But it could also make it brushing the teeth-like or putting on the trousers-like. But those are comparatively noisy; maybe it’s the combination of quiet and each morning. But then pausing to figure out where you left your keys/homework/bus pass would be prayer-like.
I’m being mean. Ok, I am being mean, but that’s because I don’t much like this solemn attempt to sanctify (as it were) an entirely secular activity.
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.
Yes but that idea is also one of the most dangerous and oppressive ideas that humans have come up with. Yes it can be good for good people, in helping them stay motivated, but it’s a nightmare in the hands of ungood people. Julian knows this of course, but he fails to mention it.
He goes on to say that it’s difficult to replace religious rituals with secular ones because they don’t have the same kind of automatic justification, so it all feels a bit forced and fake. I agree with that, and once wrote a Comment is Free piece (answering CiF Belief’s question of the week) saying much the same thing:
There are several candidates for least-possible-to-replace aspect of religion. For most varieties the obvious one is the object of worship – the god or gods. If you subtract god or gods and leave the ceremonies and meetings and rules, you seem to be left with something very arbitrary and random. “Why are we doing this when we don’t think God is participating?” Secular pseudo-religion strikes me as not just hopeless but also faintly nauseating. I’m not about to sit in a circle holding hands, or worship The Principle of Humanity, or put a list of Affirmations on the wall.
The sad thing about this is that church is, among other things, a way to get together with other people and focus the mind on being good. The religious version of being good is not always on the mark, to put it mildly, but even the opportunity to contemplate goodness seems valuable. This is something it’s truly hard to reproduce with secular institutions. Politics seems like the closest thing to a substitute, and it’s not a very close match.
This could in theory be something humanist groups could attempt, but in reality the idea seems hopeless. Why? I suppose because it’s like the proverbial herding of cats. Who would deliver the sermon? I don’t want to go sit in a pew and listen to some secular sermon, and I doubt many other people do either. We’re used to the idea of a cleric standing up and lecturing people about some facet of being good; we’re not used to the idea of anyone else doing that. Habituation explains a lot. I don’t think clerics have any special expertise in moral matters; on the contrary; but I do realise that they at least have practice in talking about them. How useful this is depends very heavily on the quality of their moral views: lectures on the duty of women to be obedient and the duty of men to enforce obedience are not helpful, for instance; but the habit of focusing on morality, at least, seems in some ways enviable.
I can get quite melancholy, sometimes, thinking about this. But then – there is no obvious easy replacement for a weekly sermon on being good, but there is also no obvious easy replacement for the belief in eternal torment. Swings and roundabouts.
I think Julian neglected the roundabouts.