Tom Flynn replies to James Croft on the subject of ritual.
First he points out that once a religious ritual is removed from its original (religious) context, it becomes something different. Why? Because religious ritual is about or addressed to a supernatural entity, and secular ritual isn’t, and that’s a big difference.
Believers direct their singing toward the supernatural; naturalists disbelieve that the supernatural exists. In other words, in the single case when activities that were ritualistic in congregational life are transplanted into humanist – even religious-humanist – practice, the motivations for engaging in that behavior do not – cannot follow along with them. The other-referring practice of ritual hymn-singing becomes non-other-referring when dragged into a naturalistic setting.
And that changes the whole experience so radically that it seems pointless to talk about them as the same kind of thing.
I’ve said a few times that I sort of get the concern with communal ritual, and that I have a slight sense of its value from things like Seattle’s annual Folk Life Festival, where I occasionally manage to get a whiff of the joy of groupy celebration. But given what Tom says (which I agree with), I think I have to give up saying that, because it’s too different from religious communal ritual to be relevant. It’s a very this-world kind of feeling, so a ritual that’s deliberately other-world…is a different kind of thing altogether.
I disdain commencements for many of the same reasons I revile rituals in humanist life – not (in this case) because they are religious, but because (as I observed in my original essay) they erode rationality and individual autonomy. Participants are compelled to perform together forms that have little or no inherent meaning, and to do so only because the community demands it of them. Croft seems to believe that the quality of coercion in situations like these is a matter of interpretation; to the contrary, I find it inescapable; and for that reason object to this ritual even though it does not involve any falsehoods of a religious nature.
Ah…same here. I’ve always been a bit squirmy about rituals, and that’s exactly why. Even benign ones tend to get on my nerves, because there’s something so strangely and artificially compliant about millions of people buying flowers or chocolates or peeps because it’s a certain date on the calendar o’ rituals. I feel grinchy about feeling that way, so I try to think of it as Just Fun, but in fact…I (again) agree with Tom.
I do like home-made rituals – idiosyncratic local ones. Those are fun. But the public ones…They are coercive.
I’m a grinch.