Rituals and coercion

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.


  1. 'Tis Himself says

    I read Flynn’s post and I agree with much of it. I rather like this comment (emphasis in original):

    When engaged in by traditional Christian believers, hymn-singing is focused on the presumed transcendent realm of God and souls and spirits. Congregants sing to glorify God, or to gratify him (though I’ve never been sure how The Entity Who Has Everything could benefit from hearing sinful mortals sing together, even if they do it well).

    It’s a point I’d never considered. Unless we posit Yahweh as a narcissistic megalomaniac who demands praise from his followers, then what does he get out of the various rituals? However, according to the propaganda, Ol’ Yahweh is a narcissistic megalomaniac, so that answers that question.

  2. says

    There’s a great bit in the original Peter Cook-Dudley Moore Bedazzled in which Cook as Satan makes fun of god’s endless demands for flattery.

  3. says

    I agree: secular singing is just *different* from devotional singing (and I’ve done plenty of both). And I find the humanist substitutes for the latter (like the stuff you find in the UU hymnal) simply lame and pretentious.

    I’m not so down on secular rites of passage, though — graduations, weddings, funerals and the like. And they don’t occur that often, anyway.

  4. Ken Pidcock says

    So let the record show that whether religious or otherwise, there is something at the core of ritual that this individualist finds profoundly and consistently objectionable.

    Well, OK, let the record show. Personally, I’m inclined to regard my life as a part in an extraordinary drama, and to understand ritual as the opportunity to stop acting for a moment and to direct my attention to the play. From that perspective, individualism is just self-deception.

    But, hey, that’s just me.

  5. says

    Interesting. He makes a good case I think. I’d been idly pondering this question of ritual, with specific reference in my mind to weddings. My wife and I wrote our wedding ourselves (though we incorporated ideas from a book that had a bunch of sample ceremonies), and made sure it was meaningful to us. And short. I hadn’t really considered the distinction between self-written ritual, and communal ritual.

    I was glad to walk across the stage and get my diploma for high school, and don’t recall any feelings of wishing I wasn’t there, or didn’t have to be there, or what have you (despite some boring speeches). Other graduations I’ve been a part of (from trainings, or what have you) I sometimes didn’t see the point.

    My local freethought group has a Humanist Celebrant as a member, and what she does is work one-on-one with her clients to develop ceremonies that are personal and meaningful to the clients (weddings, namings [don’t get why that needs a ritual, but whatever], coming of age, funerals, etc). That’s the sort of thing I’ve leaned toward in my thoughts on how we might approach ritual in a way that’s not so religious. Eh, I dunno. I have to think more.

  6. Jeroen Metselaar says

    I think it is all about what your own internal reason is to perform a ritual.

    If you do it for your own reasons then it is up to you. If people try to coerce or force you it is time to get the middle finger ready. This is of course true for almost anything, but double so for rituals.

    What really gets my goat is the hypocrisy with rituals. Men that shag their secretary and use their wife as a cheap house maid but do buy her flowers on St. Valentine’s deserve a kick in the goolies. When I was still catholic and played the church organ I was very aware that most of the flock only appeared at christmas and easter.

  7. Smokey Dusty says

    Where do we draw the line? What about Oktoberfest? Is it coercive? Just minding my own business in Munich and everyone’s drinking, feasting and wearing folk dress.

    What if we add another layer of objection to the ritual observance of Oktoberfest? I feel coerced into the observance of Oktoberfest and here I am trying to observe Ramadan…

    How does the objection feel now?

    What else? Other folk festivals? Annual music festivals? Annual agricultural shows (I can hear The Sydney Easter Show’s fireworks as I type)? The annual excitement I feel when the cricket season finishes and the rugby league pre-season heats up? Should I keep my excitement under wraps in to avoid coercion?

    Ritual is an important part of our make up. We love to do things at certain times and in certain orders. I seriously don’t think we can do without it. To do away with it would be to deny an essential part of our humanness.

    I love Catholic mass by the way; especially the singing. Don’t believe a word of it though.

  8. redwood says

    I’ve never liked rituals but I think that’s just me. I’ve always felt that I lived a bit outside society, which is where I like it. When I was young and attended church, I did the rituals but they had no meaning for me and I was happy when they ended. I didn’t feel part of something bigger than myself. Some people like to feel that, like to have form to follow but I don’t. I prefer life free-flowing and up to us. I attend weddings and graduations and the like, but I don’t like being there and avoid them if I can. It really boils down to individual feeling.

  9. Nathair says

    What else? Other folk festivals? Annual music festivals? Annual agricultural shows

    The objection is not to any and every event just because it happens on a regular schedule. That was spelled out pretty clearly. “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.” An annual jazz festival or garden show or fireworks display doesn’t contain any of the significant elements. The city collects yard waste on the same week every year but that doesn’t make it a coercive formal ritual.

  10. says

    Smokey D – I didn’t say anything about doing away with rituals, and that’s not what I meant to imply.

    But there is a lot of heavy breathing about the irreplaceable quality of religious rituals and the putative universal need or longing for them. I think it’s worth pointing out that the need or longing isn’t actually universal.

  11. says

    And that changes the whole experience so radically that it seems pointless to talk about them as the same kind of thing.

    I would look at it as the difference between singing “Silent Night” on Christmas and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. A good ritualistic song that is pleasurable to sing in groups need not be about real things. In that sense, the recognition by most everyone, let’s say, that the story of Jesus is as much an invented fiction as the story of Rudolph wouldn’t necessarily change the overall experience of singing ritualistic songs about Jesus for those who were interested in the story and the occasion in the first place.

    However, it would probably work best for songs about Jesus (following such a global enlightenment where most everyone stops believing) if the lyrics about him were made impersonal so that it is not the singer believing all that nonsense but some other character in the story. Nothing is quite so repulsive as singing about how much you want to be a slave and that others should to.

  12. says

    I live in Spain where a lot of the rituals started out as Catholic, but some of them have evolved beautifully. “Idiosyncratic local ritual” would just about cover it. For example, most places now mark the end of carnival with a funeral for a sardine. This is about as sensible as it sounds, and I love it. Others haven’t evolved so much, but the non-religious part is still the good bit – like celebrating St John’s day with witches dancing around a bonfire and chasing the children. And these days, the crowd for the witches (or whatever) is much, much bigger than the congregation for the mass.

  13. says

    A funeral for a sardine! That’s very cool.

    It reminds me of the “Northern Exposure” in which Joel decided to make a real effort to be a normal guy and go hunting with the fellas, managed to succeed in shooting a quail, and then was so distraught about doing so that he rushed it back to Cicely for surgery.

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