– by B. T. Newberg
It’s often claimed that ritual without literal deities or magic must be meaningless.
This post aims to explode that idea.
Many Pagans say that ritual is beneficial, whether or not deity “exists” or the magic “works.” If that’s so, then why would ritual without these things be meaningless?
Naturalists simply subtract the element of literal divine communication or magical efficacy, and concentrate on the other parts. What others may consider side effects, we consider primary effects.
Effects of ritual
First, the hypothesized psychological and social benefits of religion in general, in which ritual plays a key role, are many. Some of the most academically well-traversed are:
- facilitation of group cohesion and cooperation
- unification of individuals into a moral community
- establishment of powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations
- management of anxiety
- coping with death, lack of control, and loneliness
- facilitation of individuation
- a “felt sense” of connection through embodied cognition
Arguably, none of these preclude a naturalistic view. The scientific, psychological, sociological, and anthropological literature is rich with studies on them.
In addition, religious practitioners often claim specific effects of ritual. The following are exclusively from Naturalistic Pagans, gleaned through links or personal conversations*:
- connection to something greater than ourselves
- enhanced awareness of the world around us
- facilitation of personal change
- sense of re-enchantment of the world
- controlled dis-integration and re-integration of the psyche
- sensuous involvement in non-mundane activity
- enhanced sense of gratitude
- feelings of expansion, meaning, contentment, and empowerment
- bolstered investment in environmental and humanitarian concerns, leading to increased activism
- exposure to and contribution toward social diversity, other ways of thinking
- enhanced self-knowledge yielding confidence, humility, patience, honesty, integrity, compassion, and other traits that make us more effective agents of change and more generally pleasant people to be around
- transcendence of ego through participation in at least three things: nature, community, and mind
All of these effects contribute to the meaningfulness of ritual. All of them potentially make for better, more virtuous, more responsible citizens of the universe.
A note on ritual etiquette in interfaith situations
There maybe some reading this who say, that’s all well and good, but my rituals are for the gods, and if you’re not there for them you have no reason being there at all.
While I can’t speak for all naturalists on this issue, my personal response is simple:
I agree absolutely.
In my opinion, we should have the right to have closed ritual events aimed at like-minded folk. My only stipulation is that it should be advertized as such, and not merely assumed. Nobody should be made to feel like they have to ask the ritual organizers for permission to participate. That creates a power differential where minority views are more likely than others to feel like they’re there by the organizers’ grace rather than because they are valued.
If an event were to post a sign that said such-and-such a view only, personally I would respect that. If it said all views welcome, I would respect that too.
Also, it’s worth a reminder to all: use common sense and sensitivity in ritual. This should go without saying, but it’s a good point raised to me by Bart Everson: during or immediately following ritual is probably not the best time to strike up a theological conversation about how you view deities and magic. That can be a real “buzzkill” (Bart’s term). Save it for a more appropriate moment, like around the campfire or in a discussion group.
So, I implore all my Pagan co-religionists to just be open, honest, and respectful of the feelings of others in ritual. And understand that ritual is full of multivalent meanings.