Atheism and the Need for ‘Sacred Spaces’ for Ritual: Are They in Conflict? December 27, 2013

Atheism and the Need for ‘Sacred Spaces’ for Ritual: Are They in Conflict?

No eating the ceremonial babies, guys.

Suzanne Moore at The Guardian writes about the thought process that went into holding some kind of celebratory ceremony for the birth of her third child (congratulations, by the way!). In doing so, however, she found that her desire for some form of ritual to mark the event conflicted with her desire to be “a good atheist.”

Here’s how she explains the problem: She worries that “New Atheism,” whatever you believe that to be, “fixates on ethics, ignoring aesthetics at its peril,” and that “ultra-orthodox atheism has come to resemble a rigid and patriarchal faith itself.”

Now, I bristle at the very notion of “ultra-orthodox atheism” as much as I suspect many of you do, primarily as a concept that for the most part doesn’t even exist (how could it?). But she makes a strong case for setting some place aside that is akin to “sacred” to mark life events of great import:

We need to create a space outside of everyday life to do this. We can call it sacred space but the demarcation of special times or spaces is not the prerogative only of the religious. . . . We may not have God. We may find the fuzziness of new age thinking with its emphasis on “nature” and “spirit” impure, but to dismiss the human need to express transcendence and connection with others as stupid is itself stupid.

I’ve seen Unitarian ceremonies for new (and less-than-new) babies, and without much hint of religion, they felt very meaningful, a sweet way to say “welcome” to a new human from a community of people who wish it well. They didn’t offend my atheism.

But this is a hot point of contention among nonbelievers, whether ceremony has a place in our movement and community. Some believe strongly that it does: witness the rise of Sunday Assemblies and the work of the Harvard Humanists for example. Others reject congregationalism of any kind, such as Tom Flynn, one of my bosses at CFI. (There’s a great new issue of Free Inquiry that covers this debate in rich detail.) A lot of it is generational, a lot of it is personal.

It so happens that CFI-Los Angeles will host discussion on the topic of ritual, but at the other end of life. On January 5, they’ll host Caitlin Doughty to talk about death rituals for secular folks. But whether we’re talking death, birth, marriage, or Sunday mornings, we’re obviously all trying to figure out how or whether to add ritual and ceremony to atheist life.

Image via Shutterstock.

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  • Nat Carr

    She may need that space. That’s her prerogative. I feel no need for them. I just get tired of the suggestion that I care that she does.

  • Set van Kouwenhoven

    If I may, I think what she meant was “rigid, ultra-orthodox secular humanism,” which is a very real thing.

  • “New Atheism” is bullshit. It’s just another word for anti-theism, and has nothing at all to do with atheism. Neither is there such a thing as a “good atheist”. This poor woman doesn’t understand what atheism is; her ideas have been damaged by some sort of corrupted “atheism movement”.

    Ritual is important to most humans. There’s nothing wrong with it. It has nothing to do with atheism. It doesn’t conflict with atheism. Atheism doesn’t conflict with ritual.

    I’m an atheist, but anybody who suggests that ritual or ceremony have no place in “our community” is most certainly not a part of mine.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    We need to create a space outside of everyday life to do this. We can
    call it sacred space but the demarcation of special times or spaces is
    not the prerogative only of the religious. . . .

    I’m at a loss to understand what she is getting at, unless she is asking for government support of that “sacred space.” If she wants to have a “sacred space” in her own home, or a church on private property, I don’t see why any atheist would object.

  • Wanderer

    Some of us want ritual. Some don’t. Where one falls on this issue as a matter of personal preference shouldn’t define whether one is an atheist. If the atheist community is not inclusive and tolerant, it will never move forward.

  • primenumbers

    New atheism isn’t even anti-theism, but simply atheists that are voicing their atheism openly and criticizing religion openly.

    You’re right that atheism is essentially unconnected to ritual. Some people like rituals, others do not. Atheists are not necessarily a-ritualists, or ritualists. Neither are atheists (new or otherwise) a homogenous group with anything in common other than their lack of belief in God.

  • LesterBallard

    I don’t know from personal experience, but I would think the birth of the child, or maybe just it’s existence would be celebration enough. But I don’t care if she has some kind of official celebration.

  • LesterBallard

    Could you define “rigid, ultra-orthodox secular humanism” for me, please?

  • Jeremiah Traeger

    She doesn’t even need a reason to celebrate! If she has a child she has all the more reason to celebrate! She doesn’t need OUR permission.

  • Catherine

    Suzanne may not have have yet made the full transition to atheism. She still capitalisizes the word god and refers to the birth of her daughter as a gift. She’s seeking approval, in my mind for doing things, as are many. We don’t need permission to do- or to not to do- many of the things present in religious life. Suzanne will, like many of us mature into her own ways and claim her space.

  • John H

    I’ve read through that article twice now, and I still have no clue why it was written. Suzanne Moore apparently likes incense and flowers. Me too. What does any of this have to do with atheism in the slightest? She’s suggesting that atheism is somehow related to asceticism, but it’s just not. A lack of a belief in any gods doesn’t lead on the the conclusion that art (or ritual*) is worthless, and asceticism likewise is a part of any number of religious orders. I’ve been to new-baby parties for atheist friends. They’re like all parties, but with a more pastel color scheme and more conversations about babies. I’m very clearly missing the cultural cipher Moore is expecting her audience to have.

    *I’ve come to the conclusion that many of our existing ritualized behaviors are deeply problematic for a variety of reasons, mostly related to their reliance on dynamics of out-group exclusion and leveraging of vectors of privilege and marginalization. Ritualized gift-giving (radically different from extemporaneous gift-giving), for example, is classist, deeply commercialized, and (throughout human societies historical and extant) a vector for reinforcing social status hierarchies. It does serve as a social bonding behavior, but does so far more problematically than alternatives like collective, broadly-accessible activities (shared meals, party games, group volunteerism, etc.).

  • John H

    I’m getting an increasing sense that a lot of those clamoring for atheist or secular alternatives to churches or religious rituals were raised with religion. The people calling for such things make the frequent mistake of essentializing and universalizing their own experience. Those of us raised without religion do not, in my admittedly limited experience, ‘miss’ church or regimented ritual – the ‘need’ was never socialized into us in the first place.

  • I was saddened by some of the vitriol I’ve read against Sunday Assembly; I went to one, and it was a basically a giant party that combined karaoke, recess, and a poetry slam. I also love the idea of a ceremony that welcomes a new child into your family, and I think I should plan one myself (Although, given my intention to become an adopter/foster parent, it will involve a certain amount of input from the child and probably Disneyland.)

  • Jachra

    The sticky question for me is…
    What rituals are you going to choose? What will you emphasize? How will you emphasize it?

    Everyone comes from a different background. Even stripped of religion, many of our cultural traditions hold a patina of our particular family histories. I have trouble seeing any sort of cultural ceremony that doesn’t automatically exclude people of wildly different origins.

    Rituals that may be familiar to me as a white European may not be so to someone from an Indian Subcontinental background.

    Are we suggesting creating some sort of new ritual background out of whole cloth? I have difficulty ascribing that any particular meaning without history, though.

    Tricky tricky.

  • Ryan Hite

    There is no defined set of rules for atheism. Being a “good atheist” is a vague term. Celebrate how you wish.

  • SeekerLancer

    It’s hard for me to view it from her perspective as well. Not because I don’t personally care for such rituals, but because I don’t know why any atheist would give a crap about someone else participating in them.

    You can have your cake and eat it too. I don’t know where she’s getting these imaginary rules of atheism from. I’ve never heard an atheist say, “I want to celebrate the birth of my child but I can’t because I’m an atheist.” That’s ridiculous.

    Call it sacred or whatever you want, it doesn’t matter. I consider my retro video game collection pretty sacred.

  • Derrik Pates

    Exactly, if it’s something she wants to do, and it makes her, and those around her, happy… I guess I don’t see a problem with that. It’s not like we have a book with a list of 10 things you must never, ever do or anything like that.

  • Aerial View

    Glad the assembly was good for you. Personally I have absolutely no need to mimic religious services, make public vows, join in bad singing, group hugs or follow the leader. Even if the poetry slam and karaoke took place simultaneously I can’t imagine attending voluntarily or sober. (Is attendance the replacement for the threat of hell?) Creating a halfway house of (insert spiritual entity here) may be worthy of praise by some and vitriol by others. So, don’t be saddened. Be gladdened. There’s room for all of us.

    Those who struggle to manage life without outside directives would do well to consider a Border Collie.

  • I don’t see the need. Yes, I see that people like rituals. You can see it in our attraction to sporting events, concerts, theater, etc. I’m happy to get my ritual from those and other events. I don’t need an “atheist ritual”. I do see the need in a religious society for atheists to gather, but I’d rather those be about socializing and sharing information (guest speakers, informative videos, etc. that can be discussed afterwards over coffee).

    If other people want to have those, they are welcome to. I hate the freakout that some people have if anyone criticizes something. I certainly have no power to stop people from having such gatherings and wouldn’t use that power even if I had it.

  • Robster

    Relating to a community socially is a positive thing. Religious ritual is popular amongst many tainted with Christianity so perhaps humans have some sort of need for ritual as a way of expressing solidarity with others of a similar mindset. Whether it’s formal or not is irrelevant.

  • Nomad

    Sigh. Yet another article expressing the most obvious ,uncontroversial things imaginable, and acting like she’s making a bold pronouncement.

    There seems to be a whole wave of “thoughtful” atheists that just love to talk about how they’re atheists, but they’re rebelling against something or another that apparently atheists are supposed to do or not do, when the rules seem to exist only in their head. I can’t help but suspect that it’s a case of people who really are just like most other atheists, but they’re trying to brand themselves as bold innovators. So they invent the rules that they’re bucking.

    I have a whole series of rituals I follow. I won’t do the tired joke of saying that it must mean I’ve got OCD, I know that’s not what it is, I just like to do certain things that I feel are traditional. I mean heck, for Christmas my family traditionally makes certain types of cookies. So where’s the atheist telling me I’m not allowed to do or enjoy that because I’m an atheist? Should I be expecting Richard Dawkins to call me up on the phone any day now and inform me that as an atheist I should not be taking pleasure in certain activities that I consider to be traditions or rituals?

    Let’s get even more obvious. Only two days ago I engaged in the ritual of opening wrapped gifts given to me by my family. Where are the “ultra orthodox” atheists telling me I’m not supposed to do that?

  • Ritual isn’t religious specific. We have them all the time. I just had one this past holiday season where I watch “A Christmas Story” every Christmas.

    As atheists we aren’t married to a specific definition of ritual – it is whatever and wherever we want it to be.

    I think the debate comes from some who want to co-opt the religious trappings they grew up with and are familiar and the rest of us have no need for it.

    If someone wants to have a ceremony for the birth of their baby then why should I be concerned. I only get concerned when someone says I need to have them.

  • cyb pauli

    The most important thing to spread about atheism is its definition.

    Is asceticism in the definition of atheism? Is not having rituals in the definition? Is sexism? Is egalitarianism? No. So why is this nonsense coming up every 10 minutes?! Another visionary atheist has broken away from the restrictive “no better than religion” chains of “New Atheism” to discover the humanistic joy of a baby-party. Such special. Wow.

  • voxylady

    She is writing from a very personal perspective, almost as if there is some identity crisis occurring within her atheism and how it compares to the rites and passages of organised religion. It is quite natural for humans to celebrate all kinds of events, historically we are a social species who use any excuse for a get together – from summer solstice to birthdays and Christmas! Atheist and humanist Sunday Assemblies fall into social meeting categories, what better way to spend a few hours than with like minded company.

    I will organise a naming celebration for the impending birth of my 2nd child and include my 5 year old son in the ceremony. Part of the reasoning behind my planning is to show my catholic (and other devoted christian) relatives how wonderful it is to celebrate a new life without any need to attach god or to it, a provocative nod to what a *good atheist* I am ;-)! The remainder is simply social; to bring people together.

    Sacred space is what you need it to be, if you need to label it so – from taking 10 minutes before sleep to be mindful of your thoughts and emotions to wedding ceremonies or even going to a sports game, there need be no sombre reverence, it is what that time means to the individual.

  • Georgina

    We selerate birthdays without inviting god. So what is so hard about celebrating other things?

  • jdm8

    “ultra-orthodox secular humanism”

    I’m not convinced it exists. For example, what forms of secular humanism would be a heresy to “ultra-orthodox secular humanism”? Even if secular humanism had religious traits, it’s not old enough or remotely organized to have developed an orthodoxy, much less an ultra-orthodoxy.

    If anything, I’d think this tendency to cling to rituals would be a more a tendency to ultra-orthodoxy than any comment suggesting the such rituals aren’t really necessary.

    Not that I’m complaining about them. However, I think just hosting a weekly lecture series would be better for community than trying to make what looks like some kind of a church, but without the religion, and you wouldn’t have people complaining about the style of rituals, and you don’t have theists using it to buttress their argument that atheism is a religion.

  • the writer lacks a clear grasp on the definition of atheism, and ritual, and how they are separate things. another example of ‘fuzzy atheist’ writing in the mainstream media. it’s getting tiresome.

  • Harry Underwood

    I find her sentiments about “New Atheist” views on aesthetics to be weird and rather unjustified. There are a wide variety of nonreligious ceremonies which still mark moments of significance on a mass scale. The ones which I think about are award ceremonies, especially academic award ceremonies, and conventions.

    I don’t think we’ve shunned “congregational” ceremonies, we’ve only shifted our considerations of their significance to areas which matter most materially in our lives, and away from vaguer metaphysical platforms.

  • JH

    Atheism in it self does not mean that you have to adhere to any set of rules or rituals. IMHO you can live with any sort of ritual (or lack thereof) that you wish as long as it doesn’t harm others.

    I am living in a thoroughly secular society (Sweden). Here religion doesn’t play any major role, in any area of life. I am for, instance, an outspoken atheist (not that any one cares here), but the vast majority are just functional atheist (i,e. they dont really care enough about religious stuff to actually have an anchored opinion).

    With a religious population equivalent to the one founds in the states (i.e. born again bible believers) hovering around .5% (i.e. basically non measurable) religion is simply not a big deal, but we still do baptisms. I, for instance, have actually baptised my three children. In a church! Many get married in church, and have their funeral there. Actual belief and faith rarely enters the picture. We do it for historical reasons and because it offers a nice set rituals for the markings of the different stages of life. Nowadays naming ceremonies (private gatherings in the home, usually) have become common, others simply send in the papers to the proper authorities.

    For me personally I like the rituals, and I think it is a human basic instinct to gather and for instance welcome a new individual to the family, or say goodbye to departed relative or friend. I have (that seams to include a majority of my fellow citizen) no problems whatsoever to rip away the supernatural overtones and just enjoy the rituals. This said, it is by no means something that suits everyone, and as stated, atheism doesn’t force any specific set of rituals for anyone, nor does it require you to believe anything special.

    The fact that I have a tremendous respect for people like Dawkins, HItchens (Much missed), Hemant here and similar persons like the Aron ra, Niel de grasse and a host of others, doesn’t mean that I put pictures of them in frames on my wall for worship, nor that I take what they say for gospel. Most of what they say I agree with, and some I disagree with, and I treat rituals in the same way. Some simply feels good for _me_, for whatever reason, and if they feel good and doesn’t hurt anyone else, I am OK with them. And I respect others need or lack thereof, in the same way.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • paulalovescats

    Oh, just have a party and hold up the baby to the opening music from “Lion King”.

  • brianmacker

    It’s like she thinks anyone who becomes an atheist starts wearing monochrome clothes, and rides horse buggies. She makes all sorts of other unfounded assumptions that many commenters have pointed out her.
    I like how she rejects humanists calling people “odd parents”. She’s the one calling for this kind of ritualistic tradition. Rejecting what you’ve just asked for seems “odd”.
    BTW, I upvoted your comment on the basis of the first paragraph. I dislike the second paragraph.

  • brianmacker

    Not sure it works that way. I hated church. I let my wife send our kids to Sunday school so they wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they were missing something. They too soon learned to despise it.

  • brianmacker

    I caught that too. Who gave her this gift? She seems to hate patriarchy so I doubt she thinks of her husband as the gift bearer. One sperm is a gift? Does this thinking apply to rapists? I’m not sure how she is thinking of this.

  • brianmacker

    I’m wondering what bizzare definition she has of “paternalism” with regard to the “new atheists” when such groups have never had a background of explicit restrictions on women. She obviously doesn’t like the lack of ceremony, ritual sacrifice, or whatever at the CSICOP conventions, which might explain why there is a lack of women. It has nothing to do with any rules, or beliefs about the inferiority of women.

  • brianmacker

    You must eat one fetus daily. I take mine in pill form because it is so convienent.

  • brianmacker

    She seemed to get upset with new ritual. She rejected the “odd parent” concept. Seems like she wants some prepackaged atheist religion that caters to her personal tastes. Good luck with that. She can always invent it herself, but I think she also needs other people to buy into it to confirm her biases or something. Plus she needs the confirmation in the form of ritual. It’s like she’s got the case of the in-group out-group blues.

  • brianmacker

    I’m not sure what you addressing with this comment? Please give specifics of who, what, when, where? It is not clear what your accusation is and who it is directed at. You seem to be leveling charges of intolerance and exclusion, but at who. Suzanne Moore?

  • brianmacker

    Plus she had this to say:
    “Our ceremony had flowers and fires and Dylan, a Baptist minister and the Jabberwocky, half-Mexican siblings and symbols, a Catholic grandparent reading her prayer, a Muslim godparent and kids off their heads on helium at the party. A right old mishmash, then, but our mishmash.”
    That doesn’t at all sound like ritual. It sounds like doing whatever random shit you happen to like, and whatever random shit your relatives happen to like. It’s not like if she didn’t have a Muslim godparent she’d feel obligated to include some Islamic ritual.
    How can she possibly expect anyone else to follow this “ritual” unless they have half-Mexican siblings, a Babtist minister that is willing to qutoe Jabberwocky, and the rest of it.
    At this point she just sounds like some flighty airhead who doesn’t know what she’s complaining about nor what she wants. Not only that she doesn’t even understand what the word ritual means.

  • brianmacker

    Why the heck is there an organization called “New Humanists”? Do regular humanists have such a bad reputation that someone had to add the adjective “new” to the front to distinguish themselves?

  • brianmacker

    I don’t see any evidence she is calling for government support. I don’t however know what she is talking about. What does “outside of everyday life” mean. Is everyday life the work week? If so doesn’t she get the weekends off as her sacred space? I’m clueless as to her meaning because every interpretation I can come up with doesn’t make sense.

  • mywall

    I don’t see what she’s looking for that she couldn’t get by phoning the BHA and asking for a celebrant (I’m sure there are other organisations too). These services are already offered if you want them.

  • midnight rambler

    And to add to what you said – yet another article loudly proclaiming that what the author has decided for their personal beliefs or desires is not only counter to what all other atheists are supposed to do, but all others must follow their prescriptions. Or else be horrible people, or not-real-atheists. Or something.

  • Individualistically I see no problem with an atheist having personal rituals if he/she so desires. Nothing about not having a belief in god(s) prohibits you from doing so. But I don’t buy the notion that ritual, ceremony, or congregationalism is a necessary ingredient missing from atheism as a movement. If you’re into that stuff, go ahead; doesn’t bother me. But insisting that we should embrace it as a whole, you’ll be harder pressed to make a convincing case for.

  • jaded_guest

    Dear Lord, not this transphobic ignoramous again…

  • Nomad

    I love this idea. Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not likely to breed any time soon. I would be too tempted to do this as a formal introduction of the baby to the world.

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