Rational Ritual

No Singing, No Candles – The Touchy Subject of Ritual

“The two things we have most trouble with are singing, and candles.” So said Kate Lovelady, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis, a thriving community of Humanists who celebrate and affirm the nontheistic religion of Ethical Culture. I was interviewing her for a paper that was, in retrospect, a precursor to the Humanist Community Project – and the concerns regarding music and candles are precursors, too, of some of the critical reaction the Humanist Community Project has received from some quarters. For when we announced the Project, it was the idea of consciously creating Humanist rituals which received the most strongly negative reaction from other nonreligious people.

Even though the term “ritual” is never used in the article to which our critics were responding, many latched onto a mention of Humanist ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, and a quote from me about the lack, in secular society, of similar ceremonial resources to those on offer in religious traditions, to damn the whole Project. The issue of the role of ritual in secular life has been reignited recently by Alain de Botton, whose book Religion for Atheists articulates an agenda in many ways strikingly close that of the Project, including some words of appreciation directed toward various religious ritual practices.

The response to the suggestions by de Botton and myself has, from some quarters, been extremely fierce. Even the most seemingly innocuous forms of ritualized practice, like starting each meeting of a group with the reading of a poem of significance to a member of the community, came in for heated criticism. Lighting candles to represent the Humanist values of reason, compassion and hope (as those celebrating the HumanLight Festival, a Humanist holiday celebration, sometimes do) was declared strictly off-limits. And singing songs celebrating Humanist narratives and principles was, by some, never to be considered. These ideas are, we are told, “empty”, “senseless”, “a distraction”, even “nauseating”.

Why such a strong reaction? What is it that these commentators are seeing in our proposals that so exercises them, that brings them, in a few cases, to nausea?

The Dangers and Potential of Ritual

There seems to be three strands to the criticism. The first avers that any form of ritual practice is, or will become, essentially meaningless, a distraction from consideration or recognition of whatever the ritual is meant to refer to. The second claims that ritual is inherently authoritarian and dogmatic, and that those pursuing it will become unthinking automatons mouthing empty slogans while tugging their forelocks in deference to some secular priest. The third is that ritual is associated primarily with religious communities, and therefore to integrate some ritual practices into Humanist communities would serve to turn Humanism into a religion, or at least substantiate the charge, leveled by some against Humanists, that “Humanism/atheism is just another religion”.

I recognize and respect these concerns. It is abundantly clear that the world is filled with empty, senseless rituals that take on just the authoritarian character these critics identify. Very often these empty, rigid rituals are components of religious practice, and sometimes take the form of ritualized abuse of other human beings (female genital mutilation is one such example). Rituals are frequently employed to reinforce illegitimate hierarchies, as the Church of Rome exemplifies, and can sometimes serve as blocks to thought, as when a ritual preserves and protects outdated dogma. And I can understand that those who have had an unpleasant past relationship with religion, and have escaped into the light of reason, might be antagonistic toward anything which reminds them of the past they’ve left behind.

Thus, the instinct which seems to motivate these critiques – immediate caution and skepticism regarding the appropriation of ritual forms for Humanist purposes – is the right one. I share it. The founder of the Ethical Society, Felix Adler, shared it too, and initially banished all ritual from his Ethical Societies, apparently for some of the same reasons (Ericson, 1988).

But caution and skepticism does not imply outright rejection. Because some human practice might have and has sometimes had undesirable consequences does not mean that it always will have undesirable consequences, or that it has no redeeming qualities. Just because some rituals are senseless or authoritarian, does not mean that all are so, and it is a basic logical fallacy to assert that this is the case. It is my view that the critics of ritual take a good case too far, and move irrationally from initial caution to outright rejection without sufficient reason.

So why might Humanist communities wish to consider ritual as part of their community-building repertoire? To begin it is necessary to define the term. By “ritual” I mean any reasonably regular practice that an individual or community engages in which has a primary or significantly symbolic purpose. Note that this is a broad, but not all-encompassing definition. At Harvard we begin our Sunday meetings with brunch every week, which is certainly a regular practice, but is not primarily symbolic in purpose (it has lots of other valuable purposes, but not primarily symbolic ones). On the other hand, the posters in our community center about Humanist values certainly have a symbolic purpose – they represent what our community cares about – but they are not “practices”, being inert objects.

Note, too, that “symbolic” is a very wide-ranging term (see Langer, 1957; Goodman, 1976; and Elgin, 1999). Words are symbols (both spoken and written). Gestures can be symbols. Pictures are symbols. Music is composed of symbols. Anything that refers to anything else, or to itself, is functioning as a symbol. This means that the term “ritual”, as I use it, is both a little broader and a little narrower in certain respects to some everyday usages of the term. The “morning ritual” of brushing one’s teeth is disqualified under my definition because it lacks a primarily symbolic function, for example, whereas the speaking of certain words repeatedly, even very common phrases (“Ladies and Gentlemen…”) is ritualistic. In my view, a definition that simply encompasses all repeated activities is too wide to be useful, as is one that excludes words from the realm of the symbolic.

Further note that there is nothing inherently “religious” about my definition (this is relevant to the third form of criticism our proposals on this front have received). This, I think, is not only defensible but necessary to any accurate definition of the term, because a moment’s thought will furnish one with any number of obviously ritualistic practices, of great value to many people, which are not religious. The wearing of academic regalia like the mortarboard or gown is ritualistic (repeated every year or more and with the clothing symbolizing various facets of academic accomplishment) and, today, frequently totally secular. Many aspects of sports games are ritualistic, and secular. Many musical concerts include ritualistic elements, factors often most pronounced in rock and pop concerts – forms of music which have historically been decried for their secular nature.

Ritual, then, is ubiquitous. Billions conduct essentially secular rituals with great frequency: giving flowers to a loved one, going on regular family outings to a particular place of significance, seeing the same band again and again, calling home every week, visiting the grave of a relative or friend. Ritual is everywhere.

Ritual is a highly developed, not explicitly religious, extremely ancient form of human activity with a centrally symbolic purpose (Dissanayake, 1995). Already, one of the three main critiques of our proposal is feeling some strain. If ritual is not necessarily religious, and if billions of people perform ritualistic secular practices with enormous frequency, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the charge that simply incorporating some rituals into Humanist communities will “turn them religious”. The recognition of the ubiquity of ritual also serves as a useful foil for those who would charge that “Humanism is just another religion”: is football just another religion? Is rock music? If “yes”, then the term “religion” will become so broad as to be valueless. If “no”, then the critic must cede the claim that even a highly ritualistic community or practice must in some way be “religious”.

These recognitions are damaging, too, to the other two strands of criticism leveled against our project (although less so, as I will explore). Clearly, not all these rituals can be “senseless”, otherwise why would people so enthusiastically persist in them in situations where there is little social pressure for them to do so? Is it really necessarily “senseless” or “meaningless” to send flowers every month to your partner to symbolize your love? Is it “empty” to go to a beloved restaurant each month to connect with a particular group of friends and symbolize your friendship? Is it truly “nauseating” to consider always singing “row row row your boat” around the campfire when you get together with a band of old adventurers, as Kirk, Spock and McCoy are wont to do? It is in my view untenable to suggest that all these practices, and all the other practices for which they stand, are necessarily, or will necessarily become, ossified and senseless and empty and meaningless. Nor are they authoritarian.

Having cast serious doubts on the cogency of the critiques of ritual, our argument can now proceed to enumerating ritual’s positive potential. For aren’t the sorts of rituals I have been describing some of the very things that help us express and share the meaning, significance and joy in life? Some may be able to do without Valentine’s dinners, birthday celebrations, Thanksgiving turkey, the 4th July, or Guy Fawkes Night (my favorite yearly ritual, and one I miss profoundly since moving to the USA). But billions cannot and do not wish to. To most human beings some forms of ritual activity are considered highly valuable, prized, even essential. I am not so arrogant as to believe that these billions are all deluded as to what promotes their own welfare. We must, surely, if we are to be rational investigators of this phenomenon, recognize that some forms of ritual have profound and lasting value in the promotion of human wellbeing – and what is Humanism about if not promoting wellbeing? This point – the obvious value people clearly place in certain forms of ritual – strikes hard against the criticism that says that ritual is empty and meaningless. To many, many people this is clearly not so, and this is a matter of brute fact any honest critic needs to contend with.

Rituals have many other benefits in addition to their personal significance. They serve to present certain values and ideas to a community or society, as when a Pride March ritualistically promotes celebration of difference and sexual liberation. They can question structures of oppression and force the public to take note of injustice, as Take Back the Night seeks to do. They can even challenge (rather than reinforce) religious privilege, as PZ Myers did when he held a Communion wafer hostage, or students around the country did when they chalked Muhammad on their campuses. The secular movement has its rituals, too, and is often extremely protective of them.

On the other hand, the existence of empty, authoritarian and even dangerous rituals – the existence indeed of a great many of them – demonstrates that there is still a case to answer. There may be no guarantee that a given ritual will take on the negative potential our critics fear, but there is no guarantee that they won’t, either.  The question then becomes (and I think this is the best way to frame the discussion around ritual), “What separates good ritual from bad? What makes some regular symbolic practices rich and life-affirming, and others stultifying, void and degenerative of critical thought and individual freedom? How can we harness the positive aspects of ritual without encouraging its darker side?”

Rational Ritual

To contend with this problem I offer the principle of “rational ritual”. Essentially, the idea is that a given community (here I am concerned with Humanist communities), makes a commitment to experimenting with ritual in a reflective and critical way, remaining open to changing or ditching any ritual practice that doesn’t prove beneficial to members. Crucially, such an approach is completely in-sync with Humanist values: all three Humanist Manifestos, and all great Humanist thinkers, subscribe to the notion that our values and practices could be mistaken, should be subjected to continual critique, and open to change at any time. The concept of “rational ritual”, then, is simply an extension of this commitment to fallibilism and skepticism to ritual practice.

Immediately this obviates certain of our critics’ concerns: the very same approach used to guard against dogmatism and authoritarianism in our thinking will be harnessed to guard against those dangers in our communal ritual practice. Just as we submit every idea to the test of reason, so we shall submit every ritual. If the ritual is found wanting, it is changed, or it is done away with. If some practice does indeed turn out to be empty and meaningless, then we needn’t do it anymore. By separating ritual itself from the hierarchies and dogmas that often accompany it in religious organizations, and by making an explicit commitment to questioning and changing our rituals, we have a potent guard against some of its worst elements.

Another component of this idea is that we must provide well-evidenced reasons in favor of a given ritual – we should never be doing something “for no reason”. If a community member or group suggests a new ritual practice – sharing hopes and fears at the start of weekly meetings, for example – they can be expected to offer reasons as to why they think this is a good idea. The community can then decide, through agreed-upon mechanisms, whether to experiment with the practice (notice that it is always an experiment!). if a ritual, previously of value, seems to be losing potency, then someone can raise an objection, too, offering their reasons for the objection. All these rituals will of course be voluntary to begin with – no one from the Project has ever suggested forcing anyone into anything they don’t want to do.

Sample Rituals

What sort of rituals might arise from such a process? I have already mentioned the candle-lighting at HumanLight, in which three candles represent the Light of Truth, the Warmth of Compassion and the Glow of Hope. I think  this is a charming and harmless way to symbolize those values. It is symbolically appropriate, in that candles do indeed give of light, warmth, and a glow, and those descriptors seem to capture something of significance of the three values they are meant to represent (see Goodman, 1976, for detailed information on how symbols operate). Truth, compassion and hope are central to the Humanist outlook (perhaps the three definitional elements), and so are well-chosen for recognition in this way.  The people who perform the ritual find value in it, finding that it encourages them to think about those values and talk about them (which isn’t a bad thing). And it is aesthetically beautiful, which is of intrinsic value to human beings.

The Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix offers a very simple example of a ritual (in the sense described here) which many Humanist groups might wish to take up: they begin each Sunday meeting with “The Humanist Minute”, a short space of time in which a reading related to Humanism – a piece of poetry, perhaps, or a section from a novel – is presented by a member of the community for consideration. There are no questions or discussion – there’s plenty of time for that after the speaker for the week has presented their ideas! – just a moment to sit with some Humanist thoughts, reflect, and take a calm mental breath.

Another example: last year members of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard collaborated to design a service representative of Humanist thought and values, as part of a yearly series of services exploring different ethical traditions at Harvard Divinity School. Such an event may well raise the hackles of committed nonreligious people: this was to be a true service, held in a chapel, with communal singing and ritualistic expressions of Humanist ideals. This could have embodied the very worst elements of ritual, and confirmed our critics’ fears. Instead, through a collaborative design process, we developed a beautiful expression of our lifestance, complete with readings from Carl Sagan and Philip Pullman, a choir singing “There Comes a Time” (a stirring paean to Human dignity), instrumental music inspired by science, and an affirmation exercise in which the gathered participants were asked to reflect on their best qualities. Those who attended left inspired, with a deeper understanding of Humanism than before – an idea of what Humanists stand for.

And perhaps many of us have attended beautiful Humanist weddings, or moving Humanist funerals, in which life – this life, the only life we have – is celebrated with a ceremony crafted especially for a given individual. Such ceremonies are particularly important now, when same-sex couples are increasingly able to demonstrate their love through marriage, as Humanist Celebrants are some of the few individuals not just willing but eager to perform such weddings.


Ritual, at root, is a creative response to the deep human need to generate and share meaning. The desire to express, share and mark the most significant moments of our lives, our deepest values, does not go away simply because we let go of God. As the ranks of the nonreligious grow, and as we encourage more to embrace Humanism, there will be a need for ever more symbolic means to explore our lifestance with each other, and present it to the world.

Ritual is not going away. Let’s make sure it’s rational.



Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 1957
Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, 1976
Catherine Z. Elgin, Considered Judgment, 1999
Edward L. Ericson, The Humanist Way, 1988

About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

6 comments on “Rational Ritual

  1. That was a great article, a touch long for a blog post (perhaps breaking it into a series might have worked better) but a good read. Lots to chew on.

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