Rational Rituals or 'Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain.' (Analysis on Practices of Prayer, Religious Ceremonies and Rituals)

By Madigan, Timothy J. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Rational Rituals or 'Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain.' (Analysis on Practices of Prayer, Religious Ceremonies and Rituals)


Madigan, Timothy J., Free Inquiry


. . . Ritual, prayer, and religious affirmation.9 generally involve a suspension of one's critical faculties--a refusal to be completely honest with oneself. The situation cannot be assimilated either to beholding or acting in a play or to participation in a game. In all these cases one is willing to admit, even in unfeeling interruption are resented, that there is some make-believe. In the case of religion, hardly anyone would be prepared to admit this even to himself.

The philosopher George Santayana (1863 1952) considered himself to be both an atheist and a Catholic. His reasoning powers would not allow him to accept the dogmas of the Catholic church, but he still appreciated its aesthetic charm and its ability to get across moral truths through the use of pageantry, ritual, and ceremony.

I, too, was raised a Catholic, and I share Santayana's intellectual qualms about its doctrines. However, I am somewhat less sanguine about its use of traditions. While I can admire the beauty of a church ceremony, I am also aware of how it can be used to manipulate people's feelings and keep them beholden to the institution.

Even as a child I was interested in the ways in which church practices affect one's personal life. I can recall trying to reach a state of ecstasy by saying the rosary, something that other Marian devotees seemed to achieve with ease. While dutifully reciting the prayer associated with each bead, however, I was also wondering how the repetitious recital would bring about an altered state of consciousness. I never did achieve rapture. No doubt this is why Zen masters are prone to whacking their students in the head with a stick-to get them to attain enlightenment by stopping their thoughts about enlightenment. Perhaps if someone had smacked me with a crozier I might be a Catholic still.

At any rate, my faith had a firm rational foundation. I was interested in logical justification of beliefs. The rituals, I felt, served a purpose, but my main concern was intellectual integrity. After studying both Western and Eastern philosophy in college, I came to see that the basic premises of my religion were shaky, and I could no longer accept them. I still admired the church services, but I felt that I could not remain in an organization whose central teachings I no longer accepted, regardless of the comfort of its rituals.

I suspect that this is why the issue of humanist rituals is so problematic. Humanists are by their very nature unconventional. Such nonbelievers as Comte, Durkheim, and Dewey assiduously studied religious customs and mapped out the ways in which these helped to meet the existential needs of human beings while promoting communal harmony. Each in turn advocated devising secular alternatives to these religious rituals. But in practice such secular rites of passage seem artificial, or resonant of a "me too" attitude. …

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