Making Meaning Without Religion: Ritual for the Secular

This morning, at the Nalanda Campus of Naropa, I was greeted at the door by an armed policeman in a bulletproof vest.  It wasn’t because there had been a shootout, or anything like that.  In fact, I don’t know why every entrance to the building was being monitored by armed law enforcement officials.  But I can only assume that it had something to do with the dozens of people who had arrived to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration.

That image really stuck with me.  Here was a whole community of people who had gathered together to sing, pray, and appreciate their religious community, but somehow the presence of armed force was necessary to ensure peace.  I don’t know the history behind this scenario, and perhaps it’s a new security measure in response to the recent protests in the Middle East.  But, as a secular person, it struck me to see the faith of these people who had gathered together to celebrate, despite the threat of possible violence.

As someone who was raised Orthodox Catholic, I am very familiar with ritual celebration.  In my childhood, everything from eating breakfast to celebrating Christmas involved some form of ritual.  We observed dozens of holy days that most people have never heard of, fasted before major holidays, and even seemingly simple tasks were often preceded and followed by prayers.  I think it is difficult for secular people to entirely grasp this.  It wasn’t as though every day was a holiday, but every day was special because everything in every day held meaning.  Life was full of rites of passage, which were celebrated with great enthusiasm.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I am secular.  I no longer identify with any religion, and religion itself has little appeal for me.  It’s not that I think religion is wrong; it simply does not resonate with my own spiritual experiences.  Yet, while I do not miss the religious aspects of my childhood, I do miss the ritual.  There’s something about the marking of change, progress, and growth in a communal, celebratory way that fills some deep need in me.  And in recent years, I’ve started to feel a strange anxiety over not recognizing these milestones.

So what is a secular spiritualist to do?

The largest problem that I’ve run up against is that I lack the element of community.  Having come from a religious background, and an immediate family of ten people, ritual simply doesn’t have the same meaning for me when it is performed in solitude.  But if the individuals participating in a group ritual do not actually feel a connection to its inspiration, it becomes meaningless pageantry, which feels invariably hollow.  Time after time, I’ve tried to organize some sort of ritual gathering to celebrate a life event, only to watch it morph into a meaningless night of drinking games.

And this doesn’t surprise me.  Because how can you successfully bring a group of people together to celebrate an event when the event doesn’t hold meaning for the people celebrating?  Ritual has to be personal, and celebration of events in this way must evoke some shared appreciation on an immaterial level.  Furthermore, how do you get people together who don’t just want a pageantry?  For people who were not raised in a religious context, the flashiness of ritual can have more appeal than its underlying intent, and sometimes people are more interested in the show of the thing than in the meaning behind it.  If the intent is not there, the ritual’s meaning is lost, and the felt-sense of acknowledgement is painfully absent.

Thus far, I have not been successful in figuring this out.  It’s something that I’ve been puzzling over for the past few years.  My struggle is this: what events exist in life that draw us all together, that we all care about enough to be personally invested in?  Of course, things like graduations, marriages, funerals, etc. exist, and involve a great deal of ritual.  But what about outside of these things?  What about when the seasons change, or when you have a particularly bad break-up, or when you wake up one morning and realize that your life has grown stale and you need to make a change?  Some people can, and do,  acknowledge these things by themselves.  But how do you do so as a group?  Is there any way for an entire group of people, who are not religiously affiliated, to be emotionally (and perhaps spiritually) invested in this process?  And if they can, how do you design such a ritual?  Do you design it as a group?  If the ritual is meant to be focused on one person, how are the other people incorporated?

I would love to hear from anyone who has experience with, or thoughts on, this topic.  It’s one that has been consistently in and out of my mind for a while, and I suspect I’m not the only person who has been feeling the anxiety of unacknowledged things.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Meirya
    Oct 05, 2012 @ 14:27:56

    This is so relevant to my interests. My live-in partner and I have long discussed the meaningfulness of ritual, and the lack of rites of passage in Western culture.

    The core of my spirituality (after self-growth and self-development) is living myth, participatory myth. I do a lot with archetypes, working with archetypes and internalizing mythic symbols, etc. You can do a lot with such an approach that doesn’t involve religious belief…

    Have you ever looked into ceremonial magic, the Golden Dawn, and chaos magic? It’s a lot about ritual, spiritual/personal alchemy, etc while being fairly non-religious.

    I also do a lot of “system agnostic” energy work with a small group of people. Dunno if that’d be of interest to you or not. We can chat about it sometime though. :>


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