We are starved of ritual. Science has become our major religion. We pay our tithes with our annual new phone / faster wifi / better car or whatever, but it’s a belief structure and it has little need of ritual. I think ritual is terribly important. There’s a lot to be said for things that have existed for thousands of years in one form or another. They haven’t come about arbitrarily. They’ve come to fill a necessary function, and they’ve been honed through generations.
Coming of Age is the one that is most lacking in our culture. If we had to wear gloves full of bullet ants for ten minutes like they do in parts of the Amazon, or jump over a cow four times naked, or throw ourself off a tall tower with a non-elastic vine bungee to mark our transition into adulthood, I suspect our inner selves would better match our outer selves in the years to come. There are a lot of infantilised adults in this secular society. I say this as a man who essentially plays for a living. But I wish there was some form of standardised ritual for the transition from child to adult. Other than just getting hammered again. Too many people are still just waiting for their mum to give them dinner, or for their dad to fix it. Sure there is a Bar Mitzvah if you’re Jewish, perhaps a confirmation if you’re Catholic. But for the average secular joe, it’s just a prom, where you can shuffle around in an uncomfortable suit feeling insecure and a bit American, before obliterating yourself with Snakebite and black. Even proms only started insinuating themselves over here in the last 15 years or so. Before then it was just vomiting on your girlfriend and falling in the canal.
The Christians mostly mark birth, marriage and death. Birth is not going to be remembered by the kid though, it’s for the parents and godparents – (and the coffers). I was made a godfather by a catholic priest who knew I was an actor. He asked the godmother: “Do you renounce satan, and all his works, and all his false promises?” “I do.” She said. Nice and easy. One question. One answer. He seemed satisfied. Then he turned and eyeballed me: “Do you renounce satan?” … … … “I do.” “And all his works?” He is on his words. It’s rare you hear a man of cloth attributing meaning to the words of his ritual. Often they just sing. “I do.” I venture. “AND ALL HIS FALSE PROMISES?” I’m in the dock. “I DO!” And I did. And for a bit afterwards I felt washed as clean as my confused infant godson.
Marriage is the big expensive one. There’s a purpose to that ritual too though. If you tromp down do a grey office next to a Greggs and sign a piece of paper, you might not think so much of heading down to another office for another piece of paper before too long. If you have a bloody great big expensive ritual and swear complicated things to a nebulous authority figure represented by a dude in costume who is singing instead of speaking – somehow it’ll go in different. You might still head down to a grey office in years to come and opt out, but I suspect you’ll question it deeper before you do so.
I flirted with the idea of training as a humanist celebrant a few years ago. On reflection it’s probably not for me – I am not secular. I flirt with many religions, and like to magpie from them to fit my sense of how I think life should be lived, and how myself and those around me can be best helped. This evening an old friend of mine, Harriet, who IS a celebrant gave me her unused tickets to The Voltaire Lecture at Conway Hall, delivered by Nick Cohen for the British Humanist Association. It was a great lecture talking about the use of language, entitled “Free Speech in an Age of Fanaticism. I was going to write more about it, but the cat has just been copiously sick on the living room carpet so I think I need to switch heads. Eew yes – it stinks… And she looks disconsolate. I’d better stop.