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Responsible rituals April 21, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.
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Rituals can be very powerful, and it’s no surprise that they play a central role in human culture — and in religion particularly. Indeed, I think that for many people, rituals are at the core of what their religion means to them. Most religious people don’t care much about theological arguments, scriptural scholarship, etc.; they associate their religion with a set of traditions which they find meaningful, and which have become a part of their identity. Therefore, critics of religion are often treated like the Grinch who wants to steal Christmas: it is imagined that a secular world would be bland and joyless, that those rationalists won’t rest until they’ve canceled every song, every celebration, every holiday.

This is, of course, untrue. I have nothing against rituals in principle: they can serve many positive functions, like strengthening communities and families, celebrating shared values, dealing with sorrow and loss, expressing gratitude, marking life’s milestones, and just having fun. Even if the particulars of some rituals are arbitrary or have superstitious origins, they can still take on whatever meaning we give them and become cherished parts of our culture and of our lives.

The problems begin, however, when rituals are given a hallowed status; when they become ends in themselves; when traditions are preserved just because they’re traditions. We have a responsibility to carefully consider all the consequences of our actions — especially those that affect children — and traditions are no exception. Some traditions that made sense in the past may need to be changed in order to remain relevant in today’s world. Some traditions may be found, upon reflection, to cause more harm than good, and ought to be modified or discontinued. Some traditions, such as neonatal circumcision (not to mention atrocities like female genital mutilation), are downright immoral and should be opposed and eradicated.

Even if a ritual is apparently innocuous, it may still be problematic if it’s used to support indoctrination — to inculcate beliefs for which there is no good evidence. While temporarily playing along with a fiction (such as the tooth fairy) can be fun and harmless, we must be aware that children cannot always tell the difference between mythology and reality. Religious people often hide (disingenuously) behind this ambiguity. At the end of the day, we must make it clear to our children which stories we consider historically accurate and which are just stories. Is Moses like George Washington or like Apollo? Does heaven exist in reality or only in our imaginations? We shouldn’t assume that children understand what is meant to be taken literally and what is not. (Even some adults don’t seem to be too sure about that.) Beliefs have consequences: there really are people killing each other over fictional characters.

It’s also important to be aware of the values that are promoted (explicitly or implicitly) in our rituals. Unsurprisingly, ancient traditions often reflect ancient worldviews that we should not be eager to endorse: the subordination of women, the celebration of violence, and so on. Many rituals seek to strengthen in-group loyalty and cohesion by demonizing outsiders — for example, the Passover Seder includes a prayer for Yahweh to pour down his wrath upon those nations that do not worship him. When such attitudes are professed repeatedly and without criticism, children will inevitably absorb them into their worldviews.

Rituals are powerful, and can therefore cause harm as well as good — so they must be used responsibly. We must not forget that our rituals are meant to serve us, and not vice versa. Traditions should not be perpetuated automatically and mindlessly: they must be reexamined critically by every generation. No ritual is set in stone. We have the right and the duty to reshape or replace the rituals we have inherited, so as to leave better ones for our children. Let that be our tradition.

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