From Ritual to Romance   (2015Nov08)

Sunday, November 08, 2015                                            6:21 PM

“From Ritual to Romance” was written by Jessie L. Weston in 1920. It is mentioned by T. S. Eliot in the notes to his poem, ‘The Waste Land’: “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book.”  Weston’s book, along with Sir James George Frazer ‘s “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion”, first published in 1890, were hot topics in Eliot’s day. Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ did for anthropology what Darwin’s “On The Origin Of Species” did for biology in 1869—it presented academic research indicating that the Christianity of the day was evolved, in many ways, from more-ancient rituals and earlier gods. Further, it showed that religion changes with the times, while it re-tasks older beliefs and traditions. Simple examples include the importance of mistletoe in Christmas tradition—a holdover from Druidic beliefs and rituals—and Christmas itself, a pre-Christian mid-winter festival re-assigned as the day of Christ’s birth, whereas the historical Jesus was most likely born in the spring.

Just as Darwin’s work slowly percolated for decades after its initial publication (the Scopes trial wasn’t until 1925) so too Frazer’s research would not bear the fruit of Weston’s and other writers’ works until well into the beginning of the twentieth century—and this affected T. S. Eliot, scion of a famous Unitarian family and a student of Ancient Greek, Latin, and even Sanskrit (he familiarized himself somewhat with Eastern philosophy—the final ‘shanti’ in The Waste Land is Sanskrit for ‘peace’)—but an intellectual who considered himself an atheist early in his writing career. That he would join the Church of England in his later years, he admitted, was in large part due to his desire for ritual and the focused meditation of prayer.

In his essays on Christianity, culture, and society, Eliot worried that the ending of borders in Europe would lead to an overly homogenous culture, losing the variety of differences between the many nations. His concerns were misplaced, as the United States would handily blanket the globe with Pepsi and Quarter-Pounders soon after the next World War. But the foundation of his concern for cultural diversity, as well as his eventual decision to rejoin a religious community—was at heart a concern for meaning in one’s life and indeed in the lives of everyone.

His masterpiece, “The Waste Land”, was to some extent a gigantic howl at a universe that was losing its old meanings—and having trouble replacing them with modern equivalents. Industrialization, science, and technology were erasing many of the givens—people of different countries were no longer separated by mere physical distance—the secrets of life, of matter, of the universe—all of which had been the province of faith—were now being revealed by scientific inquiry—‘God’ himself had been dethroned.

And Eliot raises a valid point—I spent many years being agnostic, being unsure if my rejection of all religion was based on valid reasoning—but once I decided absolutely on atheism, I’ve spent every moment since in trying to find a way to give life meaning without reverting to any magical improvisations that would simply be religion in another guise. And it’s not easy.

As I watched a PBS documentary on Johnny Carson today, this issue of rituals again raised itself in my mind. In my youth, TVs were made from tubes. This required a TV to be big and boxy—the bigger the screen, the bigger the whole box had to be. So—a very substantial piece of furniture sat in the center of virtually every home—and, at dinner-time, virtually every American turned it on, like a national campfire, and watched either Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley tell them the news of the day. Later, at bed-time, Johnny Carson would come on and clue us all in on what was going on, what to care about, what was ‘cool’, and what to laugh off.

The real importance of this was in the following day—our conversations with each other would always have a common context—we all referenced the same ‘source material’. Equally important was our unanimous acceptance of whatever information was received—we talked about how we felt about current events—we never discussed whether we believed what Cronkite or Carson had told us. That’s where the cliché of ‘water-cooler conversation’ comes from—although presently even water-coolers are a thing of the past—now most office workers show up to work with their own individual caffeine drinks from Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.

Older times saw technology enabling us to be tribal on a larger scale—first radio, then television, gave us a sense that the entire nation, from coast to coast, was all ‘on the same page’. Automobiles allowed us to congregate in public places in larger numbers—and from a larger overall area. The limitations of corded, rotary landlines—mostly always just one to a household—retained the sense that real communication could only be accomplished face-to-face.

And while we are tempted to blame laptops and i-phones for the insularity of modern communication, we should remember that earlier electronics began the change—the advent of touch-tone dialing, call-waiting, multi-party calls, caller-ID, etc.—all made telephony simpler and more akin to an actual conversation. It was around this time that phone cords of exaggerated length became popular—phoning had become easier, and we began to feel a restlessness from still being pinned to one spot in the home.

The differences today are many: we all have our own phones now; we can take them wherever we go now; we don’t have to worry about missing a call—not only do we know who tried to call us, but they can leave a recorded message for us to hear later. Point-of-contact used to be the family kitchen—now each wandering individual is a point-of-contact. Telephone contact is so universal today that we are confronted by situations, as when driving a car, where talking on the phone can actually kill us.

Similar conveniences have stripped away the trials of scholarship—fifty years ago one would inevitably find oneself in need of a public library—specifically the reference section. ‘Mini-reference-sections’, called encyclopedias, were sold door-to-door—mostly to minimize the number of trips to the library. We got to know our librarians; we got to know each other—if we were the kind of people who spent a lot of time reading or studying or researching. Today, I have no need for the reference section of my local library—I don’t even have to cross the room to use my own encyclopedia (yes, I still have a set)—I can just do a Google-search, or check Wikipedia, or find the e-text of a classic tome on the Gutenberg Project website.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s tremendous power there. Not only do I have access to the equivalent of a library reference section—I have access, from right here where I’m sitting, to every university, laboratory, professional association, research society—hell, with the right access codes, I could rifle through the files of DARPA, NASA, or CERN. But my point today is not concerned with the wonders of the Internet—I’m focusing on the fact that I don’t need to break my solitude—I don’t need to open my front door—and I still have access to virtually every bit of information known to mankind.

Convenience in communication, and in scholarship, was welcome progress—but we still needed to get together to have ‘something to do’. Increasing the number of TV channels from three to 300 made it possible to watch a lot more TV—and cable TV made it possible to watch movies without attending a movie theater—but still, there is a limit to how much TV a person can watch. Likewise, there is only so much time that can be spent talking on the phone or studying. In my day, a person always reached a point where he or she simply had to go outside, to mingle with the throng—or simply hang with one’s friends.

Eventually, one way of ‘hanging with friends’ became playing video games—a group of kids would congregate around a TV hooked up to a video game system and take turns using the controllers. And this is where everything came off the rails, in a sense. The advent of multiplayer online gaming, combined with the use of laptops and cellphones, made it possible to both play with friends and socialize with friends—all without leaving the privacy of one’s room. Additionally, one could leave one’s room—could in fact go anywhere—and still remain essentially within that gaming social gathering. This leads, of course, to the phenomenon whereby your kids could be in the room with you, but not really ‘be’ there at all—they’re texting, or IM-ing, or gaming with unseen other kids while their bodies, devoid of conscious awareness, sit in the same room you’re in.

We call this new generation ‘digital natives’—people who grow up with digital, online technology as a given. To digital natives, being physically present is of less importance than online connection—they pay attention to their screens, not to the people in their environment—hence all the car-crashes caused by cellphones. There was once a time when a rainy day was bad news for kids—it meant we couldn’t go outside to play—and that was a major tragedy in our young lives. Nowadays, when parents force their kids to go outside, it is more likely to cut them off from their friends and their playtime.

In a culture that shops online, plays online, watches online entertainment, communicates online, and learns online, we find that something is lost. In Eliot’s time, they felt the loss of religion as an absolute—but they also lost the comfortable patterns of a life where God was central to everyday activities. In our time, we are experiencing the loss an even more elemental aspect of our daily lives—shared physical presence. And the list of rituals being lost in this new ‘normal’ is even greater.

Consider laundry—there are still parts of the world where we could witness the weekly washing of clothes by a riverbank—those people gather and mingle and chat as they do their laundry ‘community-style’—and for centuries, all mankind did their laundry in this way. When washing machines came along, people hung up their wash on clotheslines—often socializing with their neighbors over the back fence—a smaller social group, but still partially a community activity. Then came electric dryers—and homemakers found themselves, at least as far as laundry was concerned, acting in solitude, shut up each in their own homes.

Why are rituals important? Look at it this way—we can strive for success, for achievement, for goals of many types—we can chase after lovers, mates, and romance—we can eat, sleep, and work—but all of it is empty without a context, a continuum, that is the cycle of our daily lives. Humans are a social species—we need the comforting presence of others, we need interaction with our peers. But we are raising children in an environment of solitude—where are they supposed to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives? How can they build a comforting pattern of social rhythms to give their lives continuity?

And make no mistake—we have need of these things. Take the Sabbath day as an example—with the decline of religion, one might ask why bother with a day of interruption? But we need rest as much as we need sleep—however we came up with the idea of a ‘day of rest and prayer’, it fits our biological rhythms—even without feeling obligated to pray to God once a week, we still benefit from the rhythm of taking every seventh day off. Or take another example—the taboos on certain foods, like pork or shellfish, were once considered religious observances—but they were useful in that such foods are health risks if not carefully cooked. Further, in modern America, where a person can eat anything—and as much of it as they please—we find that eating without limits presents greater health risks than any one type of food could ever pose.

Boundaries, rituals, democracy, all the inconveniences of being part of a group, rather than a free, solitary agent—these things have a value to our mental and physical health, to our sense of having a rich, fulfilling life. We may be able to get along without our imaginary friend, God, but we are finding out that life can be even more empty and angst-ridden if we try to live without each other, without community and society. There may come a day when we no longer have prisons—we may come to recognize that everyone is already in a prison, that criminals can be punished and isolated from society by the simple expedient of taking away their online connection.

This may seem rambling and generalizing, but I’m trying to make the point that the rhythms and patterns of community provide a substrate for the discrete pursuits of life—earning a living, raising a family, the arts, the sciences, politics, etc. We focus on these ‘goals’ of life and overlook the fact that life has a context within which all this goal-seeking behavior occurs—that there are moments between these activities—that our consciousness goes in and out of these discrete pursuits, but our awareness is confronted by an unbroken continuum of existence—and that overall ‘existence’, without substance, becomes a void that we fall into whenever we are not consciously busy with a particular aspect of our interest. No matter what our individual interests may be, we still need our overall lives to have texture and substance. Without experience outside of our online connections, life becomes disjointed, disconnected, and begins to lose value or meaning.

The human animal can adapt to many changes—but not to emptiness. It has been noted that a person left in a sensory-deprivation chamber will quickly be driven mad by a nervous system bereft of input. We are in danger of finding our global village trapped in an electronic isolation that will drive the whole world mad—we may find that civilization will ultimately be destroyed, not by fire or ice, but by our lust for convenience.

Oh, Come On, All Ye Faithful

Oh, Come On, All Ye Faithful

The world is full of sad, suffering, bitter, frightened people—so much so that there are even those who have been ‘broken’. We once had an unspoken agreement in our society that anyone who was obviously psychotic or deeply stupid would be nudged away from any responsible role in civics or business. Not that we didn’t like them—just that we could see their behavior as problematic in any ‘position of authority’, where the broken may not see such a problem within themselves. I guess Bush, Jr. put an end to that tradition—if not his election then, certainly, his re-election—and now the floodgates of ‘stupid and mean’ have opened wide.

Additionally, we now have evangelical politicians (that used to be an oxymoron in this country) who disregard all the serious people who, for generations, kept their religion on simmer—just to avoid that all-too-easily-approached position wherein a person may choose their faith’s dogma over common sense. Not to mention this unspoken Neo-Con campaign to change America from the ‘land of religious freedom’ to the ‘land of Christian theocracy’. And how the public figures dance around this issue, being coy and arch and never coming out and saying the thing they truly believe—because they know the real world will take their bald admission of their loyalty to the church and hold it up as the childish bedtime story it really is.


Admittedly, this issue is skewed, publicly, due to the fact that morons will shout their stupidity to the mountain-tops, but reasonable people of faith will allow for the give and take of scientific reality and mathematical truth and, more importantly, are too busy leading productive lives to make nearly as much hullabaloo as the extremists they far outnumber. But it remains a major point of cognitive dissonance in politics. While science professors in top colleges would not be reluctant to admit they’re Atheists, politicians must still keep to the establishmentarian position of ‘morals by religion’ and no other avenue of ‘understanding good and evil’.

The evangi-lantees  (you like that? I just made it up.) take advantage of this virtual strait-jacket whenever they imply that ‘godlessness’ is synonymous with ‘evil’. Most of my friends and acquaintances would scruple (I certainly hope) at describing me as Evil. Yet the holy-rolling, bible-thumper set would have me, an Atheist, be seen as a threat to my country, my community, and my family. No national candidate for high office has as yet proclaimed their atheism (not to my knowledge, anyway) yet the greatest horrors of our times—9/11, genocide, warring and bloody revolutions in the Mid-East—all these violent upheavals were perpetrated by certain people claiming religious motives or religious authority for their behavior.


Shouldn’t the Atheists be preferred as being more objective about religious dogmas and the different cultures and life-styles of different religious groups? If we only accept some sort of Christianity in our political candidates, aren’t we enabling the evangelicals’ “Freedom of Belief as Long as its Christian” agenda. Why should we accept different views in our teachers and scientists than the views we expect from politicians? It’s a conundrum. Here’s another: Why don’t Europeans see this happening in their countries? Why is the USA the only country that sees the rise of evangelism and pseudo-Christian extremism? Is it because they’d already gotten over their Reformation by shipping all the crazies over here?

The fundamental divide between Atheists and Christians (or Theists in general) is in our ‘reality’s. True believers live in a reality where God is real. Atheists live in a reality that excludes specific faiths and precise dogmas—we see civilization as the progress (or evolution, if you will) of humanity from ignorance to enlightenment. We see the churches of today as vestiges of a time when the world had no better solution to the riddle of existence than myths. We see the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as a movement from very primitive, multi-divinity traditions into a monotheistic paradigm. This gives us a perspective in which today’s major faiths are only different from Greek Mythology in that there are still people that take their ‘myths’ seriously.


This accounts for the accusations of rudeness, crudeness, and anti-social tendencies that Christians will often make against Atheism. They think we are insulting an actual ‘being’. And we Atheists are trying to find a way to tell adults, “there is no Santy Claus” without being condescending—or going crazy ‘banging our heads against a wall’.

This is where the idea of religious freedom breaks down—two types of adults can try to discuss their differences, but in this case we are attempting to discuss our different underpinnings of our respective realities. Truly, it is easier for Muslims and Christians to discuss their differences than it is for either of them to debate Atheists. It’s kind of funny, in a way—if I told a Christian I didn’t believe in Islam, there wouldn’t be a problem; if I told a Muslim I didn’t believe in Christianity, again, no problem. There is an Atheist joke that points out how theists disbelieve in every other religion except their own, so Atheists are just off by one more religion. Funny, but true.

It doesn’t help that ‘enforced Atheism’ was a property of the old ‘Commies’ during the Cold War—the idea that people could be arrested because of their religious practices is the opposite of religious freedom. It was one of our main points of ‘superiority’ over the ‘Iron Curtain’ countries—in the Free World, we had no limits on religiosity. It seems ironic, now, what with Islam becoming a ‘suspect’ religious group—and not just for their being blamed for the fundamentalist extremists who flew the jetliners into the two towers, but also for their apparent misogyny and their concept of sharia law (pretty much the opposite of ‘separation of church and state’.)


As always, the differences between theist and atheist are aggravated by the polymorphism of language. Fundamentalism, Extremism, Zealotry—words that once meant ‘deeply religious’ have been transformed by Terrorism into buzz-words denoting ‘random, delusional violence’. By the extremists’ insistence on hardline dogmatism, they make life difficult for the average believer in more ways than one. Being co-opted into implicit guilt of terrorist attacks is one way. Having their beliefs extended to the furthest extreme by the fundamentalists, thus highlighting the cognitive dissonance of any faith in the modern world, is another difficulty—in that it makes the majority of a faith’s believers begin to question their choice of outlook. In other words, terrorism (never a sane approach, for whatever objective, in the first place) may have the effect of driving away the majority of a faith’s more moderate and nominal adherents. Where the churches once created communities and connections, they are now in danger of being recognized as sources of conflict.

Atheists have their own problems—in my case, it is my reluctance to change my ethics to be in line with my discarding Catholicism. I’ve been consistently troubled by this issue for most of my life—if religion is false, what are the reasons for social behavior? I’ve always preferred to be a polite person, kind and sympathetic—and I hope that I have, by and large, been so—and I also know that, at times, I have not been what I hoped. But having given up any hope of taking any religion seriously ever again, I have never been changed in my feeling of the rightness in being the best person one can be.


But, without any explanation or evidence, I have no formulation of logic that leads to my behavior—in the Atheist’s existence, there is no true rationale for anything, for being nice, for being helpful or having any care for others, not even for staying alive. And the closest I’ve come so far is this: There is no reason for anything, but there is likewise no reason not to care for anything. It’s not much, but I’ve used it for a long time and, frankly, I’m afraid it may be the only ‘answer’ to that particular issue. In other words, for me, ‘meaning’ is a subjective thing—but no less integral to happiness, and no more changeable than another’s faith, regardless of being my ‘choice’.

At ten years old, I announced my conviction that, having thought it all over, this God business was a crock. In my teen years, I tried out several other churches services in search of a believable faith—the Bahá’í seemed the closest—Quakerism was also pretty sensible, as was Unitarianism. These other faiths appeared to be far more humane than my childhood faith, but none could offer anything more sensible than Catholicism, in terms of logic and reason. In almost all cases, another religion would be far less silly than Catholicism—but that didn’t change the core concepts—unknowable being, constant surveillance from cradle to grave, life after death, souls—all the things that in a different context would be called ‘paranormal’, perhaps even ‘delirium’. In other words, if I had been shopping for a better religion, there were several contenders. But I was looking for a religion that was true—like science is true.


Thus I became an agnostic, still willing to entertain new evidence and different perspectives. But then I ran across the archeology of religion. I learned that modern-day faiths were evolved from earlier forms, not set in stone from day one. I learned that many religious holidays were superimposed on dates that were held sacred by pagans prior to the intrusion of monotheism.

I learned that witch hunts and burning people at the stake were as much part of the destruction of the older faiths’ perspective as they were a ‘Jihad against Satanists’. Witches were revered matriarchs in Pagan culture—they were experts in medical lore, botany, midwifery, and other important contributions to their communities. They were living demonstrations of a Goodness unconnected with the churches—and they were far more effective and successful than the newer, so-called Doctors. That made them unbearable members of society in the eyes of both the new leaders and the professionals of this new, Christian ‘way of things’.

Fraser’s “Golden Bough” was a ground-breaking book published at the turn of the last century. It cataloged the many threads that wound through civilization’s history, connecting our present day beliefs to traditions begun by far more primitive belief-systems. It is basically impossible to read that book and still take modern religious rituals as seriously as when one assumed one’s religion was ‘made from whole cloth’.


Most troubling of all is that the book was archeological in nature—it didn’t defend or attack any specific faith. Fraser diligently searched out carvings, scrolls, parchments, temples, and historical documentation for what would become his conclusions. Worse yet, it wasn’t long afterwards that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered—an Archive of older versions of today’s Bible, displaying far-ranging variations on what was previously ‘known’ to be a single, full compendium of Christianity—the New Testament.

We may not see the excitement-factor in such musty scholarship, but to the Vatican these scrolls were a potential death-blow. They sprang into action, acquiring the majority of the ‘treasure’ and spending years in so-called translation of these bomb-shell documents. Eventually, serious people started getting impatient with this suppression of such important historical material, and the scrolls were released to public study. A library found at the Nag Hammadi (Nag Hammadi Scriptures and the Gnostic Gospels) added its own confusion to the pile-up—including one very surprising “Gospel of Mary Magdalene”!

So, maybe it’s just me but, after many years of digging to get to a truth of my own, I felt I had found it—religion was evolved from our earliest, most primitive thought-processes—our fear of death, our preference for an ordered life-style, and our curiosity about the big ‘Why’s—Why does the universe exist?; Why are we here?; Why do we live, only to die? The worship of the Sun, of nature, of animals, of father-figures in the sky—all these things were part of how human ratiocination operates. They seem natural and real, because they are the natural result of our thought-processes.


And I had seen my own changes—as a boy, we Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays; Catholic priests celebrated the Mass in Latin; and the congregation remained silent throughout. By my tween years, the ‘no meat on Friday’ strictures were dropped—(a real blow to seafood restaurants); the Mass was performed in English; and we were suddenly being taught how to do antiphony—the ‘call and response’ portions of the Mass. It takes some strong faith, in God as well as in oneself, to make alterations to the rituals of one’s faith. To a youngster like myself, it seemed little different than saying all my study of the Catechism was just a joke. “We’re changing things around—we may change again—nothing is set in stone.”—that’s what I took away from the experience. And what is the good of belief if it isn’t set in stone? I asked myself—belief should have the same permanence as arithmetic.

That’s me all over—I took Catholicism too seriously as a kid, then I took their changes too seriously, then I took science too seriously. I have found, in my older, more recent years, that everything has a ‘balance’ to it—taking something too seriously has the effect of creating an ‘imbalance’. So I try to take things less seriously now—but it is my nature to be demanding, compulsive, and fussy, so I have little success in my attempts at sensibility.

I admit my life is worse for not having joined a faith—much of society is oriented around religion. But how lucky I was to be born in a time and place where my lack of faith wasn’t a death sentence. Society wasn’t always merely oriented around religion; it has been for most of our history as accepted-as-fact as arithmetic was—indeed, if there were to be a lack of agreement between arithmetic and the church, it would have been the arithmetic that would have been ignored.Image

The acceptance of Science as our baseline reality is a surprisingly recent change in civilization—so recent that many parts of the world still live their lives in thrall to dogmas, rituals, and mysticism. That their society and their religion are inseparable presents a problem when these far-off lands are negotiating with the developed countries—once again, the very foundations of their realities differ so much that points of contact are elusive and mercurial. And the many people in the developed world who retain their families’ faiths, but take them with a grain of salt, so to speak, are as repugnant to the true believers as Atheists like me.

In some ways, I side with the zealots on this issue—if I did truly believe in my religious precepts, I wouldn’t half-ass around about it, either. I have always had great respect for the Shakers—they believed that, if original sin was a sin, then they would never commit that sin. They lived in celibacy—the only new members of the Shaker faith were orphans and runaways adopted by the Shaker community. Still, there came a time when they were all gone—they had obeyed their God by never having children—now, that’s faith, bub! They had their own Rapture, by sheer commitment to their faith. We who remain on Earth today could well be waiting for a Second Coming that already came and went.

So, I can take the high ground here if you all are the type of church-folk who skip services during football season, or cheat on your taxes, or cheat at cards, whatever… And the rest of you—keep the faith, baby! (If that’s your thing.)