I was at lunch the other day with a number of friends. A couple religious, a couple not. As our food arrived and we went to eat there was a moment, a pause, an awkward silence as the religious wondered if they should say grace, and everyone was waiting for a cue to eat. Finally, someone spoke. “Bon appetit” they said and, relieved, we all tucked in.
Husband later commented “We should have a non-religious version of grace” and it got me thinking about rituals.
Within our lives, there are many rituals. There are personal rituals, such as the order in which you do things in the morning, going for coffee, or having a weekly catch up with friends. There are societal rituals like graduation ceremonies, weddings, baby showers, bachelor parties and applause. Then there are religious rituals, baptisms, church services and bar mitzvahs.
In days gone by, when a whole country was likely to be the same religion, the rituals that were observed were the same across all people within that society, and intertwined between the culture and the religion. These rituals formed a part of every day life, provided a sense of occasion, and gave societal clues as to the correct procedure of events.
I really enjoy rituals, they provide my life with a sense of tradition. I also am fascinated by them from an anthropological perspective – where the rituals come from, what is the story behind them. Some I know, such as eggs at Easter (Pagan fertility symbol), Holy Communion wine and unlevened bread (Jesus’ instruction at the last supper) or weddings rings (traditionally only worn by women, as part of ‘purchasing’ her, symbolising the business transaction). Some I don’t, such as bar mitzvahs. But I understand the role they play and the event they celebrate.
Grace is a perfect example of a religious ritual that was a strong part of society but also provided a societal cue for the procedure of events. A table is set, people sit down, food is served, grace is said, and then everyone may eat. It provided a sense of structure and an ability to predict what was about to come next.
With the reduction of religion, and the increase in multiple religions within the same society, we have lost the sense of structure that many rituals provided.
As society becomes less based in tradition and religion, I fear that rituals may lose their place in society all together. I mourn the loss, not just because I enjoy rituals, but because it is a link to our past. To history on a global scale. It is a link to the world we have come from, and although rituals may evolve, they are based in something bigger than us.
It is at times like these, when I watch the decline of rituals within society, that I ask myself: If we lose rituals, and we lose the role in society they play, how will we know what is expected of us? How will we know what to do? And, as we sit down to eat, who will say grace for Atheists?
Do you enjoy rituals? Do you understand them? Do you think they are an important part of our traditional heritage, or an outdated link to society’s past? What rituals do you take part in?