Thursday, 2 July 2009

Dead end religion, new rituals

Interesting piece yesterday by Diesel Balaam over on the Pink Triangle Trust blog (see
Diesel uses the mourning we’re seeing after Michael Jackson’s death as a call for the non-religious to get into the debates over these new and ‘amateur’ ways people find to mourn because…..
Well, let’s cut to the chase. Because organised religion can’t get the job done any more but still butts in, begging bowl at the ready, trying to use our need to find better ways to grieve as an excuse for a ‘return to traditional values/family values/Christian values’….(cut and paste where you like, it’s all bollocks anyway).
It’s a topic us ‘sophisticated’ atheists have avoided way too long. Perhaps because the humanist/secularist/atheist establishment teaches us to ‘traditionally’ favour the hard sciences, while the important work on such topics is done by social scientists – semiology, cultural studies, sociology, social anthropology…. In fact, all that stuff I held down two jobs while studying at nights to get a chance to study myself as a mature uni student, then learnt not to talk about around secularists in case a chance reference to Foucault or Barthes caused biologists (or even English Lit types who couldn’t cope with basic post-structuralism) to explode.
Well sod that, because I’m interested too in the 'DIY' nature of new mourning rituals created by folk who have no 'official' means to express their grief. The AIDS quilts would be one example, but also the impromptu shrines after Diana, and those peculiar roadside shrines usually made by teenagers after a mate dies in a road crash. Then there’s Facebook memorial sites, or mourning by text messages because you can’t get to a funeral.
It’s all a long way from dressing in black, drawing your curtains when a neighbour dies, doffing your hat or standing still when a hearse goes past and a black-edged memorial notice in the local paper.
Not that there’s much wrong with bringing some of that back either. Maybe what we need is a move away from ‘funeral lite’ (e.g. running from work to a funeral in your lunch hour or just signing a card for the wreath and working on). Take the day off, mourn or celebrate a life properly and as appropriate to that individual (not just as it fits your employer’s and the local government crematorium’s schedules), then move on.
But Humanism (and Secularism) misses an opportunity to stress the redundance of religious ritual and the emotional and practical need for more appropriate 21st century ritual by not debating this with the general public. Even a friend who conducts perfectly respectful and professional non-religious funerals is still at pains to stress it's a 'proper' funeral, not just some hippy-dippy wierdness.
Diesel also touches on war memorials, which brings me to another example of a case we could use to stir up debate. The alternative is to write off an emotive issue which otherwise quickly becomes either a jingoistic irrelevance or another means for politicians to distract us from their failure to care for the living (including needlessly crippled vets and war widows from recent conflicts, of course).
In 2007, along with a local atheist ex ‘desert rat’, I started berating the government appointed and subsidised organisers of the Manx Veterans Day for actions not far short of treason. The first Veterans Day ‘celebration’ was, in effect, handed over to the churches and featured a full blown church service with five dreary hymns, prayers, a long sermon – not to mention the gilded ‘service sheet’ with the words to all hymns, responses to prayers - and so on. We wrote, quite politely, suggesting firstly that the churches already had an adequate chance to pray in the morning before the afternoon event, but at least in 2008 something more inclusive could be arranged – maybe cut out a couple of hymns, a minute’s silence instead of prayers and make a music show the main event instead.
The 2008 event was even worse. Not only were the hymns (still five) longer and drearier, but the sermon was upgraded to give the new bishop some free publicity. Some vets organisations weren’t even advised of the details, and most vets, too knackered by war crimes in the name of the bishop’s fictitious friend to hang on for the free buns and concert, voted with their zimmer frames and staggered home instead.
So, rather than the dignified but all-inclusive national celebration promised the nation got, as the ex-desert rat put it, ‘another bloody church parade’, or to use blunter squaddie vernacular, a bag of shite. If martial law had been in place on either day, I suspect the organising committee would have been taken out and shot.
In both cases these are events which stir up emotion and engage huge numbers of people, ignored because they are, somehow, ‘beneath’ us as ‘serious thinkers’. Yet the real tragedy is that ordinary people are constantly inventing new ritual because organised religion, even when aided and subsidised by the state, fails miserably to meet their emotional needs.
Isn’t this precisely where those interested in secularism should be working overtime -studying these rituals and in particular the use of new media or the reinvention of ‘outmoded’ ways to mourn – in order to fill the gap and take away all church excuses of ‘relevance’, ‘need’ and markets for new income or public subsidy?

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