I just finished reading A. J. Jacobs' excellent book The Year of Living Biblically. It is a memoir of his experiences trying to live as closely to the laws and rules of the Bible as possible. (This is the same author who wrote The Know-it-all, in which he read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica from A to Z, also a fabulous book.) I highly recommend the book to, well, pretty much everyone. It is funny, and thoughtful. It is fair and open-minded without waffling all over the place and agreeing with anyone and everyone. It also has some intriguing insights, both from the author himself and from the experts he consults.
Naturally, this has me thinking about my second-favorite topic, religion. (Gaming is my first, for those not keeping up.) As I've mentioned before, I am an atheist. I have a strong and positive faith that there is no divinity above humanity. And, while that is very satisfying to me on a philosophical and spiritual level, it does leave me hollow in one area. There is no church for the atheist. I lose out on two of the most important aspects of religion: ritual and community.
Community is rather easy to recover in these ultra-connected days. I could read any number of blogs, join discussion forums, etc. I periodically toy with the idea of looking up atheist groups in the DC area that meet once a month or so. Or maybe checking out a Unitarian Universalist church (there's one in Sterling and one in Reston). That's mostly just a matter of reaching out. (Which, admittedly, is a scary step for me.)
Ritual is much harder to come by. Something like the kosher laws have always struck me as bizarre and unnecessary, one of the key reasons to abandon ossified, hidebound traditional religions. And, yet, in Jacobs' book he discovers part of the reason behind these rules. On the one hand, they reinforce the concept of the pure vs. the impure (apparently a central concept to Jewish thought). Avoid dirty, or potentially dirty, foods. On another hand, it works to infuse every moment of your life with thoughts of God's will. If you take the laws to the extreme, then you cannot eat, dress, or speak without your religion playing a part. It imposes a layer of the sacred over the mundane. Finally, it reinforces the community. When someone orders a kosher meal, you assume that they are Jewish. Conversely, when someone is Jewish, you assume that they might be keeping kosher. It becomes a badge to say, "These are my people, and I will keep their ways."
Should I do this? Should I find a set of rules to follow in my life, so that I do not lose my religion in the mundane trivia of this life, but use the trivia to celebrate my religion? Maybe. But how? Just making up random rules does nothing but turn me into an OCD whacko. Should I meditate on my religious beliefs, and looks for ways to make the mundane sacred? That certainly sounds like the right answer. But, it is somewhat lacking in details, or surety. I don't have a dogma. My beliefs are a little lacking in cosmology or mythology. I've never addressed my thoughts of the everyday before.
Ritual is also expressed in ways other than religious law. Worship services are the obvious method, along with their less formal cousin, prayer. Which sounds lovely. I love smells and bells, choirs and hymns, vestments and sacraments. I really miss it, on a regular basis. But, I can't bring myself to go to a Christian service (even though my father constantly presses me to do so). I always feel like a hypocrite and intruder. I also feel all the elements of the Christian faith that I have rejected pressing in on me. So, make up my own worship services? Sounds great. I was part of some of that in the Dhais, back in my post-college days. I enjoyed that, too.
But, one significant obstacle presents itself. Who, or what, do I worship? How do I direct my prayers? When I do find myself throwing out little prayers of thanksgiving or supplication, I end up strongly feeling the lack of anyone on the receiving end. It's like missing a step. Trying to answer this question makes me understand why ancient man created the divine in the first place. Gaming has left me well-equipped for that task. After all, I've created dozens of religions. Giving names to the forces of the universe would be almost a trivial exercise. It's a terribly small step from that to giving them personalities, and then histories. That way leads madness, or at least hypocrisy.
The simplest intermediary step may be to invoke beings from legend and myth. Do not worship them as gods, but use them as symbols. I have a very strong sense in my head who Robin Hood is, and I know what aspects of his story I would like to invoke in my life. I would not pray to Robin Hood. I wouldn't actually pray to anyone at all, but would rather invoke the "prayer" as something related to a mini-meditation, or positive thinking, or even just general thanksgiving. Robin would simply represent those things that I am focusing on with this "prayer."
Would that work? Maybe. It already suggests little rituals I can add to my life. My favorite has always been giving the first portion of your drink to "the gods." Of course, you are supposed to pour it on the floor. I suspect most restaurants would object to that, and I know my wife would. I would have to think of a work-around. But, on the other hand, it also feels silly.
Of course, to bring it back around to the book, Jacobs felt very silly at the beginning of his year-long journey. But, by the end, he was taking comfort in all of the little rituals, and in the little (and not-so-little) ways those rituals set him apart from the people around him. Maybe it's just a matter of doing it, until it becomes a part of who you are.
Then again, maybe I'm just over-thinking the whole thing. Maybe trappings are just trappings, and not necessary. Maybe ritual is just a path to consistency, that hobgoblin of little minds. I just can't help but notice that it seems to be those who most steep their lives in their religions who make the most sense out of this crazy world (even if no two of them seem to be able to agree on what that sense is). Those of us who try to get by on being nice, being open-minded, and pretty much living and letting others live seem to have the most trouble figuring out just what those "others" are trying to achieve.