Rituals for Secular People

The Atlantic has a piece that discusses the “Ritual Design Lab” in Silicon valley that will design rituals for births, deaths, and everything in between.

There is a certain smug presumption in the article concerning the obvious bankruptcy of traditional religious forms for people today, but there is also much food for thought. The author raises some fundamental issues, including the nature of modern authenticity:

““In earlier generations, the more we could objectify religion as something that lives outside of you, the more authentic it was… Now, if you’re really going to speak Millennial, ritual has to be fundamentally subjective in the sense that it has to be intensely personally meaningful and relevant. As soon as it speaks to my truth, that’s authenticity—that’s how we define authenticity now.” If the bespoke and the legitimate used to be inversely proportional, today they are directly proportional.

As a teacher of undergraduates, something about this rings true to my experience of my students. Of course, perhaps we shouldn’t presume that the untutored understanding of “authenticity” found among late adolescents should have the final word in our rituals.

A rabbi who works at the Lab notes the problem with custom-crafted ritual:

“When it’s ensconced in religious life… ritual doesn’t just serve to validate your experience or to help you through a difficult moment… Someone may say, ‘I’m just helping somebody who had a bad day at work to process and move on.’ Well, okay, that could be effective—but to what extent are you actually helping the ultimate job of all ritual life, which is to give you the message that it’s not all about you? Rituals that are designed as one-offs for individuals are divorced from that—and that’s very dangerous.”

There is also this:

Ancient rituals are technologies that have been debugged, fine-tuned, and time-tested over millennia. They evolved to respond to human needs, and in their crystallized form, they contain deep insights into those needs. By jettisoning the rituals, we also jettison the wisdom they house.

Which raises questions not only about creating whole new rituals, but also about reforming rituals to meet modern sensibilities. Do we really understand what is going on in our rituals well enough to have the temerity to tinker with them? At the same time, it seems to be in the nature of rituals to develop and adapt; shouldn’t we be able to use our intellects to make sure that this development is healthy and helpful?

Thought-provoking and (at least for me) slightly depressing, but well worth a read.


  1. “Now, if you’re really going to speak Millennial, ritual has to be fundamentally subjective in the sense that it has to be intensely personally meaningful and relevant.”

    Right out of social media marketing argot. Which may be why it “rings true” but isn’t necessarily a truth that serves souls well.

    Catholics used to have (and in some places still very much do have) a rich communal devotional life that accommodated more intense personal expression in community. Perhaps there was an assumption that, by reforming the liturgy to allow for more active participation by the faithful in it, they/we would no longer needs such devotions as much or at all. A questionable assumption that might merit reconsideration.

  2. Temerity? Use personal authority; and of course. Our MDiv. program TAUGHT us to develop rituals. A whole chapel full of students and professor sat in silent awe at my Breast Cancer ritual… at one time it was on the Komen site. My bedside final prayers of commendation and communion services for dichotomized families in the middle of the night speak intimately to the pains of losses of the families involved; and i have received more gratitude letters than entire spiritual care staffs for personalizing a holy, intimate, and vulnerable space.

    And there is also a place for the community ritual at the funeral Mass. To have priests want to use my Scripture readings and memorial preaching is “an honor”, but more importantly sad that they cannot put themselves into the pain of families; to do so is com passio, which their behavior evidences they were never taught.

    1. Once we start making up rituals for things or replacing or supplementing things that there are already rituals for, it’s no longer the Church’s prayer, is it? If the prayer of the Church is prayed with care and devotion and not robotically and not viewed as a chore or job to be done then people would be comforted and pastorally well cared for, and they’d know it. They’d feel it.

      Also, I strongly feel that compassion cannot be taught–it can be learned, oftimes the hard way, but not taught. But I do agree with you, it is sad that there is not more compassion.

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