Doing Things the “Rite” Way: Defining “Religion”, Part 9

Pomp and circumstance

Ritual is defined as, “the established form for a ceremony” or “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a precise manner”.

The question here is one of immediate concern: does atheism itself prescribe any rituals?

Most certainly, the atheist would insist that it absolutely does not. However, we must ask, is this true? The problem is that human life is bounded by rituals. As such, these can be called “life-cycle” rites.(47) Now, the question here is not whether or not atheists have these, rather its a question of whether or not these are admitted to, permitted, and articulated within the bounds of atheism. The next question is, what kinds of rituals are there and how does atheism either affirm them or address them since rituals can essentially be boiled down to six categories: rites of passage, commemorative, exchange, festival, and political.(48) Most of these rites are actually extended outward as a cultural fact, and can be understood as secular. In that sense, we should ask a negative question: does atheism forbid prescriptively the participation in such rituals?

What research has determined is that atheists and agnostics are a diverse group with varieties of beliefs and practices.(49) As such there is no one way to categorize them. Atheists indeed recognize that there is a human proclivity for ritual, and that proclivity manifests itself best in religious terms.(50) Rituals depend upon being taught, and atheists communicate ideas in ways that can only be described as “ritualistic”.(51) There are even suggestions for how to compose certain rites of passage, such as marriage and funerals.(52)

Ritualization serves to connect members to their communities.(53) As such, ritualization has the effect of tightly binding members of the community together into like-mindedness in order to provide contrast between “true” believers and those who do not wish to conform.(54) So, the question should be do those who accept the position of atheism desire a measure of conformity either within atheists as a group or within the larger socio-cultural context?

If the answer is “yes”, then it would seem to follow that there is an over-arching reality that they would need to fit into (ritual) in order to find themselves a place in the greater society. If “no”, then there would seem to be an overall break from any form of ritual, which is itself a ritual that is rooted n atheism.

Atheism, while it may not intend to impose a ritual, does bring ritual with it, even if it does not declare them to be such, they cannot help but be recognized as such.(55)

For the beginning of this essay

For part 10

Image credit


47. Catherine Bell. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. p.94

48. Ibid.

49. Christian Post.

50. Alain de Botton. “Religion for Atheists: 5 Religious Concept Atheists Can Use.”

51. “How to be an Atheist

52. “Rites and Rituals

53. Bell. p.193

54. Ibid

55. For further discussion on the debate surrounding the idea and practice of ritual within atheism/secularism see Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith’s chapter “Secularist Rituals in the US: Solidarity and Legitimization” in volume 2 of Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts (2015).