What is the difference between a community and a club? What brings people together in relationship and strengthens feelings of togetherness and solidarity? Is that an ethical goal to strive for? Is there not a risk of group-think and an inhibition of individual, critical thought, once people are part of a group they care about? Will the introduction of ritual and symbolism - the tools of religion, of nationalism hinder our ability to see the world and this movement for what it really is, perhaps at a time when we need to be able to be most critical?
This movement is growing, and it's growing faster and faster. We have a whole generation of young nontheists and secular humanists coming of age in American Society. Do they need a place to participate in those like themselves? Do we need a sense of family within this movement? With home will we celebrate births and mourn deaths? How will we mark the coming of age and celebrate unions between loved ones and their families? From what base of support will we engage in civic action and advocate for positive social and political change? Do we not need to replace the community of religion with a community of secularists who are engaged in doing good? Who are engaged in exploring what it is to do good? People who are actively a thoughtful and contemplate if around the concept of ethics must be able to explore those topics with one another if they are to do more than enhance their academic understanding.
I want to have people, I want to celebrate life with my people. Who are my people? My first answer to that question is simple. All beings on this earth capable of joy and suffering. I include them in my global community. But the second answer is narrower but no less important. My people are those who are, like me, engaged in the work of improving this world, this country, this society, this state, this town, this neighborhood - and are engaging in that work through the lenses of reason and compassion.
It doesn't mean that everybody in my advocacy community, my local family, must agree with me that we need to eliminate sex and gender from a our legal and social definitions around what makes a valid family, a valid person. To be in my community you do not have to see social progress the same way I do, but you must be willing to engage in what solutions there me or may not be in the framework of secular and reasoned compassion.
Is this a threat to the individuality and the critical thinking that we so treasure? I don't believe it has to be. I believe that we can embrace of those as central tenants of a community. I believe that we can have symbolism and ritual that reinforces our connection to one another, but also reinforces our unending commitment to empirical truth and the rejection of dogmatic thinking.
I want to be able light a candle in remembrance or as a symbol of invitation and welcoming. That does not mean that I believe the candle to have some supernatural impact. I can even light it while saying "this act if, done collectively in a group, is influencing us in a way that encourages us to think and act together. Let us be mindful to only participate in those community actions that which we agree with, personally, individually, reasonably. Let us never judge or marginalize those among us that choose not to participate. That very act of choice and freethought is the one thing we as a community must always cherish, otherwise we cannot call ourselves freethinkers."
Perhaps the key is to include, in the ritual, the celebration of dissent from the practice? Perhaps the key is in the ritual itself. The few times I went to a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation I observed two rituals. One that I liked and one that I didn't. The one that I liked was a sharing of joys and sorrows. Individual members of the congregation were invited to stand before the group and share something from their week that impacted them. It was a way to seek and receive support and to feel part of a loving and caring community but eight was specifically focused on the individual. On their thoughts, their observations, their experience. The ritual I did not like was when the congregation stood as a whole and recited a creed together. It was a chant. It was groupthink. I had no objections to the words in the creed. There was no discussion of god. There were great lines about social justice and advocacy for those that need it. As a creed it was one that I could support wholeheartedly but the minute the group stood and recited it by rote with one another - my skin crawled. Perhaps these are examples of rituals that are designed to accomplish different things. My community has embraced a practice similar to the sharing of joys and sorrows. We do this at the opening of each of our ethics discussions. It has been, at times, silly and at other times extremely powerful. I think ritual and symbolism do have a place in this movement as long as we are thoughtful and deliberate to preserve the critical celebration of skepticism.
What do you think? Do you think ritual and symbolism have a place in secular communities? If so, what should those look like? If not, why not?