Religion isn't all bad.
That was the not-so-surprising consensus at the monthly meeting of the Salon discussion group that my wife and I helped start up here in Salem about seventeen years ago.
The members are almost all godless Prius-driving, expresso-sipping, organic food-eating progressives like us.
Religiosity comes in for regular bashing, but since we're into open-mindedness and diversity, believers are embraced so long as they don't try to press their faith onto others.
Last night a woman talked about how much she liked taking some Christian children out to lunch at a fast food restaurant. She'd just met them. When they all sat down at a table, she noticed that nobody was starting to eat.
"We always say grace first," the oldest child explained. "Fine," our friend said. "Let's do it." The children formed a circle of hand-holding. Then one of them said three simple sincere sentences, thanking God for the food and other stuff I've forgotten.
This story led into a fairly lengthy group discussion of how rituals can be comforting and create a sense of community. However, nobody wanted to join a church just for ritualizing.
So the question became, "What sorts of rituals suit people who don't believe in God?"
A man talked about he used to live in a small Colorado town where residents had a wide variety of belief systems: Zen Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Native American, Scientology, even SETI.
He and his wife would have dozens of diverse believers over for Thanksgiving dinner. Seated at a long homemade table, everyone would hold hands just as the children did.
But a period of silence would ensue, not words, so each person could do whatever inside their head. Including nothing, which is usually what I do during a moment of silence.
The discussion group members agreed that we humans need some rituals in our lives. Laurel, my wife, talked about how she's gotten into the habit of pausing before eating and taking several deep breaths with her eyes closed. This brings her into the culinary moment.
I said I'd just read in some book that a purpose of Zen'ish rituals, like the Japanese tea ceremony, is similar: to focus attention on the marvelous quality of what is present before us right now, right here.
It doesn't matter so much what that what is, I added, so long as the "ritual" (if that's even an appropriate word to use in this context) helps us appreciate the wonder of everyday existence.
At quality coffee houses they make my nonfat vanilla latte with this sort of flair. In a ceramic cup, a swirl of expresso on top of the foam, just so. I always look at it appreciatively before I take my first sip.
"This," I think, "is life as it's meant to be lived."
Which, I told the group, most likely is the only life we'll ever live, an afterlife being a decidedly chancy proposition. So each and every moment is almost (or precisely) infinitely precious.
Rituals that point us toward a transcendent imaginary divinity aren't as wonder-producing as godless rituals focused on the really real here-and-now, I said.
When attention is divided between this moment and a hypothesized heavenly better moment to come, which is the context of almost all religious rituals, we tend to lose sight of how marvelously special life is -- in all of its finitude.
If anyone wants to share their own favorite non-religious ritual, comment away. I'm always interested in hearing how the churchless worship without dogma, hierarchy, or blind belief.