Rituals for Atheists

One of my most vivid memories is driving up Route [redacted] toward the [redacted] Funeral Home, weeping to the sound of Chester Bennington’s wails. I was on the way to a viewing for the father of a former student, a death that impacted me way more than it should have. I’d been going about my days feeling so fragile, painfully aware of my own mortality and utterly defeated by a world that would take a wonderful fourteen-year-old boy’s dad. The song summed up my feelings: In the end, it doesn’t even matter.

Driving back there today for another viewing, another student’s father, another good man who died too young, I remembered that day sixteen years ago. I thought of what philosopher Alain de Botton says about rituals: that we are woefully deprived of them in today’s largely secular society, but that our need for them as a species hasn’t lessened. Rituals refamiliarize us with the truths of life in a concrete way; we remember who we are, we affirm our beliefs, by participating.

I’ve always had nonreligious rituals. In high school, I used to dress in black and read aloud poems by Sylvia Plath on the anniversary of her suicide. I never articulated the exact truth I was celebrating, but looking back, I suppose I wanted to honor both her struggle and the inimitable power of her words. (Truth: We can live on through language.) And of course we all know about the pre-nuptial candlelight purging ceremony, to honor my ex-partners. (Truth: Love need not be everlasting to be meaningful.)

As I’m driving, I think of new rituals, ones I really need now. A biennial or quinquennial freethought tattoo, for example. Perhaps on January 29th, Thomas Paine’s birthday, I will orate from Ingersoll’s lecture “Heretics and Heresies” before cleansing my skin and offering it up to the needle. As the tattoo artist inks a pansy (the symbol of freethought, started by the American Secular Union) on my ankle, I contemplate the injustice of Giordano Bruno’s execution during the Inquisition. Or this: A yearly pilgrimage to my favorite place on earth, my college library. I will return to wander among the shelves, to sit in the same chairs where I spent many hours studying and to pee in the same restroom where I spent many minutes peeing. As I pass the wings and study rooms named for wealthy donors, I rededicate myself to learning, reminded that knowledge and wisdom know no class. The door of my favorite restroom I touch wistfully, wondering if upon my death, my family’s meager donation might be enough to secure an official naming of The Abby Byrd Memorial Restroom. I envision my face in bronze bas relief; under that, the years I attended college there, followed by some of my favorite quotations, and (if room) fun facts about urination.

It’s clear that when it comes to rituals, I can easily veer off into the inappropriate. I mean, a diorama of penises? A bronze replica of my own face on a bathroom door? Could somebody touch base with me every January 29th to make sure I haven’t paid to have Richard Dawkins’s face tattooed on my asscheek?

I suppose it’s fortunate that communities already have their own rituals surrounding death, because obviously I can’t be trusted with something that weighty.

So this is how it goes, when a student’s parent dies: You drive to the viewing, feeling nervous and/or despairing. (Crying to Linkin Park is optional.) You introduce yourself and offer condolences to the widow, then hug your former student hard and tell her Love you, love you so much, because that’s all you know how to say. You stand there awkwardly, and when you notice the little brother is barely holding it together, introduce yourself to him too. You tell him maybe you’ll see him around school, and you’re here if he needs anything, and while you are saying this, you rub his back and wipe a tear off his cheek.

You leave with a little boy’s tear on your thumb. It soaks into the whorls and arches of your fingerprint, a tear like no other that was or will be, a fingerprint like no other that was or will be, and this reminds you. Truth: In the end, it may not matter. But here, in not-the-end, we have each other.