Another potential cost associated with religious belief was brought to mind last night in a conversation over dinner: we have deferred so much of our human symbolic activity to official representatives of social institutions (preachers and the like), that we no are no longer as able to generate ritual significance ourselves.

It’s a curious issue for those who, like myself, have no time for metaphysics. While I’d like to feel the force of ritual, and mark certain occasions in symbolically important ways, the orthodox ways of doing so usually involve nonsensical god-blathering. So after 18 or so years of studiously avoiding god’s people, and having been fortunate enough to not have anyone close die in that time, the extent of my engagement in ritual has been the 3 weddings that I’ve attended during that time (leaving aside the opening day of the Premiership season). This can, I fear, lead to a sort of desensitisation with regard to ritual, and a concomitant inability to feel it’s force. So there is a conflict between two costs associated with religion, where one can either participate in (and by participating, perhaps reinforce) religious ceremony, or one can try to find secular ways of doing the same thing, and thereby run the risk of diluting the experience, given that we aren’t that well trained in observing these events in a secular fashion.

Some occasions deserve to be marked in forceful ways. Someone’s death, for example – assuming they were important to you when alive – should be accompanied by a significant goodbye. But because saying such goodbye’s are mostly associated with religious ceremony, the question is whether we’d be able to feel that we’d said the goodbye properly, in the absence of such ceremonies.

I’m partly wondering about such things because of an imminent ritualistic occasion in my life – my own wedding. The man who is hosting the event was amused when we outlined the ceremonial part, which, in our description, involved my partner and my vows, along with an address by a friend of ours. The friend has no religious inclinations, as far as I am aware – and if he did, he’d certainly not be interested in exploring them in the context of our wedding. But the host’s issue was with our estimate that the ceremonial part would be over in 10-15 minutes, which he feared would leave people feeling like they hadn’t had full value out of the experience. And he’s right, I think, although time is the wrong criterion to use when measuring symbolic import. These occasions do need to be “weighty” to satisfy the punters, and I want the occasion to be weighty too, because, well, it is.

The above is partly why my vows have been written and rewritten a number of times now. But they are getting there. And as I was reminded yesterday (by the bride-to-be), I have a tough act to follow – myself, at my own wedding party in 1999, at which she was present…

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.