The Ritual Self: Reaching for the Sacred with No Help from God

Even committed non-believers can find a way to participate in many religious rituals without violating any principles they may have about rationality and self-consistency. It’s all a matter of reframing your participation so that your rational self is not offended. This can be done by seeing yourself — or, more precisely, your Ritual Self — as a member of a Contemporary Ritual Theater Company.

There once was a man who spent thirty years searching from the hottest deserts to the coldest Arctic wastes for the wisest person in the world, one who knew the answer to the question, What is the meaning of life? At the end of the search, the wisest person said, “Oh, yes, the meaning of life. Why, the meaning of life is a good bowl of bean soup.” The man who had been searching for thirty years was astonished and a little angry. He said, “What, you mean I’ve spent all that time, and endured all these hardships, to find the wisest man in the world and all you’ve got to say is that the meaning of life is a good bowl of bean soup?!” And the wisest person in the world replied, “What, you mean it isn’t a good bowl of bean soup?”

Alternate punch line: “Well, if you would rather have chicken soup, have chicken soup.”

Anyway, I do think that a good bean soup is part of the meaning of life. But no doubt there’s more. Now, Prof. John Searle, a distinguished philosophy professor at the university where I teach, the University of California at Berkeley, may or may not be the wisest man in the world, but he has interesting things to say. He was recently being interviewed by the Cal alumni magazine about a book he had just published casting doubt on free will. He said, “Philosophical ideas often upset me. I was very sorry when I finally had to come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist, for example. That really upset me. I was a teenager when I came to that conclusion and that really hurt. But you have to follow the ideas where they go.”

Now, what might that “hurt” have been in Prof. Searle’s experience? What exactly might he — or someone like him, perhaps even some of us here — have found hurtful to give up? And was it logically necessary for him — or us — to do so?

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Hamas in Power

Will Hamas-the-Government become more pragmatic or remain as militant as Hamas-the-Movement? It will do both, of course, by splitting into (at least) two ambiguously defined camps, each one complementing the other but also challenging it. The US, Israel, and the Europeans will now need to find a way to help the more pragmatic camp domesticate the more militant camp. This is analogous to the problem of helping the Abbas elements of Fatah domesticate its more radical parties as well as all of Hamas (and other terrorist groups).

Altogether, the odds of domestication succeeding, while not good, are better than they have been in a long time and better than they would have been had Fatah won. Such are the meager grounds for gratitude when it comes to the Middle East.

Although the mainspring for domestication — or its opposite — lies within Palestinian society, the US, Israel, and Europe can make a modest difference. Their strategic choice now seems to be between isolating Hamas and tolerating it. But there is a third option, for them as much as for Hamas: do both. “Yes, we happily deal with the elected government, whoever they may be, and even praise and reward them when they do good; but no, we do not talk to Hamas, or refrain from punishing their acts of violence, until they stop supporting murder and irredentism.” That the actions will sometimes contradict the words is inevitable as much as it is desirable. One weakness with this strategy is that modern democracy, with its armies of bloggers, investigative reporters, and hyperactive purists will always threaten to expose the statesmen’s useful fictions. The other weakness is that the statesmen might come to believe their own fictions (like that of “Arafat the only conceivable legitimate leader”) and be unable to recognize when those fictions will have outlived their usefulness.

Unfortunately, the US, Israel, and the Europeans have all — on insufficient reflection, one hopes — taken such moralistic and absolutist stands about not aiding or recognizing Hamas that it will be hard for them to climb down from this tree. That they will have to do so is inevitable, since the Palestinians can’t survive without the funds these powers control. Even if it wanted to do so, Hamas cannot be seen to back down from its official ideology in the face of “mere” financial threats.