The Reason For Rituals

Thinking through the function of religious rituals, Dreher grapples with what he’s learned from repeating the sacrament of confession again and again:

I’ve found over the years that eventually I get tired of bringing the same damn thing to my confessor, and that sense of accountability provides a nudge to try harder not to do the damn thing. Most of us have a tendency to hide from ourselves — to rationalize and to avoid. Once you get into the habit of confession, and the habit of mind that confession creates in you, it becomes a lot harder to hide from yourself. Some of us struggle with scrupulosity — that is, an unbalanced preoccupation with our sins. I can’t say I was ever scrupulous, strictly speaking — I’m far too lazy for that — but when I was a pious young teenager, I would pray often for specific sins to be forgiven, but never really could be sure that I was forgiven. The rite of confession, I learned later in life, gave me a sense of security in knowing that my sins had been forgiven. Somehow, I needed to hear it from a priest: “Go, your sins are forgiven.” There’s life-giving power in that.

I can’t imagine an atheist version of confession. What would it look like? How would it work, if you don’t think there’s any such thing as sin? What standards would you use to measure whether or not one had missed the mark? If you see no man (or woman) with actual spiritual authority over you, or at least as the channel of real supernatural grace, how would the ritual work to relieve the psychological burden? Of course there is a secular version of examination of conscience in the presence of a trained professional; it’s called therapy. But it’s not really the same thing as confession, as Rabbi Rieff explained to us all. Confession is about helping you achieve sanctity; therapy is about easing anxiety about your condition, which might entail changing your behavior, or might not.

Previous Dish on the subject here.