Rituals contribute to societal change

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By Wendy Elliott

In ancient times, rituals were practiced as a duty to the gods, but they also brought entertainment and pleasure.

Theatre emerged out of ceremony and ritual. There are still people devoted to the study of what Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythologist, calls the three basic concerns: pleasure, power and duty.

Ritual even appeals to some folks who label themselves as non-believers. According to the BBC, there is an "atheist church" forming in North London that calls itself Sunday Assembly. It started in January in a deconsecrated church and is attracting crowds of 300 each week.

The BBC’s Brian Wheeler said the assembly feels like a stand-up comedy show, with some serious contemplation thrown in.

“The audience - overwhelmingly young, white and middle class - appear excited to be part of something new and speak of the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith. Few actively identify themselves as atheists.”

The number of people declaring themselves to be of ‘no religion’ in England and Wales has almost doubled in the last decade, but all over the globe, people yearn for a sense of connection. That is essentially why Acadia professor Donna Seamone has become part of what she terms an extraordinary international multidisciplinary project on cultural and religious rituals.

Major funding from the Research Council of Norway will allow Seamone and her seven co-researchers to look on four continents at what they call ‘reassembling democracy’ or ritual as a cultural resource.

Seamone’s own ethnographic interests have a focus on eco/agri-tourist ventures in eastern Canada and new modes of community. She is examining ritualized practices such as farm vacations, corn mazes, farm markets and festivals, slow-food activities and permaculture.

She says the four-year project brings together her work in religion, ritual, environmental studies, and gender.

“To be part of such a project, with both local and global scope, collaborating with such outstanding scholars, is a privilege.”

Growing up in Lunenburg County, she says, she was grounded in farming rituals, hard work, family and nature. Her life path led her into the Lutheran clergy, and then out again. Seamone now holds the Lumsden Chair in Religious Studies and is keen on interdisciplinary studies.

Working with Dr. Jone Salomonsen and the others, Seamone will look at religious diversity and how changes in traditional rituals can contribute to social change. They have already hypothesized that increased religious diversity in society, as well as changes in culture, language, media and technology, are creating new cultural conditions for religious communities. The emergence of new rituals and greater ritual diversity, like that of the atheists in North London, is creating new patterns for participation and new identities.

The researchers will look at whether adopting new rituals is an appropriate response to terrorism, economic or social uncertainty and insecurity concerning the world climate situation. Seamone says they’ll delve into topics like the Occupy movement and an increase in pilgrimages. Among other things, these social scientists will produce three documentaries and blog in addition to more traditional academic channels.

Seamone gets to spend one semester as a visiting professor at the University of Oslo and the funding will also provide for a visit by Salomonsen at Acadia.

The first get together of the team is set for early April. It’s going to be really fascinating to see what post-modern trends come out of this study.


Organizations: BBC, Research Council of Norway, University of Oslo

Geographic location: North London, England, Wales Eastern Canada Lunenburg County Religious Studies

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