Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

Our mission is to enrich societies with secular ethics and reflective practices, informed by the latest research, and expressed in liturgical events that include creative writing, literature, ritual and other art forms.

Secular Liturgies 2019 by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

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Below is the script of my talk on Saturday for those who couldn’t make it!

Also, look out for the publication of my paper “Secular Liturgies” in the next edition of Secular Studies (a Brill international peer-reviewed academic journal which you can access online) for those of you who like something more in depth and want to know where I get all my facts and figures from!

Here’s a link to Roger’s talk and I will be adding a link to a video of mine in due course!

Evidence Based Faith:Haud Ignota Loquor (Speak not of what is not known)

I am grateful to all those who came and supported the event.

Secular Liturgies 2019: A Symposium on Secular Ethics and Reflective Practices

(Exeter Central Library, 8th June 2019)

 

Hello and welcome to Secular Liturgies 2019, a Symposium on Secular Ethics and Reflective Practices, organised by the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum.

Before our keynote speaker gives his address, my name is Anastasia, Editor of Secular Liturgies, and I’m going to introduce you to the mission and purpose of our Network and Forum.

A Post Religious Future

The idea for this Network and Forum grew out of my increasing concern that here, and in many other secularising nations, we lack a shared vision for a post-religious future.

If we are to succeed in building secular civilizations which are culturally rich, sustainable, and resilient, we will have to invest a lot more in discussion, teaching and pubic engagement around secular ethics, and in the development of reflective practices that will help us to live better and more meaningfully without superstition and dogma.

British Social Attitudes Surveys show that religious affiliation has declined steeply and continues to do so. 50% of British people no longer identify with a religious faith, and many who do are non-practising, liberal or progressive. The percentage of 18-24yr-olds with no religious affiliation is significantly higher at 64%, indicating that rapid secularisation will continue.

Many nations are undergoing a similar transition. The world’s nonreligious are now the third largest group of humans, recorded as 16% of the world’s population in 2012, exceeded in numbers only by Christians and Muslims.

However, before the hard-line atheists among us get too excited about the dawn of a new secular age, we must remember that birth rates are significantly lower among the nonreligious. Therefore, the percentage of world population which is nonreligious is actually getting smaller, and even in predominantly secular nations, while religious affiliation is declining, some religious beliefs, and superstition in general may not be. Movements in new age spirituality, Wicca, Modern Witchcraft and Spiritualism, for example, are gaining in popularity, especially among the young.

It is also true, however, that religious communities with high birth rates tend to be poorer with less access to education, so when it comes to power and influence, secular communities are likely to hold on to and increase their share.

The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

In developed nations like ours, where traditional religion is rapidly losing ground, a combination of secular ethics and reflective practices has the potential to fill the void and provide a rational alternative to new age spirituality.

By the void, I refer to a proven decline in empathy and ethical engagement, a poverty and mediocrity of culture in some areas, and a lack of socialisation and social inclusion that has led to the epidemic of loneliness. These problems haven’t been caused by the decline in religion alone but the latter has certainly contributed to them.

While most of us here will be all too aware that traditional religious ethics, culture and community brought with it far too many of its own ills, there were aspects of faith and practice which instilled empathy and compassion, inspired great works of art and bonded people together in close community.

As a thinktank and creative hub, publisher and events pioneer, the SLN brings people together from across many secular, humanist and progressive backgrounds – to reclaim and repurpose the greatest insights and practices of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions, to creatively express a common secular ethic, and to experiment with reflective practices that will enrich secular life and culture and make it more resilient.

The SLN publishes original creative works, including poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, interviews with relevant experts/practitioners and articles which communicate academic research to a wider audience.The first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine comes out in Jan 2020, and will contain some of the best work submitted over the course of the year. This work will also feature in our experimental liturgical events.

The Nine Themes

Our secular liturgies and liturgical events are organised around the following Nine Themes…

  • Critical Thinking– truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
  • Good Life– character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
  • Good Society– social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
  • Sustainability– our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism, biophilia
  • Health and Well-being– reflection, meditation, mindfulness, socialisation
  • Big Culture– cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
  • Community– companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
  • Life-Cycles– birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
  • Seasons– annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar

Reflective Practice in CPD

Let’s take a moment now to look a little more closely at reflective practice…

Reflective Practice is a key part of CPD cycles for practice-based professionals, those such as teacher-educators and learners, leaders across industries, health professionals and environment or sustainability managers. Reflective Practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions (and indeed one’s thoughts and one’s experience of the world) so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.

In reflective practice we pay attention to ourselves, noticing our assumptions, noticing thought patterns. By doing this we are empowered to change what we see, and even to change the way we see.

Many models of reflective practice have been created to guide reasoning about action. Those of you who have received or delivered workplace training in reflective practice will be familiar with names like Borton, Kolb and Fry, Argyris and Schon, Gibbs, Benner and Wrubel, Brookfield and Johns, Somerville and Keeling…

In the David Somerville (no relation of mine) and June Keeling model, as an example: They suggest actively seeking feedback in the workplace, asking yourself and others what you and they have learnt that day, identifying accomplishments and areas for growth, viewing experiences objectively, empathizing aloud, recording your thoughts, feelings and future plans (in, for example, a journal), looking for emerging patterns, planning for the future, and creating your own future by combining the virtues of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic.

For many nonreligious people, these activities are no longer part of normal life, especially outside the workplace, and may indeed seem superfluous. However, for religious people, these (or similar) social and reflective activities are positively encouraged and integrated into the cycles, seasons and gatherings of religious life.

While we might not share the dogmas and superstitions of traditional religion, many of their institutions and traditions instil useful habits of reflective practice. These practices help us to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter so much, what is meaningful and why, what to love and what to hate… They attend to the life of the mind – to morality and virtue, to wonder and creativity, and to personal growth in knowledge, wisdom and character.

Reflective Practice in History

However, while scholars may have found precursors of reflective practice in ancient texts such as Buddhist teachings and the Meditations of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, they have barely begun to scratch the surface of all the lessons in reflective practice that the world’s many religious and philosophical traditions can provide.

Indeed, almost everything that is good in religion, or in so-called spirituality, is to do with rituals that facilitate individual and communal reflective practices.

We can learn, for example, from the way that religions give meaning, narrative and purpose to cultural heritage and the arts. Religions are able to connect almost everything we come across in life with our moral sense and with our identity, our loves and our losses…

The Philosopher Alain de Botton has done some important work in this area. He points out how our museums and galleries often fail to engage and inspire us because they fail to exhibit their art works and artefacts in ways that make them relevant to the passions and purposes of their visitors. I highly recommend his book Religion for Atheists and his TED talk on Atheism 2.0. I would add that museums fail, therefore, to reflect on their collections in ways that make them meaningful to us.

We can also learn a great deal from the way religious organisations conduct their reflective gatherings (for example, their liturgical services), and from their varied and reflective approaches to pastoral care. We can learn from the way they mark rites of passage, lifecycles and seasons and from the way they give meaning to our travels in pilgrimage. We can learn from their approaches to the scheduled or habitual contemplation of our actions and experiences, through journaling, prayer, meditation and the mindful or imaginative reading of texts.

Examples of Reflective Practice

For example, prayer may be seen as a form of reflective practice, like journaling or blogging, rather than as a real conversation with a supernatural being. The person who prays puts into words and a new context (sometimes a public context in religious services) their feelings and thoughts about the things they have heard about or experienced. In the process, they reflect on this information and experience in ways that can change their own attitudes and behaviours over time.

The production of creative works is also a form of reflective practice, since our creations arise from our observations, impressions and reasoning about what we experience of the world, of reality, of life and humanity.

Secular Liturgies as Reflective Practice

Thus, the process of creating secular liturgies is itself a form of reflective practice, as much as reading or hearing them is a means to facilitating reflective practice. By Secular Liturgies, I mean the writings and other expressions, such as rituals, meditations and creative art-forms, which are read or take place at private or public secular liturgical gatherings.

Secular Liturgies arise from and encourage reflective practice. They explore, celebrate and convey secular values, values of compassion, truth, freedom, equality, courage, tolerance and responsibility. They capture and communicate the latest information and research that can help to advance well-being and alleviate suffering. They make secular cultures more resilient in difficult times, and inspire us to meet our global challenges.

Secular Liturgies: A Broad Concept

While Secular Liturgies include, more obviously, writings and readings which are morally and/or intellectually instructive. They also include words, exhibitions and activities, which are indirectly helpful to us by creating spaces for reflection or socialisation, or by creating rituals which can instil healthy habits, practical wisdom and critical thinking.

A story, a poem, a dance, the process of painting a picture, a journey, a piece of music, a period of silence, and even the shipping forecast- these may all be described as liturgy!

Liturgies in Daily Life

Liturgical moments can of course be integrated into everyday life. They define and reinforce the values, goals and cultural identity of groups, from the tattoos and graffiti of youth subcultures, to the word-art found in the homes and workplaces of the aspirational classes. Therefore, the SLN explores ways of incorporating elements secular liturgy into home, working and leisure environments. We are thinking, for example, about the role of places, spaces and buildings in influencing (and being influenced by) liturgical events.

Our thinking is also informed by people such as Thaler and Sunstein, the Nobel Prize Winners in economics, whose famous book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”, explained how environments can be created which positively influence human behaviours without us even being aware of it.

Goals of Secular Liturgy and Reflective Practices

So, the goals of our secular liturgies, reflective practices and secular liturgical events are to help us to do the following:

Firstly, to question, learn and overcome our cognitive biases…by cognitive biases I mean of course the gap between how we ought to reason and how we actually reason. No doubt you’re familiar with the ground-breaking work done in this area by another Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, which you can read about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Another goal is to help us engage with, teach and instil secular ethics. Reflective practices demand honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, secular and humanist values, which often stand in contrast to those of religious power structures.

Secular Liturgies and liturgical events also help us to better appreciate the natural world and our place within it, in contrast with the way traditional religion so often sets us apart from our natural origins and even from the needs and pleasures of our bodies.

Secular liturgies and liturgical events enable us to enjoy our most pleasurable and health-giving psychological states; emotions such self-transcendence, mindfulness, wonderment, awe and love, which lead to positive changes in our thinking and behaviour.

And secular liturgies and liturgical events cultivate empathy and compassion for others, through the understanding of ourselves and humanity that comes from sharing stories and building relationships and community through meaningful socialisation.

A Diverse Network

The SLN connects those with shared values and goals but often very different cultural backgrounds and identities.

Our network consists of humanists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, the nonreligious, the ‘spiritual but not religious’, Unitarians, British Quakers, liberals from other denominations, and members of progressive religious reform movements such as Progressive Christianity, Progressive Hinduism, Progressive Islam, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Buddhism.

Together we can learn so much more about other cultural perspectives and gain a far better perspective on our own cultures. We can draw immense wealth from the repositories of culture and reflective practises that those from the progressive streams of the world’s faith and philosophical traditions can provide.

A ‘Big Culture’ Approach

We therefore take what I call a ‘big culture’ approach. This is a critical approach which sifts the golden nuggets of wisdom from the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, in terms of both their thinking and practice, leaving dogma and superstition behind.

We have to ask ourselves which parts of our inherited cultures – the literature, the objects, the rituals and traditions – conform to our secular values and goals, and which must be consigned to museums and archives? We must navigate through controversial issues of cultural remix and cultural appropriation, intellectual property and respectful reuse, and the engagement of marginalised heritages. I am especially keen to showcase aspects of marginalised heritages in our SLN events.

Progressive Religious Reform Movements

The Progressive Religious Reform Movements are ideally placed to offer up to wider society the positive and useful aspects of the faiths out of which they have arisen.

They have left dogma and superstition behind and are currently going through a process of repurposing their stories, traditions and rituals, and finding a new purpose and place in society. They are passionate about retaining, and indeed, reclaiming, the philosophical insights and practical wisdom they have inherited. This is something our keynote speaker will no doubt explore in greater depth.

Call for Submissions

Finally, how can you get involved? How can you take part in this exciting mission? Well, apart from keeping an eye out for our experimental liturgical events which will be advertised via the website and social media, you can…

Join us in writing secular liturgy and choreographing innovative liturgical events along the Nine Themes.

You can send us your secular liturgical extracts, poetry, short stories, personal accounts and other creative nonfiction, short dramatic scripts and extracts, short films, art-works, music and cultural heritage content and objects.

You can submit articles relating cutting-edge academic research in relevant fields.

If you are a practitioner in a relevant field I would love to interview you!

And you can join our FB Forum and real-life Forum thinktank meetings, where you can… share ideas for readings from original creative writing, established novels, poetry, works of philosophy and other literature, and share ideas for reflective activities for secular liturgical events (e.g. new or adapted rituals, meditations, art-forms, films, community feasts, tea ceremonies, dance routines, multimedia, art exhibitions, songs, musical compositions and cultural heritage objects of the real or digital kind)

Where you can find us

Here are the details for our website and blog and online Forum.

Academics and practitioners from across disciplines are contributing to the blog at https://secularliturgies.wordpress.com/

You can also follow our progress and posts on our Facebook Page and participate in discussions on our online Forum

And don’t forget to write your email address in the booklet going around if you would like to receive the first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine.

Rev Dr. Roger L. Ray

And now it’s time to introduce our keynote speaker, the Reverend Dr Roger L. Ray, founding pastor of The Emerging Church and author of Progressive Faith and Practice and Progressive Conversations.

Roger’s sermons reach an audience of several thousand through podcast and video. They can be found on iTunes under the title Progressive Faith Sermons and on YouTube on the channel CCCSPRINGFIELD.

Roger earned a Masters in Divinity and a Doctorate in Ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He was also a 2004 fellow at Harvard Divinity School.

Without further ado, I hand you over to Roger Ray.

Evidence Based Faith:Haud Ignota Loquor (Speak not of what is not known)

(A link to the video of Anastasia’s talk is coming soon!)

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Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong with Rev. Dr. Roger L. Ray and Rev. John Churcher  at Secular Liturgies 2019 (Exeter central Library, Exeter, UK, 8th June, 2019)

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