Real-Time Religion

For Religion to Flourish in Humanity’s Future, Rituals Need to Be Developed in Real Time

When considering human futures, we are asked to explore the future of humanity without conflating that future with the technological progress humanity creates. Human futures reorients the usual narrative, taking the focus away from technology as the sole driver of change. Technology is usually understood as the collection of tools we use to help us achieve our goals. From weapons and axes, to sickles and wells, to mainframes and networks, humanity’s progress is usually a reflection of the technology we’ve created. Yet, not all technologies are constructed objects that exist separately from the self. Perhaps one of humanity’s most potent pieces of technology is the ritual.

Rituals vary, ranging from the everyday acts we perform to acts that inspire holiness. They can be defined as any specific, repeated actions that hold significance. Rituals exist in life, and they are the bedrock of religions around the world. Yet, in this growing secular age, religion is having difficulty finding its footing. With religious practice declining, a re-engagement with ritual might allow religion to revitalize itself and find its future in an age of rapid change. Rather than seeing rituals as unchanging, religions should foster a constant practice of creating new rituals. This type of a “maker” movement for religious practice – in which rituals would be devised frequently and in real time – could give meaning and perspective to immediate concerns, keeping religion relevant. With this approach, religion would stay fresh and brimming with active response to today’s concerns.

Religion as Design Medium

In this world of real-time ritual, synagogues, churches, mosques, and other spiritual communities would foster rituals with frequency, at appropriate intervals, to help followers build deeper connections to their faiths. These rituals would be crafted for that very moment, providing deeper meaning than a sermon on current events ever could. With this constant reflection and contemplation on the human experience, religion would stay relevant to its followers’ lives and provide the world with something that media, social banter, or data never could: belief.

In everyday life, from a secular perspective, rituals are constantly being born and rewritten. Every year, thousands congregate in Times Square to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. Many people run each morning, attributing a spiritual and physical reward to the act. Over time, even our smaller actions change and adapt – the ritualized action of hailing a cab, for example, is becoming antiquated, having been replaced by a few taps on an app. As society and technology change, rituals surrounding things like communal eating, bathroom visits, and driving will change with them.

In the secular space, rituals can form without us noticing. We often take on new ones seamlessly, without much fanfare. Yet in religious contexts, rituals aren’t added or edited as easily. Most are inherited from generations past and from liturgy, and the creation of new rituals is either hardly done or sporadically attempted.

Anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff has posited that rituals work because we don’t fathom their origins. “Underlying all rituals is an ultimate danger… We may slip into the fatal perspective of recognizing culture as our construct, [which is] arbitrary, conventional, [and] invented by mortals.” As ritual scholar Catherine Bell sums up, “Ritual must simultaneously disguise its techniques and purposes and improvisations and mistakes. It must make its own invention invisible.”

Yet, even religion itself is a designed act. During his speech at the Bloomberg Businessweek Design 2016 conference, Michael Rock – founding partner and creative director of 2×4 and a Yale professor – stated, “Design is a frame that gives life meaning.” For Rock, our understanding of the world itself is designed. Design is the tool we use to manifest our ideologies. An example can be found in Islam with the idea of Qiblah, the direction one should face when praying. The Qiblah is fixed in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. When decorating their homes, some Muslims will make sure to arrange the rooms in which they pray to have no images or mirrors that would come into view during prayer, as this could be distracting or create the opportunity to pray to an image. In this way, the metaphysical – in this case, the idea of a holy direction – is made manifest through design. Design can give holiness a physical reality, and rituals can make religion real for its followers – even as they pray to a God they cannot see. Rock believes that design’s purpose is to “create coherent worlds.” Religion is a system of designed acts that, when brought together, create a coherence about the world – and its design medium is the ritual.

Illustration of people praying to digital technology
Credit: Erica Whyte

Connecting with Contemporary Congregants

A changing approach to religion is timely. Society has changed, and religion has had a hard time adapting. A growing group in the US is being classified as religious “nones.” These individuals are choosing not to identify with a religious movement; indeed, 23% of adults in the US classify “nothing in particular,” and this group is always growing. And yet, religious “nones” are a tricky group to pin down, with 70% of these individuals reporting some kind of belief in a universal spirit or God, and 37% defining themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Answering the call of these burgeoning subsets that yearn for relevant spirituality is a purpose that religions can serve, if designed thoughtfully. And they can do so by fostering new, timely rituals. When a synagogue, church, or mosque is current in its practice and in line with the minds of its followers, there’s a better chance that its followers might find meaning within it.

However, it might be jarring to think of the world’s religions constantly inventing new kinds of rituals. Couldn’t that dilute what’s special about their unique practice? Might it displace the aura of holiness around time-honored traditions?

To combat this, we can reframe rituals and divide them into two categories. The first category is comprised of lasting rituals. These are the tent-pole rituals of religions today, like Judaism’s Sabbath and Islam’s Salah (five daily prayers). In the second category are liquid rituals, which are smaller and adaptable. They add to religious practice, but they aren’t linchpins of its foundation. Liquid rituals can be created when the time is right to guide followers’ and spiritual believers’ understanding of the world, and they can come to a close when they’ve served their purpose. These rituals don’t need to be grand, highly involved, or costly to be meaningful. The Kitchen, an inventive synagogue in San Francisco, for example, took an existing ritual – the tying of a red string around the wrist to ward off evil spirits – and adapted it. They used its familiarity to create a new, timely practice. This new ritual involved wearing a green string on the wrist at the time of Passover, a holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s path from slavery to freedom, and made it into a reminder of the holiday and of those living in slavery and affliction today. When religious significance is placed on something, no matter how small, it can inspire people to search our world for better answers.

Small liquid rituals do not mess with what makes religion work – they add to it.

Ritual as Retreat

In today’s climate, there’s great opportunity for ritual to be reinvigorated. We are entering an uneasy era. Truth is evading its once-simple definition, our own leaders are sometimes seeming to lack common morality or decency, and we often feel forced to choose between caring for only our own community and having compassion for others. Right now, in this era where opinions can appear like fact, religion may be seeing its most opportune moment.

The practice of existing religious rituals – and the creation of new ones – that respond to this issue could foster something opinions never can: conviction. Rituals are the everyday practice of our beliefs, and today, we need reminders of those beliefs. Our most important everyday practices give us the space to constantly reaffirm what we believe is just and right. Even liquid rituals, which change according to our evolving needs, can act as timeless affirmations of our personal as well as humanity’s values.

People need rituals, as our most human form of technology, to be updated as frequently as our electronic devices. We need timely rituals, both religious and secular, that match our feelings, yearnings, and restlessness, and we need them to bring us meaning and communal engagement through practice.

Rituals unhinge us from the cacophony of the everyday and remind us of what really matters. One day, we might be able to look back and reflect on key moments within our lives by remembering the rituals we practiced during those times. We may even be able to slow life down as we fill its moments with practices that foster greater reflection, depth, and contemplation.

In an age of noise, redesigned rituals may be the technology we need most.

the author

Yehezkel Lipinsky

Yehezkel Lipinsky is a former senior foresight and innovation analyst at Idea Couture. He is currently a designer and strategist based in New York.