The Welcome To Night Vale live show came to Denver yesterday. It was great fun, I loved it! And one of the best things about it is that everyone in the audience is the sort of person you want to know. There’s a very strong “these are my peeps!” feel there. :)
The show, as usual, involves a bit of audience participation. A friend sitting by me didn’t participate very much, for which I teased them a little right afterwards (the participation makes it so much more fun!!). They responded that they don’t participate in ritual lightly, and weren’t comfortable joining in this one. My initial reaction was “lol, audience participation isn’t ritual,” but after about ten seconds of reflection I realized “Oh yeah… it kinda is.”
Which got me to thinking.
Rationalists are aware of the power and importance of ritual, and there are ongoing attempts to harness that power. They meet with various levels of success, depending on group and area. In Denver they haven’t taken hold. A fair number of us here are rather allergic to the trappings of religion. Personally I have no problem with anyone else doing it, but to me it feels forced and hokey. Like putting on your parents’ clothes as a kid and pretending to be adults. Religious ritual works because the participants think it really does tap into a higher power. Mimicking the form without believing in the substance feels… uncomfortably silly.
A different friend has recently asked if Universities could take the place of Churches in the secular community (after reading the excellent “Man As A Rationalist Animal” post by Lou Keep). I think that if they could have, they would have by now. They’re halfway there. They have the instinctive respect of the populace, the arcane credentialing and clergy, and of course the miracles. But they’re missing the interface with the common man–the language of ritual and community.
Welcome To Night Vale has that. WtNV is the start of a church for the modern urban/suburban areligious person. It tackles the fundamental question that plagues the educated proletariat–the meaninglessness of existence in a post-community capitalist society, where everyone is interchangeable and replaceable. And it answers it not with speeches or therapy or advise… it answers it by giving us a mirror made of myths. Modern myths, spun just weeks ago.
The podcast creates the foundation of myth that informs the spiritual layer of all its listeners. On its own it doesn’t do much. It is interesting art, of varying quality, that can sometimes touch deep emotions. The true power of WtNV comes about in its live shows. Here they take the common base of myth that the audience shares and they do something wonderful with it. They transform it into ritual. They bind the audience together, guiding their emotions down the tracks of a mythical story, until it resolves in a catharsis and an instruction (“be good to each other”) that means something.
But VERY importantly – it does it tongue-in-cheek. It is funny, self-referential, and irreverent. Because that is what it means to be areligious in a world that doesn’t need you. Taking things seriously simply does not work. Life is a farce, and we all know it. So the absurdity is played up. We are here to have fun. To make jokes and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about how stupid all this is. And when the merriment is high enough we can all join hands are jokingly chant to a story book character, because in it’s fun to do so in the spirit of the story. And if, along the way, we manage to say something deeper and more important, and feel uplifted at the end, well, so much the better. We came for the lols, and we left having touched something within that united us all for a few hours.
It only worked because no one comes SEEKING a deep experience at WtNV. We came for fun, and the masterful story led to something deeper. It’s like dating–if you’re seeking a relationship, it is apparent, and it doesn’t work. It’s only when you’re just dating around for the pleasure of an evening with interesting company that you are in a state where a relationship can begin.
This is what Rationalist Rituals get wrong. They are trying for deep experience and wonder, like we had in our childhood when our parents took us to church. That is not available via the same route of reverence and worship that the religious rituals used. The mindset of one who doesn’t instinctively revere the greater power being channeled is inimical to that sort of ritual. The ritual of the educated areligious must start in a different place. Our priests are comedians as well. Our religion must laugh first, or be rejected by our immune system.
Someday a Welcome To Night Vale community theater will form at a university. A group of fans have a lot of fun reenacting favorite WtNV episodes, and form strong bonds, and the university institution will lend them support and prestige in other aspects of life. And maybe, a couple generations down the line, their children will have a fully-formed religious life tailored for the concerns of an early 21st century proletariat, which fulfills their emotional needs with myth and community, while slowly becoming less relevant as the centuries grind on. And it’ll all have started with people needing to laugh at the absurdity of this sort of thing happening in the first place.
Until that happens, check out the live Welcome To Night Vale show “All Hail,” even if you aren’t a listener of the podcast. It’s good, and it’s instructive. Likely even if you don’t listen to the podcast.