The Reddit lonely are not alone in this sad reverse engineering. Witness, for example, Ritual Design Lab in Silicon Valley, where a “small team of ‘interaction designers’ is working to generate new rituals for modern life.” On offer is a personalized practice to inject meaning into one’s day. “You tell us your problem. We will make you a ritual,” promises the lab’s peppy tagline. “The new generation, they want bite-size spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses,” founder Kursat Ozenc told The Atlantic. “Design thinking … can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs.”
These rituals are “lightweight,” Ozenc says. They add just a sprinkling of transcendence and fun. As philosopher Charles Taylor says in his magnum opus, A Secular Age, modern people can feel “a terrible flatness in the everyday.” Silicon Valley’s bespoke rituals posture themselves as a playful source of relief from, in Taylor’s words, the “emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture.”
But these rituals are not real. They cannot do what we ask of them. A personalized ritual is part of that consumeristic cycle. It cannot fill the lack into which we pour it. It cannot overcome the terrible flatness. It cannot solemnize the big moments or dignify the small ones. It cannot return transcendence to our lives where it is missing any more than a board game club can provide a true sense of belonging.
“Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion,” wrote The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer in 2016, “to get the community and the good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer. As with O’Doul’s, converts are few, and rarely do they end up having a very good time.” We may want the community and ritual of religion without the “supernatural stuff” and the ethical obligations it entails, but this sort of individualized comfort mechanism is at best a pale, disjointed counterfeit.