Every year millions of practicing Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha through the ritual sacrifice of livestock, ranging from cattle to camels, to commemorate the near-sacrifice of one of the prophet Abraham’s sons by the hand of his father, in accordance with the presumed wishes of his Father in turn (Abraham’s descendants can’t seem to agree on which son it actually was, though). Non-human animal sacrifice is simply a poor man’s version of the grand old tradition of human sacrifice (i.e. the uber-sacrifice), which as a ritual act has probably existed at one point or another in most cultures and civilizations. Perhaps one of the surest signs of human progress is the gradual disappearance of (and tolerance for) the act, to be replaced by the knockoffs we see today.
From a purely materialistic perspective, human sacrifice makes little sense – a waste of human capital and a possibly self-destructive habit to get into as a culture. It gets even worse if you add a liberal flavor to it – one’s right to life is being violated, and even if the sacrifice is voluntary, one could still make the case that some form of subtle, socially sanctioned coercion is hiding just beneath the surface.
In fact, the only way one can make sense of the pervasiveness of such a tradition is by treating it as an act that affirms the transcendental; that affirms the idea that existence is greater than the material. By giving up that which is most valuable in life – namely life itself – one affirms this world’s insignificance in the shadow of the beyond, the promise of divine justice and retribution.
Is this not what ritual is? Acts that seem to serve no earthly purpose, and are usually even costly, whose only function is to convince yourself and the world that there is more to life than just…life. And since all of us, from suicide bombers to militant atheists, seem to grasp at something larger than life to give our lives meaning and some purpose, all of us need rituals. In many ways, the power of ritual seems to grow in direct proportion to its apparent obsolescence or destructiveness. As the world stumbles towards godlessness, whatever doesn’t kill faith makes it stronger.
Ritual might be even more important for those of us with a more…skeptical disposition. The world that exists in my mind, at least, is essentially an enormous, cosmic, convoluted accident. No single truth, no morality, no cosmic justice, no heaven, hell or purpose, and no god. It is difficult, to say the least, to keep the nihilistic madness at bay – not just to keep living, but to live actively, like it still meant something. To us, then, the self-denying sleepwalking of ritual, without the theological connotations, can be deeply therapeutic. This is precisely how I think smoking (tobacco) in the 21st century should be perceived.
To be clear, there are certain dimensions and aspects of smoking (addictiveness, for example) which are not historically delimited, and which can always (and have) been used to analyze and interpret the act. Setting those aspects aside, it is difficult to understand the prevalence of smoking (even if the overall trend is decidedly downwards) in an age when its health effects are almost universally accepted. Certainly, smoking has lost its status as an act of rebellion in most societies, and is more likely to be perceived with scorn, disgust and pity above anything else. This may not be true for many parts of the developing world, as well as a significant portion of Europe, but it is decidedly true for North America, and is also clearly where most societies are headed, even if they are currently far from it. I cannot help but note, however, that it might be only now, in this age when smoking is no longer considered conformist or subversive, that it can truly be characterized as an act of rebellion – the 21st century smoker is certainly a dying breed. Smoking is more difficult now than it has ever been, as the combined might of the law and social conventions relentlessly push against it, and treat smokers as either too stupid to understand or too weak to stay away.
Isn’t it now, however (as in matters of faith), when it has been unanimously labeled a repulsive, costly and self-destructive act with no earthly benefits (in the long run, at least), that the ritualistic dimensions of smoking are truly dominant? Certain aspects of smoking have always had the flavor of ritual, of course. The ritual sharing of a light, the ritual stepping out of a coffee shop or bar, the ritual lighting up after a meal, among countless others. Indeed, many cultures have had (and continue to have) rituals which directly revolve around smoking and tobacco. But now more than ever, after being stripped of all of the real or imagined benefits that have ever been subscribed to it, is it ritual at its purest . For me, at least, there is no other act that is as potent a denial of life and the material, and therefore an affirmation of life and the transcendental, as lighting up a cigarette. And as the world turns on smokers in increasingly different and harsher ways, the power of a lit cigarette can only grow. There has never been a worse time, nor a better one, to be a smoker.
Or at least, that’s what I’m going to tell myself when I start coughing up blood. Ah, rationalization.