Designing rituals minus the religion targets “nones”

Rituals, like spirituality itself, are increasingly being separated from their communal and religious contexts and being designed for and in some cases marketed to the non-affiliated (or “nones”). In The Atlantic (May 7), Sigal Samuel reports on the work of the Ritual Design Lab in Silicon Valley, where a small team of “interaction designers” is working to generate new rituals for modern life, with an eye to user experience. Using concepts from cognitive and evolutionary psychology, the lab crafts rituals for both individuals and organizations, including such prominent firms as Microsoft. The team’s website offers a Ritual Design Hotline with the message: “You tell us your problem. We will make you a ritual.” A Ritual Inventory invites visitors to add any interesting ritual they have created or witnessed to the lab’s database, and an app, IdeaPop, helps them brainstorm and create their own rituals.

The lab has its roots in Stanford University’s Institute of Design, where its co-founders Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan both teach. In 2015, they proposed a new course on ritual design. To their surprise, more than 100 mostly secular students signed up. “The new generation, they want bite-size spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses,” says Ozenc. “Design thinking can offer this, because the whole premise of design is human-centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions somehow forget this—that at the center of any religion should be the person.” Ozenc is planning to introduce a project called Pop-Up Prayer, which aims to give urban young professionals a way to pray when they’re on the go by having an organization buy a prayer kit, place it in a room where it’s okay for a visitor to pray, and post an online listing.

The lab is part of a small but growing movement to bring designed spirituality outside of religious auspices. An incubator for “spiritual entrepreneurs” was recently started at Columbia University’s business school. In Europe, a European Ritual Network sprang up three years ago to bring together ritual designers in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. There is considerable debate among ritual designers about questions of legitimacy, consumerism, and individualism as they make up rituals that lack the time-tested and communal nature of traditional religious rituals and practices. While some argue for the value of self-created rituals, others are not opposed to outsourcing their creation to experts. Some ritual designers charge people for the rituals they create, but so far, Ritual Design Lab refuses to do so.