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My Melbourne Cup runneth over

Date

We are shortly to embark on one of our nation's premier religious festivals – the Melbourne Cup.  All around the country, sweeps will be run, Calcuttas will be called, dresses donned, hats worn, fascinators attached and alcohol consumed in pursuit of our worship of the punt.  This ritual is repeated annually with religious zeal.

I perform the same rituals year in year out.  Much like Christmas, the Cup for this Melburnian is a marker of the year and I get to perform well practiced rites.  It is my time to renew cultural ties to my family (I place bets for them), my friends (I gather at the fire ritual of the BBQ) and my nation.  The underlying themes of this sacrament – a group gathering to observe well practiced rites in special vestments – are all present.
To what extent is our obsession with sport crowding out and replacing faith as a form of social glue?  Is this secular festival reaching sacred heights?

The great observer of faith, the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) noted that ritual can be divided into the secular and the sacred.  The sacred is that place where you stand in wonderment before a deity or supernatural force.  This transcendent sacred place is filled with awe – moved by both wonder and dread. The sacred has far more power than the secular.  The transcendent rituals of the sacred are clearly not the Melbourne Cup.  The Cup is about the profane values of friendship, risk, recreation, money and booze.  It assists in the profane aims of uniting the country and enriching the turf industry.  It is a national marker of importance.
Durkheim emphasised the functional and comforting nature of religion.  He forecast that the rise of science would lead to a waning of religious influence.  Although he wrote "The old Gods are dead" he felt that the rituals of faith would continue in a modified form.  This forecast is indeed acute.  Some civic quasi-religions such as sports fanaticism, music devotion, nationalism and political activism have, as Durkheim hinted, carried on some of the aspects of faith in the modern world.  They provide the social glue, the gathering of the group and the annual rituals of worship.  They bring coherence and cohesion to our nation now less cohesive than it once was.  The groups that used to bind us are in decline.  The private screen triumphs over the public gathering and so we need any excuse we can muster to assemble in groups.  The secular works in a different way to the sacred but is increasingly the point around which Australians gather.

Durkheim felt that religion was not destined to oblivion but would change and lose power and influence.  I reckon he is right on the money (sorry for the gambling simile).  Faith is forever but changing and manifestly in decline.
But my reservation is this.  The ineffable power of the sacred can never be fully replaced by the secular.  The mystery, the transcendence, the sense of the overwhelming which is so easily conjured by awe-filled faiths are very difficult to replace in the secular world.  It is a pity that in a post-science world, I cannot embrace the false certainties that underpin the sacred.  It is a loss some of us feel keenly.  By the same token, many atheists do not hanker for a pseudo sense of transcendence.

Accordingly, the secular is sometimes a pale imitation of the sacred.  Indeed the secular sometimes seems sterile.  The sterility is the basis on which the Melbourne Cup runneth over.  As a ritual, the Cup has its vacuous and ugly bits.  The forced gaiety and weird costumes test the patience.  The drinking can be awful to behold.  The entertaining costumes become less appealing with a vomit garnish. It is as if we need to fill the sterile nature of this secular event with booze.  And the booze is so omnipresent that the association between secular festivals and booze is a major public health issue. It is true that the Cup more than runneth over.  It bingeth.  It is a revolting sight at the end of an action-packed day at Flemington.

Of course, being the self hating atheist that I am, I cannot help but revere for a moment Psalm 23 which is the source of the phrase, "cup runneth over".  I read it again just to see a very different ritual to the Cup.  Psalm 23 is quietly reassuring.  It is beautiful in the way the Cup will never be.  It is dignified.  It celebrates gratitude for a life that we moderns would regard as dull and poor.  It also requires belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God - like Bart Cummings – which is a difficult belief to embrace for and impossible for others.  A comparison between Psalm 23 and the Melbourne Cup exemplifies how far humanity has moved since biblical times.  We are diluting the divine.  We embrace the wealth modernity provides.  We still gather with family and friends to celebrate.  And we fill our existential longings with ostentation and booze in place of prayer shared with our tribe.

What is your view?

Does the Cup form an important part of your annual ritual calendar?

Is the secular squeezing out the sacred?

Will the secular rituals help us deal with the modern existential issues such as isolation and rapid change?

Do we need to replace the awe and grandeur of the sacred or are we transcending transcendence in the modern world?

Over to you....

478 comments

  • What is your view?
    Sadly, my desk at work today and tomorrow.

    Does the Cup form an important part of your annual ritual calendar?
    It's a bit of fun and I have plenty of friends for whom it's a ritual, but not so much for me.

    Is the secular squeezing out the sacred?
    If by sacred, you mean religious, then we can only hope so!

    Will the secular rituals help us deal with the modern existential issues such as isolation and rapid change?
    I don't even understand the question, so I will it to our contributors who are more up with philosophy to provide a thought-provoking response.

    Do we need to replace the awe and grandeur of the sacred or are we transcending transcendence in the modern world?
    Yes, we already have the awe and granduer that is science, the natural world and a good beer - supernatural silliness is irrelevant and diverts us away from truth and what's really good in this world and this life.

    Nice article Dick, gave me a good giggle in several places.

    Commenter
    Kate G
    Date and time
    November 05, 2012, 10:17AM
    • Thanks Kate. Yes our modern world is full of scientifically created awe and grandeur. Make some of the godly awe seem tame by comparison. Walking on water is nothing compared to flying through air.

      Dick

      Commenter
      Dick Gross
      Location
      St Kilda
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 2:15PM
    • Hiya Kate
      "If by sacred, you mean religious, then we can only hope so!" - An iPad belly dance moment for Tricia. Thank you my friend.
      I also enjoyed your "awe and grandeur" comments. I don't know squat about science, but sipping a good beer while watching the sun set over the sea can be an awe inspiring experience.
      Take care
      Tricia

      Commenter
      Tricia Bertram
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 2:34PM
    • Influenced by my daughter I've developed a great interest in cosmology. The images of phenomena such as nebulae and unbelievably distant galaxies are astounding. The notion of some god or gods creating it all seems to be a particularly weak and unsatisfying explanation. The cosmos is too awe inspiring and 'transcendental' for that.

      Commenter
      steeploan
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 9:04AM
    • steeploan: "Influenced by my daughter I've developed a great interest in cosmology."

      You might be interested in CalTech's free online cosmology course starting in January. It looks very interesting:

      https://www.coursera.org/course/cosmo

      steeploan: "The images of phenomena such as nebulae and unbelievably distant galaxies are astounding. The notion of some god or gods creating it all seems to be a particularly weak and unsatisfying explanation. The cosmos is too awe inspiring and 'transcendental' for that."

      And no explanation at all other than there was a big bang is somehow more satisfying? Horses for courses (ha!) but I find the cosmos is too awe inspiring to believe it was not designed.

      Commenter
      bigbird
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 11:12AM
    • "And no explanation at all other than there was a big bang is somehow more satisfying?"

      The explanations are more than that, and you know it.  So why lie?

      Commenter
      Andrew R
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 2:15PM
    • Kate,
      "... we already have the awe and granduer that is science, the natural world..."

      Dick,
      " Thanks Kate. Yes our modern world is full of scientifically created awe and grandeur. Make some of the godly awe seem tame by comparison."

      How about this?

      "God, brilliant Lord,
      yours is a household name.
      Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you;
      toddlers shout the songs
      That drown out enemy talk,
      and silence atheist babble.
      I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
      your handmade sky-jewelry,
      Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
      Birds flying and fish swimming,
      whales singing in the ocean deeps.
      God, brilliant Lord,
      your name echoes around the world."

      From the Jewish Psalter. Psalm 8: 1-3. MSG.

      P.S. Don't you like the way that translation has the measure of the godless?
      Nice volubly taciturn phrases culminating with the grandeur of creation that "silences atheist babble"

      Commenter
      alpha
      Date and time
      November 06, 2012, 11:53PM
    • alpha my old mate, I haven't got a clue what you're talking about. That Psalm is as moronic as Psalm 23 and hardly godless as you claim - god is mentioned or referred to almost every line. No I don't like such ignorant twaddle, such flowery language that serves only to hold up the nonsensical imaginings of those who gullibly believe in creation and some goon you call god. And as for "the grandeur of creation" that phrase is nothing but unsupported meaningless gibberish.

      I am curious though, why you (and others) insist on quoting your religous book of inane mindless mutterings at me. I have frequently said that not only do I not believe in your god, but that I reject him outright as a tactiturn, self-absorbed, egotistical, whiney, spineless, hypocritcal entity who, should he exist, is best treated by being ignored. What do you possibly hope to gain by quoting your religious book of fairy tales to me?

      Commenter
      Kate G
      Date and time
      November 07, 2012, 8:36AM
    • Elfies back!
      Funny thing - I was just thinking about you (speak of the devil)
      I believe this may be a salubrious moment to submit my most humble entry for this weeks godwin award.

      Note that because this is a family paper I have tactfully censored (with xxxxxx's) some of the more graphic aspects of this little morality tale
      I trust this will not remove substantially from the message

      zed saves the world
      by zed
      part 1
      The siren wailed into life. As its mournful note intensified zed looked up and a resolute expression fixed itself in the lines of his battle weary face.
      The platypus on his lap stirred uneasily, but there was no time to comfort the skittish creature now.

      He called loudly, "They're here Virginia, Saddle yourself up"
      "Buckurk!", came the reply

      Gently returning the platypus to its maze, zed donned his armour, strode into the stable and leapt aboard his magic battle chicken.
      "Lets go Virginia, its time to get us some Nazis"
      "Buckurk!"

      A moment later, man and beast burst through the mouth of the giant head and flipped into an immediate stall turn. Already at high altitude, they allowed themselves to plummet earthward while surveying the landscape below.

      "Buckurk!"

      "I see them Virginia". "Panzers: looks like a whole army of them!". "I hope you ate plenty of cabbages!"

      !BUCKURK!

      xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      Flexing her powerful cloaca, Virginia thrust-vectored her way down another column of the mighty armoured war machines.
      Watching in Virginia's wing mirrors, zed noted with satisfaction that most now lay uselessly on their backs, their tracks clawing helplessly at the air as their terrified crews ran in hapless circles crying, "Ach du lieber! riesehahnshtinkinfarten! riesehahnshtinkinfartennnnnn!"

      Commenter
      zed - in his big flying head
      Date and time
      November 07, 2012, 10:58AM
    • zed saves the world
      part 2

      Zed smiled grimly, "Take that Fritz! You dont look much like supermen now with your unterpantzers on display!"

      xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      One by one, the nazis threw down their souffle makers and lifted their arms. "Surrenterze! Surrenterze!"
      "Not good enough. I wanna see BOTH arms in the air", snarled zed
      "Vhoops, sorry about zat, forcze of habit".
      Suddenly the sound of a door slamming caused zed to spin around. There, standing outside of the kharzi, clutching the SMH travel section was a short man with a neatly clipped moustache.

      Der Fuhrer himself: Odd-elf Hustler

      Hustler looked around in consternation, "Vas ist los?...
      "Hold it Odd-elf" snapped zed "The games up, no more bullying and propaganda for you"
      "Agggh!, zed mit zer flying schwein head, how...!"
      "Never mind how, its compulsory sensitivity training for you. Grab him Virgie..."

      "Buckurk!"

      With a struggling dictator in her beak and a stern jawed hero on her back the fearless war beast leapt into the sky and set course for the majestic stone head of destiny

      Later:

      Hustler slapped his forehead, "Gott und Himmel, vot vas I thinkinze?"
      "As I recall, World domination..."
      "Oh ja ja, das richt. die weltherrschaft. Vell I wont make das mishtakenze again"
      "Good chap: now, can I drop you anywhere?"
      "Brasil?" "I heff some verry verrry close relatifs zere". "Say..." A calculating look slipped furtively across Hustler's face, "you know zis iss a verry nice flying head you heff here..."

      "Ha ha ha ha ha ... "Buckurk!"

      The end.

      Or... is it?

      Commenter
      zed - in his big flying head
      Date and time
      November 07, 2012, 10:59AM

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