Religion and the impulse for ritualPosted by PH
This article from ABC News, discusses the findings of Oxford anthropoligist Harvey Whitehouse’s study of religion. He was drawn to a puzzle when comparing different religious rituals. On the one hand there are the extreme cases such as
sacred fire dances performed in New Guinea, where in order to commune with their ancestors men enter a trance state wearing masks decorated with blood drawn agonisingly from their own tongues.
By contrast, the most extreme ritual a Christian is likely to engage in is being dunked during baptism. Why do some religions have rituals that are so much more traumatic than others?
The finding that’s highlighted is that religions tend to fall into two categories: those that centered on strict teachings (e.g., Christianity and Islam) and those that focus on ritual or are cults of some kind. Sacramental believers will find fault with the division: engaging in some form of ritual before praying hardly means that you’re in a cult. And there are plenty of cults that engage more in strict teaching than in rituals. I found the analysis of what successfully links ritual with religion quite interesting: meaning, motivation, and memory. Of course, those three could be linked to other things as well. Settling down to do some work at the computer might entail some ritual, or preparing food or preparing to eat. I’ve always been intrigued by the sanctification or sacramentalization of the ordinary, the everyday, the commonplace. Ritual plays a key role in achieving this end. I guess my point is that while it needn’t be used, its addition helps the process along.
It is not clear whether willingness to indulge in ritual is an inherited trait. Whitehouse suspects it is, and is planning studies with children to find out. Clearly, though, ritual is not the exclusive preserve of religion. Obsessive hand-washing, drinking tea in a certain way and crossing oneself with holy water all have one thing in common: “Rituals are by their very nature puzzling activities that invite interpretation,” says Whitehouse. Rituals also have an emotional aspect – ranging from a comforting feeling of security or togetherness to extreme terror. And rituals can be repetitive – although the frequency of repetition varies enormously. These three traits are what make religion and ritual such good bedfellows. They provide the all-important elements that allow a religion to flourish: meaning, motivation and memory.