Saturday, March 23, 2013

It's the ritual, but it's not the ritual

I'm going to disclaim this post at the very beginning: I haven't researched this yet. This is, after all, a blog, and I don't carry the kind of professional weight as someone like Sam Harris, so I don't (yet) have to be so careful. I want to use this post to throw some ideas out there, and as I mull it over, the research will follow. Thanks for taking this with that grain of salt.

I'll also qualify it up front. I've been thinking about religion and "God" a lot differently than I had been lately. I can say that, almost surely, this will not result in a religious conversion for me--particularly to a religion like Christianity which is patently untrue to anyone willing to examine it closely and, frankly, fails morally as well. Because I think bad metaphors maintain the God delusion, I won't ever say that I think God exists (unless credible evidence lands in my lap, of course), but I no longer think religious people are as deluded, dishonest, and/or deceived as I did when I wrote God Doesn't.

Essentially--and this may constitute my next major writing project--I think that theists really do mean something substantial when they say "God." I don't think it's what they think it is, though. In fact, I don't think they know for sure what they mean. This question, however, is the one playing most with my mind lately, and this post arose from a thought I had yesterday while mulling it over.


Rituals play a role in essentially every religion*. They aren't limited to religions, of course, but if you find a religion, there are rituals involved. Rituals are pretty powerful things, if you've ever been involved in organizations that use them in a way that you can take seriously. And that's the rub--outside of the right context, which is frequently religious, rituals tend to feel very, very silly indeed. Certainly, many atheists reject rituals as being mostly supercilious, if not outright silly, but that stems from failing to get properly psychologically involved in them. Do they do magic? No, but they do work powerfully upon our psychology if we invest in them.

*One of those unresearched points that I strongly suspect is true. It is possible that there are ritual-free religions, I suppose, but I don't know of any offhand.

This makes me think that rituals are probably pretty important and pretty valuable, particularly since sharing a ritual has a profound psychosocial bonding effect upon those who are able to get into them. In particular, shared ritual is capable of creating healthy and strong camaraderie, and that has been demonstrated to enhance both quality and quantity of life--a point the religious often argue to attempt to enhance their credibility.

The thing is--and this is my epiphany here--I don't think it matters what the ritual is, just that there is a ritual that binds people together. The obvious arbitrariness of the ritual itself makes it hard for skeptical-minded folks to get sufficiently into them to understand their value, but for those who have experienced them (like the religious), the value is undeniable, even when it cannot be pinpointed on the ritual behavior.

So, I am starting to strongly suspect that ritual matters on a psychosocial level--and may be some part of what underlies the real meaning of "God"--although the rituals themselves are arbitrary, which makes them hard to accept as being meaningful. I'd appreciate insight and discussion.


  1. Hi James. I'm new to your blog here (just connected on Twitter) so I haven't read much of your writing yet, so I'll just ask a few questions to try to get to know your views better. Have you read or watched Alain de Botton talking about Atheism 2.0 or Jonathan Haidt talking about religion and the ecstasy of self-transcendence? Both are excellent TED talks that are easy to find and digest. I think those make some good points about the use and purpose of ritual in religion (among many other points). Not the definitive points, but good points to consider.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ed.
    Yes, I've seen both. I thought Atheism 2.0 is pretty silly, though I expect I know what he's getting at. Haidt's ideas have literally transformed the way I think about some of this stuff and will be the basis for future projects, either here or in print. I don't fully agree with Haidt on everything he says, but you're right, his work is well worth consideration.