Without Ceremony, Religion is Meaningless… (part 1)

Without ceremony, religion is empty.

Without children, it’s pointless.

Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.


Part 1:

So continuing my reflections on why religious belief has decreased so much in the past few decades:

I theorize–this was originally someone else’s theory, so I can’t take credit for inventing it–that the feeling of the divine presence that people feel at worship or festivals is due to the feedback effects of watching everyone around you experience this at the same time–those “mirror neurons” at work, making you experience inside your head the emotions you’re reading on other people’s faces.

This is the power of crowds–the same power that makes grown men willing to pay actual money to sit in a big stadium and watch other grown ups play a children’s game of keep-away, and feel absolutely exhilarated by the experience instead of mortified. The power that makes peaceful people in big groups suddenly torch cars, or feel suddenly patriotic after singing the Star Spangled Banner together.

Once, totally randomly, I happened to park in the middle of an anti-Fred Phelps rally and had to walk along with it to get wherever I was going. (Probably dinner.)

The rally was fun. There was this great sense of togetherness, this electric excitement running through the crowd. A sense of being united in a common cause, something bigger than oneself.

“This must be why people liked the Nuremberg Rallies so much,” I thought. Only those involved half a million people instead of a few hundred. (As fun as they are, I think I will continue to generally avoid political rallies, because I’m not so keen on thinking other people’s thoughts.)

I have also experienced charismatic religious events, back in the days when I was a religious kid. That was an interesting Episcopal church, I gotta say. Anyway, so you know that thing you do with the laying on of hands and praying for the person in the middle of the hands and then you all feel the Power of God and the person in the middle faints (and maybe is healed or whatever)? Yeah, that is pretty fun, too. I mean, I don’t think it works if you don’t believe it–if you don’t believe in god, you’d probably just stand there feeling very uncomfortable while everyone else around you is falling over or making weird noises. But if you do believe, then you get to partake in the experience with everyone else.

And this is where ritual and ceremony come in. It probably doesn’t particularly matter what kind of ritual you have–you can wave around lulavs and etrogs or dance around the May pole or sing hosannas together–the important thing is that the ritual be meaningful to you and involve other people who also find it meaningful. Then every time you do it, you can access both your previous mental states from the past times you did it, and also the mental states of all the people around you, creating the collective experience of deep religious feeling.

It is no accident that many religions encourage their members to worship and study together, rather than apart. For example, Judaism requires a minyan–a group of ten people–for prayer, worship, reading the Torah, etc. It’s not wrong to do these things alone, it’s just seen as superior to do them together. “It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten Israelites are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them.” (From the Wikipedia page.)

From Christianity: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20

I bet other religions have similar calls to group worship, since group worship is a pretty common occurrence. Individuals of great genuine religiosity may be able to function this way, especially if they spend much of their time reading religious literature and praying and the like, but for the average person who isn’t inclined toward reading, this is probably the fast road to atheism. Luckily for Protestantism, the denominations quickly figured out how to have group religious experiences that rival or exceed Catholicism’s in effectiveness.

These days, however, the same intellectual impulse of, “Why do I have to be around other people to be religious? I can be just as religious at home as at church!” is probably leading a great many people to drift away from religion, leading inevitably to non-belief, since the emotions of others were a critical component of faith all along.

(What’s that, you thought you knew more about how religion works than thousands of years of religious tradition? You thought you could defy Gnon with your “logic” and “reason”? Gnon does not care about logic. Defy, and you will be annihilated, whether you like it or not.)

And as the number of atheists grows, even religious people are increasingly surrounded by people who do not believe, and the amount of belief they can access is thus decreasing. We’ve gone from a society where virtually everyone was Christian and religious expression was seen as a totally normal and welcome part of everyday life, to a society where close to half of young people (the people I typically am around,) are openly non-religious and want nothing to do with that (and even many of the people who claim to be religious make no regular signs of it.) This makes it hard to take religious belief seriously, as people increasingly associate genuine belief with low-class out-groups they don’t want to be part of. (Unless you are part of a prole out-group, in which case you’re probably proud of your religion.)


(This might make aspie people particularly bad at religion, because they are [speculatively] less capable of using these feedback structures to internally experiencing other people’s emotions.)

Stay tuned for Part 2: Without Children, Religion is Pointless.

12 thoughts on “Without Ceremony, Religion is Meaningless… (part 1)

  1. Original Buddhism is different from the Abrahamic traditions in many respects, and group worship is one aspect. The Buddha went off to mediate himself like Isaac Newton, and the metaphorical apple fell on the former and he became enlightened to reach nirvana – or so the myth goes. Thus Buddhism appears to be fundamentally individualistic as opposed to communal.

    Although John the Baptist was supposed to be a wandering ascetic type, so there is that archetype in Christianity as well, but that has not become popular.

    It’s no surprise that spectator sports have often been compared to religion. Few people have religious fervor for a tennis player, but there are many who support, say, the New England Patriots (a pro football team) with religious fervor. Going to a game is like going to church for those ardent fans. Group psychology is key in the endurance of both groups.

    From a sociologist’s POV, one main reason that religion tends toward communal manifestation is that it evolved as a social device to control the populace. Marx would think so. It’s a lot easier to herd sheep when all the sheep are together. And it’s easier to make a person adhere to your dogmas when that person feels like it belongs to your group.


    • Buddhism is one of those religions I don’t have enough first-hand experience with to really comment on; I find that most religions have an “official version” according to their holy books, and then the version that people actually practice, and this may be very different. For example, as far as official theology is concerned, Muslims and Christians are probably closer than Mormons and other Christians, but as a practical matter, Mormons are considered Christians and Muslims aren’t.

      In Islam, the big actual difference between Sunni and Shia is that Shia is Iranian and Sunni is Saudi + everyone else.

      Buddhism, as I understand it, is supposed to be a religion you can do while believing in other religions, but I note that the global distribution of Buddhists is still very concentrated in certain countries. I would expect Buddhism in Thailand or Buddhism in Cambodia to function practically a lot like other religions elsewhere, but I don’t really know a lot about these countries. Since you can believe in Buddhism + another religion, maybe it just provides a sort of philosophical supplement to an existing group identity.

      As for individuality, I think there tends to be an individual/ascetic tradition in a lot of religions. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert between his baptism and the beginning of his preaching; Mohammad was out in the desert when he was first visited by the angel; Moses was a shepherd out herding sheep in the middle of nowhere when he saw the Burning Bush and then went and hung out on Mt. Sinai for forty days before receiving the 10 commandments. I would not be surprised to find many Hindu saints or important theologists had similar stories. Christianity also has a long tradition of monks, nuns, and Catholic priests who take vows of poverty and celibacy; historically some of these folks led quite spartan lives in some pretty out of the way places, like this place: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skellig_Michael

      The hermit tradition seems a lot less popular in Christianity these days; modern Christians just can’t wrap their heads around devoting their entire lives to religion anymore.

      Marx was almost right about a lot of things.


  2. My knowledge about Buddhism is far from deep, but my understanding is like yours: one can be a Buddhist and subscribe to other religions. Buddhism doesn’t require belief in a deity. In its original form, all you need to do is reach enlightenment by yourself. Siddhartha did it through meditation, though that is not a requirement.

    Judaism and Islam, with their emphasis on rituals, have a more communal aspect. Christianity is actually similar to Buddhism in the sense that, in theory, a Christian could live in isolation and go to heaven by accepting Jesus. Participation in a community or practice of rituals are not necessities.

    Though we have yet to see a sustained Marxist utopia, I can see it happening someday. I think, as capitalist societies see more and more of the downsides of capitalism, there will be shifts toward more socialism. Communism, in its purest form, may not be sustainable, but a strong form of socialism has pretty much all the good aspects of communism and can be stable to boot.


    • The chief practical issue I see with communism is the incentive structure; if the guy ordering concrete for toilet manufacturing has to order from a specific company because the guy further up the line said so, and that company is using the wrong mix of ingredients, so the guys trying to make toilets with that mix end up with toilets that fall apart, the problem tends not to get fixed.

      Most of the first world countries already have something resembling a mix of capitalism and socialism, which can work well if done properly–Japan comes immediately to mind. It doesn’t suffer the severities of inequality we do, which I consider a real point in its favor. I think countries function better when everyone sees themselves as in the same boat together.


    • If you think capitalism has downsides you should discuss the downsides of communism with people who have actually experienced communism first hand. The downsides of communism dwarf those of capitalism.

      It may be there is a thread of belief/hope in the communal that runs through the psyche of humans. The abject failings of communism and to a lesser extent socialism notwithstanding there is always the feeling that – well it wasn’t done properly last time – but in the future we will do it better.

      If communism was science or engineering it would have been thrown out years ago since the consistent failures of the ideology, despite experiment after experiment, is there for all to see.

      But the various forms of communalism/communism is not science. Rather it seems to be a deep seated hope in humans that mere repeated catastrophic failures damaging and killing millions of humans cannot unseat.


      • You seem to be referring to “communist” countries like Mao’s China and USSR. If so, then our definitions of communism are different. Communism to me is as defined by Karl Marx. Nothing in his theory of communism requires political oppression or authoritarianism, which is what those countries were.

        Further, Marx clearly favors democracy, and neither Maoist China nor USSR was a democracy. So if you’re saying those countries were bad, then I agree. The people suffered tremendously under those asshole regimes. If you’re saying that those countries were representative of communism, then I disagree.

        I would love to talk to people who have lived in communist societies. But sadly few people come from communist countries (and no, Cuba ain’t one), as communism is rarely practiced in human history. Communism, IMO, requires a level of goodness in humans that doesn’t exist. While some communes have flourished, none have been able to sustain themselves in the long run.

        In any case, in the end I’m probably more capitalist than communist, my defense of communism notwithstanding.


      • I should clarify, then, since matters are getting technical, that I meant “countries typically referred to as communist,” ie USSR and its satellites, eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, N. Korea, Moldova, Cambodia, etc. Given America’s demographics, it’d be difficult not to have conversed with someone from at least one of these places.


      • What capitalism does is that it aligns the incentives in such a way that even the selfish can only benefit by serving the customer.


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