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.