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Ritual Observance

In all fairness, if you’re going to read Religion Explained, you might feel the need to read some other book–Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, perhaps–that will tilt the balance the other direction.  I, for one, was ready to read Religion Explained.  It makes sense to me…and I’m ready to hear the hard truth, as uncomfortable and as “foreign” as it is.

Coming from such a conservative religious background, I find the acquisition of religion fascinating, simply because many of the rituals and habits we perform on a regular basis have nothing to do with what we believe.  They’ve simply evolved into something that everyone accepts as mandatory, and if we don’t do them, we’re abruptly (and oftentimes rudely) thrust into the dark realm of “fringeness (my word).”  Take weddings, for example.  We require lots of people to come to one specific spot on one particular day to hear standard vows (heavens, if they say them wrong!) between two people dedicating their lives to each other.  Why do this?  Why don’t we assume that if they say they’re going to be dedicated to each other, they will?  Why do we make such a big deal out of it?  Whether or not there’s a ceremony, we consider their union a sacred act, and they’re bonded whether or not they go through a ceremony.

To whet your appetite for a longer piece (about Religion Explained) that I’m working on for this blog, I give you several quotes from the book, so that you might “prepare” for what I’m about to divulge to you.  Open your heart and mind, for it’s the only thing to do when confronted with a new, or at least different, perspective.

Pascal Boyer speaking here:

“I do not think that people have religion because they relax their usually strict criteria for evidence and accept extraordinary claims; I think they are led to relax these criteria because some extraordinary claims have become quite plausible to them.”

“Does this mean that at some point in history people had lots of possible versions of religion and that somehow one of them proved  more successful?  Not at all.  What it means is that, at all times and all the  time, indefinitely many variants of religious notions were and are created inside individual minds.  Not all these variants are equally successful in cultural transmission.  What we call a cultural phenomenon is the  result of a selection that is taking place all the time and everywhere.”

“Another misconception is that we can explain people’s having particular thoughts if we can understand their reasons for holding them.  (“They believe in ghosts because they cannot bear the grief of losing people”; “they believe in God because otherwise human existence does not make sense,” etc.)  But the mind is a complex set of biological  machines that produce all sorts of thoughts.  For many thoughts there is no reasonable reason, as it were, except that they are the inevitable result of the way the machines work.  Do we have a good reason for  having a precise memory of people’s faces and forgetting their names?  No, but that is the way human memory works.  The same applies to religious concepts, whose persistence and effects are explained by the way various mental systems work.”

“Religion does not really support morality, it is people’s moral intuitions that make religion plausible; religion does not explain misfortune, it is the way people explain misfortune that makes religion easier to acquire.”

“Indeed, we can much more accurately predict what will happen in a  ritual if we consider that the whole enterprise is geared to reducing the  amount of information transmitted.  Anthropologist Maurice Bloch  pointed out that most ritual language is either archaic, so no one has a  clear idea of what it means, or formulaic, so that you are mandated to  repeat the same words as in previous performances.  Which is why people’s exegesis of their own rituals is often vague, circular, question-begging, mystery-ridden and highly idiosyncratic.”

“Rituals are not necessary to social processes but they are certainly  relevant to people’s thoughts about these processes.  That is, once you see your cultural elders associating a given set of prescribed actions  with social effects that would otherwise appear magical, this association has some staying power because it is both easily acquired and constitutes a rich source of inferences.  Rituals do not create social effects but only the illusion that they do.  This illusion is strengthened by the fact that not performing a particular ceremony, when others do, very often amounts to defecting  from social cooperation.  For instance, once you attach a particular ritual (initiation) to full cooperation between men, or another one (wedding) to mate-choice, then not performing the ritual amounts to a refusal to enter into the same social arrangements as other people.  In a place where everybody signals their openness and reliability by keeping their windows open, drawing your curtains is a clear signal of noncooperation.”

More soon, dear readers.  I’ll flesh out some of these statements and introduce different ones.

Is any of this news to you?  Are any of the statements offensive to you?  Agreeable?

Just a little food for thought for this bright, sunshiny day…

Tomorrow, I’m introducing you to Karen Maezen Miller’s lovely little video, about her brand-new book Hand Wash Cold. I’ll give you some time to view it, then I’ll do my own review of it on Monday, April 5th.

Stay tuned.  Lots of good stuff coming your way.

[Post image: Partial of Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer cover]

One Comment

  1. […] couple of days ago, I posted a smattering of quotes from the book to whet your appetite, and received some interesting responses.  Let me reiterate, we all have rituals that we perform […]

The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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