As with last week, my upcoming wedding has been a big item keeping my attention lately, so I thought another post would be a good idea. Specifically, I was considering recently about how rituals and ceremonies influence the ways in which we think and feel.
Pascal Boyer, a cultural anthropologist has these thoughts to say about ritual in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (emphasis in original):
…a lot of human culture consists of salient cognitive gadgets that have a great attention-grabbing power and high relevance for human minds as a side effect of these minds’ being organized the way they are. (p.235)
…rituals are organized in such a way that they give a particular shape and tenor to people’s notions of supernatural agents and make more plausible the gods’ involvement in their existence. (p. 237)
Why does it seem obvious that performing particular actions in a prescribed, rigid manner will have particular effects – for example, creating a new family or turning boys into men? We might think that there is a simple solution, which is that everyone around believes that rituals have such effects, so that in the end they do have the effects… But there is a problem here, which is to explain why this belief is convincing at all, and why it always focuses on rituals. (p.253)
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… So the illusion that the ritual is actually indispensable to its effects, although untrue if you consider human societies in general, becomes quite real for the people concerned, as their choice is between going through the actions prescribed – which seems to confirm that the rituals are a sine qua non – or defecting from cooperation with other members of the group, which is not really an option in most groups. (p.255)
That makes a lot of sense to me, and I agree that religious rituals perform those functions. I would only modify it to describe all rituals. There are a great number of rituals and ceremonies that our society performs that are secular (e.g., graduations, civil weddings). Often these do involve references to the dominant local religion, but they are secular nonetheless. This makes me think that rituals aren’t actually a part of religion per se.
And indeed, this will be the case for me and my fiancée – we will symbolically consecrate our relationship, and though nothing will actually physically change, our relationship will progress because our cognitive makeup convinces us that this ceremony has a real effect, as rational as I/we may claim to be.