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Ritual and Religion

The Japanese are among the least religious people on the planet–even less religious than Scandinavians.  Yet, when a child is born in Japan, the parents will more than likely dress up in formal kimonos and take the baby to the local shrine to be blessed by a Shinto priest.   Marriages, on the other hand, frequently take place in wedding chapels that look like churches, complete with a pseudo-Christian marriage ceremony, while funerals are almost always conducted by a Buddhist priest.  And there are other widely observed rituals as well, such as the holiday, “Seijinnohi” which marks the passage to adulthood for young people.Of course other cultures around the have analogous rituals.  The former East Germany instituted a Communist rite for young people to compete with the Christian confirmation ceremony.

The universality of ceremonies and rites of passage suggests that the need for ritual predates religion.  Indeed, burial sites from other hominid species such as homo habilis show evidence of ritual behavior.  Religions clearly did not create their ceremonies and sacraments by divine decree;  they merely tapped into a market for ritual that was already there. 

Take baptism (or christening) for example.   Very few people probably think that baptism has anything at all to do with the salvation of a baby, even though that’s the party line.  There is simply an understandable and universal impulse to express joy and gratitude over the gift of new life.  The particular theology surrounding the rite is ancillary.

The need for rituals, ceremonies and rites of passage is probably so deeply engrained in us as a species, that we’ll never get rid of it, even if most of humanity eventually becomes non-theistic.  This is just part of who we are.   Western Europeans mostly don’t go to church and don’t believe in God any more, but they still like Christmas as much as anybody.

So we probably don’t have to worry that the Jehovah’s Witnesses will ever take over the world.  Their hostility towards birthdays and other holidays is a fundamental denial of human nature.   That’s no fun.

Oh, and for the record,  I would love to see Darwin Day (February 12) added to the mix of holidays.

  1. adtz
    April 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    There are many things we humans do that don’t make any sense at the individual level. Why on earth get married or have children? Doesn’t make any logical sense. Ritual seems to go along with these sort of concept. I think ritual is a way of linking the individual to the larger community. Marriage is not ‘just a piece of paper’ or ‘a religious imperative’. It is a way of telling socieity that two people have a formal relationship and looking for societal support for it. Relationships are *hard* (and fun) and any support that can be had is helpful.

  2. April 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Perhaps a better title would be “Ritual WITHOUT Religion”…?

  3. adtz
    May 3, 2012 at 3:08 am

    The Agnostic’s Prayer by Roger Zelazny:

    Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

  4. C. John Stutzer
    May 5, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    “I am a rock, I am an island”. Paul Simon used that line to underscore that we are in fact, not rocks or islands.

    Joseph Campbell spent his life researching and demonstrating the need and commonality of all Myth.

    We Humans need each other. We needs some way to celebrate in common the very joy of being alive and a part of this amazing planet and universe.

    The 21st century has not brought us a new myth we can all subscribe to, and I believe the US of A is the most fractured and isolated nation of individuals on the planet.

    Long dissertations and inquiries may fill the ether of the individual while he/she is on a long road trip, but here in America, nothing comes close to the effect that takes place when the guy says “Gentlemen, start your engines”. At that very moment, tens of thousands stop being separate individuals, and join the group and all become the “One”.

    It just doesn’t translate very well for funerals, weddings and finding out your spouse is cheating on you. That is why we still need pastors to Shepard the flock. People still attend church in spite of the dogma, not because of it.

    This is so rude and brutal on my part, but Pastors are deluded if they think that folks attend their place of worship because of their minister’s doctrine, oratory or bedside manner.

    We attend, because we need each other – pastor included.

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