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.