Flynn begins by considering the function of collective ritual in religious congregations. He notes that such practices (although he is unhelpfully unspecific regarding which ones, only vaguely mentioning “touching, swaying, singing, and the rest”) “promote physical responses such as endorphin release, suffusing participants with a sense of well-being and, coincidentally, a heightened pain threshold. They create a feeling of solidarity and personal closeness—a sense that together the community can accomplish great things.” These might seem in-themselves good reasons to engage in ritual collective practice. However, he then offers a quote from Alan Greenspan to explain (explain away?) such benefits: they are examples of “irrational exuberance”. Ritual may be effective, Flynn avers, but its effectiveness is built on a lie: the community isn’t really that close, the people’s circumstances don’t truly justify their sense of well-being, and the local solidarity created by ritual is purchased at the expense of the global solidarity humanists seek in any case. We should fling aside such well-worn crutches, Flynn argues, and look reality squarely in the face. Case closed.
Two things are remarkable to this rationalist about the case offered here: first, Flynn begins and ends by examining “the function [ritual] serves in religious congregations”, without considering the functions ritual serves in any nonreligious settings; and second that no evidence or reasons are presented to accept Flynn’s view that the sense of wellbeing and solidarity created by collective ritual are in fact false.
The first problem is damning because there is no reason to believe that ritual serves precisely the same purposes in secular settings as it does in religious settings. If one of our strongest criticisms of religion is that it is based on demonstrably false beliefs then, obviously, rituals used in such settings to reinforce such beliefs will be objectionable. But consider the graduation ceremony: can we so clearly dismiss such a ritual practice on the same basis? Or might we recognize that the rituals associated with graduation actually point to something true and valuable, and therefore function in a way which is significantly different to religious ritual? More on this below.
The second problem is more damaging: Flynn simply asserts that the positive physical, psychological and social effects of ritual have a false foundation and, in so doing, assumes what he set out to prove (that collective ritual practice erodes rationality). But it seems obvious that this needn’t, in principle, be the case. Collective ritual could instead reveal to the participants the solidarity that truly does exist between them, for example (such as when sports teams use rituals developed from previous experience playing together to remind themselves of past victories). It could focus our mind on reasons for a sense of wellbeing that we tend to overlook. Ritual could, in helping engender a sense of solidarity and wellbeing, actually generate the very grounds for bonhomie that Flynn calls (without justification) “ungrounded”: it makes perfect sense to reply, in response to the question “Why is your community so close and happy?”, “Because we engage in regular collective rituals which make us so!” So there are many other ways of viewing ritual which do not succumb to Flynn’s critique, and he gives us no reason to prefer his view.
Further, Flynn’s assumption that the solidarity ritual might promote works against efforts to develop a more global sense of solidarity with humanity is flawed. As Kwame Anthony Appiah notes in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, it could well be that global solidarity must begin at home, close relationships with our own relatives and tribes providing the security to reach out to other people. In order to learn to love the world, we must first learn to love our mother.
I’ve also written some things on the pros and cons of rituals in my posts, Sex and Spirituality, The Dangers of Religion Itself, and Answering Greta: My Goals as an Atheist Writer. Several months ago on Camels With Hammers Eric Steinhart explored potential uses of numerous Wiccan symbols and rituals for atheists. A full list of those blog posts can be found at the end of his post introducing the series.