I believe certain kinds of religious ritual can, paradoxically, stifle spirituality.
I would argue that sitting through long, wafer-bland sermons, suffering through the bureaucracy of a religious meal, or the monotonous kinesthetic of religious services, or the inanely repetitive praising of the chosen deity, can be the antithesis of spirituality.
Why? Because they’re intensely boring. And the nature of spiritual experience, as I understand it, is emotive. It should move you.
The Mummification of Religious Ritual
Much of traditional religious praxis has the potential to be emotionally vivifying, but it’s become ossified by tradition, dogma, and symbolic ritual that has nothing to do with enlivening the human spirit.
There are several reasons why this is the case.
Religious rituals are characterized by what’s called causal opacity, a term which describes the idea that there is a disconnect between the steps one takes in a ritual and their causal effect.
For example, it’s not explicitly clear why sprinkling water on the ground and walking three times around the statue and bowing three times will make it rain on Wednesday, or why it’s necessary to kiss a mezuzah on the entrance of the door when entering or leaving (Jewish explanations vary). On the other hand, the ritual of rubbing our feet on a doormat before entering a house is very clear in its causal effect: if we didn’t, we’d track dirt and mud inside.
But the steps are retained precisely because of their causal nonsensicality: when we don’t know what elements of a process or recipe are necessary and which are not, we tend to imitate and repeat even the smallest details blindly without understanding which component actually has the desired effect.
I believe the accumulation of nonsensical traditions contributes to the ossification of traditional religious practice. It removes the emphasis on emotion and becomes just a compulsory repetition of steps passed down through generations that purportedly keep one from damnation, or bring on good fortune. Ritual becomes a cross-generational habit, a superstitious exercise, and thereby loses what I believe to be the most valuable and most “real” part of the religious enterprise: its rejuvenating emotional powers.
Religions Can Have Fun Too
To be fair religions aren’t exactly mummies.
Even though many religious believe themselves to retain the traditions of the original leader or scripture, they’ve changed and adapted in endless variations. These variations sometimes lead to wildly contradictory or unexpected doctrines like the Christian prosperity theology—a belief that those who are rich and wealthy on Earth only achieved their success by the grace of God, and therefor are most holy than the average person. (The bones of Jesus, the socialist, are rolling over in their dessert grave right now.)
Religious rituals similarly morph and there are periodic religious revivalist movements that attempt to resuscitate spontaneity and emotion in old rituals and traditions.
One example is the period in 1730-40 called Great Awakening in Christianity where religious fervor sharply increased in Britain and its US colonies and emotional preaching and reports of mystical experiences became much more prevalent.
Another example is the development of the Hassidic movement in Judaism around the same time (early-mid 1700s) where in supplement to traditional rabbinic study Judaism was enlivened by special emphasis was put on joy, singing, clapping, and dancing.
A more modern example includes a small sect of Hasidic Jews called the Na Nach drive around Israel in vans, playing rave music and dancing in traffic, on trucks, and sometimes on Israeli tanks.
Religion, what is it good for? (Less and less.)
Another qualification that’s important to make: religious rituals aren’t entirely about emotion. Emotion is a part but not a essential and necessary part of what constitutes ritual action.
Ritual also serves the function of reducing anxiety—people pray much more often when there’s cancer in the lungs or war on the horizon, not when gumdrops are falling from the sky.Ritual is also about constructing and reinforcing group identity—Durkheim’s 1915 work “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,” emphasized the role of ritual in strengthening group cohesion.
Emotion can be used to better bond the group such as in costly or painful rituals, but it’s not necessarily an end in itself.
But in countries that are undergoing the process of secularization, religion’s role is changing.
While it was initially useful for social cohesion, as a heuristic marker of uprightness in financial dealings, as a social safety net for the poor and disabled, as a way to enforce law and order, as a bulwark of education, and as a guide for marriage, birth, death, and other major life events.
Now, some countries are developing secular, civil, and cultural institutions that provide many of the same things that religion once did.
For a sense of ecstasy and social cohesion we have sports teams to cheer for and play on. We have institutions that track our credit score and fiscal trustworthiness and government assistance for the disabled or impoverished. We have judicial systems to deal with law and order, secular education, and procedures for marriage, birth, death that can (if people so choose) keep any sort of priest out of the picture.
This secularization doesn’t mean that religion is necessarily on the cusp of collapse as many have been predicting for hundreds of years. In fact, many prominent thinkers have jumped-the-gun on pronouncing the death knell of religion (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Nietzsche, I’m looking at you).
God Ain’t Dead. Not By a Long Shot
In the 21st century God is still not dead. Jesus, Brahman, the deified Buddha, Allah, YHWH, and other deities are very much alive in the hearts and minds of people across the world.
But there is a change underway. And the change is perhaps most prominent in my own generation: namely, in the apparent existence of a sizeable and visible nonbelieving population (i.e., the “Nones”). Organized atheism is just the sharpest, loudest tip of the nonbelievers’ iceberg. Though according to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, atheists made up only 3.1% of the 22.8% of the American population did not identify with a religion.
The question that interests me is this: as the relevance of religion wanes, it still holds an almost unchallenged position as the body of knowledge and social structure that shows a person how to live life with spiritual vibrancy. Philosophy deals with many of the same questions, but there aren’t philosophical schools like there were in ancient Greece, where you went not just to learn how to become an epicurean, a cynic, a stoic, a Platonist, an Aristotelean, or a skeptic, but also committed yourself to living those philosophies in practice.
I believe there needs to be a new wave of spiritual philosophies to replace the old, traditions that strive to avoid the dogmas and rigidities of religious systems, but destroying the old religious traditions is neither advisable nor possible. Rather, they need to be out-competed by something better .
Many of the reasons people stay with and are drawn to religion has nothing to do with logic, it is emotional. So rather than trying to beat down religion with an angry bludgeoning or dissect religion with the scalpel of rationalism, atheism would do better to find ways to provide people with the same things that religion provides—sense of purpose, a sense of ethics, a sense of community—all of that a human being needs to thrive, but do it better.
One arena ripe for this kind of alternative is spiritual praxis.
Instead of imitating the yawn-inspiring, causally opaque, and tedious superstitious traditions of the past, new spiritual praxis has the opportunity to be transparent and self-aware about its aims and its methods: to evoke tranquility, joy, tears, a sense of union with others, a conviction of life’s value, or first-hand evidence in the existence of true beauty.
And in upcoming articles, I plan to explore ancient traditions, emerging methods, and wholly novel ideas for spiritual praxis that may be able to do just that.*