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“Rituals are the glue that holds social groups together.”
April 23, 2013 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Social Evolution - The Ritual Animal "Praying, fighting, dancing, chanting — human rituals could illuminate the growth of community and the origins of civilization."
Legare presented Brazilians with a variety of simpatias, and found that people judged them as more effective when they involved a large number of repetitive procedural steps that must be performed at a specific time and in the presence of religious icons. “We're built to learn from others,” she says, which leads us to repeat actions that seemed to work for someone else — “even if we don't understand how they produce the desired outcomes”.
Human Rites: "Rituals bind us, in modern societies and prehistoric tribes alike. But can our loyalties stretch to all of humankind?"
Human populations living side-by-side tend to have a lot in common. They adopt the same basic techniques of production, use similar tools and natural resources, live in similar kinds of houses and so on. At the level of practical affairs, there might be little to tell them apart. However, their rituals are a different story altogether. Arbitrary conventions on how to achieve certain goals — placate the gods, or ensure an adequate crop — can assume any pattern: in straightforward physical terms, they don’t actually have to do anything. And yet they are far from impotent. Indeed, in social terms they can have very significant effects. To start with, they serve as admirable group markers precisely because they are of no use to those outside the group. And they don’t just demarcate people. Rituals also bind them together. How? And how far can they stretch?
via Overcoming Bias: Farmer's New Rituals

The University of Oxford's Institute Of Cognitive And Evolutionary Anthropology's Ritual, Community & Conflict Project.

Markets, Community Size, And The Evolution Of Fairness And Punishment (PDF)
These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.
The Adaptive Value Of Religious Ritual (PDF)
Religion has probably always served to enhance the union of its practitioners; unfortunately, there is also a dark side to this unity. If
the intragroup solidarity that religion promotes is one of its significant adaptive benefits, then from its beginning religion has probably always played a role in intergroup conflicts. In other words, one of the benefits for individuals of intragroup solidarity is the ability of unified groups to defend and compete against other groups.

The Glue That Binds
Ritual Is Power
The Primacy Of Ritual Over Language
Emile Durkheim: religion – the very idea, part 1: the analysis of moral life "Durkheim's work on the sacred offers a starting point for a public language for thinking about the moral basis for society"
posted by the man of twists and turns (11 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
good collection of articles. Gets beyond dualistic theist/anti-theist sensibilities to articulate the empirical challenges of religious activity.
posted by john wilkins at 9:05 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I’ve just finished doing research for somebody about this sort of thing, specifically on the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his book The Righteous Mind (2012), in which he writes a lot about Durkheim.

In the book Haidt says, “Many scientists misunderstand religion because they… examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices. They conclude that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims.” (p. 248)

“Gods (like maypoles) are tools that let people bind themselves together as a community by circling around them. Once bound together by circling, these communities can function more effectively. As [David Sloan] Wilson puts it: ‘Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.’” (p. 262)

“If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it… We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about. And with a few adjustments, it’s what politics is about too.” (p. 272-273)

Haidt has been talking about this stuff at three TED conferences now, and also with Bill Moyers.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:43 PM on April 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


Too much here to process quickly, but it looks like an interesting bit of reading. I was just watching a Nature episode about how plants socialize. So it was cool to find this next.

My first thought when reading through the FPP text was, what is ritual but a way to collect, store, and pass on information? Ritual is the long term memory of the social brain. So art, then, would be the social brain dreaming. And MetaFilter would be group therapy.

I'm guessing though that when I finally get through all the articles I'll find out that I'm totally off base. So maybe MetaFilter is really more like an older sibling. It exists primarily to lie to you half the time and to tell you that you're wrong all the time, and to never, ever let on which is which. A ritual everyone can believe in.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:47 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Conversely, afaik all improvements in human ethics have come from movement towards moral universalism, which means interpreting ethics more equality to "all similarly situated individuals". In other words, moral progress occurs through objectivity about individual differences eliminating the justifications for treating them differently and eroding the fallacious is-ought dilema.

To do this, we must discard or reinterpret precisely the old rituals that define cultures whenever they lay claim on morality. Bonus : Conservative MP David Morris courts BNP voters by complaining about moral universalism.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:26 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


““Many scientists misunderstand religion because they… examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices. They conclude that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims.” (p. 248)

Gods (like maypoles) are tools that let people bind themselves together as a community by circling around them. Once bound together by circling, these communities can function more effectively. As [David Sloan] Wilson puts it: ‘Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.’” (p. 262)


Complete strawman. I've never heard anyone dispute this. In fact, it's typically atheists who argue that religion is simply a partially-vestigial group binding mechanism, while theists object to sociological explanations to their knowledge of divine revelation.

The "stunning" concept that religion acts as a in-group identifier doesn't mean that religion isn't "an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims.” The same group binding can be done with far less social harm. Everyone would be better off if religion was totally replaced by civic boosterism or baseball.
posted by spaltavian at 5:26 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Conversely, afaik all improvements in human ethics have come from movement towards moral universalism
p cool, cultural imperialism is fine as long as it's the right culture and the right empire
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:16 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


In the book Haidt says, “Many scientists misunderstand religion because they… examine only what is most visible. They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices. They conclude that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims.” (p. 248)

Rituals are most visible, however. And then we have levels of education to consider and the widespread belief that rituals are going to enrich, cure, save, or otherwise enhance the individual, not the group. Sooner or later money and property changes hands.

On a quaint level of justification, it's always nice to see a community building that people can get married and have funerals in, attended by a humble parish gardener who has no time for a wife, perhaps. But those corner churches soon became cornerstones of political might and power, and rituals bonded the person to the throne, secular and religious, not necessarily to anyone else unless they also submitted. And all those priests and nuns, in whatever religion, have historically acted as doctors and nurses to spiritual ailments that were believed to cause disease or madness. It's major progress that we can even discuss these shortcomings without being abused.
posted by Brian B. at 7:26 AM on April 24, 2013


MeFi's own cstross on The Anthropic Stupidity Hypothesis
Why is the human species only as intelligent as it is, and not more so? ...
[Language!]
Because of this ability, we don't have to invent everything for ourselves, individually; we can borrow one anothers' good ideas. So we only need to be smart enough to understand and use the cognitive tools created by our most intelligent outliers.

Let me re-formulate that hypothesis: The evolutionary pressure selecting for general intelligence (to the extent that general intelligence exists) breaks once a species develops language.

And a logical corollary of this hypothesis is that we are only just smart enough, on average, to be capable of horizontal transfer of memes. Once language and culture arrived (note specialized usage of term 'culture'), we didn't need to get any smarter: we could "borrow" from one another. Therefore we're only just smart enough to do this.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:16 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ritualism doesn't exist without some content that is being ritualized, ie, idealized, whether that be the tribe, the clan, the god, the nation, the race or the class. The only way to prevent division is thus to ritualize at the highest level of generalization and abstraction. Hear, Israel: Being is our god, Being is One!
posted by No Robots at 8:54 AM on April 24, 2013


I really like some of the insights that Haidt makes in his book, but I don't really like how he interprets them by the conclusion...

Everyone would be better off if religion was totally replaced by civic boosterism or baseball.
Football hooliganism?
posted by ovvl at 7:06 PM on April 24, 2013


Hooliganism is a fraction of religion's violence without any of the sexual repression and theocratic pretensions. Better problem all around.
posted by spaltavian at 4:15 AM on April 25, 2013


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