Why do theists seem to require ceremonies and yet atheists seem to have no need of them? Similarly, most theists seem to join a church or have a community while atheists are not exactly clamouring to organise themselves. Humanist and similar organisations do not appear to receive the support that we might expect from the proportion of humanists, free-thinkers and other non-religious people in the population.
Perhaps the non-religious just aren’t interested on organising, After all they don’t feel the need to worship anything.
However, Steven Pinker offers an interesting explanation involving the role of ceremony in religion. In a seminar at Harvard University in 2003 Pinker discussed the science of religion with Richard Dawkins and Keith Rose (here is an mp3 file of the seminar). He suggested that religion uses ceremony to reinforce belief and solidarity within the community.
Reinforcing faith and solidarity
Religious beliefs are inherently unable to be either falsified or verified. Consequently belief cannot be reinforced by experiment or factual information. Many beliefs are counterintuitive in the modern world. Pinker suggests that religious ceremonies reinforce belief (provide faith) by the public avowal of the belief. Publicly sharing these beliefs also reinforces group solidarity.
Ceremonies often involve procedures which submit the individual to the group. Techniques such as bowing, standing and sitting, prayer and singing in unison reinforce the congregation as an entity rather than a collection of indivduals.
I think there is something in this – not just for religions. I have seen similar behaviors in political groups where these techniques also seem to be aimed at reinforcing (often irrational) beliefs, creating solidarity and encouraging submission of the individual. Often groups will use procedures and language whcih take advantage of the inherent kin or family solidarity of our species. Terms like comrade, brother, brotherhood, brethren, our Father, sisterhood, etc.
Pinker makes the point that humans don’t require ceremony or special language to perform natural acts, or to hold rational beliefs. Such ceremonies seem to be important only when irrational beliefs, or special sacrifice beyond that natural within a family, are required.
Perhaps the lack of ceremony common to the non-religious is the natural condition!
Tanner Lectures: The Science of Religion and the Religion of Science
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett
Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer
Audio files for the lectures and seminars:
Richard Dawkins – The Science of Religion – Part 1 (1:02:05, 28.5 MB)
Richard Dawkins – The Science of Religion – Part 2 (35:35, 16.3 MB)
Richard Dawkins – The Religion of Science – Part 1 (54:07, 24.8 MB)
Richard Dawkins – The Religion of Science – Part 2 (35:36, 16.3 MB)
Seminar with Dawkins, Pinker, DeRose – Part 1 (1:00:01, 27.5 MB)
Seminar with Dawkins, Pinker, DeRose – Part 2 (57:30, 26.4 MB)