Are ceremonies important to religions?

Steven Pinker

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 seminarΒ  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!

See also:
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)

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11 responses to “Are ceremonies important to religions?

  1. The point that Pinker makes seems to me to have been generally accepted since Durkheim’s account of religion as a means of strengthening social cohesion. It seems to me that ceremonies are the norm for all social groups, religious or not, and typically they do involve elements in which all the participants behave in the same way, strengthening the feeling of connectedness. Consider school assemblies, sports games or even academic conferences. Consider also the very simple practice of everyone clapping together. At the same time, the conclusion that the lack of ceremony is the natural condition does not follow from the premises (that it ‘might be’ the natural condition does follow but trivially so). First of all, one has to ask “The natural condition in what kind of environment?” Human behaviour changes fairly flexibly depending upon the environment so that it is very dangerous to talk about the natural condition. This becomes doubly problematic with questions that involve the social environment, given cultural evolution. Secondly, the claim implicitly assumes that religious belief is not natural. Otherwise, the question of whether it is natural for humans (not forgetting my worry about that idea in general) not to have religious beliefs must be dealt prior to the question of whether it is natural for humans not to have ceremony. Having said all that, I would shocked to find out that ceremonies is something that human communities can easily do without – the closest interpretation of the claim Ken raises that I am relatively happy to consider. Still, the possibility of such communities seems to me to grow with the opening up of new technological means of communication and social organisation.


  2. Perhaps the lack of ceremony common to the non-religious is the natural condition!

    I love the over-generalisation.

    What you’re implying is that what the MAJORITY of humanity engages in is not “natural” and that somehow, the world’s minority (a recent development) are the only ones engaged in “natural” humanity.

    You’re implying that there is something wrong (unnatural) with the majority of humanity that exists and has existed up until this point.

    …and theists get labeled as being exclusivist… sheesh.

    If we’re going to follow this through, wouldn’t the evidence point the other way… that not engaging in ceremony of some sort, a practice common to humanity since the explosion of the human mind, is actually unnatural (if we are going to label anything as such) since the majority of humanity has engaged in such practices for so long?


  3. Couple of thoughts:
    1. This seems overly polemical to me. It seems that you feel that all ceremony is unnecessary (like a hindrance to true, natural human-ness). It’s one thing to point out specific forms of ceremony that can be and/or are harmful, but to generalise all ceremony this way is overly polemical.

    2. As Konrad well points out, we humans are more ceremoninous than we realise. Clapping (his example), eating at a table with knife and fork with others, waving to our neighbour, being quiet in a library, being quiet during a ‘genuine karakia’, etc. πŸ˜‰

    Interestingly, I’ve attended a meeting at the NZ Rationalists and Humanists association, and apart from there being no communal singing, the basic format of the meeting (announcments, introduction, speaker, wrap-up) was not unlike many a church gathering I’ve been to. πŸ™‚

    As one who participates regularly in religious ceremony, I can appreciate the positive aspects of some ceremonies, and the negative aspects of others. Indeed, there is something wonderful about larger gatherings of people singing together. But for me, some of the most meaningful ‘ceremonies’ have been honest sharing over a cuppa in a quiet corner of a cafe or over a meal in someone’s home.


  4. They say one should go for controversy in blog posts to encourage debate! However, my flippant final sentence “Perhaps ..” has diverted attention away from the point of the post – Pinker’s description of ceremony as a way of reinforcing belief – particularly where beliefs cannot be falsified or verified.

    I found this enlightening because of my own experience in socialist, peace and union groups (not religious groups as I’ve never belonged to these). I can now see how ceremony, songs, honorifics, etc., reinforced beliefs which were not always rational (able to be verified). That experience is one reason why, these days, I prefer not to join organisations or participate in such ceremony as I feel they sometimes inhibit clear and rational thinking about issues. I would certainly be turned off by an atheist organisation which used ceremony in this way.

    So Pinkers presentation resonated with me and I can see how they also apply to religions. Similar ceremonies are also involved in promoting nationalism (which can be dangerous), monarchy and militarism.

    That said – of course ceremony is natural. That doesn’t stop it being dangerous at times.

    It’s certainly true that ceremony is rarely used in science to reinforce belief/knowledge. Most scientists would reject the very idea as it would subvert the role of evidence and reason. It would also inhibit the ability to change ideas, beliefs and theory which is so essential to the scientific process.

    I certainly feel no need to participate in ceremony, or organisations, as a way of reinforcing my atheist or scientific beliefs/knowledge. I feel these rest, or fall, on evidence and reason. I can respond to ceremonies involving national pride – and that worries me at times.


  5. Hitler’s rallies (to draw on the lowest common denominator πŸ™‚ ) is certainly a fine example of your point in action.

    He used ceremony and the way in which it can shape the mind, to its extreme.


  6. Actually I find this articles assumptions not too dissimilar from the common misconceptions about the theory of evolution.

    Many people put evolution back to front. eg. thinking that we grew opposable thumbs SO that we could better pick up objects, rather than we can more easily pick up objects BECAUSE we grew opposable thumbs.

    In this article Pinker insinuates an un-falsifiable situation where the reason that churches hold ceremonies is to purposefully gain power over their subjects.

    However, surely the religions/groups who developed ceremony simply survive over others due to their ability to drum up support and solidarity, much like the finch with a beak able to crush seeds.

    But regardless of which is the chicken and which is the egg, I’ll have to agree with Ken that ceremony is most definitely a dangerous beast.


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  8. Funny, Whalecurry, I didn’t take that particular message from Pinker’s talk. But I do agree that the concept of evolution is often used in this way. Evolutionary psychology seems to be rife with this approach – particularity as many hypotheses in this field just have no way of being tested. I guess we just have to keep that in mind and recognise the limitation of many of these ideas.


  9. One of the most provocative examinations of religious ceromonies I’ve found is from a video clip called “Derren Brown ‘instant conversion’. The idea of all the chanting, hypnotic music and incence creating a suggestable state of mind was a powerful one.
    Check it out.


  10. Thanks Cedric. I had seen that video that these clips are from. The video Derren Brown “instant conversion” (explained) helps explain what is happening.

    These are the sort of things which must go on in the more charismatic religious ceremonies and preaching. I think Pinker is referring to the more standard ceremony though where there is no conscious attempt at using hypnotic techniques but the ceremony itself still reinforces irrational belief.


  11. Pingback: The Science of Religion and the Religion of Science | Critical Science

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