Why We Should be Cultivating Ritual, Not Piety
Over at the new Patheos blog, Science on Religion, Connor Wood poses the no longer rhetorical question: “Does religion make us moral?” He presents this question in order to highlight the implications raised by the recent publication of Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who as Connor notes is an atheist:
It might seem surprising, then, that Bloom has recently published a paper in the Annual Review of Psychology detailing, in part, all the good that religion can do. Religion, Bloom points out, does actually seem to make people more altruistic and generous. Religious people give more to charities than non-religious people, including secular charities. And IRS tax receipts show that states where people are more religious have much higher rates of charitable giving than less religious states. Meanwhile, lab experiments show that participating in religious rituals primes people to be more generous and caring toward one another.
The benefits of religion don’t stop there. Actively religious people are much more likely to say they are “very happy” with their lives than their secular counterparts, according to a 2004 study cited by Bloom. And non-religious people are proportionately more like to express that they feel like failures.
But as always – at least when it comes to religion – the positives are balanced nearly evenly by the negatives, and this is Bloom’s point. For example, religious participation also often inspires people to be prejudiced against outsiders and minorities. In a 1950s study, the psychologist Gordon Allport showed that religious people were much more prejudiced against minority groups and foreigners than non-religious people. And in perhaps the most disconcerting study cited by Bloom, a research team recently found that exposing subjects to religiously themed words actually increased their levels of prejudice against African-Americans.
What’s more, according to Wood, Bloom argues that “the moral effects of religion, both good and bad, are predicted by what sorts of religious behaviors people partake in, not whether or not they believe in God or an afterlife.” This fits into Bloom’s theory that religion is a “tool” through which human groups encourage collectively beneficial behaviors from their members. For instance, according to Wood, Bloom considers ritual participation so costly that group members who participate will be more likely “to stay involved and contribute economic and social resources to the group.”
Is Bloom’s theory of religion as an adaptive tool for social cohesion correct? I’m not sure about the details, but I do know that as Wood also tells us, “[t]hese findings back up a growing chorus of scholars in the religious studies world who insist that religion is essentially about action, not abstract beliefs and propositions.” For instance Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s meta-analysis of segments of the American religious landscape, American Grace, also shows that correlations found between pro-social behavior and religion hinge upon participation in religious activities, and not personal piety.
But that’s not all. Recent work in ritual theory, like Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puet and Bennet Simon’s Ritual and It’s Consequences also establishes a link between ritual participation and the development of empathy. I’m sure Seligman et al would be quite interested in the “lab experiments [that] show that participating in religious rituals primes people to be more generous and caring toward one another.” Yet these authors also suggest that such effects are not contingent on the “religious” nature of ritual. I wonder if Bloom might not agree with that as well. After all “abstract beliefs and propositions” would remain vital to the pro-social benefits of religion if removing them from a given ritual practice renders the practice ineffective.
I wonder also what these findings imply more broadly to our present (Western) age where church attendance figures continue to drop, general disaffiliation continues to rise, and religion is seen more and more as a “private” enterprise. Are we, as Seligman et al suggest in their book (which is worth a thorough read), living in an age of “sincerity” (as opposed to “ritual”) and is that a detriment to our collective human enterprise? If it means less empathy and less pro-social behavior then quite possibly yes, though not all is gloom and doom if you ask me. Continued religious disaffiliation and participatory apathy might decrease collective religious behavior, but it doesn’t have to translate into a total abandonment of ritual or the complete loss of its benefits.
As I’ve highlighted here before, even irreligious groups, like secular humanist associations, are currently working towards reinvigorating modern life with ritual practice and collective participation. In fact, as Seligman et al (and many others) point out, the dominant strands of religion in the West have come out of a Protestant tradition that has always been suspicious of ritual, emphasizing personal piety instead and personal piety, as Bloom tells us, is not paving the road to social well-being. So perhaps the answer to salvaging ritual and its benefits doesn’t lie in religion anyway, at least not in religion as we commonly profess it in the contemporary West. So where does it lie then? Who will become the ritual entrepreneurs of late modernity? One can only hope that answers to these questions are on the horizon and that researchers seeking to answer them are also looking beyond the “religion” box that might otherwise confine their view.