A blog about (ir)religion, ritual and so on …

Re: Ritual. Why Be a Hater?

In the West we are for the most part ritual haters. Faithful Protestants hate ritual because that’s what Papists or pagans do, or maybe both (wink, wink). Faithful skeptics hate ritual because they fear the emotional responses it can evoke will override their rational faculties. But a vast majority of “enlightened” Westerners (religious and non-religious alike) hate ritual for a much more mundane reason–because they believe it is meaningless.

Just now I read a piece in Salon about the on-going court case in Massachusetts challenging the inclusion of “under God,” in the pledge of allegiance.  Two atheist parents are arguing that it excludes atheist children, many of whom are of course forced or pressured to recite it in school everyday. That’s a fair objection of course, and as the article points out the “under God” bit wasn’t even part of the original pledge. It was added at the dawn of the Cold War, to help reinforce American civil religion no doubt. The author of the article then questions why we have kids recite the pledge at all anymore:

Rote recitation, day in and day out, is ultimately meaningless. Ask any second-grader if she knows the meaning of “indivisible.” Ask a random adult, while you’re at it. The question shouldn’t be whether the phrase “under God” belongs in the Pledge; it should be whether the Pledge itself belongs. Does it really speak to or reassure the numerous non-believer kids out there, or the immigrant or dual citizenship kids? Does it teach any of them anything about loyalty or duty?

The rhetorical questions she asks about the actual pledging of allegiance, the daily civic ritual that many children are forced to undergo across the nation probably sound spot on to most. Do children actually understand the so called “meaning” of the activity, or even of all the words they recite? No they don’t, but I would propose that the very question only makes sense to the mundane sort of post-Enlightenment ritual haters mentioned above, and I think it’s quite telling that the author is one of them, despite being Catholic!

You see ritual isn’t really about “meaning,” but about action. It’s about doing things a certain way and usually along side of others. People thinking about ritual–those who want to move beyond the hater stage–would be much better off re-centering their understanding of ritual around efficacy as opposed to meaning. Was having children across the nation recite the pledge for the last 50 years efficacious in some way? Yes. It initiated and reinforced a basic sense of national belonging among many of our nation’s youth–a sense of national belonging that some of us don’t think was necessarily healthy, but nonetheless it did so effectively. After considering efficacy the non-hater might start to wonder why and so on. There is a rich literature on ritual, built up over centuries by anthropologists, psychologists, historians of religion, etc. which offers insight into these types of questions, but it requires getting over the hating first.* Ritual may seem (or even be) “meaningless” but that doesn’t make it powerless or ineffective, or unimportant to understand.

*For a holistic yet novel approach to the “work of ritual” I would suggest Seligman et. al’s Ritual and it’s Consequences.

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4 thoughts on “Re: Ritual. Why Be a Hater?

  1. What is your actual evidence of efficacy? Has anyone ever done a proper controlled study comparing pledgers vs non-pledgers and compared their levels of, say, nationalism or patriotism? What about a historical comparison although I am not sure how accurate historical measures would be…

    I understand the general point you are trying to make but I’m not so sure the pledge is the best example to use. I would say psychological dispositions, parental authoritarianism, conservatism, socialization, etc. would better explain the sort of group cohesion suggest than reciting the pledge.

    I admit I have not looked at the evidence you mention but I am naturally skeptical of many of the claims made by anthropology, and to a lesser extent social psychology. Human behaviour is difficult to study experimentally and often those fields are dominated by questionable theoretical paradigms. Martin Seligman had some original ideas in the 70s but Positive Psychology has gone off the rails of late and become the new orthodoxy.


    • I don’t think evidence of the efficacy of certain practices requires “proper controlled studies.” Take this very example for instance. What we know from the story is that the child feels excluded from the class and that the parents feel that their child is being discriminated against. Why? Because of what they assume the ritual accomplishes. You might say that they are wrong, but even so the ritual has accomplished something. In this case it has accomplished feelings of social exclusion for one child (even if it hasn’t accomplished group cohesion for the rest, but I would argue that it has to some extent). The effects of ritual are not always good. Not by a long shot, and I am not arguing that they are. I’m simply saying it’s not about meaning…it’s about efficacy, good or bad.

      There is also a growing literature in social and cognitive psychology that uses controlled experiments to test ritual efficacy if that is what you are looking for. A good place to start would be here (though I should say I often argue with the perspectives on the blog I’m linking because I find most controlled experiments limiting) –

      Lastly, I’m not sure if you mentioned Martin Seligman because of my book recommendation, but just to be clear they are different Seligmans. This one is Adam Seligman.

  2. Pingback: The Pledge of Allegiance and Interaction Ritual | milieuXmorass

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