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.