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

Archive for the category “Ritual”

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.

Marriage in America: From “Civil” to “Secular?”

As I’ve pointed out in the past, marriage historians are quick to note that the American wedding was an ostensibly “civil” affair until well into the Victorian era. It is perhaps not surprising that the Puritans, who were strict Reformation anti-ritualists left wedding ceremonies to civil authorities. Protestants also did not believe that marriage was a sacrament; though of course that did not preclude the religious importance they placed on family arrangements formed around a legally married couple. As wedding historian Elizabeth Pleck points out even Catholics, for whom marriage was still a sacrament, usually had a civil ceremony to satisfy state authorities as well as a private religious ceremony in front of a priest. But why did Catholics need to perform both ceremonies?

It is my understanding that religious officials have had the power to solemnize marriages for quite some time. In fact the British Crown opened the field up to religious officials even prior to the Revolution. So why not just go to the priest? Perhaps because of what I quoted Tracy Fessenden about yesterday–the pervasiveness of an “unmarked Christianity” in American civil life. As we know it was de rigueur for the Protestant establishment to favor civil weddings, but to favor them for religious reasons. The civil wedding, in other words, was not “secular” in any contemporary sense of the term, but instead an extension of (and later survival of) the Puritan religious ethos that in Fessenden’s words not only required that the “difference of the religious per se be dissolved in the conduct of day to day life, but also that religious difference itself be constituted as a threat to that life.” The Catholic marriage rite would have been just such a threat and I suspect that this is why it was sectioned off from appropriate American civil life.

This means, I believe, that wedding historians are doing their readers a disservice by simply harping on the “civil” nature of early American marriage, as if those marriages stand in contrast to religious ones the way that civil marriages often do today. I would propose instead that the meaningful distinction between religious and “secular” weddings does not happen until the 19th century and even so does not come into wide application until the last few decades. Last year I found a news clipping from 1911 that ties the nonreligious values expressed by a civil wedding to secular identities, and as I’ve written elsewhere organized irreligious communities, like Secular Culture were practicing secular ceremonies, expressing nontheistic values, since their inception in the late 19th century. But these communities were small and rare, and for a vast majority of the nation the culturally normative practice of lavish church weddings took over the civil ceremony as consumerism motored on in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Flash forward to the last few decades and the notion of secular ceremonies being expressively and self-consciously nonreligious appears to be in full bloom. Today’s secular and religious marriage ceremonies are of course not usually very different in form and in fact they often express many of the same values about love, individuality, commitment, etc. Despite these similarities the self-conscious expression of difference in terms of religious content and nonreligious identity maintenance make today’s secular ceremonies starkly different from the “civil” ceremonies of pre-Victorian America.


Of course Fessenden would most likely put yesteryear’s civil and today’s secular ceremonies on the same trajectory since she sees our very version of “secularism” as an extension of American Protestantism. I want to be clear that I don’t disagree with this general assessment but I also think we can’t leave the story there. Contemporary nonreligious identities, and the practices that constitute and rejuvenate them, are more than just the inevitable telos of American Protestantism. Yes, these practices are heavily indebted to the trajectory Fessenden maps out, but they are also working against and/or away from it. In fact my dissertation navigates one of the many ways in which that very tension is playing out among disaffiliated Americans. Stay tuned to find out!

Atheists: Pope Francis Wants (to Work with) You!

As the Catholic News Service reports, Pope Francis delivered a homily this morning that went beyond ecumenism in affirming what appears to be a radical preference for works over faith.

“The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” he said. Some may ask, “‘Father, even the atheists?’ Them, too. Everyone.”

The commandment to do good and avoid evil is something that binds all human beings, he said, and it is “a beautiful path to peace.”

Noticing the good others do, affirming them and working with them promotes an encounter that is good for individuals and societies, he said. “Little by little we build that culture of encounter that we need so much.”

Someone can object, “‘But I don’t believe, Father, I’m an atheist.’ But do good and we’ll meet there,” he said.

While it was always clear that Francis, a Jesuit, was a proponent of the social gospel, reaching out directly to unbelievers like this in order to find common ground in good deeds is rare to say the least. Where will it lead? Is the Church ready for a sustained interfaith dialogue with groups that share it’s justice aims no matter how sincere those individuals may be in their unbelief? I’m willing to wait and see…

Marriage Law, Agents of the State, and the Ministerial Exception

On Monday, October 22nd the US District Court in Indiana will start hearing arguments in the case of Center for Inquiry, Inc., et al. v Clerk, Marion Circuit Court, et al. which I wrote about this spring. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) seeks to have their own “celebrants” added to the list of religious and civil officials recognized by the state of Indiana as agents empowered to solemnize marriages. I don’t want to rehash my initial reflections on the lawsuit at this time although I primise to follow the case and write more about it as the arguments proceed. Instead I want to use this opportunity to reflect on one small point I made in the comment section after the post:

Consider the fact that the Supreme Court has unanimously decided, in Hosanna-Tabor, that the federal government cannot mess with the hiring, firing (and clearly training) practices of religious institutions when it comes to their religious leaders. This means, ironically, that the state has no say in the hiring, firing or training of some of its own representatives when it comes to solemnizing marriages.

For those who are not familiar with the Hosanna-Tabor case, the important bit to us here is that it was the first time the Supreme Court officially recognized something called the “ministerial exception” as a legal doctrine dictating how the First Amendment protects religious institutions in their hiring and firing practices. Here’s how Peter Schmidt put it in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

On the question of whether the ministerial exception applied to discrimination lawsuits, however, the justices were emphatic in stating their view that interfering with a church’s ability to hire or fire those it regards as ministers violates two clauses of the First Amendment: the free-exercise clause, which, they said, “protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments,” and the establishment clause, which prohibits government involvement in such religious decisions.

In other words Hosanna-Tabor solidified the fact that religious institutions have autonomy over the hiring and firing (and of course training) practices of those officials that minister their faith. So what does that mean to marriage law?

Every state in the Union grants agency to the very same persons (who are charged with ministering their faiths) as state actors who may solemnize marriages. That means solemnizing the civil institution of marriage as an agent of the state, not the religious institution of marriage, which the state has no control over (nor should it control the religious institution of marriage). So in other words the state has no control over the hiring, firing (and of course training) of some of it’s own representatives. So why does that matter?

It matters because it exposes one way in which our political system propagates an illogical, and quite frankly contradictory, structural relationship between marriage and religion. It’s no surprise to me that religious arguments against same-sex marriage, for instance, persist with such force in the public sphere despite the fact that legal marriage is an ostensibly civil institution. They persist because even the state presents the institution of marriage as something not quite free of religious control. What would happen to such arguments (e.g. religious arguments against same-sex marriage) if we disentangle this relationship and establish marriage as a truly civil institution? Perhaps pushing the Hosanna-Tabor decision, and the “ministerial exception” to it’s logical extreme in relation to the solemnization of marriage would force the courts to recognize this contradiction and take steps to clarify the truly civil nature of marriage once and for all. It’s a thought…

Catholicism, Modernity and Ritual Exclusion

While trying to decipher the difference between a funeral “eulogy” and what the Catholic Church calls “speaking in remembrance of the dead” I came across a news story from this past February about a lesbian woman who was denied communion at her own mother’s funeral. Here’s the gist of it:

As her elderly mother was dying, Barbara Johnson lay next to her on the hospital bed, reciting the “Hail Mary.” Loetta Johnson, 85, had been a devout Catholic, raising her four children in the church and sending them to Catholic schools.

At her mother’s funeral mass at the St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, Md., a grieving Barbara Johnson was the first in line to receive communion.

What happened next stunned her. The priest refused Johnson, who is gay, the sacramental bread and wine.

“He covered the bowl with the Eucharist with his hand and looked at me, and said I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman and that is a sin in the eyes of the church,” Johnson told ABC News affiliate WJLA.

During that Catholic funeral rite communion occurs prior to “speaking in remembrance of the dead,” or as ABC news referred to it, the “eulogy.” Apparently Barbara Johnson managed to compose herself enough to deliver the remembrance of her mother despite being devastated by the denial of communion. While she spoke about her mother the priest who denied her communion left the altar, returning only after she was done. He then skipped out on going to the burial site, forcing the family to find another priest.

Johnson, and her family, were so upset by these events that they lobbied the Archdiocese of Washington to have the priest removed from ministerial duties altogether. The Archdiocese responded apologetically and confirmed that what the priest did was against its policy, which is to meet privately with those the Church feels should not longer take communion to discuss the matter, but not to publicly rebuke them. Supporters of the priest’s actions point to Canon law 915 which states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” Of course there is disagreement on how the law ought to be handled, and most policies appear to be like those of the Washington Archdiocese which do not allow priests to utilize the communion rite to publicly rebuke sinners, especially if the Church has not attempted to deal with the matter in private first.

The intra-Catholic debate over how to handle communion for sinners is interesting but not what caught my attention. Barbara Johnson’s ordeal reminded me of the fact that Catholic rite-of-passage ceremonies are often held up by my research participants, many of whom are ex-Catholics and all of whom have sought a nonreligious wedding or funeral, as the gold standard when it comes to feeling excluded from a ritual. For instance, if one isn’t Catholic, one is reminded of this during communion, an event that denies full participation in the marriage rite for those outside the faith. Of course one might expect a religious community to symbolically enforce it’s most basic identity boundaries during religious rituals, but some exclusions go beyond those that maintain basic insider/outsider distinctions. I’m reminded of a same-sex couple who told me that during the Catholic wedding ceremony of a friend the priest openly spoke against homosexuality to an extent that made them feel completely uncomfortable and uninvited. In other words, he didn’t simply deny them participation in the Eucharist, but othered them completely from the community that had congregated to celebrate the marriage. Like the priest who denied Barbara Johnson communion, this priest used the rite-of-passage as a ritual means to publicly rebuke so called “sinners.” Needless to say, the Catholic couple getting married were extremely embarrassed and saddened because having those they consciously sought to include in their marriage celebration (by invitation) feel unwanted was the worst possible outcome.

In the context of my research, stories like these are often brought up to explain why an individual or a couple actively sought a nonreligious ceremony; because religious institutions exercise a variable amount of control over their rites, as one might expect they would. Yet, such control often conflicts not only with the personal preferences of those in ritual need, but also with some of their most fundamental existential expectations, like the desire to have all of those in attendance feel included. Beyond the fact that liturgies are not made to be broken, the Catholic Church, would no doubt argue that marriage and funeral rites are not performed to celebrate human beings, or to produce feelings of community, but to reaffirm faith in God. But this notion may inherently be in tension with the very idea of rites-of-passage, because such rites aim to bring about intra-communal social transitions and in the contemporary West individual communities increasingly do not correspond to religious or spiritual communities.

So how is this tension resolved? It may seem like religious institutions practicing exclusionary rites-of-passage are in a catch-22. On the one hand they could perform rites-of-passage in ways that do not exclude non-members or “sinners,” and indeed most liberal sects already do so, although that very fact is a cause for concern to any sect that is not liberal, because maintaining stricter boundaries is usually part and parcel of their identity. On the other hand if they don’t start being more inclusive they may continue to lose members who want others included in these big life moments. But perhaps it’s not actually a catch-22 because there is an obvious third option, one which has actually been more historically prevalent to begin with. The third option is to divorce the civil, communitarian rite-of-passage from the religious rite. When it comes to marriage, for instance, the Church didn’t even have an official rite for the first century of its existence, and in the following century most of its adherents had civil marriages regardless. Initially, Church ritual was introduced as an addition to civil marriage. Catholics in early America, for instance, would have a civil ceremony followed by a Church marriage. The main community event, in other words, did not contain religious enactments of othering. So why not return to this paradigm which might allow religious identities to stay intact without forcing people to alienate their loved ones? Perhaps religious institutions will worry that their members are lazy and wont opt for two ceremonies if given the choice, but is that a worse situation than alienating them altogether?

Resisting the Secular: John Piper and Cremation

Historically and cross-culturally most human social groups have developed systematic ways of dealing with death. In fact scholars often suggest that communal attempts to deal with the abatement of biological life are as old as religion itself. Some argue for instance that the earliest clues of religiously motivated ritual can be seen in paleolithic burial practices tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Spanning space and time death rituals have varied tremendously between social groups, though usually not within them. In fact given the nearly universal symbolic relationship between death and the dangers of impurity, stricter ritual proscriptions are usually followed when someone dies than at any other time in the human life-cycle. It goes without saying then, that in most places and time periods people have not had much choice in how to handle the dead. That is until now.

In contemporary Western societies most people can choose between a variety of mortuary practices. For instance, a very basic choice is present for anyone  who does not belong to a community mandating whether the body has to be buried or cremated, and that includes most Christians. However, the existence of alternatives rarely means that making a choice is a simple matter, and because the end of life is still such a powerful event informal preferences often gain popularity and even sanction from authority figures.  It is this process, that creeps out of the uncertainty that exists in the absence of ritual mandates, that interest us here.

A few days ago the Reformed Baptist minister and theologian John Piper, explained why he counsels people towards burial and not cremation:

An old couple had me over a few weeks ago. He’s pushing ninety, and she’s close behind. And the son was there, and the son said that the reason he wanted me to come was to tell his dad what I think about cremation and burial. (He had heard me talk about it.) So that’s a real situation. The couple is just years away from this, months maybe, who knows.

The son wants to bury his dad, while the dad is thinking that cremation is quick, efficient and cheap. Well, it may not be cheaper. Anyways, here’s the essence of what I said: The biblical pattern is that burning your children is pagan and burying your loved ones is a sign that you believe in the resurrection (Piper).

For those who are making a choice like this it needs to be clear that cremation is cheaper than burial. I find Piper’s phrasing, “[w]ell, it may not be cheaper,” to be a bit disingenuous and possibly self-serving. It is true that as with burial, cremation based mortuary practices can entail a variety of additional services that cost extra money. But the average cremation costs thousands less than the average burial. Whether or not one thinks cremation is appropriate or desirable, and/or whether one thinks cost should even be a factor in such a choice is another matter altogether. To be fair to Piper, of course, those latter concerns are what this post of his focuses on mainly.

The basis of Piper’s argument is that while scripture and doctrine do not mandate burial there is a biblical precedent for it. In Piper’s version of the Bible pagans burned their dead while Jews and early Christians buried them. But is that emphatically true or even the overarching “biblical pattern?” As Stephen Prothero points out in Purified by Fire, arguments between American Christians over the true “biblical pattern” of mortuary practice are as old as the cremation movement is. Some liberal and radical Christians of the late 19th century countered views like Piper’s by pointing out that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even Jesus were entombed in some manner, and not buried in the ground. They also pointed to the fact that Saul was cremated and that Paul refers to giving his body to cremation in I Corinthians 13:3. So even the biblical pattern, according to these Christians, was up for debate. But why was the debate happening in the first place, especially considering that even anti-cremationist Christians fully accepted, as Piper does, that there was no scriptural mandate against burning the dead?

Those arguing against cremation a hundred years ago, did so for the same reason Piper does today, because they believed in their eventual bodily resurrection. As Prothero documents, their objections were not usually, however, that cremation would actually prevent resurrection: “It would, after all, be blasphemy to state that an omnipotent God could not resurrect a cremated corpse” (Prothero, 79). Instead they railed against what they considered to be “blasphemous intent.” What concerned them, in other words, was something the practice of cremation implied about those wanting to partake in it or perhaps more alarmingly about society as a whole. Prothero continues:

Opponents were no doubt also concerned that cremation would render less convincing the popular beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and metaphors that created and sustained the credibility of the resurrection of the body–belief in the self as an amalgamation of the body and soul, fear and hellfire, prayers for the dead, cemetery visitation, and metaphors of death as sleep and body as temple” (Prothero, 79).

Here again we find Piper at home with his predecessors, for whom more than the veracity of a particular “biblical pattern” was at stake. As Piper states he wants “to encourage people towards burial because of what it says about the body” (Piper). So what does it say?

The body is precious, and it is going to be raised from the dead. I know it decomposes. I know it’s no more there in a hundred years than if you had burned it. We’re talking about the symbolic significance of a body stretched out in a coffin, looked at, and lovingly kissed and buried, rather than what is to me the horrible prospect of my wife or child or dad being burned, incinerated (Piper).

One of the main arguments coming from Christian cremationists was that the body decomposes anyway and that therefore bodily resurrection was not presaged on an intact corpse in the first place. Furthermore the supposedly unsanitary nature of decomposing bodies sat at the heart of movement’s attempt to reform mortuary practices. Cremationist publications like The Urn tried to drive the point home viscerally by publishing “gruesome photographs of exhumed bodies in varying states of decay” (Prothero, 71). In other words to cremationists concerned with sanitation a new regime was needed in industrial modernity to adequately purify social space of the dangers posed by death. This regime was powered by fire.

Yet, as Piper’s argument exemplifies, many considered burning the body much more gruesome than letting it decay. But do existential reactions to material processes like this form an adequate basis for religious counsel? Piper goes on to point out that cremation is “out of sync with what the body means to God. He created it. He’s going to resurrect it” (Piper). In other words the body is a temple. Early cremation activists had an answer to this argument as well. On the one hand they firmly believed that decomposition was a worse desecration of the “temple of the Holy Ghost” than cremation was, and on the other hand they pointed to Paul saying that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God”  in any event (I Corinthians 15:50). Prothero argues that underlying the latter claim was the slow progression within Protestant Christianity towards the notion that only the soul was immortal, or even if the body was resurrected that our personhood now and in eternity was not a bodily matter. Indeed just like his predecessors Piper is forced to admit that when it comes to resurrection the physical body is actually immaterial.

What is interesting here is that Piper recognizes the importance of funerary ritual to those living the Christian faith, right now on this earth. Indeed my reading of his essay is that the immanent concerns of ritual symbolism are of the utmost importance, despite the fact that he offers a justification based on what God would supposedly want Christians to do. In fact it really looks like Piper has a sociological understanding of how ritual practice might impact the survival of Christianity, or at least core ideas within his form of Christianity that he wants to protect. He actively understands some of what Prothero reads into the motivations of early cremation opponents, whose fears of an encroaching secular world he seems to share. As Prothero points out, the notion of “blasphemous intent” came along with a certain level of conspiratorial thinking about the true reason for cremation activism–secularization. While I do not see Piper sharing in a notion of active conspiracy, his description of cremation as “quick, efficient and cheap” is quite telling. Those are not qualities of deep, meaningful, religious practices, but of shallow, mechanistic, profane ones. By describing cremation thus he makes it irredeemable from the outset.

To these fears Prothero, as an historian, offers an answer of his own: “It is an ancient strategy to dismiss religious innovators as secularizers–to see in their new theologies not new religious impulses but no religious impulses at all” (Prothero, 99). And in fact, as Prothero points out repeatedly, the new impulses were not just religious but they were based on theological justifications that were most likely an outgrowth of Christianity itself; Protestant Christianity more specifically. While Prothero mentions the increasing importance of the soul in more depth, he also refers to Protestant anti-ritualism, which in my view may be of even greater significance here. By degrading the ritual actions of both the Catholic Church and local folk groups Protestantism actively weakened the power of ritual traditions within their communities. Unlike the Protestant American mainline, the Catholic Church initially reacted to cremation by outlawing it, and strong Biblical precedent was not required. But within Protestantism the door was open for argument.

Openness to ritual innovation is not necessarily a bad thing, and most ritual theorists agree that ritual traditions innovate to some degree as a basic feature of survival. Yet the manner in which such innovation is navigated changes when a community is somewhat ambivalent about ritual in the first place. Piper appears to believe that cremation cannot carry the symbolic weight of Christianity, and by extension that it is a secular threat to the religious community he wishes to protect. Yet while he sees the sociological dilemma he is hamstrung by the fact that there is no doctrinal basis for rejecting the threat altogether. That is not to say that if the Reformed Baptist tradition had a more complex and rigid ritual structure that it would necessarily have to reject cremation and would do so successfully. No the problem is actually that the Reformed Baptist tradition cannot ever fully reject or accept cremation because of its ambivalence to the physicality of mortuary ritual. The boundary between what is and is not acceptable ritual activity is so weak that it is impossible to keep some ideas out, or after accepting them, to keep other ideas in. The threat of the secular body that Piper sees emanating from cremation practices will therefore loom large for some time to come, perhaps even eternally.

Postscript: Thanks to Daniel Silliman for sharing  Piper’s article on Twitter.

A Second Civil Marriage to Please an Atheist Parent?

Most people reading this blog probably know of someone who is ostensibly nonreligious who either had a religious wedding, or included religious elements in their wedding mostly to please family members. At times, and perhaps more often in other parts of the anglophone world, it also happens that some couples have a civil wedding and then proceed to have a second religious ceremony or marriage blessing for the sake of their families. But have you ever heard of a religious couple having a fully legal church wedding and then having a second civil ceremony to please a nonreligious parent? Here’s a story from Sacramento CA:

{Special Dispatch to The Call]

SACRAMENTO, Dec. 17.—T0 please his father, Harold Clark Powell and his wife of Omaha were married here today on the second anniversary of their wedding. They were married in Salt Lake City two years ago today by an Episcopal minister. According to Powell, his father is an atheist and was opposed to the marriage. To please the parent the two were married today by Township Justice Clarken, and plan to surprise the elder Powell when they return to Omaha.

This seems like an extremely odd situation. I can understand how a Christian, for example, might think that two people who have a civil marriage only are not married, in the eyes of God. It is almost as if the atheist father in this story doesn’t believe that a marriage solemnized by the Episcopalian minster is a true marriage, in the eyes of…in the eyes of what exactly? Surely it was a legal marriage so the eyes of the law were satisfied. So why is this going to be such a pleasant surprise to the father? The second marriage doesn’t erase the first, and it’s unclear what it might add to it. I have to admit I’m stumped. But what if I contacted the father or the couple, what might they say? Well here’s the thing, I can’t, because this wedding didn’t take place a couple of years ago or even in the 1990s. It took place in 1911. Any ideas?

The San Francisco Call, December 18, 1911, Page 7

Body Modification Rites and the Dilemmas of Pluralism

A few weeks ago I published a series of tweeted questions about body modification rites and the dilemma(s) they pose for secular Western nation-states. These questions came to mind because of a decision by a Cologne court to rescind the conditional right Germany normally affords to religious citizens when it comes to non-medical infant circumcision. The decision was based on a case in which a doctor botched the non-medical circumcision of a Muslim boy and the ruling to disallow future non-medical (religious) circumcisions in Cologne resulted in condemnation throughout the Jewish and Muslim Diasporas.  Proponents of the freedom to ritually circumcise are asking how a group of people can be expected to live in a land that outlaws what they consider to be an essential part of their identity.  Opponents are asking why religious groups should be afforded the privilege to treat their children in ways that might be considered abusive without a religious purpose.

In other words, the crux of the issue boils down to a stand off between different types of “human rights” arguments. On the one hand we have the rights of religious group members (e.g. Jews and Muslims) to maintain traditional practices (religious liberty) and on the other we have the rights of individual human beings (e.g. German infants) to equal protection (universal human rights). To simplify the matter even further, the fomer implies the right to be different, while the latter implies the right to be similar; the inherent tension between them should therefore be obvious. So how do we resolve this tension? A Norwegian official thinks she has the answer:

Norway’s ombudsman for children’s rights has proposed that Jews and Muslims replace male circumcision with a symbolic, nonsurgical ritual.

Dr. Anne Lindboe told the newspaper Vart Land last month that circumcising boys was a violation of their right to decide over their own body.

“Muslim and Jewish children are entitled to the same protection as all other children,” Lindboe said, adding that the practice caused unnecessary pain and was medically unbeneficial.

Lindboe, a pediatrician, was appointed ombudsman in June. Her predecessor, Reidar Hjermann, proposed setting 15 as the minimum age for circumcision. According to Jewish religious law, Jewish babies must be circumcised when they are eight days old.

So according to the ombudsman’s argument Jews and Muslims would be allowed to maintain ritually enacted identity differences as long as they do not do so by physically modifying the bodies of their children. Is this a workable compromise? Hardly, because it isn’t a compromise at all. It might seem like a compromise to most secular and Christian Euro-Americans, but to people (like many Jews and Muslims) who have not been thoroughly Protestantised in their view of ritual it is not. Rites that permanently and physically inscribe signs onto the body and that in so doing often bring intense emotional experiences to their participants cannot be replaced by abstractions and rationalizations (e.g. “symbolic…ritual”) without altering the practice in question so drastically that it would become a different practice altogether.

In fact, this is essentially the “scientific” argument that Connor Wood made back when the Cologne story broke. The function of body modification rites can be explained, according to Conner, in terms of “costly investment theory:”

Bodily modification, including circumcision, tattooing, and scarification, are common means worldwide of inducting new members into social groups and tribes. Because these procedures are painful and irrevocable, they’re quite literally costly investments. Indeed, they effectively forever cut off options for betrayal or defection to another group, since a permanent physical sign of allegiance to one tribe will be seen by members of other groups as a threat. In short: if your body has been seriously altered by your religious group or tribe, you’re probably in that group to stay.

Connor then linked the “costly investment” of circumcision to the cultural survival of the Jewish diaspora:

I think there’s a good possibility that without circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity, that identity would not have survived the diaspora. Strong communities are not forged merely of mutual fondness and shared interests. They are forged of blood and pain. They are forged of commitment.

If Connor, and the cognitive scientists he is citing, are correct, it adds a great deal of gravity to the reactions of the Jewish and Muslim communities not only to the talk of banning ritual circumcision but also to supposed compromises that would inevitably destroy the rite’s efficacy. Yet are we any closer to resolving our tension, even if they are correct? No, I don’t think so.

Consider the basis of what Connor is saying. Cultural survival might be ensured by ritual circumcision, but this requires that parents are allowed to irrevocably modify the bodies of their children. There are other “compromises,” like that of the current ombudsman’s predecessor, which suggest stalling ritual circumcision until an age at which the child can consent to the practice on their own. From a ritual studies perspective this would also significantly alter the rite. For instance, in the language of cognitive anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, it would shift circumcision from the realm of “low intensity” (or perhaps “no intensity”) to “high intensity.” In other words, the circumcised would go from no emotional memory of the rite to an intense emotional memory of it. It is important here to note that babies simply do not remember the procedure, however it felt at the time, while adolescents and adults most certainly do. If we bring back “costly investment theory” here, “high intensity” ritual, like adolescent or adult circumcision actually aids group cohesion. But does this fact improve upon the desirability of the solution? Hardly, and it serves as a reminder that the “science of ritual” does not provide the answers we seek.

The proposal of shifting the age of circumcision to an age of conscious consent not only means altering a traditional rite (e.g. according to Jewish law it should happen on the 8th day after the birth of the child) but it must also be a disconcerting proposition to Jewish and Muslim adults because in all likelihood it would lead to many fewer circumcisions. So even if it increases social cohesion amongst those who elect the painful procedure it would inevitably separate those who do from those who don’t in precisely the manner that body modification rites are designed to do in the first place, just not internally.

The dilemma then, is that in order to satisfy the identity needs of these religious communities it appears that there must be a concession made on the other side of the fence — the “universal human rights” side. Of course it is fair to argue that until the Cologne court’s decision such concessions were already in place, and indeed that they are normative throughout most of the Western world still. But something is clearly changing. The old regime of providing group specific concessions to the political program of liberal modernity is finding itself on shakier ground. It simply is not sustainable unless we are able to resolve these types of tensions without the total annihilation of one side or another. So what can we do? I’m not entirely sure, but this is as good of a time as any to suggest looking into novel solutions, like the one presented by Adam Seligman and Robert Weller, in their new book Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience and Ambiguity:

How can we order the world while accepting its enduring ambiguities? Rethinking Pluralism suggests a new approach to the problem of ambiguity and social order, which goes beyond the default modern position of ‘notation’ (resort to rules and categories to disambiguate). The book argues that alternative, more particularistic modes of dealing with ambiguity through ritual and shared experience better attune to contemporary problems of living with difference. It retrieves key aspects of earlier discussions of ambiguity evident in rabbinic commentaries, Chinese texts, and Greek philosophical and dramatic works, and applies those texts to modern problems. The book is a work of recuperation that challenges contemporary constructions of tradition and modernity. In this, it draws on the tradition of pragmatism in American philosophy, especially John Dewey’s injunctions to heed the particular, the contingent and experienced as opposed to the abstract, general and disembodied. Only in this way can new forms of empathy emerge congruent with the deeply plural nature of our present experience. While we cannot avoid the ambiguities inherent to the categories through which we construct our world, the book urges us to reconceptualize the ways in which we think about boundaries – not just the solid line of notation, but also the permeable membrane of ritualization and the fractal complexity of shared experience.

I just picked up Rethinking Pluralism and intend on finishing it soon. Perhaps you’ll join me?

Body Modification Rites: A Series of Tweets

This is cheap kind of post without much content, just a series of questions I posed earlier on Twitter. Sorry! I’m posting them here to preserve the questions for myself and for anyone who might want to engage them. These questions relate to body modification rites and the freedom of religious expression (in Europe particularly). They arose as a result of  a court ruling in Cologne, Germany that banned the religious circumcision of infants in that city, but even more specifically as a result of reading a Washington Post op-ed piece about this ban: “The crime of circumcision,” by Michael Gerson. I found it interesting that even though the family at the heart of the case was Muslim Mr. Gerson’s op-ed was almost entirely about Jewish circumcision. That fact made me wonder about how religious immigration and the privileges of established tradition factor into questions like these…among other things.

I should note that I did also read a couple of other pieces on this issue before today, and one that was particularly interesting was written by Connor Wood over at Science on Religion: “Circumcision in religion: What does science say?” There are some issues I would take with how this “scientific” perspective can and should be applied in a Western secular nation state, but I’ll save those for a later date.

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.

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