Category Archives: What Is Religion For?

Rituals? Really?

RRlogo2-copy.gifShortly after I began writing the Buddhism section of, a reader named “Ernie” contacted me to complain about rituals, among other things. He was interested in Buddhism, he said, but he was turned off by the rituals. When I explained that the rituals have a purpose and suggested he give them a try, he angrily replied, “Buddhism, like all other religions, has its rigid robots who know everything about their religion’s ritual and nothing about its heart.”

A person who insists that a centuries-old tradition change itself to accommodate him perhaps is not one to accuse others of rigidity. He also didn’t explain why “ritual” and “heart” are mutually exclusive. Ritual can touch the heart, in fact. if you put your heart into it.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion:

Across religious traditions, ceremonies and rituals function to create a sanctified space, and those who enter that space are dedicating themselves to fulfillment of the ultimate concern of their religion, whatever that is. The space is sanctified by the participants’ own reverence and devotion, and ritual objects such as chalices, crosses, incense and candles give physical presence to that reverence and devotion. …

…I’m not saying that rituals and ritual objects have magic power. I’m saying that rituals and ceremonies, when carried out with care and attention, can have a palpable psychological impact on the participants that really can expand awareness and change perspectives.

Modernity has become very anti-ritual, for some reason. Like my correspondent “Ernie,” the very idea of participating in ritual is unacceptable to many. This may spring from a fear of loss of autonomy or individuality; to participate in group ritual is to relinquish doing one’s own thing, even for just a little while. Or, we may shrink from ritual because we think they are superstitious; we chant some words and perfume the air with incense and perhaps unseen spirits will listen to us. But there are a lot of ways to think about ritual.

Part of the reason I wrote Rethinking Religion was to open up the definition of “religion” so that it applies to traditions other than the Big Three of monotheism — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In thinking about what all traditions considered “religions” have in common, it seemed to me that the One Constant Thing is that they are all about connecting to or realizing something beyond the individual, finite self. The something might be God, although not necessarily. The practice might involve prayer and worship, although not necessarily. And, yes, the discipline or practice probably is framed by doctrine that cannot be verified objectively but which might be personally verified in one way or another. But merely believing in the doctrine is not the point. Religion is also something that we do, and how we live and experience ourselves and our lives.

Rituals are also about making something visible or tangible that is invisible or intangible. A wedding ceremony is a tangible expression of a couple’s love and commitment, for example. Rituals can help us express and share joy and sorrow, grief and hope, in a nonverbal way. Mindfully practiced, a ritual can bring the teachings of a religious tradition “into the body,” as we say in Zen, making the religion something more than some ideas or beliefs we carry around in our heads. The physical activity of ritual brings the religious tradition into your body and life in subtle, subconscious ways.

Rituals are not necessarily religious. I was thinking about ritual after attending the recent funeral of my brother, a retired U.S. Army officer, complete with an honor guard and three-volley salute. To me, this part of the ritual spoke of continuity — that my brother was part of a tradition that extended into the past and will continue into the future. There are rituals expressing patriotism and loyalty to sports teams. Again, rituals are a way to make tangible one’s connection to something larger than oneself.

Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04In modern times much of Christianity de-ritualized worship services. In some Protestant denominations little is expected of the congregants other than to sing the hymns, hear the sermon, and occasionally  bow their heads. I saw a video of communion inside one of the big Christian megachurches and found the entire spectacle annoying, from the congregants who received the bread and grape juice on trays and consumed them as if they were party hors d’œuvres to the schmaltzy organ music that oozed over the proceedings like pancake syrup. The minister’s wife talked nonstop through a microphone, reassuring the congregants that by receiving communion they would also receive God’s blessings and various other benefits.

But the congregants just sat there. There was no expression of devotion or commitment to their religion’s ultimate concerns. There was no mindful expression of the mystery of life and death or (important to Christians) the sacrifice of Christ. It was a transaction; drink the magic potion and become one of God’s Chosen People.

At Patheos, a student of religion at Boston University named Connor Wood wrote of the importance of ritual to religion. His use of the word index is puzzling to me, but I think he’s using index in the sense of measure or indicator. He argues that while words are purely symbolic, indexes are inseparable from the thing indicated. And rituals are indexes. Modern internet culture, however, is purely symbolic and disembodied, and people of that culture are more than ever baffled by the idea of ritual.

Remember that indexes are efficient; simply showing up for temple each week conveys much more information than words realistically could. But words are also rational. Logical arguments require language, not actions. And so our culture, which highly values logic, elevates reasoning and language over bodily habits, a preference rooted in historical Protestant emphasis on Scripture over rituals. Rationalism trumps efficiency.

This Protestant anti-ritual attitude is staggeringly amplified in Internet culture, the most de-ritualized social space in history. We can’t see each other; others can’t see us. There’s no way for social conventions that involve the whole body to take root. And so the way we communicate online is almost purely abstract and discursive, and thus extremely symbolic.

Religion divorced from the body becomes something entirely abstract and symbolic, and the symbolism itself is increasingly detached from anything but ideas. Like “Ernie,” who felt attracted to Buddhism but was outraged at the idea of practicing it,  we forget the simple truth that religion is about experience, in particular our experience of living and dying. It is about trust in things we may not understand intellectually. It is about dropping away the hard shell of self and becoming vulnerable — to God, or enlightenment, or whatever your tradition calls its ultimate concern.

When religion becomes just about ideas or beliefs, is it still religion? How may intellectual theory cause us to transcend the self? Where is the commitment, the sacrifice, in mere loyalty to belief? Indeed, what seems to happen more often than not is that religion becomes fused with ego and becomes just an attribute of the self. Through ritual, religion becomes fully embodied, and we learn how to experience it, not just how to think about it.

Silence, Noble and Ignoble

A couple of days ago I published a post called “How Evil Happens,” cross-posted from The Mahablog.  The post commented on the violence in Gaza and the episodes of Israeli bombs hitting UN schools in which Palestinian civilians were taking shelter.

The bare facts of the situation indicate that while the schools probably were not being targeted, neither had Israel shown much concern about not bombing the schools. And Israel had been informed the schools were being used as refuges. Israel was unable to provide a verifiable reason for the bombing; Israeli forces seem to think that whatever they do is justified, period.

I quoted Rethinking Religion:

People are seduced into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will.

And I said the same admonishment no doubt applies to Palestinian terrorists as well.

Please understand that I’m not saying people or nations shouldn’t defend themselves from those who intend to do them harm. What gets us into trouble is thinking that we’re entitled to Holy Retribution or that we are somehow qualified to pass judgments and inflict brutality on entire populations, because we’re the good guys.

The United States has fallen into the same error, many times.

A comment was left on my other site, which said —

The Fourth Mindfulness Training: I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I am wondering whether you can quote these sources with the certainty that they are true?

We can’t always know for certain what goes on out of our sight. For that matter, we’re often confused about what’s going on within our sight. But in the case of the bombed UN schools, even Israel is not denying that the bombings occurred as news sources reported. What’s in dispute is whether other circumstances justified the bombings. Since I wrote the original post, no new information has come to light that makes Israel’s arguments any stronger.

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Buddhist “right speech” teachings are sometimes interpreted to mean that one cannot criticize anyone else, ever, for any reason, and I don’t see it that way. Certainly one does not spread lies or gossip, and one does not use speech in an ego-centered way, tearing others down to build ourselves up.

However, if we don’t at least offer what insight or wisdom we may have to the suffering world, what good are we?

Most of the mass atrocities of human history were carried out by people who believed their actions were completely justified. This has been true of followers of all the world’s great religions and no doubt any nation that’s been in existence for at least a few years. Things are done that the descendents of the perpetrators try to erase from history or eventually acknowledge in sorrow when enough time has passed. Yet generation after generation, we never seem to learn from this.

I don’t see any group of people, including nations, as intrinsically good or evil. This is just what humans do, and have always done.

Did the Buddha actually intend for us to keep silence in the face of atrocity? Or to wait to speak until the verdict of history has been issued, which usually takes a generation or two? I don’t think so. The Buddha himself could be unsparing in his words when somebody did something completely out of bounds.

In the Patimokkha, a section of the Vinaya-pitaka, or rules for monks and nuns, the Buddha discussed the correct way for one monk or nun to admonish another. If the criticism is timely, factual, not unnecessarily harsh, and offered with a kind heart, this is skillful admonishment. And while I don’t always live up to that, in this situation I believe I did.

The Basis of Morality

One chapter in Rethinking Religion is devoted to rethinking morality. Many religious people insist — absurdly, to my mind — that there can be no morality without religion. Secularists have taken up this challenge and have devised various non-religious moral theories. Prominent atheist Sam Harris, for example, has written a number of articles and books with his own proposals for how we might live by a moral code without having to believe in a judgmental God.

Religious and secularist moralists tend to make the same basic mistake, however, which is to assume that “morality” mostly involves living according to some kind of universally accepted code. It doesn’t. It never did.

Much current research in psychology and sociology points to another source entirely for where our moral notions come from. And that would be our biases and emotions. Our orientation toward all moral issues depends on how we feel about those issues, and then we use our “rational” minds to craft a narrative to explain why our views are “good.” We all do this, whether we admit it or not.

This is why many of our public fights over “moral” issues remain at impasse. People who are disgusted by homosexuality, for example, will find no end of reasons why suppressing it isn’t some kind of moral “good,” while people who accept homosexuality think it’s the suppression that’s immoral.

Notice that most of our hot-button and never-ending public squabbles about what’s moral and what isn’t touches on the same two issues — sex and death. That’s because these are two issues most of us are really emotional — and often conflicted — about. Lying, stealing and cheating, by contrast, are not nearly so controversial.

Although Christians opposed to abortion and birth control insist their perspective is religious, the truth is that Bible-based arguments against abortion and birth control are laughably flimsy, and the pertinent scriptures could be interpreted many ways. Yet to go by the energy the Christian Right puts into fighting these things, you’d think Jesus never talked about anything else. In fact, he never addressed abortion or birth control at all, nor did the Apostles, even though abortions and haphazard attempts at birth control were going on at the time, and they must have known about this.

In truth, our opinions about these issues actually are coming from a murky place in our ids where our feelings about sex, sexual purity, women, motherhood etc., are perpetually stewing and jerking us about. We choose sides depending on what those feelings are, and then we grab the first available ideology that harmonizes with our opinions, whether “religion” or liberalism or whatever.

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And if the facts of a situation don’t fit our narratives, we change the facts. The pro-life zealots who camped around Terry Schiavo’s hospital a few years ago convinced themselves that Ms. Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state at all, but was awake and communicating, for example. The truth is, “moral clarity” nearly always depends on ignoring the messy, and often painful, details of human life that obstruct the view.

But those irrelevant details are what our lives actually are. To ignore them is to ignore humanity. That’s why moral absolutism, taken to logical extremes, becomes inhumane. To deny our subjectivity is to deny us.

I’m not arguing against all codes of morals, mind you. Humans need agreed-upon codes of behavior in order to live in communities together. But those are not the basis of morality.

The basis, like it or not, is just us. The basis is our ability to be compassionate; to be empathetic; to value others as much as we value ourselves. Often morality depends on our ability to put aside our own desires and defer to the needs of others. If we can do that, we will be moral people, and if we can’t we won’t. And if we can’t, all the rules in the world won’t matter.

Ritual, Modernity and Citta

One of the arguments I make in my book Rethinking Religion is that religion is not about adopting supernatural belief systems. Instead, religion is about changing the way we experience and understand our lives and our selves, especially as part of everything else — the whole universe throughout time.

I realize western monotheists may struggle with that definition, but I think if you look beyond the specifics of doctrine and understand religion’s effects, I say that’s what it is. Those effects are achieved in many different ways, and in many religions belief in an actual God is essential to those ways. But in many other religions gods often are more like learning aids; just believing in them or praying to them isn’t the point.

In trying to come up with a definition of religion that is inclusive of the whole world’s religious traditions and not just the Big Three of monotheism, the great underlying commonality I could see was was this: Religions are about engaging in many kinds of practices that help us experience and connect to something beyond the confines of the limited self. That something may be God, but not necessarily.

It’s important to understand that this connection is not primarily intellectual or conceptual, and again, I think this is common to all religious traditions, and it also sets religion apart from philosophy, as westerners usually use the word.  Both religion and philosophy address questions of how we humans relate to life and death, time and being, but they address these questions in entirely different ways. Philosophy gives us conceptual and theoretical answers that engage the intellect. Religion primarily engages what Buddhists call citta — the mind of subjective experience, sometimes described as an awareness that is more emotive than intellectual, or something like what westerners call “heart.”

And, personally, I think the reason large parts of the Abrahamic religions are going through an identity crisis now is that they have no concept of citta.  The parts of monotheism that are not fundamentalist seem especially unsure about what it is they actually are doing, or why. They may still believe in God and have high regard for the Bible, but then what? If religion is not just about believing things, then what is it?

Many practices can engage citta, from praying to meditating to yoga and martial arts. But right now I just want to say something about ritual.

In many religious traditions there was a time that laypeople weren’t expected to know much about doctrine. Instead, religion was all about ritual. Through ritual, people reenacted and actualized the myths and symbols of their traditions and thereby came to “know” them on an intuitive level. This in turn made the myths and symbols feel relevant and the mysteries they represented seem immanent. They may not have been able to explain original sin in any coherent way, but religion still had an impact on their experiences and perceptions.

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Possibly because it has no concept of citta, much of Christianity has downplayed ritual in modern times.  If one does not believe literally in evoking spirits or whatever the ritual claims to be doing, then what is the point? Rituals are not rational. They seem to be about performing some kind of magic — we light a candle and say the magic words and everything will be better. People today often are uncomfortable with ritual.

But I found a great quote by Carl Jung —

Offerings are made to the invisible powers, formidable blessings are pronounced, and all kinds of solemn rites are performed. Everywhere and at all times there have been rites d’entrée et de sortie whose magical efficacy is denied and which are impugned as magic and superstition by rationalists incapable of psychological insight. But magic has above all a psychological effect whose importance should not be underestimated. [Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957]

Put another way: The myths and rituals of religion are meant to transform citta. They are not (necessarily) meant to evoke magic powers. They are not intended to supplant reason and intellect. Mindfully done, however, a ritual can affect citta and thereby have a real impact on how a person experiences himself and everything else. And that’s no small thing.