By Gary Berg-Cross
To be sure the patterned form of communal behavior we call rituals are very human phenomena and belong in our social life. Rituals serve many symbolic roles such as an identity reminder as we celebrate the 4th of July or a family birthday. Although artifactual they may help slate periodic human needs for a sense of meaning, belonging, history purpose, hope, love, forgiveness or gratitude. A collective ritualistic celebration like a Memorial Day parade brings historical traditions into ongoing life.
In many cultures the religious aspects of every event and act in life are often celebrated in ritual pattern such as a baptism. Religions have also developed some very specific patterns of public or private worship and celebration that exhibit devotion and commitment. Requiring Jews to walk to temple or Moslems to clean & pray on a rug pointed to Mecca a few times a day come to mind. Of course some big rituals are the religious ones that take place communally on places of worship like temples, churches and mosques.
Sociologists and anthropologists have long studied and theorized on these sorts of phenomena especially those usingsynchronized or cooperative actions such as the kneeling, standing sitting sequences at a catholic mass. The basic idea behind this was hypothesized a while ago by Emile Durkheim (The Sociology of Religion) who suggested that synchronized activities draw upon & enhance “intellectual” and “moral” conformity. By moving or vocalizing together as a unit (think Buddhist chanting), participants think of themselves as a unit. This firms up individuals as a unit and potential enriches their subsequent cooperation. That’s always useful if down the road it is “us against them” or a need to share water in drought etc.
Recently a range of laboratory experiments (for example Miles, et al 2009. The rhythm of rapport: interpersonal synchrony and social perception) have tested some of these ideas and have begun to offer some real evidence supporting this action/perception synchrony hypothesis. People investigate synchronous behaviors among pairs and find that partners who match each other’s postures, motions, and vocalizations tend to express higher levels of subjective liking, tend to sense enhanced oneness (we are a single entity) with others). We become more prosocial to others we partner with in this way as opposed to more passive and unvocalized pairings. Behaviorally we tend to trust them more, seeing you and they as a unit and become more charitable towards them synchronous behavior partners, as in “pass the basket.” Well actually researchers use what they call a public goods & charitable game where you make donations, but you get the point. One can see why organized religions would want to leverage this phenomena.
But there is another part of this group cooperation. Durkheim hypothesized a sacred dimension in religious rituals affect cooperation. Engaging in ritual reinforces a shared conceptions of the “sacred,” which he defined as “things set apart and forbidden” To test the hypothesis contemporary sociologists operationalize this ideas “sacred values” as that a moral community treats as possessing transcendental significance. That is they are just proclaimed as separate from secular values and hence can’t be compared to them or involved in a trade-off/balancing between the two types. In effect religious rituals help create a divide between the sacred and secular/profane domain. German researchers developing the following type of questions to identify if sacred values were involved in ritual activities:
“This activity is something that you cannot value in terms of money,”
“This activity is something that we should not sacrifice no matter how high the benefits,” and “This activity concerns things or values that are untouchable and should never be violated.”
Sure enough research (Fisher et al How Do Rituals Affect Cooperation? 2013) shows that feelings of belonging to a distinct and coherent group (one entity) intensify sacred values, which in turn increases cooperative behaviors in a public goods game.
So here we have religious synchronous ritual around some sacred concept producing people who feel more part of the ritual group and are more generous/prosocial. This is part of what people think of as perhaps a good part of religion. Is there something the secular community can learn from this? Perhaps.
We might more vigorously employ this very human part of us to generate prosocial behavior from synchronic secular rituals. We have some, such as a moment of silence used in response to a national or international tragedy. WASH did this in response to 9/11.
We have seasonal celebrations and Humanlight, but perhaps these lack agreed upon behaviors. Free thinking humanists tend not to be conformists, so there is an issue there.
What about the sacred value component? Well perhaps we can consider ideas from this research which suggests that non-religious groups might target special values such as rationalism, humanism, justice, democracy, truth, the scientific method, or beauty as of this kind. I’m not sure we are ready to put that book of rational-humanist-justice songs together yet, but it might be fun to experiment. After all we have a head start on prosocial behavior and society should be hearing from us.
Ritual Ingredients chart: http://socrel.oxfordjournals.org/content/71/1/76/F3.expansion.html