An Atheist’s Defense of Rituals: Ceremonies as Traffic Lights

BarMitzvahThe idea of a coming-of-age ceremony has always been a bit strange to me as an atheist. Sure, I attended more than my fair share of Bat and Bar Mitzvahs in middle school. But it always struck me as odd for us to pretend that someone “became an adult” on a particular day, rather than acknowledging it was a gradual process of maturation over time. Why can’t we just all treat people as their maturity level deserves?

The same goes with weddings – does a couple’s relationship really change in a significant way marked by a ceremony? Or do two people gradually fall in love and grow committed to each other over time? Moving in with each other marks a discrete change, but what does “married” change about the relationship?

But my thinking has been evolving since reading this fantastic post about rituals by Brett and Kate McKay at The Art of Manliness. Not only do the rituals acknowledge a change, they use psychological and social reinforcement to help the individuals make the transition more fully:

One of the primary functions of ritual is to redefine personal and social identity and move individuals from one status to another: boy to man, single to married, childless to parent, life to death, and so on.

Left to follow their natural course, transitions often become murky, awkward, and protracted. Many life transitions come with certain privileges and responsibilities, but without a ritual that clearly bestows a new status, you feel unsure of when to assume the new role. When you simply slide from one stage of your life into another, you can end up feeling between worlds – not quite one thing but not quite another. This fuzzy state creates a kind of limbo often marked by a lack of motivation and direction; since you don’t know where you are on the map, you don’t know which way to start heading.

Just thinking your way to a new status isn’t very effective: “Okay, now I’m a man.” The thought just pings around inside your head and feels inherently unreal. Rituals provide an outward manifestation of an inner change, and in so doing help make life’s transitions and transformations more tangible and psychologically resonant.

Brett and Kate McKay cover a range of aspects of rituals, but I was particular struck by the game theory implications of these ceremonies. By coordinating society’s expectations in a very public manner, transition rituals act like traffic lights to make people feel comfortable and confident in their course of action.

The Value of Traffic Lights

Traffic lights are a common example in game theory. Imagine that you’re driving toward an unmarked intersection and see another car approaching from the right. You’re faced with a decision: do you keep going, or brake to a stop?

If you assume they’re going to keep driving, you want to stop and let them pass. If you’re wrong, you both lose time and there’s an awkward pause while you signal to each other to go.

If you assume they’re going to stop, you get to keep going and maintain your speed. Of course, if you’re wrong and they keep barreling forward, you risk a deadly accident.

Things go much more smoothly when there are clear street signs or, better yet, a traffic light coordinating everyone’s expectations.

Ceremonies as Traffic Lights

Now, misjudging a teenager’s maturity is unlikely to result in a deadly accident. But, with reduced stakes, the model still applies.

As a teen gets older, members of society don’t always know how to treat him – as a kid or adult. Each type of misaligned expectations is a different failure mode: If you treat him as a kid when he expected to be treated as an adult, he might feel resentful of the “overbearing adult”. If you treat him as an adult when he was expecting to be treated as a kid, he might not take responsibility for himself.

trafficlightA coming-of-age ritual acts like the traffic light to minimize those failure modes. At a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, members of society gather with the teenager and essentially publicly signal “Ok everyone, we’re switching our expectations… wait for it… Now!”

It’s important that the information is known by all to be known to all – what Steven Pinker calls common or mutual knowledge:

“In common knowledge, not only does A know x and B know x, but A knows that B knows x, and B knows that A knows x, and A knows that B knows that A knows x, ad infinitum.”

If you weren’t sure that the oncoming car could see their traffic light, it would be almost as bad as if there were no light at all. You couldn’t trust your green light because they might not stop. Not only do you need to know your role, but you need to know that everyone knows their role and trusts that you know yours… etc.

Public ceremonies gather everyone to one place, creating that common knowledge. The teenager knows that everyone expects him to act as an adult, society knows that he expects them to treat him as one, and everyone knows that those expectations are shared. Equipped with this knowledge, the teen can count on consistent social reinforcement to minimize awkwardness and help him adopt his new identity.

Obviously, these rituals are imperfect – Along with the socially-defined parts of identity, there are internal factors that make someone more or less ready to be an adult. Quite frankly, setting 13 as the age of adulthood is probably too young.

But that just means we should tweak the rituals to better fit our modern world. After all, we have precise engineering to set traffic light schedules, and it still doesn’t seem perfect (this XKCD comes to mind).

That’s what makes society and civilization powerful. We’re social creatures, and feel better when we feel comfortable in our identity – either as a child or adult, as single or married, as grieving or ready to move on. Transition rituals serve an important and powerful role in coordinating those identities.

We shouldn’t necessarily respect them blindly, but I definitely respect society’s rituals more after thinking this through.

To take an excerpt from a poem by Bruce Hawkins:

Three in the morning, Dad, good citizen
stopped, waited, looked left, right.
He had been driving nine hundred miles,
had nearly a hundred more to go,
but if there was any impatience
it was only the steady growl of the engine
which could just as easily be called a purr.

I chided him for stopping;
he told me our civilization is founded
on people stopping for lights at three in the morning.

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14 Responses to An Atheist’s Defense of Rituals: Ceremonies as Traffic Lights

  1. Evan Clark says:

    Thank you for writing this. My local community group will be taking this topic on next week with a special guest speaker from Norway who is intimately involved in the planning of local Humanist Confirmations there. Maybe this side of the topic can sneak into our conversation :)

    Info on our event: http://www.hcovc.com/discussion_on_norwegian_humanist_confirmations_with_special_guest_thord_setsaas

  2. Christopher Dugan says:

    I wonder if this game theory metaphor can be extended to roundabouts, where instead of inserting a traffic light to direct expectations you redesign the intersections we cross to be safer, more efficient, and often faster even when they feel slightly more cumbersome to navigate (and thus subjectively slower due to the increased attention required). What would that sort of “roundabout culture” look like?

    • Andrew says:

      If the traffic light problem is “acknowledging the reality of the road, and creating shared signals to deal with it”, then roundabouts must be “noticing the reality of the road, and changing that reality”. I think changing the reality of human nature / biology / society-as-a-whole might take a metaphor-breaking amount more work though :)

  3. Joshua Fox says:

    > Quite frankly, setting 13 as the age of adulthood is probably too young.

    Thirteen was not originally designated as the age of adulthood. It is the age of culpability. Twenty is the age of adulthood in the Bible (military service for men; Numbers 1:3).

    And in modern American society, this is pretty much true too. Teenagers can be criminally prosecuted as adults (not that that’s necessarily a good thing). Only at age 18 are they treated as adults with full rights and the chance to join the military (also men are legally liable to the draft, though that is dormant now). Until recently it was age 21 (still is for alcohol).

  4. Aaron says:

    I don’t want to be a stick in the mud (or maybe I do), but I don’t think this metaphor works at all. It seems to me like a very motivated argument on your part that boils down to: “I’ve decided I like rituals, now I will try to come up with a metaphor that makes them seem worthwhile.” Traffic lights justify their existence on roads, and I believe you that they justify their existence in game theory. However, I don’t think rituals really pay their own way on the applied rationality space. No doubt they are very important to us. We literally make them sacred. But whether it’s a Rabbi foisting some bogus explanation on us — “We eat apples on Rosh Hashannah to represent renewal blah, blah, blah. Really? I think we eat apples on Rosh Hashannah because that’s the time of year you find apples on the trees. I wonder, Reb Galef, if you aren’t also doing a little backfill here. Is there really that much of a problem with not knowing if a thirteen-year-old boy is something called a man? I mean there are different ages at which he can drive, vote, buy alcohol, marry and retire. What exactly is being signaled here? I’m glad you like these rituals. You look cute with your dad. I just think you are putting game theory sauce on an undercooked dish of personal desire.

    • Andrew says:

      That’s a wikipedia commons image. But I’m sure Jesse looks cute with his dad too.

      • Aaron says:

        Oh, thanks. If I had edited or written more thoughtfully, I wouldn’t have even mentioned that. The perils of hasty comments. I’m also regretting the “Reb Galef” snide-atude. It’s just, when you add up all the time I’ve wasted at Schul, i’d have earned another degree or at least had time to comment more judiciously. I’d say most of what happens in organized religion is not a traffic light, but a traffic jam or even worse, a pointless detour.

  5. Carole says:

    A bar or bat mitzvah, to an observant Jew, does not celebrate the moment the teen becomes an adult in all senses of the world. It’s the culmination of a period of learning that usually takes 2- 3 years, and represents the first time that the teen can be called to the Torah to give the blessings before and after a portion is read, and the first time that he or she can teach the congregation, in the form of a commentary of what was read that day. It’s also the point when he or she can join the congregation as an adult. Even a small child can take part in the service, but a teen who has become bar or bat mitzvah has full adult privileges and responsibilities.Of course, to anyone who feels that any religious ceremony is hogwash, everything I’ve written is garbage, and of no more consequence than Flying Spaghetti Monsters. Fortunately, such scorn does not affect those of us who find beauty, continuity, and meaning in our big and small celebrations. There must be something in rituals, else why would Humanist Confirmations even exist?

    • Aaron says:

      Yes you have described the current drosh on the ritual. It sounds good. But in reality the ceremony usually marks the end of a person’s involvement in the Temple. You know the joke about the Jewish exterminator who, when asked how to get mice out if the temple said “give them bar mitzvahs and you’ ll never see them again. The explanations for the rituals are almost always ad hoc and historically inaccurate. After all the rituals are memes that outlast their original context. So, this “ready to participate in the services” “eligible for minion” explanation doesn’t really hold water especially for girls, because women aren’t kosher on the bima, if you want to really “observe” the tradition. If you want to say that the admission of women is an important modification then you should ask what other modifications have occurred over the centuries. Because I’m pretty sure it used to signal not ritual but sexual maturity. What’s more, bar and bat mitzvahs in their current form are , according to “Jews in America,” an American Jewish invention that served to signal to the folks back in Europe that you had arrived in the new Medina of America, hence all the wealth signaling. Yes obviously people like ritual. Yes there are myriad and changing rationalization for ritual. I’m glad you are comforted by that particulate explanation. But if that’s really what the ritual is about for you, why don’t you investigate why it’s actually driving away (or at least not retaining) the majority of participants? I think Jesse is adding one more ad hoc and unfounded rationalization to the pile.

  6. Pingback: Weekend Religion/Irreligion Report, Friday Edition | Evangelically Atheist

  7. David says:

    Interesting post, As a non-practicing Jew, I just spent lots of time immersed in ritual because my religious father was dying, and I did not want to be seen as a jerk, no matter how I inwardly felt. When he died, my practicing brothers were doing these rituals night and day, and frankly I got a case of monkey see monkey do, so I want to say Kaddish for him too. But I do agree that the role of ritual as marker for state changes works well, both in my case and for your young couple and teenager. So thats all well and good, but there is a saying, “When you have got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”. Can observing a ritual (be it one-time or often) change your views on things?. Maybe, I still feel that gods and rocks share some level of equivalency. They do their own thing, and occasionally there is human-god or human-rock interaction. But I don’t care – still want to say Kaddish, even if the motivation for the requested sucking up to a god may be to provide the sucker-upper with emotional tools to be able to suck up to other entities like bosses or spouses.

  8. Aaron says:

    But you don’t need permission to like rituals anymore than you need permission to like music or a certain type of food. It’s a gathering. It’s a party, It’s a script everyone follows. Fine. Why are you straining to make it more than that? Why does Carole feel she needs the added authority of a sentence like “for an observant Jew”? I mean, Carole feels very comfortable with her definitions of Jew and ‘observant’ but from whence this certainty? Could the ritual be part of where all these implicit permissions are foisted on us? Is this where we give up our thoughtful relationship to our own lives and hand power over to others?

    Ritual is a weigh-station for a ton of smuggled goods. A technique in hypnosis (and almost all forms of persuasion and influence from advertising to seduction) is to tie accepted truths to a hidden agenda or post hypnotic suggestion. Rituals tie something people need and want (community, recognition, fun, comfort, something to do when you are mindless with grief) to hidden agendas (the Rabbi is an authority, the ritual committee is a gate keeper, your very status as an adult is determined by others, who you are screwing is the business of the community, the children should be available to the community for indoctrination or just to make some old folks feel important with a captive audience, YOU SHOULD PAY YOUR MEMBERSHIP DUES,etc.)

    In short, I don’t think rituals are traffic lights. I think they are BS smuggling points.

    The crux is when Jess says: “with reduced stakes the model still applies”. That’s what I’m not buying. The model doesn’t apply. There are no reduced stakes, there are no stakes at all. There are no stakes in not having a bar mitzvah. There are no stakes in not having a wedding. The only cost is to the smugglers who miss an opportunity to freight you down with their malarkey.

    I wonder why I’m not getting invited to more bar mitzvahs these days.

  9. Andrew says:

    Nice post. The Bar Mitzvah itself does seem to have gotten a bit disconnected from the adulthood idea, especially when the modern world has several other markers for that transition (driver’s license, turning 18, graduating high school). But others have mentioned culpability and role in the community – even if not the religious community. (As you say, even if you’re faking the religious belief, a ceremony is still a marker.) My family isn’t Jewish so I can’t testify to this, but I imagine it might be a certain amount easier to get a teenager to accept some responsibility shortly after a Bar Mitzvah compared to beforehand. As with most psychological processes it would be silly to expect a comprehensive, night-to-day personal transformation, but the graph of maturity over time probably has a bit of a step there.

    Overall, this feels like a facet of the idea that part of being rational is acknowledging and working with our inherent IRrationality, in both psychology and society. Memorable events leave an impact, so “artificially” creating a memorable event is an effective way to push our minds toward a different way of thinking.

  10. Rob says:

    The ad at the end of this post is a video recipe for “Braised Pork Belly”… Seems like the ad-server thinks only some of the jewish traditions are worth keeping.

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