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.

Spirituality and “skeptuality”

Is “rational” spirituality a contradiction in terms? In the latest episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Massimo and I try to pin down what people mean when they call themselves “spiritual,” what inspires spiritual experiences and attitudes, and whether spirituality can be compatible with a naturalist view of the world.

Are there benefits that skeptics and other secular people could possibly get from incorporating some variants on traditional spiritual practices — like prayer, ritual, song, communal worship, and so on — into their own lives?

We xamine a variety of attempts to do so, and ask: how well have such attempts worked, and do they come with any potential pitfalls for our rationality?

http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs55-spirituality.html

Review: The Book of Mormon

(Re-posted with permission from my article in Issue 56 of The Philosopher’s Magazine)

Even if you’ve never watched a single episode of South Park, you’re probably aware that the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, love nothing more than a good bout of sacred cow tipping. Show me an ideology, political, religious or otherwise, and I’ll show you an episode of South Park that lampoons it with the show’s trademark blend of incisive satire and potty humour. So it was surprising that South Park’s terrible twosome wound up creating a smash- hit Broadway musical, which they have been describing, in interviews, as being pro-faith.

Well, the “smash-hit” part isn’t surprising. The Book of Mormon pulls off the impressive trick of winking at the clichés of musical theatre and embracing them at the same time. (After all, the clichés are clichés for a reason – they work.) The story follows two young Mormon men paired together for their mission to Uganda: Kevin, who’s used to being the golden boy and needs to learn that everything’s not always about him, and Arnold, a hapless schmuck who needs to learn some self-confidence. They’re an odd couple and, like all odd couples thrown together under unusual circumstances, they’re going to have to learn to get along. There’s also a sweet Ugandan ingénue, a villainous warlord threatening her village, and a whole lot of really catchy songs. It’s no wonder the musical garnered nine Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, and that it’s been selling out its shows since it opened in previews in February.

But to hear Parker and Stone refer to The Book of Mormon as “pro-faith” was surprising, especially given how often they poke fun at Mormonism. Mormon beliefs can seem so ridiculous to outsiders, in fact, that Parker and Stone wisely realise they don’t need to do much active mocking – instead, they simply step back and let the scripture speak for itself. “I believe,” one missionary warbles in a climactic number reaffirming his commitment to his faith, “that God lives on a planet called ‘Kolob’! And I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” With raw material like this, parody is both unnecessary and impossible.

And it’s not just Mormonism that gets skewered. It’s also the self-images of all believers who like to see themselves, and their motivations, as more saintly than they really are. Against a back- drop of war, poverty and disease, one missionary wonders, “God, why do you let bad things happen?” and then adds what is, for many people, the true concern: “More to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?” There’s only one thing Parker and Stone enjoy sinking their talons into more than absurdity, and that’s hypocrisy.

So in what sense is The Book of Mormon “pro- faith?” Well, it’s affectionate in its portrayal of Mormons as people, most of whom come off as well-meaning, if goofy and often naive. Parker and Stone have made no secret of the fact that they find Mormons just too gosh-darned nice to dislike. But what they’re mainly referring to when they call their musical “pro-faith” is the message it sends the audience home with: that religion can be a powerful and inspiring force for good, as long as you don’t interpret scripture too strictly.

By the end of The Book of Mormon, Africans and missionaries alike are united together in a big happy posse that preaches love, joy, hope and making the world a better place. Having learned by now that it’s more important to help people than to rigidly adhere to dogma, Kevin sings, “We are still Latter Day Saints, all of us. Even if we change some things, or we break the rules, or we have complete doubt that God exists. We can still all work together and make this our paradise planet.”

That’s an appealing sentiment, especially to the sort of theatregoer who prides himself on being progressive and tolerant. It means we can promote all the values we cherish – happiness, freedom, human rights and so on – without ever having to take an unpopular anti-religion stand. But is it plausible? How, exactly, can religion make the world a better place?

I don’t know and, apparently, neither does The Book of Mormon. The central confusion you’ll notice in the musical is that it keeps conflating two very different kinds of “faith”. One could be called “figurative faith”, the warm and fuzzy kind that emerges at the end of the show, which is explicitly about bettering the world but seems to be faith in name only, as it doesn’t involve any actual belief in anything. “What happens when we’re dead? Who cares! We shouldn’t think that far ahead. The only latter day that matters is tomorrow,” the villagers sing. Once you strip away God, and an afterlife, and the requirement of belief in particular dogma, it’s not clear that what’s left bears any resemblance to religion anymore. With its progressive values and its emphasis on the here-and-now rather than the hereafter, it’s basically just humanism.

The other kind of faith in The Book of Mormon is literal faith, but for the most part, it doesn’t actually help anyone. Ugandan sweet- heart Nabalungi believes in salvation in earnest – she’s under the impression that becoming Mormon means she’s going to be transported out of her miserable life to a paradise called “Salt Lake City”, which she imagines must have huts with gold-thatched roofs and “a Red Cross on every corner with all the flour you can eat!” she sings rapturously. But she ends up crushed when she eventually learns that, no, she doesn’t get to leave Uganda after all. (“Of course, Salt Lake City’s only a metaphor,” her fellow tribe members inform her, apparently in figurative faith mode at that point.)

To be fair, there is one example of the power of literal faith in The Book of Mormon. When a villager announces his plans to circumcise his own daughter, and another is about to rape an infant in an attempt to cure himself of AIDS, Arnold manages to stop them by inventing some new scripture for the occasion. “And the Lord said, ‘If you lay with an infant, you shall burn in the fiery pits of Mordor,’” he “reads” from the Bible. (Being a science fiction and fantasy nerd, and having slept through most of Sunday school, Arnold falls back on what he knows.) So I suppose that counts as a point in favour of faith’s power to help the world, albeit conditional on the bleak premise that the only way to get people to stop raping babies and mutilating women is to threaten them with Hell … or Mordor.

Of course, the fact that The Book of Mormon’s views on faith are less than fully coherent doesn’t detract much from the pleasures of its tart- tongued satire, story, and songs. There are just a handful of moments that might raise a philosopher’s eyebrow, such as when everyone sings, in the exuberant final number, “So if you’re sad, put your hands together and pray, that tomorrow’s gonna be a Latter Day. And then it probably will be a Latter Day!” It almost feels churlish to ask “Wait, how does that work?” when everyone onstage is having such a good time singing about joy and peace and brotherhood; nevertheless, one does wonder. Maybe that will be covered in the sequel.

Spinoza, Godel, and Theories of Everything

On the latest episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and I have an entertaining discussion with Rebecca Goldstein, philosopher, author, and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant. There’s a pleasing symmetry to her published oeuvre. Her nonfiction books, about people like philospher Baruch Spinoza and mathematician Kurt Godel, have the aesthetic sensibilities of novels, while her novels (most recently, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction”) have the kind of weighty philosophical discussions one typically finds in non-fiction.

It’s a wide-ranging and fun conversation. My main complaint is just over her treatment of Spinoza. Basically, people say he “believed God was nature.” That always made me roll my eyes, because it’s not making a claim about the world, it’s merely redefining the word “God” to mean “nature,” for no good reason. I voice this complaint to Rebecca during the show and she defends Spinoza; you can see what you think of her response, but I felt it to be weak; it sounded like she was just pointing out some dubious similarities between nature and the typical conception of God.

Nevertheless! It’s certainly worth a listen:

http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs45-rebecca-newberger-goldstein-on-spinoza-goedl-and-theori.html

A philosopher of religion calls it quits

My latest article, for Religion Dispatches, examines the controversy generated last fall when philosopher of religion Keith Parsons quit the field and declared the theistic arguments to be hopelessly fallacious. The article also delves into the different approaches to philosophy of religion — are we trying to answer questions of the form “Is X true?” or of the form “If X were true, what would follow from that?”

Keith Parsons himself now has a blog post up about my piece, and responds to some comments readers left at RD. There’s also a comment thread about the article going at Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True.

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