Ritual Flourishes

Religion is a philosophy that makes you dance.

-- Andrew Brown

As a boy who suffered through agonizingly long stretches on hard pews every Sunday morning back in the 1950s, I did not immediately associate religion with anything that made you dance. In my case, religion was more like something that made you squirm. All adults at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Upper Arlington, Ohio believed they had a sacred duty to make sure you remained in your pew without making a sound unless called upon to do so. We did things by the book in the Episcopal Church. And as “low church” Episcopalians, we didn’t go in for a lot of ritual flourishes. It wasn’t until I came east to school that I realized Episcopal ministers were called priests who were addressed as “Father” (in the days before the ordination of women). Such nomenclature was easier to get accustomed to than seeing Episcopalians reflexively crossing themselves and genuflecting. Occasionally there was even incense that would be wafted about on solemn occasions. All were accoutrements I associated with the Roman Catholic Church, rather than with a no-nonsense Protestant denomination.

It turns out the Protestant Reformation was fought in part over how much liturgical “dancing” should be allowed in church. This was nowhere more evident than in the Church of England -- the mother church to Episcopalians -- which has seesawed back and forth between Protestant and Catholic modes of worship since Henry VIII broke ties with Rome in the 16th century. As the established church in England, Anglicans generally have tried to achieve a happy medium, albeit not without some friction as liturgical practices have tilted one way or the other. A threatened Anglo-Catholic tilt in the wake of the Oxford Movement in the mid-19th century led to legislation in Parliament banning such “popish” practices as using candles, incense and bells during services and priests wearing special vestments to celebrate communion. All are now common practice – or at least tolerated -- in many Episcopal churches today.

Social scientists have lately begun to take a dispassionate look at religious rituals, which was not possible when they were assumed to be ordained by God. Ritual behavior is found in every human culture, as well as among many animal species, suggesting there may be an evolutionary component. Ritual actions are repetitive and highly stereotyped, with strong symbolic elements, at least within human societies. Common elements in religious rituals appeal to a full range of sensory stimulation: singing, chanting, dancing, gestures, scents, sacred objects, ceremonial foods, processions, prostrations, banners and colorful costumes – in other words, all the grand “smells and bells” of high-church Anglican worship.

Sigmund Freud, who was anything but a religious partisan, was the first to note the similarities between religious rituals and the repetitive, stereotyped behavior of obsessive-compulsive neurosis. More recently, Pascal Boyer and Pierre Lienard, a pair of psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis, have argued that religious rituals are merely a collective expression of the same impulses that trigger obsessive-compulsive behavior in individuals. They believe that ritualized actions are an evolutionary adaptation to perceived threats from contagion, sickness or other primordial fears. This would account both for the compulsive hand-washing behavior of individuals and the elaborate purification rites of certain religions. It remains to be seen, however, whether it is reasonable to generalize about universal social behavior based on its pathological manifestation in certain individuals.

Some investigators counter that the Boyer-Lienard analysis is too narrow in asserting that religious ritual is motivated by anxiety reduction alone, to the exclusion of joy and wonder and exaltation. Neurotics may feel compelled to wash their hands repeatedly when they are stressed, but do they also sing and dance? Anyone watching a tribal ceremony on the Discovery Channel will note more than a casual resemblance to Mardi Gras in Rio or New Orleans. Is this how people act if they are merely trying to ward off evil spirits? Certainly the participants are expressing something you didn’t often see in the church where I grew up. If I didn’t know better, I could swear they were having an enormously good time.

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