Farmers’ New Rituals

A theory of ritual says the calm bookish kinds of rituals we are most familiar with started with farming; forager rituals were much more intense. There seems to be lots of supporting data:

Whitehouse believes rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began. … Whitehouse’s theory [is] that rituals come in two broad types, which have different effects on group bonding. Routine actions such as prayers at church, mosque or synagogue, or the daily pledge of allegiance recited in many US elementary schools, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘doctrinal mode’. He argues that these rituals, which are easily transmitted to children and strangers, are well suited to forging religions, tribes, cities and nations — broad-based communities that do not depend on face-to-face contact.

Rare, traumatic activities such as beating, scarring or self-mutilation, by contrast, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the ‘imagistic mode’. “Traumatic rituals create strong bonds among those who experience them together,” he says, which makes them especially suited to creating small, intensely committed groups such as cults, military platoons or terrorist cells. “With the imagistic mode, we never find groups of the same kind of scale, uniformity, centralization or hierarchical structure that typifies the doctrinal mode,” he says. …

[Among Libya rebels,] early, smaller brigades tended to form around pre-existing personal ties, and became more cohesive and the members more committed to each other as they collectively experienced the fear and excitement of fighting a civil war on the streets of Misrata. But six of the groups evolved into super-brigades of more than 750 fighters, becoming “something more like a corporate entity with their own organizational rituals”, says McQuinn. A number of the group leaders had run successful businesses, and would bring everyone together each day for collective training, briefings and to reiterate their moral codes of conduct …

[A] database containing information on world cultures [helped] explore the connections between frequency, peak levels of emotional arousal, and average community size for 645 rituals across 74 cultures. As predicted, the rituals fell into two clusters: low-frequency but high-arousal imagistic varieties that were more common in societies with a smaller average community size, and high-frequency, low-arousal doctrinal rituals that were more established in societies in which communities are larger. …

Did the transition from imagistic mode to doctrinal mode, with its emphasis on a common identity buttressed by daily activities and rituals, play a part in the emergence of large, complex societies 10,000 years ago? … Located in the Anatolian plains of northwestern Turkey, Çatalhöyük was founded during the dawn of agriculture roughly 9,500 years ago, and housed more than 8,000 people at its peak. … Wall paintings also depict the town’s residents getting together to tease and kill enormous wild bulls for feasting. … Evidence for such imagistic-style rituals declines in the later layers of Çatalhöyük. Wild-bull rituals and bull-horn installations become less common as the herding of domesticated sheep, goats and cattle intensified, says Hodder. Human burials within houses fade out, and standardized symbolic artefacts, such as painted pottery and seal stamps, become more common. …

Brazilian rituals called simpatias … are used to solve everyday problems ranging from bad luck to asthma and depression. A simpatia for getting a good job says that during the full Moon the jobseeker must take the jobs page out of a newspaper, fold it four times, and then place it on the floor with a small white candle surrounded by honey and cinnamon, imagining themself in a new job with good pay. The candle stub and the paper should be buried with a plant and watered daily, and the dream job will soon emerge. Legare presented Brazilians with a variety of simpatias, and found that people judged them as more effective when they involved a large number of repetitive procedural steps that must be performed at a specific time and in the presence of religious icons. …

Support for suicide terrorism among Palestinians is more strongly tied to communal ritual attendance than to religious devotion, as measured by the frequency of private prayer. … in the United States, people who attend church more frequently are more likely to consider the right to bear arms a sacred value. (more)

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  • Salem

    This distinction between “doctrinal” and “imagistic” appears to be a re-capitulation of the Apollonian/Dionysian idea.

  • lump1

    Robin’s thesis that we are gradually returning to a forager mentality should then predict that “imagistic” rituals would be on the rise. Is there any such evidence? It would be interesting. I have the impression that our tolerance for such rituals is actually decreasing. Hazing, for example, ain’t like it used to be.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      High density is one of the features of industry that is hyper-farmer, and not at all forager like. This ritual change seems driven mainly by density, and industry folks can’t give up high density without losing industry. So, like high workplace domination and ranking, density is one of those features of industry that industry era folks don’t give up.

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  • René Milan

    “rituals are always about building community” – clearly a misconception.  The in my view most (actually only) important rituals are always about changing one’s consciousness (or as i prefer to say one’s being) and are performed in solitude.  

    Besides in our time the “community building” rituals Whitehouse describes are actually community destroying as they increase the amount of ‘balkanization’ on this small planet.  The last things we need are more flags and cults.

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  • jenn davis

    Anyone that has Latin or Portuguese such as Brazil or the Americas such as South and Central…and because the Philippines( was once under the rule of Spain) for so many years has SIMPATIAS!!! Brazil practices it and so is the Philippine Islands which has another name for it (KULAM) but is exactly the same!

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