Anthropology’s Ritualist Hour

Over at the Toronto Star, Rick Salutin salutes anthropology for providing keen insights into the human condition:

The strength of anthropology at the moment, I’d say, comes when it turns its eye to our own society as just another tribe or collection of humans trying to make symbolic sense of their experience — rather than looking back on other collectivities as if we alone have reached some satisfying, inevitable progress toward which those primitive versions are striving. It’s less about making sense of the past than casting an anthropological gaze on the present. This seems to unbewitch the level of “achievement” we’ve reached. We start looking like just another weird bunch of human creatures trying to make sense of their odd predicament, like Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Apes” when he finally gets it.


That’s good stuff. Any newspaper columnist who cracks the progressive “cultural evolution” code is money my book.

Speaking of money, this piece on stripping and resource extraction in the fracking boomtown of Williston, North Dakota is just that. The overall impression is one of isolation and desolation, terms which apply not only to the town and plains which surround it, but also to the people who live and work there. The stripper and gifted-writer of the story, Susan Elizabeth Shepard, paints a powerful portrait of alienation: people alienated from land and people alienated from one another. This is a stark and depressing contrast for those who know that the Williston area was, for many thousands of years, home to enormous herds of ungulates and Native Americans. There is nothing beautiful about the place now. Alien indeed.

Finally, over at Oxford’s Practical Ethics, Paul Troop meanders through some questions prompted by a Daniel Dennett lecture. While I won’t fault Troop for being a “big fan” of Dennett, I will laud him for considering issues that go beyond Dennett’s cramped cognitive playbook on religion:

It is difficult to exclude the possibility that untrue beliefs have a function that is not linked to their truth. Perhaps what is important is not whether religious beliefs are true, but that they are specific to that religion. That is, religious beliefs act as a ‘badge of identity’ for that religion that is difficult to fake. It would be easy for adherants to that religion to learn the weird and wonderful tenets of that religion, but difficult for outsiders. Thus beliefs could be the means of working out whether a person is safe to trust. If this was their function, they would necessarily have to be arbitrary so that they could not be worked out through logic.

In this excerpt, Troop has touched on two well-known theories of religion. The first, which is Durkheimian, takes it empirically for granted that religious ideas and beliefs are untrue. But if they are untrue, how could they have persisted over evolutionary time? If these errors and falsehoods had no function or purpose, they would have been winnowed and eventually eliminated by natural selection. Yet this has not happened (and will probably never happen). Why? Because, as Durkheim argues in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, religious rituals and ideas serve social-cohesive functions: they bind people together into communities.

The second is the costly signaling theory of religion, the best known proponent of which is anthropologist Richard Sosis. While signaling theory has its attractions and some empirical support, this support usually derives from high-cost and high-intensity religious groups that are relatively small and will probably remain small due to excessive costs. Whether these would have been operative in ancestral or animist environments is an open question.

Signaling theory is of course rooted in ritual, which is a cornerstone of Durkheiminan theories of religion. In The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim (2008), Robert Bellah has a brilliant chapter on “Durkheim and Ritual” which revolves around these passages from Terrence Deacon’s equally brilliant Symbolic Species — The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain:

The near synchrony in human prehistory of the first increase of brain size, the first appearance of stone tools for hunting and butchery, and a considerable reduction in sexual dimorphism is not a coincidence. These changes are interdependent. All are symptoms of a fundamental restructuring of the hominid adaptation, which resulted in a significant change in feeding ecology, a radical change in social structure, and an unprecedented (indeed, revolutionary) change in representational abilities. The very first symbols ever thought, or acted out, or uttered on the face of the earth grew out of this socio-ecological dilemma, and so they may not have been very much like speech. They also probably required considerable complexity of social organization to bring the unprepared brains of these apes to comprehend fully what they meant.

Symbolic culture was a response to a reproductive problem that only symbols could solve: the imperative of representing a social contract.

Sexual or mating displays are incapable of referring to what might be, or should be. This information can only be given expression symbolically. The pair bonding in the human lineage is essentially a promise, or rather a set of promises that must be made public. These not only determine what behaviors are probable in the future, but more important, they implicitly determine which future behaviors are allowed and not allowed; that is, which are defined as cheating and may result in retaliation.

Ritualized support is also essential to ensure that all members of the group understand the newly established contract and will behave accordingly. As in peacemaking, demonstrating that these relationships exist and providing some way of marking them for future reference so that they can be invoked and enforced demand the explicit presentation of supportive indices, not just from reproductive partners but from all significant kin and group members.

It’s not just Deacon and Bellah who see the human ability to make and keep promises as central to symbolic-social life. As I noted in this post, Nietzsche also argued that our ancestors were able to transcend their primal instincts — and become “human” — only when they acquired the ability to promise.

There is something really important in all this, and it reminds me that I need to read Bernard Chapais’ Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society (2010).

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7 thoughts on “Anthropology’s Ritualist Hour

  1. Sabio Lantz

    I linked to Troop’s article too. Many atheists (and indeed, theists too) feel religion is all about belief. Troop points out how beliefs may be embraced for signaling devices more than for value as empirical/historical truths. I hope to re-read your writings in the next year and make real simple tables of theories on the various functions of religions so the Believers-in-Belief-Priority (BIBPs) can expand their views of religion perhaps. Well, that is unless you supply more succinct, annotated bullet lists before me.

  2. Cris Post author

    Ritualistic or not, there has always been a high price to pay for not sharing in hunter-gatherer societies. Ostracism for failing to share usually amounts to a death sentence.

  3. Chris Tolworthy

    ” It would be easy for adherents to that religion to learn the weird and wonderful tenets of that religion, but difficult for outsiders. Thus beliefs could be the means of working out whether a person is safe to trust”

    I had experience of that just a few hours ago.A non-religious friend is writing a book. He sent me a page where he refers to the beliefs of various world religions regarding land rights. What he wrote was evidently based on some encyclopedia: He said “Christians believe X” – and in that one short sentence he marked himself as an outsider. No Christian I know would say “Christians believe…” They would say “the church teaches” or “Leviticus 25 says” or they might give some reason or explanation. But none of the Christians I know would say “Christians believe…” Its just a small example, but everything an outsider says marks them out as an outsider.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    @ Chris Tolworthy,
    I meet lots of Christians on-line who say “Christians believe …” or “Christianity says …”. Catholics may phrase it, “the church teaches….” and Evangelicals with Bible knowledge may even quote a passage to support a belief. Sometimes it is merely a way to add weight of authority to a statement — but when a nonbeliever hears it, it can do the opposite. Or it may be just a signal to say “I am a good person, and like other believers do what is right, and what is right is what my religion teaches.” <— all in one subconscious breath! :-)

  5. Chris Tolworthy

    @Sabio – Now that you mention it, you are right. I suppose I was reflecting my “in group” as a former apologist. My friend’s comment was naively simplistic and could be destroyed by any rookie apologist. He wrote as if “this proves my point, I will move on”, but to anybody with experience of trying tp persuade Christians it said “I do not understand this bear pit and would not last five minutes if somebody disagreed” :)

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