When Emile Durkheim proclaimed, in Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), that collective rituals functioned to maintain the cohesion of groups or society, it was as if God had spoken. It did not take long for Durkheim’s diktat to become enshrined as the received wisdom in anthropology, sociology, and religious studies. I have always been amazed by the unquestioning acceptance of this idea and the rapidity with which it was adopted by scholars who are normally (or at least should be) skeptical. The notion is so deeply entrenched today that few bother to question it.
It may well be true that collective rituals function in this way, but I’ve never seen any actual proof. While the idea feels correct and appears to accord with observation, feelings and appearances can be deceptive. I’ve long thought that the closest thing we have to proof on this issue comes from Nazi Germany, where the regime deliberately and systematically promoted group rituals in the name of collective solidarity. While it seems to have worked, this is a post hoc and qualitative assessment. It is, in other words, subjective history.
I’ve also long been suspicious of the ritual-solidarity idea because of its origins and later use by scholars with a pro-religion agenda. Though few are aware of the fact, Durkheim lifted this concept from William Robertson Smith’s Religion of the Semites (1889). While Smith was a brilliant scholar, he was also a deeply committed Christian who was, for much of his life, embroiled in theological disputes. His understanding of ritual was, as a result, part of a larger debate. This does not, of course, invalidate the idea but it should cause us to question it.
Even better, the idea could be tested. As Science Nordic reports, this has — apparently for the first time — been done:
A popular explanation of [group commitment] is that we humans form bonds and find a shared identity through collective rituals. This explanation has now been confirmed experimentally for the first time by a group of researchers headed by Dmitri Xygalatas of the Interacting Minds Centre (IMC) at Aarhus University, Denmark. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, was conducted on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It concludes that the locals who watch or participate in the annual Kavadi ritual subsequently experience a stronger sense of attachment to society.
Though I have not yet read the study and its methods section, the Science Nordic description causes some concern. Unless study participants were randomly assigned to rituals of differing intensity, they may have had prior preferences which biased the results. Controlling for this self-selection bias would be critical and I’m confident the authors thought of this and did so.
If any readers have the time and inclination to scrutinize the study and would like to report on it, I’ll be happy to post it here.