Robert Bellah argues that religion is underpinned and preceded by ritual – but that does not make all ritual religious
If you treat religion as a natural phenomenon, as Robert Bellah did, two things follow. The first is that what we observe will not have clear or logical boundaries. This means that what constitutes a religion is really quite hard to specify even if it is fairly easy to recognise. The second point is that any of the social phenomena or psychological phenomena we are interested in will have a history. In some aspects this will be an evolutionary history. What we have will have developed from earlier forms, and the capacities we use will have evolved from earlier ones.
This is most obvious in the case of language. It’s reasonable to say that there could be no religion without a language – reasonable, but hardly inarguable. A great many of the experiences we think of as quintessentially religious come without language, mystical ones in particular. (I know it is perfectly possible for an atheist to have mystical experiences and to shape their life around them while denying them any theological explanation. So it would clearly be wrong to say that mystical experiences enforce any particular religious position. That’s not the point.)
Nonetheless, even wordless religious experiences are embedded in language. Animals without language might have proto-religious experiences, but these are clearly not the same as those which a linguistically competent human has. The primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh once described to me a line of chimpanzees staring in apparent bliss at a sunset – something which might be a root of some of our perceptions of the world as ineffable and infinitely valuable. But the chimpanzees will never tell stories about it, and never try to embed the experience in a web of explicit meanings. Both of those things must form part of any religious experience.
So the emergence of language must have preceded the emergence of religion. Bellah, however, moved towards the view that ritual preceded both, and made both possible. This is a very large claim for ritual. It is made in compressed form in the big book Religion in Human Evolution, and in an earlier, more spacious way in the paper Durkheim and Ritual, reprinted in the Robert Bellah reader.
Essentially, he argues that shared attention directed through repetitive and stereotyped actions is the essence of ritual, and that it is also at the root of all human learning, including the transactions between a mother and her baby. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the extraordinarily ritualised proto-language that we use when communicating with babies. When practised between two people, ritual and play give rise to love, whether sexual, parental, or simply between friends. When practised in larger groups, ritual and play give us religion and language.
This is a very compressed version of the argument. I have for instance entirely left out his speculations on the importance of music in the process, although they are also relevant to language acquisition, as anyone who talks to toddlers will tell you. But it carries the minimum we need to understand his approach to the question of what religion is.
Talking about the importance of ritual in this way is frequently attacked as a way to defend the relevance of religion in a world where it is (or merely ought to be) irrelevant. It looks like special pleading. Passages such as this: “Since ritual, for Durkheim, is primarily about the sacred in a sense in which the religious and the social are almost interchangeable, subsequent work … might be seen as disclosing an element of the sacred, and thus of the religious, at the very basis of social action of any kind,” lend strength to the suspicion that this is just a way to make sociologists look as if they had the key to all mythologies, something no other scientists, of course, would ever do.
But the suspicion is importantly misplaced. To show that the earliest religions arise from the same processes as the ritual capabilities which make us distinctively human, is not an argument that everything which subsequently evolved using those capabilities must be religious.
The sense in which Bellah’s claim seems to me really important, as well as quite right, is that it undercuts the idea that there is a special “religious” mode of irrationality – a mind virus, if you will – that could be eradicated and leave the rest of our humanity intact and purified. On the contrary, if you could remove the roots of religion, you remove the roots of humanity, too. Ritual and narrative are the basic ways by which we learn what it is to be human, and I don’t think it’s grotesque imperialism to regard arguments about which rituals and narratives are truly religious ones – whether or not their conclusions are atheistic.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/30fb614e/sc/4/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Ccommentisfree0Cbelief0C20A130Csep0C0A90Cwhat0Eis0Ereligion0Erole0Eof0Eritual/story01.htm