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When ancient rituals became religion

Believe, Enchant

On the reasons and processes through which ancient rites became the organized, institutional cults we call religions...

The emergence of religions irreversibly changed the history of humanity. It’s therefore essential to ask when and how did ancient peoples’ rituals become organized systems of thought, each with their own rules, philosophies, cosmogonies, and forms of adoration and worship. Some experts are inclined to think that religions were created not just as ways to explain the inexplicable and to make sense of the suffering in human experience, but also to guide our interpersonal ties and to nurture our collective cohesion.

One such expert is the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University. Whitehouse believes that many of our ways of explaining the emergence of religions are insufficient and simplistic. His work, open as it is to a myriad of other disciplines (history, ethnology, and evolutionary psychology, among others), has involved decades of collaboration among academics from around the world working to refine the scientific study of human religions.

Having taken an interest in the traditional beliefs of the peoples of Papua, New Guinea, Whitehouse developed his own theory. It’s one which he applies to rituals: practices capable of providing identity to a community and creating bonds among its members. In studying the rituals of New Guinean cultures, he noticed that painful or difficult rituals, like some initiatory rites, mark an individual for the rest of his or her life, becoming an essential part of a person’s self- narrative, and providing a sense of belonging to the community.

Whitehouse’s theories have generated multiple debates and have led him to travel the world lecturing on them. In a recent interview by Steve Paulson for Nautilus, Whitehouse spoke of his recent studies in Brazil, on the binding effect of football in that country, and on topics of interest such as the psychological power of God in a society, and the difficulty of defining the term, religion, even today.

In speaking of the definition of religion, Whitehouse explains that the term is frequently used to name myriad other things: belief in one or more gods, belief in a life after death, sorcery, rituals, and even altered states of consciousness. Archaeologists, in studying ancient religions, look for clues to ritual activity and ways to establish the frequency of these practices. Examples might be the presence of images of deities and other elements in tombs. (These almost always involve a belief in life after death.) Animal remains in specific places can indicate feasts or ritual feasts. From these, experts have been able to establish the early stages of religions, and they’ve concluded, for example, that the more frequent a social group’s rituals, the more clearly hierarchical is its religion.

On rituals involving pain and trauma, physical and psychological, Whitehouse explains that these are usually less frequent than pain-free rituals, and often have an initiatory aspect. Such rituals function as a way of uniting groups through resistance, an unconscious message that ensures “if we’re united, we can survive any pain, any challenge.”

To explain the origins and possible reasons for the emergence of religions, Whitehouse uses football as the example resulting from his recent studies in Brazil. Religions emerge to explain unexplained events, but they also serve as a sort of amulet when undertaking risky feats, much as fans of a football team often wear amulets and lucky clothing to matches. Players perform all kinds of rituals before taking a free shot, for example. Through this humorous metaphor, Whitehouse explains the resemblance between religions and their rituals, and the psychological fanaticism in football.

Within his discussion of the emergence of religions, another important element is language. Without it, doctrinal systems couldn’t exist and couldn’t have been transmitted. Whitehouse emphasizes the importance of dreams (possible in the brains of many mammals) in the emergence of creation myths. Many of them must have come about, in effect, in people’s dreams.

The transformation of hunter and nomad societies into sedentary, agriculture-based peoples—and all the resulting changes in the sizes and structures of social groups—is another factor Whitehouse cites. Being in a large group of people, facing dangers like attacks from still other peoples, hostility from nature, or dangerous animals, religion is born as a form of cohesion within the group, and can be seen as a survival mechanism.

Thus rituals, which centuries and centuries later transformed into religions, began as mechanisms for the unification of human groups. They were also, of course, a way for people to relate to what we’ve called sacred. Such rituals, in bigger religions, would eventually turn into practices like attending mass, in the case of Christian religions, or praying five times a day, in the case of Islamic ones. Knowing this can invite multiple reflections. One of them might be related to the importance of the social aspect of the human essence —that which has led us to achieve our best as a species, to this day, presents a challenge to the whole of humanity.

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