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Post No.: 0657ceremonies


Fluffystealthkitten says:


Some religious ceremonies, rites or rituals aren’t euphoric or pleasant but cause dysphoric, painful or frightening negative emotions in their participants. There are, or have been, religious practices around the world where devotees suspend themselves on metal hooks, or put themselves through self-flagellation or scarification, for example.


The religious reason forwarded might be to seek approval of the spirits, to feel closer to one’s God or to mourn the death of an important figure, for example. But one practical reason may be to further unconsciously break down the boundaries of the individual in order to help them feel fused to their collective group, and in turn instil greater pro-social tendencies in them towards members of their own group. Post No.: 0387 explored how following a religion can bring various practical benefits that may not be the benefits that are communicated by those who proselytise their own particular faiths and practices.


The empathy of pain can make us feel more compassionate, as long as there is a release from the pain; which there is once a painful ceremony is over. And the more dysphoric or painful a ceremony, the more charitable giving is predicted. People who personally know what great pain feels like have a tendency to be more empathic, charitable and pro-social.


Painful ceremonies also result in endorphin highs, and participants can actually, in what may appear paradoxical, feel more enraptured – indeed euphoric – and less tired than mere spectators, which could make such practices somewhat addictive (like runners with the ‘runners’ high’). The emotional and physiological states of both participants and spectators are however generally aligned, which means that spectators of such dysphoric events can somewhat feel bonded with the group too.


In all kinds of contexts, religious or not – people do feel more bonded after experiencing a strong emotional event together regardless of how these people felt about each other before, as long as in this event they weren’t in direct opposition with each other (e.g. people experiencing firsthand the same destructive natural disaster together). And this is why cultural systems of all kinds try to exploit this effect (e.g. by having national days of remembrance or celebration).


Cognitive dissonance may also be employed by the individual to try to explain why they have voluntarily performed such a dysphoric, torturous, dangerous, wasteful or even embarrassing ritual – and their rationalisation is that they really must like the group and their ideology; and then the sunk cost effect may make it harder for them to want to later defect from the group too. This has parallels with hazing ceremonies in other organisations like college sororities or fraternities, which suggests that these practices can sometimes be manipulative. The greater the cost to enter a group – having then entered this group – the more one will find this group interesting and their views correct, even if the cost was by assignment or arbitrariness rather than from an un-coerced, voluntary choice.


People who share what’s perceived to be a relatively unique suffering, prejudice or injustice can form a kind of tacit sisterhood and/or brotherhood where the members will feel more ready to help each other out, even if they’re complete strangers (e.g. members of the transgender community).


The same ingroup pro-social effects do not reliably emerge from ceremonies that emphasise euphoric or positive affect rather than dysphoric affect. Thus if you’re planning a charity fundraising event – a genuinely seriously arduous, daunting challenge may be more effective than, say, a charity ball or relaxing walk. Observers will also notice your commitment to a cause by virtue of how much agony you’ll go through to support it (a CRED or credibility enhancing display).


And because most of these effects occur below or beyond the level of awareness – overt teachings about compassion or cooperation may be less effective than what type of practices members participate in. Therefore better than trying to teach compassion through words is to make people actually experience temporary suffering for themselves. So instead of teaching mere verbal lessons to your children – let them visit and live a week in the life of a consenting family who is less well-off or less fortunate than your family, or let them experience how it is like to not have a washing machine or dishwasher (i.e. they must chip in to wash everything by hand like many children in ‘developing’ countries must), for example. There’s no better way to empathise with something than to do things that make one directly personally feel that something.


Many ceremonial forms involve an agent purrforming an act for the purrpose of a receiver and requesting or believing that carrying out this act will bring about some sort of non-natural consequence. Either the agent or the receiver will be supernatural or believed to be supernatural (e.g. a god or one’s dead ancestors), with the other being a living human(s) (e.g. an ordinary person or religious leader).


Typically, when the agent is supernatural and the recipient is human, such ceremonies are only conducted once in one’s lifetime or infrequently (e.g. a baptism) and these tend to be the big special, significant, high-affect, events done with many others present.


In contrast, when the agent is a human and the recipient is supernatural, these ceremonies tend to be the regularly repeated and relatively mundane, low-affect, low-pageantry events that are either conducted alone or with a few others.


‘Doctrinal’ daily rituals are good for learning things such as scriptures and this ritual mode favours standardisation and orthodoxy thus can help a religion gain structure and scale in size. Meanwhile, the ‘imagistic’ infrequent but high-arousal (whether euphoric or dysphoric) ritual events are good for binding small groups together and this ritual mode can promote identity fusion and efficiently create a sense of ‘family’ amongst followers. But these latter types of events can potentially lead to a spontaneous exegesis (critical interpretation) and generation of novel ideas as participants try to explain the intense events with each other, which can act in tension with the ‘doctrinal’ modes of ritual that help to standardise and stabilise a religion’s tenets.


Therefore most religious systems will alternate between performing both types of rituals. Imagistic rituals create episodic memories (we can more clearly remember when and where we were when they happened), whilst doctrinal rituals create semantic memories (such as remembering the verses in a prayer).


Social ‘identity fusion’ (when one’s personal and social self becomes fused) can be created by sharing an important and salient, emotionally intense experience with other devotees (such as via a dysphoric or painful ceremony), or created by a piece and sense of shared history. But although this creates a powerful collective and social identity within a group – when somebody threatens your social identity, it often feels like it’s also a personal attack. So even if somebody doesn’t mock you personally but mocks someone else of your own religion, ethnicity or whatever – that can still somewhat feel like a personal slur against you. And so this feeling contributes to parochial altruism, but also outgroup hostility – one can be willing to pay a big price personally for the sake of serving an ingroup cause, but be incredibly hostile to outsiders in the process.


This isn’t exclusive to religions – nationalism, stirred up by a strong sense of shared national history, can unite citizens of a country but consequently make them more hostile, insular and feel arrogantly superior to members of other nations when it comes to their foreign policies, for example.


Ceremonies, rites or rituals can and do evolve since they’re just cultural memes like any other. For instance, if a significant ceremony where the agent is supernatural doesn’t work, and repeatedly fails to work, a ‘demonically possessed’ scapegoat could be blamed; although this will foment ingroup tensions. Or some practices can become too habitual and cease to become arousing anymore hence the volume of them ramps up over time. But if it all goes too far then the group or religion will collapse, and so significant events evolved to be only conducted very infrequently in order to not make the ritual leader seem ineffective or incompetent and/or the god involved seem powerless, fickle or non-existent, whenever these prayers or sacrifices fail to work.


Reversals of rites are pretty rare apart from divorce – which is actually only a relatively recently evolved cultural meme compared to marriage according to the evidence historians can find. It perhaps evolved due to the overall cost-to-benefit of not allowing a marriage to dissolve in relatively modern day society? Secular solutions can also take over from religious ceremonies to reduce existential anxieties (e.g. no one can prevent a war on their own but we can collectively set up secular international treaties to (try to) encourage peace to be maintained amongst nations and peoples).


Ritual human sacrifice could be a form of social control to both enable or build and maintain or bolster the status of the social elites who mandate these sacrifices. By putting people to death in a way that’s ostensibly divinely decreed, these priests demonstrate that they have absolute authority over their people, and it contributes to a great social hierarchical stratification within the group.


But sacrificing humans has largely culturally been evolved out now, particularly in large societies and where there are now secular systems in place. Capital punishment could however be postulated to be human sacrifice under a different label – the punishment of death for not following prescribed social norms.




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