Religion As Ritual

Religion As Ritual

The view that religion consists in ritual alone does not result from a study of the more highly developed religions.

In these ritual may be very important and have a prominent place ; but no one, probably, would maintain that they ever make ritual their sole content to the exclusion of creed. The theory springs rather from an examination of the religions of the lower culture : the evidence for it is “ anthropological ” in the common sense of that word.

Anthropologists sometimes lay down the principle that the beliefs of primitive peoples are less worth studying than their practices. All ceremonial, whether of primitive or advanced religion, is definite and instructive ; but to question a savage as to his creed is at best a waste of time, since his powers alike of self-analysis and of selfexpression are rudimentary, and at worst, for the same reasons, positively misleading. How valuable this principle is every one must recognise who has compared its practical results with those of the old- fashioned catechising method. But in order to explain its value, anthropologists have sometimes been led to assert that religion primarily consists in ritual alone, and that dogma or creed is at first non-existent, and only arises later through the invention of “ ætiological myth.

The important thing, we are told, is that a savage does such and such actions at such and such times ; the story he tells, when pressed by an inquiring neophyte or a privileged stranger to explain why he does them, is a subsequent accretion and no part of the real religious impulse. Now this explanatory story or ætiological myth is supposed to be the germ which develops into creed ; and therefore it follows that creed, with all its theological and philosophical developments, is not an integral part of any religion at all.

Such a position, however plausible it may seem at first sight, involves a host of difficulties. To begin with, it is at least unsafe to assume that religion in us is essentially the same as religion in the savage. No proof of this is forthcoming. It may well be the case that the emphasis we lay on creed has quite transformed religion, so that it is to us a different thing, incapable of explanation by analogy with that of the savage.

Thus anthropologists tell us that the purpose of clothing, in the most primitive culture, is to attract the eye, evil or otherwise, of the spectator ; not to keep out the weather. Am I therefore to resist the inclination to wear a greatcoat when I go to the post on a wet night, on the ground that it is a mere freak of vanity, and useless because no one will see me ? Even if the account of savage religion is true, it does not follow that it is a true account of the religion of other cultures. It is useless to appeal to the principle, if principle it is, that to understand a thing we must know its history and origin ; for if religion has really undergone a radical change, that principle is a mere cloak for giving irrelevant information : the history offered is the history of something else.

Secondly, such an account of savage religion itself seems to be incomplete. It fails to give any reason why the savage practises his ritual, for ex hypothesi the ætiological myth only gives a fictitious reason. No doubt it is possible to say that there is no reason at all, that he has no motive, no special feelings, impelling him to these ceremonies. And it may be true that the accounts given by savages of their motive in ritual are unsatisfactory and inconsistent. But ritual is not mere motiveless play. If it is ritual at all, some definite importance is attached to it ; it is felt to have a value and to be obligatory or necessary.

What is the nature of this importance which the savage attaches to his ritual ? It cannot be a mere “ feeling of importance ” in the abstract ; such a feeling is not a possibility. However difficult it may be to explain why we feel something to be important, there must be an expressible reason for our feeling ; for instance, the belief that this ritual averts evil consequences of actions done, or ensures benefits of some kind. It is not necessary that the conception be very sharply defined ; but some such conception necessarily underlies every ritual action, and indeed every other action that is not regarded as an end in itself. Ritual is not in this sense an end in itself ; it is not performed as a pleasure but as a necessity ; often as practised by savages a most painful and expensive necessity

If we could get at the savage’s real mind, he would surely reply, when we asked him why he performed certain ceremonies, that otherwise crops would fail, rain would not fall, the spirits which surrround his path and his bed would turn against him. These fears constitute, or rather imply and express, the savage’s creed. They, and not ætiological myth, are the germ which develops into creed as we know it.

They differ from ætiological myth precisely in this, that whereas they are the real motive of ritual, the latter expresses not the real motive but a fanciful motive, invented when the self-analysis of the primitive mind has failed to discover the real one. That it should try to discover its motive is inevitable ; that it should fail to do so is not surprising. Nothing is more difficult than to give a reasonable answer to the question why we behave as we do. And the anthropologist is right in refusing to take such myths as really accounting for ritual ; he is only wrong if his dissatisfaction with fanciful accounts makes him doubt the possibility of a true and adequate account.

The point, then, which is independent of any view as to the relation of magic and religion, because it applies to both alike, is that ceremonial is based on creed. It is not the foundation of creed ; it depends upon it. The word creed is here used in a quite rudimentary sense, as indicating any theory of the nature of the power which governs the universe. You perform a ritual act because you believe that it pleases that power and induces it to make rain, or compels it to make rain, or simply makes rain come automatically ; whatever particular form your creed takes, it is always creed and nothing but creed that impels you to ritual.

The principle of the centrality of ritual and the secondary nature of belief seems thus to be a result of insufficient analysis ; and though we have examined it only in its relation to savage religion, it is equally true of all religion that ritual is explicable by, and founded in, positive creed ; and that apart from creed ritual would always be meaningless and unmotived.