“Folk Religion”: Ritual as Memory Device and Communal R & D

(Ritual has made an essential contribution to human solidarity. In Dan Dennett’s Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena, the early workings of Ritual are described as part of the origin of Culture, itself. There is a big difference between biological evolution and cultural change. These early rituals, were they “religious”? They were many things at once —language creation, creation of group identities, myth-making, creation and clarification of social roles, and the beginning of abstract thought — all included in what Dennett broadly calls, “folk” religion. But does religion still have a useful role to play?)

(This post is an improved version of its forbearer; it has evolved. There are now five posts on Religion based on Dennett’s book, the first is “Believing in Believing in God” —see “Religion” section in Menu. Page references in this post are occasionally add to enable further inquiry.)

Vervet monkeys are the most successfully studied primate in their natural habitat, according to Jarod Diamond in his The Third Chimpanzee. For example, they have a call for “eagle” and the troupe looks up; a different call for “cat” and the troupe runs up a tree. Nice; these “calls” are the origin of language, but ya gotta love those hairdos! They remind me of the Nuns that taught me at Assumption Grade School in the 1960s.

In the wilds of East Africa, Vervet monkeys have been observed to have as many as a dozen very specific calls, each with its referent, and each consistently responded to. But how did we get from a handful of conditioned communicative calls to the use of thousands of words built up into phrases, sentences, and scientific theories? It is like the old joke about “How to get to Symphony Hall?”, the answer, “Practice, son, practice!”

Ritual as Research and Development

Ritual was the bridge from biology to culture. That is a bold statement, but nothing living ever completely escapes biology, and why would we want it to? To seek nourishment, to avoid harm, to feel, to want, to enjoy, to nurture, surely is what life is about. But, a limitation is imposed upon us by “the biological point of view”; it is a limitation of goal and purpose. For biology, the goal is to successfully reproduce. Through the use of ritual, early humans — and maybe even proto-humans — began to imagine more possibilities for life!

The classic depiction of H. sapiens Cro-Magnon. Evidence clearly suggests these early humans were the first to have more complex language, a variety of tools and art, some 40,000 years ago. Painting from Lascaux Cave in France.

Early language-formation and ritual are probably closely tied. The basic phonemes of language were discovered in ritualistic events, I believe, but this a little beyond Dennett’s direct contention. And, with language in development, benefits started to accrue. “Language gave us the power to remind ourselves of things not currently present to our senses, to dwell on topics that would otherwise be elusive, and this brought into focus a virtual world of imagination”, writes Dennett. And, for our ancestors, Ritual was a “persistent —even obsessive— rehearsal and elaboration of some of their habits of thought.”(p.114). I contend that many of the basic skills of language where worked out in ritualistic events.

Celtic Druids “Gathering the Sacred Mistletoe”, hand colored engraving. A highly esteemed social class in ancient Ireland, England and France, the Druids were religious leaders, political advisors, healers, and keepers of the ancient lore. Their “oral literature” was forbidden to be recorded in writing, even though written language was eventually available to them. Julius Caesar was one of the first to record any information about the Druids in his Commentary on the Gaelic Wars written in 50 BCE.

Oral language must be relatively easy to remember. Some few ‘words’ may have started as separate ‘calls’ but in the end, words cannot be unrelated and totally dissimilar to each other. There must be a system to words, it seems, in which a small group of standardized sounds (phonemes) are used repeatedly and built into various combinations. Standardized parts, these sounds, eventually form root words and even suffixes and prefixes. It took much time and practice to pound out language as a Digital System, contends Dan Dennett (p.149), almost 40,000 years of practice. Much of that work took place in communal ritual.

Section from the 18th century engraving by S.F. Ravenet, Conversion of The Druids to Christianity. The term “Druid” comes from Indo-European roots meaning “Oak-seer” or “Oak-knower.” In the first century C.E., the Druids and Druidic rituals were actively and successfully suppressed by the Romans in their provinces. The Druids, they were ‘into’ their trees and plants.

These early efforts in the development of language continue today with its ongoing growth, decay, and even extinction. Some speculate that one day every person on our planet will speak the same language. Yet now, Ritual has expanded far beyond any tie to Religion. Ritual exists in music, politics, science, education and various social ceremonies from birth to death to baseball.

A comic look at the Tree of Language Development by Minna Sundberg from My Modern Met site.

What is one of the most shocking aspects of Digitization is its tolerance. For example, no one makes the “buh” sound of “B” exactly the same as other English speakers, nor even exactly the same from one time to the next, yet almost all attempts ‘count as’ and are heard as, “B”. Dennett points out that bows, genuflections, and kowtows are never exactly ‘the same’ either, yet there is a general and expected range ‘that counts’ and there are even flourishes or new modifications that catch on and become fads and sometimes the new model of acceptability.

Neutrinos discovered. In a universe of these kinds of subatomic particles, what could a Mind possibly be? A neutrino is so small and evasive that it could travel through a mass of the metal lead several miles thick without interference. A Mind is not in that kind of a physical world. That is a Separate Vocabulary from the way and the circumstances in which we speak of minds. As physicist Sean Carroll contends, our best way to characterize The Big Picture is to talk of the physical world of physics, and then the many ways We find it useful to describe that world as it is real and useful to us from our human perspective. “Mind” is those particular perspectives laying beyond the physics perspective, but necessary to understand our situation.

Words, genuflections, and various other forms of ritual are what Dennett calls “Memes.” Memes are the stuff Mind is made of: Shared Behavioral Habits — our words, our clothing styles, our music, our cuisine and our industry. Mind is, like digitization above, a tolerant range of acceptability, a way ‘to take’ the physical world, but also a setting of limits. And The Minds we know of, and participate in — even going back into their origin in animals and plants — are all limited to a Particular Point of View, we can say. That which is outside that point of view, that range of sensitivity and awareness, we can now call “noise” or vagueness or even “cognitive dissonance” when it is most severe.

Social Custom, as “language”, “religion”, “art” and “industry”, is all a limited perspective for “us”, our group, or some particular group. We are lucky to have them, but surely our Cro-Mag ancestors never made the specific distinctions we are used to. “Religion”, “language”, “art”, “mate selection”, “social order”, and “industry” were common to them, but each activity was involved with the other and all were probably one, to them. It is in that sense that “Folk Religion” was a single and vague activity, but one fraught with varied and highly emotive implications.

Homo sapiens neanderthal lived and interacted with our ancestors and still has lingering segments of DNA in our population. They became extinct at about the time of language origination, some 30 to 40,000 years ago. They are thought to have had only limited language, limited tool-making and no evidence of art. In a thousand years there are about 50 human generations. So, 40,000 times 50 equals 2,000,000 generations of humans since the passing of these, our cousins. That number of generations is a lot of “passing on” but also a lot of opportunity for shuffling, variation, loss, and refinement. Lack of language ability may have contributed to Neanderthal’s extinction.

Ritual as Memory Device

How did ‘we’ remember these new found social habits? After all, no one was taking notes! Communication, itself, was being discovered. Incredibly, Dennett explains the functioning of ritual as similar to the “copying fidelity” of computers (146). It is the “majority rules strategy” that mathematician John von Neumann applied to engineering, but which had long been known and utilized previously. It is called “multiplexing”, Dennett says. For example, before the days of radios, navigators at sea on long voyages would always use three chronometers (time pieces that are highly accurate in spite of motion, temperature and other variables). If only one was used, how would you know it was accurate? If two, how to know which was accurate if they started to diverge? Three allows the majority to rule if divergence occurs. It is highly unlikely that two devises would both go wrong and wrong in the same way at the same time.

In ritual, people acting in unison work in the same way. No one needs to know the entire chant or dance or prayer, but the majority of participants at any one point will know, and any minority divergence will quickly correct back to the majority. (This was the rule I always used in my church-going years! Is it time to stand now or kneel? Just follow the congregation.) “It is no accident that religions all have occasions on which adherents come together to act in public unison in rituals…Any religion without such occasions would already be extinct” (Dennett, 147).

Ritual in Africa. Even with the coming of Christianity and Islam to Africa, many converts have not totally given up on their traditional African religious beliefs and rituals. Many “still turn to their local gods for help with traditional problems and situations.” (Quote and photo from Geography web site.)

Language, itself, was probably discovered in rudimentary form and then expanded, refined, memorized and passed on in this manner. Customs and what we would call “practical activities” were also re-enacted and rehearsed in ritual. The hunt, mate-selection, social organization, healing, birth and burial were all taken up symbolically in ritual. Oral Traditions were developed and “tales” of origins and ancestors were established. Dennett quotes researcher Scott Atran, “Humans, it appears, are the only animals that spontaneously engage in creative, rhythmic bodily coordination to enhance possibilities for cooperation” (141).

“Come on baby, let’s do the Twist…ya do it like this…ya, do the Twist!” sang Chubby Checkers in 1960. The Twist is “creative, rhythmic bodily coordination” that has definitely “enhanced” my “possibilities for cooperation”. My wife loves to dance!

Today we know that songs, prayers, speeches and many kinds of writing utilize rhythm and often rhyme, and this, too, was a discovery or invention long in the making and likely originating in forms of Ritual Events. Rhythm and rhyme are also memory aides and attention devises and like language had no individual inventor.

Rhythm and rhyme are memory aides, for example: Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. First printed In The New England Primer. This primer was first published in about 1690 and was designed for use in the colonies. It replaced The Bible as the foundation of American education before 1800. Who has not heard it; who has not remembered it? The ritual of prayer, combined with rhythm and rhyme.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I ‘wake’,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Ritual from around the world and through time. Ritual is the Communal search for, and establishment of, Shared Behavioral Habits. These Shared Habits of attention, concern and coordinated behavior, build upon our biological needs and abilities to establish what we commonly consider today as “Human Mind”.

Remember, Mind is distinct from Brain! No Brain which is free of Acculturation wants to play Baseball!

Playing Together: “Take me out to the ball game. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don’t care if I ever go back…Just take, take, me out to the ball game!” is sung by the fans during “The Seventh Inning Stretch”

Highlighting the Things We Do Together! Why? Because We are, at heart, Together!

Working Together: Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit Museum Mural (section of) created with his wife, Frida Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo, self-portrait.

The Connection: “Keep on Truck’n!”

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