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Easter and Passover Supply Spirituality, Ritual, and Community
While pondering perennial questions over these highest of high holy days, even an atheist has to wonder. What is it that religion delivers that satisfies our deepest human yearnings so effectively that few secular alternatives can compete?
You might say eternal life. But that’s an easy claim to make and an awfully tough one to verify. Or maybe personal revelation. Yet unless you’ve been individually touched by the Holy Ghost, such reports can be hard to distinguish from schizophrenia.
No, even a diehard rationalist with no room for the supernatural has to acknowledge the very powerful and entirely natural phenomenon of religion, as well as the markets that arise for competing religious ideas. But what drives all this?
The avowed agnostic and celebrated 20th century economist F. A. Hayek may have explained it best in the final chapter of his book The Fatal Conceit. “Perhaps what many people mean in speaking of God is just a personification of that tradition of morals or values that keeps their community alive.”
Hayek thus identifies the core value proposition of religion – constructing community. Those that succeed are still with us. Those that failed are gone.
A craving for community may well be wired into our DNA, making us predisposed to its binding ties. But scaling communities beyond the reach of kinship requires synthetic, marketable mechanisms that allow us to identify the “other” as one of “us” instead of “them.”
Markets are most effective when populated with the widest variety of participants that can exchange the fruits of their labor at low transactions costs. This is how civilization progresses. Religion is one of the earliest ways that humanity learned to build large scale trust networks, developing techniques proven to work up to a billion members.
Of course, creating even a billion of “us” still leaves a lot of “them” to contend with. Ever since the ascendance of the vengeful and jealous gods of monotheism much blood has been spilled trying to stamp out heretical religious beliefs.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. Four generations? Now there’s a god that really knows how to hold a grudge. This sets quite an example in doublethink considering his modern disciples preach the virtue of forgiveness.
The list of outrages practiced in the name of religion is long, but a few suffice to make the point. Consider the ten plagues Yahweh visited upon the Pharaoh’s hapless subjects in his battle for supremacy against rival gods. Or the imprecatory 109th psalm calling down god’s wrath upon non-believers. And how can you not help but shudder when reading about contemporary Islamic fatwas, wondering what might happen when these medieval people get their hands on an atomic bomb?
To the modern mind, this aspect of religion is not pretty. And yet most believers somehow manage to brush these horrors aside, finding it easier to blame the strife on other religions and their false prophets rather than questioning their own.
Thankfully, the nation state - no slouch in creating strife - has also learned to construct communities, building markets that embrace billions. Though vastly attenuated, religion still holds sway over the minds of millions living comfortably under the sovereignty of secular governments. In order to survive rulers both benign and hostile, religion has gotten pretty good at perpetuating itself using a powerful technique called ritual.
There is something profoundly comforting about repeating familiar ceremonies designed to bind us to each other, the past, and the future, even for non-believers. Nation states may try to compete through the singing of anthems, the flying of flags, and reciting of pledges. But the theatrical richness and sacred totems of religious rituals remain unsurpassed in their mystery and power.
But rituals are more than just shared showmanship. The most profound transmit memes that might otherwise be rejected by skeptical minds. For example, when was the last time you celebrated human sacrifice by practicing symbolic cannibalism without even realizing what you were doing? Or perhaps you’ve recently enjoyed a wonderful family dinner commemorating the vicious divine destruction of thousands of innocent children without feeling bad that their only crime was being born into the wrong tribe at the wrong time. The magic of ritual is that the outlandish only sounds repulsive when you describe it in a matter-of-fact way. So most people just don’t.
And finally, there is spirituality. Spirituality is the transcendent trump card of religion. Let’s face it; no one feels comfortable contemplating mortality, or living within the lonely boundaries of their own flesh. These are the eternal questions of life. Yes, we can achieve partial escape from the former through our children and grandchildren. And the fortunate and faithful can gain temporary respite from the latter through loving sex with their life partners. But reliably delivering an uplifting, out-of-body spiritual experience is religion’s neatest trick.
There are secular alternatives. Many seek spirituality through the use of mind-altering substances. Others through art or music. But only religion has branded and packaged spirituality in a way that can be mass marketed to everyman through a professional clergy using a repeatable formula that has yet to be trumped by any secular competitor. Bundle spirituality with ritual and community and you have a potent product proven to stand the test of time. Thousands of years, even.
No disrespect intended. Just trying to provoke some thought. Happy holidays.
Bill Frezza is a Boston-based writer and venture capitalist. If you would like to subscribe to his weekly column drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like Bill to speak at your trade group or corporate function, drop him an email at email@example.com.