Fundamentalists do not Understand Ritual

Fundamentalists want to be scientists. It is their most obvious flaw. They do not want to change careers, but rather, wish to supplant science as the primary source of fact. This rises from a deep-seated insecurity about what religion is, and where it fits in the modern world.

To be fair, religion has been getting a bad rap since the enlightenment. Many a prestigious academic has publicly denounced religion as nothing more than superstition and a relic of the past. Where once we filled the gaps in our knowledge with God, we now comfortably leave them open and wait for the next brilliant scientist to come along and give us the answers we need. Education correlates with agnosticism and atheism, and many educated people are proud to announce that the truth has set them free…from religion.

The reason religion has been pushed aside is clear; it is factually incorrect. Where once religious institutions were the source of all credible knowledge, now universities and the internet fill that role. To both the religious and academics, this appeared to be a great loss; celebrated by some, mourned by others.

But it is not a great loss. In truth, this is a blessing. Cutting a clear divide between Is and Ought severed a massive tumor off of religion. For too long had truth and fact been mingled together, like sweet and salt water; useless to drink. Religion was bloated and overbearing by trying to assert it knew everything. This is not the way it should be.

Terranism celebrates science’s grip on fact. Why wouldn’t it? The scientific establishment has proven itself far better at finding fact than any religion of the past or present. Religion should bow to science in matters of fact and proudly stride in a different direction. Myth and ritual are the tools at religion’s disposal, the foundation upon which the temple of the soul is consecrated. Now that religious institutions have been relieved of fact, they can focus on truth.

Fundamentalists cannot do this. They have deeply unhealthy relationships with their myths and rituals; simultaneously robbing them of their power and guarding them anxiously. They wish their myths were history, or that their rituals were consistent and verifiable. Riddled with insecurity about what makes their institutions useful, they twist their tools into weapons, prisons, or trash.

Speaking from my experience growing up in Seventh-Day Adventism, there are few functioning rituals left. I was reminded regularly by devout people that communion was “just a symbol” and that it held no power. The bread was just bread, the wine (grape juice) just wine. This was in an effort to distance themselves from Catholicism, which assert that during communion, the bread and wine transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ. In an effort to distance themselves from Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventism robbed itself of one of its most powerful rituals. The foot-washing ritual was given a similar treatment, degrading the potential of the ritual by asserting it is “just a symbol.”

The reason for this is twofold. The first is that Seventh-Day Adventists, and fundamentalists more broadly, want to assert their myths are history. Their myths aren’t “everywhen,” capable of being accessed through appropriate ritual procedure. No, they are history, an event that had happened and can never happen again. In this way, the rituals are downgraded to memorials, simple reminders of the tale. Adventism’s foot-washing ritual cannot be anything more than an echo of a tale long past, rather than participation with an event which is always happening.

The second reason is that fundamentalists want their rituals to work in a way they cannot. They wish their ritual to work like machinery; repeatable, consistent, and empirical. They wish that they could reach a scientific consensus about how their ritual can and should work. So they flock to testimonials and mission stories about miracles, while avoiding testing the powers themselves. They want to have faith, so they avoid testing their faith. In avoidance, they pre-emptively defend their rituals by making claims that, “it’s just a symbol,” or “it’s meant to remind you of the story,” rather than proudly accepting magical power.

As far as my experience takes me, the one functional ritual fundamentalists have left is prayer. The myth tells us that Jesus is in the heavenly sanctuary listening to our prayers, and the ritual of prayer follows directly. Even still, most devout people pray incorrectly. There is a tendency to pray to God about things, rather than about yourself. The most successful prayers are familiar; speaking as if to a loving parent or attentive friend. Honesty goes a long way in these prayers. As syntheists, we can see that honesty to God about your struggles, fears, and hatreds serves to allow the devotee to be honest with themselves. It is a mechanism for self-reflection and introspection. Sadly, even this ritual is poorly practiced by many fundamentalists. Instead of seeking communion with God, many pray for blessings on themselves or curses on others. It is a shame that the one functional ritual they have left is barely practiced properly.

Insecurity is the driving force of these defensive positions. Science’s success feels like an affront to the fundamentalist mind because their religion must be factually correct. And so they celebrate science only as far as it produces technology, and resist it when it tries to teach them. Creationism, climate change denial, faith healers, the prosperity gospel, and anti-intellectualism, are all symptoms of this central issue. In an effort to mimic science and academia, they prove themselves fools.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. My experience as a fundamentalist left me with a few glimmers of what religion could be. Growing up, prayer was a deeply important part of my life. Many times prayer gave me comfort when theology frightened me. God was always closer than the pastors who said my eternal life was on the line. In many ways, God helped me deconvert. My faith in God gave me the strength to examine what I believed.

This faith was not abstracted, it was practiced. Prayer was my practice, and it brought me a lot of good. Even as an Atheist I prayed to God. It was nonsense logically, but practically it made perfect sense. While knowing that God did not exist, prayer remained an effective ritual. It brought me peace, gave me time to introspect, and centered me when my life was chaotic. That single ritual, simple as it is, showed me that there is more to ritual than just factual correctness.

Ritual is about participation, it is not about being correct. When doing a ritual, you are participating with events, places, species, truths, and most importantly, community. It is a way of vitally engaging with the universe. It is a means to audit, guide, and tune yourself. It is powerful.

These are lessons the fundamentalist world sorely need to learn. Finding pride in their myths is a step towards healthy religion and away from science envy. The more religions accept themselves and embrace their proper place, the more we can focus on making the world better rather than debunking them constantly.

Debunking fundamentalists will not solve their science envy and insecurity. Showing them where religion is strong is the path forward.

Further Study:

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