After almost two years of studying anthropology intensively, I've come to a realization: I'm really, really uncomfortable with religion and ritual, to the point of even avoiding lectures about them. I've spent very little time in churches, and of course there are few rituals in American society that happen outside of church. The time I have spent was largely forced, in a primitivist Pentacostal sect of the early 1980s - not really a comfortable environment to become comfortable with the idea, particularly as a child. Personally, I'm an atheist, adopting a Stoic sort of life-philosophy rather than a religion. However, I do feel like church attendance would be helpful for becoming more flexible in regard to ritual and religion and perhaps gain a better understanding of it. Not a really high-ritual sort of church, but maybe the local unitarian congregation. Would this be productive? I'm not sure. Still thinking about it. Hmm.

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Comment by Larry Stout on December 11, 2012 at 4:14pm

Hi, Kate!

Depression is linked to social isolation: the psychologists tell us that we are psychically geared to being a group member.  The group, according to various cultural standards, practices ostracism of the notably atypical in order to reinforce group cohesion.  Acadamecians apparently agree that religions fall into one or the other of two fundamental types: ritualistic or doctrinal; I suppose that even unitarians might be considered ritualistic, in that they evince a "style".  I myself am non-religious, which distances me from believers of all kinds, and makes for less than completely comfortable social intercourse between us (effectively taboo subjects of conversation).  We have a lighted Christmas tree now showing from our living room window, which in our case is culturally, but not religiously, ritualistic -- certainly not doctrinal!  :>)

Comment by Alice C. Linsley on November 20, 2012 at 9:01pm

Your aversion is more natural than most realize.  Rudolp Otto wrote about human anxiety when confronted with the Holy.

Comment by Kate Wood on November 10, 2012 at 9:19am

Haha, no. You might think so, but this is definitely another country to me. Maybe a bit Canadian though.

Comment by John McCreery on November 10, 2012 at 9:18am

I am starting to get silly, but does this aversion to making the private public make you feel very British?

Comment by Kate Wood on November 10, 2012 at 8:48am

Thanks for the insights, John. I've spent most of the day considering the stage fright question, and actually I'm not sure. I think it has more to do with making the private, public. Pentecostal services (my main experience of religious ritual) tend to be very much about publicizing the private - speaking in tongues, shouting out, etc. This was never something I was comfortable with, even as a child. So it's like there's this one category of formalized activity that I don't really feel at home with (independent of belief).

Comment by John McCreery on November 10, 2012 at 1:35am

Kate, I mention stage fright because I suffered from it for most of my childhood and well into my early adulthood. Growing up short, fat, clumsy, astigmatic, I always felt inept in social situations and avoided them as much as I could. The interesting thing is that, in contrast, church-related ritual usually felt good. Why? It was so clearly structured that I could learn how to do it. Also, once learned, it was generally what everyone else was doing, with no need to try to stick out or excel. Very different that from being a wallflower at a school dance, too shy to ask someone to dance and nervously sure that I would mess things up if anyone ever agreed to dance with me.

Come to think of it, though, playing trombone in the high school band was yet another situation. By intensive practice I could excel—I was first trombone for my last two years and made state band as well. Here the difference was that I had good instruction. I didn't have to figure out what to do by myself. In a broader sense that was true of schooling in general. I might feel shy and awkward, always an outsider with my peers. But bookworm that I was, I could be a damned good student, make good grades, get into a good college, that sort of thing. 

Then I got very lucky. On my first day of graduate school I went to see Jack Roberts, the only Cornell professor I knew personally (I had just been part of his summer seminar in quantitative anthropology) and asked him what I should be taking my first semester. I will never forget his answer, "John, the whole point of being a graduate student is to stop being a student." He then pointed out the window toward the university library and said, "Go find out what you're interested in." It was the first time that anyone had ever suggested to me that instead of being a student, doing well whatever the teacher told me to do, I could choose to do things on my own and become a teacher's peer.

What' that got to do with ritual? To me it's the start of a process (I could run on forever) by which I have gotten use to thinking of ritual as a structure with multiple thresholds and boundaries, some more flexible than others, some that I may be able to ignore, a framing for lived poetry, like a haiku—always seventeen syllables in three lines with a limited range of seasonal words, some of which have to be included; but an infinite number of poems, some extraordinarily good. 

Comment by John McCreery on November 9, 2012 at 2:34pm

Kate, thank you so much for answering. I like that phrase "the ritual of the unusual." It suggests the importance of a distinction that Leach's extended meaning of "ritual" ignores, the difference between formalized behavior that interrupts the everyday as opposed to the routines that constitute the everyday. Am I wrong to imagine that it is the interruption, the sense of being on the spot, a kind of stage fright that lies at the heart of your aversion?

Comment by Kate Wood on November 9, 2012 at 2:26pm

I'm allergic to parties and avoid them whenever possible, When forced to attend, I usually dress as appropriate, but spend most of the time seeking out cats, children, or books, or talking to the people I already know. I'm terribly socialized, I'm afraid. (And yes, I do get what you're getting at - I am drawing a distinction between the ritual of the everyday and the ritual of the unusual, and it's definitely the unusual that gets to me.)

Comment by John McCreery on November 9, 2012 at 2:23pm

Kate, do you enjoy getting dressed up for parties? Or is that also too formal?

Comment by Kate Wood on November 9, 2012 at 2:20pm

John, I do indeed mean formalized ritual (of the sort often associated with religion, but also extending to graduation ceremonies, which I keep skipping, and so on). 


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