How are rituals transmitted?

So far in the chapter, we have mainly considered how rituals are learned and represented. Next, we focus on how rituals are transmitted from one generation to the next. This question is vital because if rituals are not remembered, they will not be transmitted, and will cease to exist. One answer was proposed by the “Modes of Religiosity” (MOR) theory, developed by social anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. MOR theory is concerned with the fundamental questions of how rituals are transmitted and how they relate to the scale and structure of the communities within which they are embedded.

Modes of religiosity (MOR)

Whitehouse’s ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s originally inspired the Modes of Religiosity' (MOR) theory (see the case study at the end of this chapter for more information). One group (the Pomio Kivung) was a large movement with highly repetitive rituals and public speeches. Smaller breakaway movements also popped up from time to time within the Pomio Kivung and consisted of emotionally intense rituals and ordeals. Whitehouse’s theory purports to explain a set of general patterns of group formation in ritual groups around the world and across history.

Whitehouse observed that rituals tended to form into two characteristic patterns, and these patterns were also related to the transmission of religion and even socio-political organization.45 Whitehouse called these two patterns “modes of religiosity. ” At the heart of MOR’s theory is the claim that these differences are guided in part by the way crucial aspects of the religion are remembered and transmitted. Thus, memory systems constrain the types of rituals we see throughout religious communities. Characteristic of the CSR approach, MOR theory attributes a central role to human cognition.

Whitehouse described one mode as “doctrinal.” Like the mainstream Pomio Kivung, the rituals in the doctrinal mode tended to entail low sensory pageantry and low levels of emotional arousal among the participants. Rituals tended to be performed frequently, emphasizing the repetition of doctrine, as well as the meanings of the rituals (exegesis). Based on research on memory processes in psychology at the time, Whitehouse surmised that these types of

Harvey Whitehouse’s career began by carrying out immersive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea using conventional ethnographic methods

Figure 9.3 Harvey Whitehouse’s career began by carrying out immersive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea using conventional ethnographic methods. He later teamed with other researchers in adjacent fields and focused on uncovering the psycho-social foundations of rituals. Today, he carries out surveys and experiments alongside qualitative methods in the field, as depicted in the recent picture taken in a small village on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. (Image credit: Veronika Rybanska).

ritual actions were encoded in implicit procedural memory even though doctrine and exegesis were stored in explicit memory systems. Think about driving a car or reciting a long poem; these tasks are complicated at first and require much concentration. However, eventually, they become effortless because you do them so often. Likewise, frequent repetition of ritual procedures, from genuflecting and self-crossing to collective chanting and marching, enables them to become sedimented in procedural memory. Meanwhile, the continual repetition of doctrines and narratives enable people to remember them in semantic memory as part of their long-term general knowledge. Consider Catholic mass in Ireland. If you ask any Irish Catholic what notable events happened at mass last week, they are probably more likely to scratch their heads. They will, however, be able to tell you what generally happens at mass each week and even recite scripture performed during rituals, such as The Rosary or Lord’s Prayer, effortlessly (see Figure 9.4). Details of these more typical elements are often shared in semantic memory by large numbers of religious adherents.

Example of how ritual frequency gives rise to other psycho-socio-political aspects in the doctrinal mode

Figure 9.4 Example of how ritual frequency gives rise to other psycho-socio-political aspects in the doctrinal mode.

These cognitive features of the doctrinal mode have important consequences for cultural transmission. Since the doctrinal mode codifies religious teaching in oratory and text, it is capable of spreading rapidly and efficiently to large populations. Moreover, frequent repetition makes it easy to spot deviations from the orthodoxy stored in semantic memory. At the same time, reliance on implicit scripts for routinized rituals suppresses exegetical reflection, making innovation less likely. All these factors contribute to the stabilization of homogenized regional traditions.47 However, since semantic memory for the group’s identity markers is not anchored in personally lived experiences, doctrinal group alignments do not tap into a personal agency. Social psychologists refer to “identification” as a depersonalizing form of affiliation to the group, in which activation of the social identity makes the personal selfless salient."4

Further, this combination of features also enables the emergence of specialist religious leaders and large anonymous communities with centralized authority. The emphasis on an elaborated body of teachings encourages the rise of experts and orators and the need for policing, although partly met by peer pressure and nonnative tightness, also fosters the emergence of priestly hierarchies. Figure 9.4, shows some of the ways in which all these different elements are connected.

The second mode, “imagistic” describes the splinter groups that Whitehouse witnessed in Papua New Guinea. This mode is characterized by the coalescence of different features than the doctrinal mode (see Figure 9.5). Rituals in the imagistic mode tend to be infrequent and are characterized by high sensory pageantry. These experiences are highly salient among the participants, which makes them stored as vivid, episodic flashbulb-like memories. Consider a meaningful, emotional, and infrequent event in your life, such as childbirth, marriage, perhaps a tragedy, or even where you were during a significant event, like when Princess Diana died in a fatal car crash in Paris or the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. You are likely to remember the details of the event, and with the case of painful personal experiences, primarily reflect that the events unfolded the way they did for a reason.

These kinds of personal experiences also have significant consequences for social cohesion. Whitehouse and colleagues have argued that the imagistic mode involves the establishment of personally salient episodic memories that come to form part of the essential autobiographical self. When such memories are shared with a group, it creates a fusion of personal and group identities, increasing group cohesion. Whitehouse further proposes that these kinds of salient rituals, which characterize the imagistic mode, are not accompanied by elaborate doctrine learned from elders or priests. Instead, they often lead people to privately reflect on the meaning of the ritual based upon their personal experiences.

Whitehouse calls this individualized process of meaning-making “spontaneous exegetical reflection” (SER). This pathway to religious knowledge discourages the emergence of centralized leadership and instead binds together small groups of people who have gone through the rituals together. Examples of these types of rituals include rites of passage—such as initiation rituals to

Example of how ritual frequency gives rise to other psycho-socio-political aspects in the imagistic mode

Figure 9.5 Example of how ritual frequency gives rise to other psycho-socio-political aspects in the imagistic mode.

demark a change in people’s social status, common in small-scale traditional societies.4 These rituals typically include traumatic ordeals, such as extended periods of isolation, piercing, burning, and scarification.50