Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Rituals, Faith and Happiness

I like rituals! It was very lovely to be invited for Haldi KumKum to a friend’s house recently. As a child I liked the tradition at our house when on 24th December the Christmas tree was lit for the first time of the season. I would not have seen it by then, mum would open a window and ring a little bell, and I, charged with the energy of a whole day’s build-up of expectation, would dash in only to find that the Holy Child was again faster than me, already had unloaded the presents and left by the open window.

It is a bit different when the whole thing shifts into the clerical area. Churches easily touch me emotionally – oh, these guys knew how to build in order to create atmosphere. But all the humbug that is performed in these buildings is just not for me. While my childhood Christmas ritual was to create a fairytale moment before reality of life would hit hard, church rituals feel like indoctrination to me. I hated the singing and mumbling, the guided concourse through the subject of the week, performed in an old language nobody properly understands. One might say: ‘Well, you go to conferences where a speaker covers a subject in a similar way and might be wasting an hour of your valuable time.’ Correct! But there I am allowed to leave, to question, to discuss, to even dismiss.

Rituals might create an atmosphere of belonging, as a drawback they create group pressure, though. Proper rituals involve more than one person, meaning that if one is skipping the game the other ones usually get upset. This is no different whether you skip your poker round, the Sunday lunch or your faith. Or is it?

For the poker round one usually is replaceable, and if the people one is playing with are real friends, then one still can have a drink with them. Sunday lunch involves family and one is not replaceable, at least not easily. One might only find out the truth of it when the will is revealed and the fortunes will benefit the cat. It however becomes really tricky when faith is involved. Religion always plays with ‘What If?’. I might be in doubt, I might not feel free in my decisions, I might even know that some of the doctrine is wrong – but What If that all doesn’t matter and me leaving the congregation would have the worst of all effects on me, my loved ones, my life and my afterlife – like purgatory, or so?

I could just make my peace with purgatory. I like it warm anyway. And if I would decide for myself that there is no afterlife and eternity, then the problem goes away in a jiffy. But oh no! People who found religious groups and sects know what they are doing. They usually try to get hold of the whole family structure... and all of a sudden the table is turning. Knowing that a mum couldn’t bear the thought of her only child burning in hell for eternity, and knowing that she would deeply feel that thought burn in her heart... Who would be able to do that to her? Luckily my parents were on my side, and even grandma was rather open to criticism of faith. But I got lucky not to have children of my own. Baptism would have been out of the question for me, for granny it would have been hard to come round to the thought of her grandchild not being baptised - What If...

And there we are looking at another eccentricity of those rituals. They help create social status. In the old days a child had to have as many godfathers, best with high status, as possible. Firstly then the child would be cared for and accepted into a network of opportunities the godfathers would provide, and secondly the parents would show to the public that they are closely involved with so many important people. In the catholic South of Germany you can see this phenomenon in the number of forenames a child had. Every godfather would add his and for some reason boys usually have more than girls. I am wondering why that is?

So now imagine me eventually having produced the long expected son, the family would have lined up a decent row of godfathers and I would say: ‘I give a sh...!’

That is just not what you do! The consequences would be that your – and the boy’s – inheritance would go to the cat, all the future opportunities for the kid would be blown out of the window, and your parents including the rest of the family would be dishonoured.

It is one thing to choose social isolation for oneself, but in this case one has responsibilities for another person...

... and this way the church has caught another soul to be dragged through the rituals for further indoctrination.

These days a lot of societies in the world already have changed, or are about to change. It is much easier now to take choices in the Western world, even countries with strong traditions like India see change, and the younger generation is rebelling – and more and more often winning.

Thing just is: One might think that people who these days join religions believe that they were developed to provide safety and protection in their society, and would hence make them happier - or at least that is what they are hoping for. Looking around me it however seems that the advantages and the constraints weigh each other off. I see really happy and really unhappy people at both ends of the faith spectrum. So what is the whole fuss then about?

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