the Culture Bomb

Myth, Symbol, and Ritual

When somebody says they are spiritual, what does that mean? Essentially, a spiritual person tends to believe that they are more than their physical body. It is held separate from religion in that spirituality is the essence of one’s personal connection to “source”. People who say they are spiritual, tend to not ascribe to a particular religion, but still believe there is something out there in the ether. Whereas religion constitutes the memetic set of beliefs that tie a community together, through the use of myths, symbols and rituals.

When viewing humanity in the prescientific world, it’s important to note that people were not less intelligent because they didn’t know the earth was round, or that humans evolved from apes. They simply didn’t have the same point of technological reference as we have now. Not to mention the political, economical and sociological memes. Anybody who has surveyed history can see quite clearly that civilization evolves and becomes more complex, by and large it becomes more liberal as well. Still, they were just as smart, just as creative, and their world-view is just as important to understand as ours is today. So to answer the questions they had as they reflected on who they were and the world they lived in, they developed mythologies. Sacred stories that told of the origin of the world and humankind, the existence and activities of gods and spirits, origins concerning their traditions, illness and death, how to behave, and how to distinguish between good and evil.

When you think of myths, most likely Greek and Roman mythology come to mind. We often forget that these mythologies were once the vibrant religious beliefs of the greatest empires of the western world. Myths are thought to recount real historical events that took place in some distant past. This line of logic leads us to include Christianity’s Holy Bible, Judaism’s Torah, and Islam’s Koran as the stories that make up these religions mythology. To adherents of these religions, these mythologies explain, “who we are, why we are here, how we should behave, and what our relationship to the world is.”

Now that a group of people have the stories that define them as a community, symbolism is introduced to reinforce that sense of solidarity. A symbol is something that stands for something else. Language is symbolic, various speech sounds which create combinations to formulate words which have meaning. Speaking the same language as those around you provides a clear sense of community. Through language one can recite religious narratives, that an outsider to that religion would be unfamiliar with. When someone walks around with a t-shirt on that says, “John 3:16” that is a symbol that Christians identify with. Non-Christians obviously are unfamiliar unless they’ve done their own personal study. What are some other symbols you can think of? The crucifix, “The Last Supper” painting, the Star of David, an Ankh, Yin Yang Symbol, Pentacle, Star and Crescent, etc.

The swastika is a popular symbol in Hinduism, commonly used as a charm to bring good fortune. It is also a Native American symbol of the sun. However in western culture when people see the swastika we automatically attribute negative connotation to it as it was the symbol of the Nazi party. Interestingly enough, the Nazis believed that the German people were the descendants of the ancient Aryan people, the original “white” race that invaded India. And while much is unclear about the Aryans and the Harappan civilization, it is widely believed that the Aryans were actually Persian. Good job Adolf!

Now humans have a tendency to want to further ingratiate themselves into a particular community. Believing the same story, speaking the same language, and dressing in a similar fashion sometimes just won’t do. And that is the point that ritual enters the fold. It’s what we see, belief in action. Rituals turn beliefs into experience. An example is the Jewish circumcision, bar and bat mitvahs, Shabbat. In Christianity we see baptism, communion, prayers before meals, etc. How about the Islamic Hajj, 5 daily prayers, or observing religious holidays and traditions like Passover, Ramadan and Lent. Muslims establish a strong sense of community as they are fasting all day, suffering together and rejoicing together as they break fast. These traditions are memetic rituals that have established and continue to reinforce the beliefs of a religion as prescribed in the mythology, represented by the symbolic expression of language and art.

While it may be a natural, genetic expression of humanity to seek out a higher power, as geneticist Dean Hamer postulates in his often criticized book, “The God Gene,” it is most certainly a memetic expression of humanity to identify our singular spirituality with part of the larger whole. By taking note of all the fragmentation which exists within particular religions, putting more emphasis on certain myths, symbols and rituals while deemphasizing others, a picture begins to be painted likening religious fragments as a series of socio-Galapagos Islands for natural memetic selection. Various religions spreading memes through the community, each one vying for your commitment to spread the memes (to your children), and your financial support. And people tend to do what they are told because, their soul is at stake. This, can be a dangerous meme. It is what Dan Dennett explains in his TEDtalk on dangerous memes. These memes will hijack your brain and soon enough you are just going through the routine the memes have laid out before you, not knowing or even caring why you do what you do. I compact these explanation on dangerous memes into this article on religious anthropology because, as evidenced throughout history and most recently in the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, people are more likely to get indoctrinating memes not from the source material, but from religious officials.

 And this is where distortion of values and extremism takes root. Every major religion on the planet is a religion of peace, of love and of harmony. But, it is a struggle to be peaceful, loving and harmonious with your fellow man when there is such competition. And so, not every representative of a particular religion even truly represents that religion. Remember that every translation is an interpretation. Much like Hitler’s use of the swastika as a symbol of the Nazi party, how many interpretations of the interpretations must a religion go through before it is unrecognizable to the original adherents?

This entry was published on October 1, 2010 at 2:32 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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