Rituals, Not Beliefs, Provide Social Glue For Religious Communities

August 24, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Rituals, not shared beliefs, provide the glue that holds together religious communities over a long period of time, says a Penn State sociologist.

"Members of a congregation may assume that they hold common religious beliefs, but it is religious ritual that creates and sustains continued fellowship," says Dr. Daniel B. Lee, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State's DuBois Campus.

"This is a key point for understanding the social structure of religious communities and the relationship between ritual and belief," Lee notes. "While an individual may sincerely hold religious beliefs, a group does not have a common mind and cannot hold any belief. Faith becomes socially relevant through action. Until there is action, religion is socially meaningless."

Lee presented the paper, "On the Social Meaning and Meaninglessness of Religion," today (Aug. 24) at the annual American Sociological Association meeting.

"Many religious groups have never demonstrated a desire to establish common beliefs or an orthodoxy. Common practice is typically the only thing that matters," says Lee. "The Old Order Mennonites and Amish are good examples of this. Despite the well-known and respected behavioral conformity of the two groups, the religious beliefs of members are often fluid and unstructured."

As a case study, Lee has observed the symbols and rituals of Weaverland Mennonites in New York State. For this Old Order congregation, symbols and rituals sustain unity because they completely transcend the individual beliefs of members. The appearance and activity of each person is regulated by the rules of the church. As long as a person conforms to the rules, his personal beliefs are never questioned.

Lee says this same thesis may be applied to all kinds of social groups. It is especially interesting, however, with regard to religious and political groups.

Churches, synagogues, mosques and governments tend to construct rituals to test or demonstrate the faith and allegiance of members. Nonetheless, people can participate in those rituals and symbolically communicate without truly believing or understanding the inspiration that may have been the source of the ritual.

"In the United States, children learn to pray in languages that they do not understand and recite a Pledge of Allegiance that they are unable to explain. In order to be effective sources of social solidarity, the symbols and rituals of a community need to be rule-governed and clearly established. They do not, however, require a common psychology or level of understanding," Lee says.

Among the Weaverland Mennonites, members who disobey the "gospel and the regulations of the church" and who do not repent of their sins are "expelled" from the congregation. If they decide to mend their ways and rejoin the church, they must seek the permission of the bishop to ask for forgiveness in front of the assembled congregation.

"My observation was that members do not feel it important to know specifically which basic belief was transgressed by the action of the erring person," Lee notes. "In fact, during the ritual of reconciliation that I observed, nobody seemed to demonstrate much interest in the interaction between the bishop and the one repenting.

"Apparently, the important thing is that all members remain aware of the regulations of the church and conform to them," notes the Penn State sociologist. The act of reconciliation can be socially meaningful whether or not it is personally meaningful to the individual symbolically demonstrating his repentance."

Weaverland Mennonites do not hold common religious beliefs because they have not attempted to create them, according to Lee. This need tends to first appear when a group begins to have more frequent contact with outsiders. It is only then that defending the faith with stated, explicit rules becomes necessary, he says.

EDITORS: Dr. Lee is at (814) 375-4700 and at dbl6@psu.edu by e-mail.

Penn State

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