Rediscovering ritual

Religious practice has declined in the United States. The share of the population describing themselves as religious fell from 65 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2017.1 The share affiliated with any specific religion fell from 84 percent in 2007 to 71 percent in 2021.2 During that period, the share affiliated with Christianity fell from 78 percent to 63 percent.

However, the decline in religious affiliation was not accompanied by an equivalent rise in atheism or agnosticism.3 While the share describing themselves as religious fell by 11 percentage points, the share describing themselves as spiritual fell by only 3 percentage points, from 78 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2017.4

The decline in religious practice was a decline in formal aspects of religion like ritual. Ritual does not obviously transform the world in a constructive way, and some may have abandoned religious practice because they see little value in ritual. However, ritual is a powerful tool for shaping our lives.

Our lives reflect our attitudes. When Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he does not cite a commandment governing behavior. Instead, he cites two commandments addressing attitude.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37 – 40 ESV)

The Law and the Prophets refer to the other instructions in Hebrew scripture. Those instructions depend on the commandments Jesus cites because the behavior they prescribe is the behavior that proper attitudes would induce.

Ritual is a powerful tool for shaping our lives because it is a powerful tool for shaping our attitudes. In the Bible, God makes a covenant with the nation of Israel under which Israel agrees to keep the Mosaic Law, which includes instructions for rituals. Among the rituals prescribed in the Mosaic Law are animal sacrifices, including those made in atonement for sin.

If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally…and realizes his guilt…he shall bring for his offering a goat…for his sin which he has committed.  And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill the sin offering….  And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:27 – 31 ESV)

By laying a hand on the head of the animal, the sinner identifies with it, and when the animal killed, the punishment for the sinner falls symbolically on it. Sin was also acknowledged through several other rituals, including a sacrifice offered on behalf of all of Israel on the Day of Atonement.

Sacrifice is also mandated for the Passover celebration. In the Bible, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases Israel from slavery after a series of punishments culminating in a deadly plague. That plague passes over the house of Israelites who have sacrificed a lamb and marked their doorframe with its blood. The lamb is eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, a meal to be repeated by future generations.

When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony.  And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”  (Exodus 12:25 – 27)

These sacrifices provide Israel with the opportunity to humbly acknowledge their sin and gratefully remember their salvation. Through the rituals of the Mosaic Law, Israel could practice the proper attitudes toward God. When Israel eventually falls away from God, the prophet Hosea rebukes them for failing to maintain those attitudes, saying,

Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. Therefore…my judgment goes forth…. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:4 – 6 ESV)

Modern Christians perform a ritual closely related to both the sin and Passover sacrifices. Christians believe those sacrifices presage the death of Jesus. As punishment for sin fell symbolically on the animals sacrificed, when he is crucified the punishment for the sins of Christians falls on Jesus. Paul writes,

…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23 – 25 NIV)

As punishment from God passed over the houses of ancient Israel because of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, punishment passes over Christians because of the crucifixion of Jesus. Before his death, Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples and warns them of what will come. At the meal, he breaks bread and distributes it to them, calling it is his body and telling them to eat it. Similarly, he shares wine with them, saying,

Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood…, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:27 – 28 ESV)

Christians revisit that meal through a ritual called variously Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.  The name “Eucharist” derives from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving,” and, as with the sacrifices of ancient Israel, the ritual provides Christians with an opportunity to humbly acknowledge their sin and gratefully remember their salvation. In a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul rebukes them harshly for failures of attitude in implementing the ritual, writing,

…when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse….  When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat…. Whoever…eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup…. (1 Corinthians 11:17 – 28 ESV)

In the Bible, Israel embraces God but later falls away. A similar pattern holds for each of us as we improve our attitudes but later regress. When Hosea rebukes Israel for falling away, he tells them that God wants steadfast love, not sacrifice. Rituals like the sacrifices of ancient Israel and the Communion of modern Christians are tools for making good attitudes steadfast.

Ritual can be empty if we overlook the relationship between ritual and attitude. Some may have discarded empty ritual by leaving organized religion. To discard empty ritual is a kind of progress, but to discover the power of ritual is greater progress.

  1. Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz, “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious,” Pew Research Center, September 6, 2017,
  2. Gregory A. Smith, About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated (Pew Research Center, 2021),
  3. Smith, About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.
  4. Lipka and Gecewicz, “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious.”

On criticism

When someone tells you something is wrong, they’re usually right.  When they tell you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong.

Kevin Kelly, Excellent Advice for Living

Knowledge versus wisdom

The Tao Te Ching presents the basic principles of Taoism in just a few dozen short versions. The Chinese word “tao” means way, and Taoism provides guidance for living in a way that corresponds with the way of the universe. The text was written thousands of years ago and is attributed to Lao Tzu, a name that can be translated as “Old Master.”

In the time since it was written, the world has changed dramatically, with an explosion of new technology that has greatly improved standards of living. Given the benefits of technology, we may be surprised to find technology viewed skeptically in the Tao Te Ching, where we read,

Let every state be simple
like a small village with few people
There may be tools to speed things up
ten or a hundred times
yet no one will care to use them
There may be boats and carriages
yet they will remain without riders…1

Technology enables us to obtain more of what we desire. However, obtaining more of what we desire may not be sufficient to live well. The Tao Te Ching warns,

There is no greater loss than losing Tao
No greater curse than desire
No greater tragedy than discontentment
No greater fault than selfishness2

To live well, we must desire well. We must be wise. In the Tao Te Ching, to be wise is to relinquish desire. We find a skeptical view of technology in the Tao Te Ching because we may use technology in the service of desires we have failed to relinquish.

Continue reading “Knowledge versus wisdom”

Think and be rich

In 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich, a book that would sell millions of copies. In it, he writes that he has learned the key to becoming rich from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Hill writes that we have complete control over only our own thoughts and must begin our journey to riches by using that control to inflame in ourselves a desire for money. With characteristic exuberance, he concludes,

The Master Key is intangible, but it is powerful! It is the privilege of creating, in your own mind, a BURNING DESIRE for a definite form of riches. There is no penalty for the use of the Key, but there is a price you must pay if you do not use it. The price is FAILURE.1

Hill prescribes a daily practice that will keep the flame burning. He instructs readers to write down the amount of money they want, when they want it, and their plan for getting it. The statements are then to be read aloud twice per day, once after waking in the morning and once before sleeping in the evening, while readers visualize themselves in possession of the money.

If you truly DESIRE money so keenly that your desire is an obsession, you will have no difficulty in convincing yourself that you will acquire it…. You may as well know, right here, that you can never have riches in great quantities, UNLESS you can work yourself into a white heat of DESIRE for money, and actually BELIEVE you will possess it.2

The valuable insight at the heart of the book is that our desires do not simply happen to us. Hill saw that we can shape our desires, and by shaping our desires, we can shape our circumstances. However, the idea that we can shape our desires long predates Hill, and some of the implications recognized by others are in tension with his guidance. Continue reading “Think and be rich”

Good versus evil versus good

The philosopher Confucius advised rulers in ancient China, emphasizing the role of virtue in a flourishing society. The Analects record an exchange in which the Duke of She describes to Confucius a man of outstanding virtue, saying, “Among my people there is one we call ‘Upright Gong.’ When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities.”1

The response from Confucius must have been as surprising to the Duke of She as it was to me. Instead of complimenting the integrity of Upright Gong, Confucius replies, “Among my people, those we consider ‘upright’ are different from this: fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. ‘Uprightness’ is to be found in this.”

Political debate often involves moral claims, and political causes are increasingly characterized as demands for justice of one kind or another. Confucius promoted an approach to governance based on moral evaluation, and we see an illustration of Confucian moral reasoning in the story of Upright Gong. Although some aspects of the story reflect specifically Confucian values, the story also illustrates a style of moral reasoning useful for evaluating modern demands for justice of various kinds.

Continue reading “Good versus evil versus good”

Hanlon’s Razor

In philosophy, a “razor” is a simple rule for cutting away potential explanations. The most famous razor is Ockham’s, named after a Franciscan friar of the fourteenth century, which holds, roughly, that simpler theories are better. Similar principles were endorsed before William of Ockham by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and after him by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Of less distinguished intellectual pedigree is Hanlon’s Razor, which first appeared in Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! Murphy’s Law is, of course, the principle that if anything can go wrong, it will. The book is a collection of similar principles, the second book in what became a series, and begins with DiGiovanni’s Law in the preface: “The number of Laws will expand to fill the publishing space available.”1

Hanlon’s Razor was submitted by Robert Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania as part of a contest; his prize was ten copies of the book. Like Murphy’s Law, it is something of a joke, but, like many good jokes, it is one with a kernel of insight. It is a principle for choosing among potential explanations for the behavior of others: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”2

The management of ambiguity is a central challenge in science and philosophy. Evidence is often amenable to a wide range of explanations, and we must choose how to allocate our attention among them. Rules like Ockham’s Razor help us to identify the possibilities that warrant the most attention.

The management of ambiguity also plays a central role in our relationships. The same behavior can arise from good or bad motives. Hanlon’s Razor is a rule for allocating attention among potential explanations for the behavior of others. Care about the motives we impute to others can improve our relationships with them. By changing how we assess their choices, care about the motives we impute to others can also, like Ockham’s Razor, improve our understanding of the world. Continue reading “Hanlon’s Razor”

On self-cultivation

The gentleman maintains his own self-cultivation and so the world is at peace.  The problem with other people is that they abandon their own fields and weed the fields of others.  They demand much of others, while putting little responsibility on themselves.

Mengzi, 7B:32