This is an essay on the purpose of religion and ritual. The core thesis that I want to put forward is simple: philosophical and moral concepts require a physical backup to take lasting and changing effect. Vice versa do rituals or mere physical exercises require a philosophical backup if their practice intends to support man’s progress. It seems to me that in particular Western societies have abandoned their philosophical and moral foundation in favor of empty physical exercise. Only the combination of both will harvest the desired fruits.
My Oxford desktop dictionary says that religion is  the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods: ideas about the relationship between science and religion  a particular system of faith and worship: the world's great religions  a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion: consumerism is the new religion. None of these definitions seem satisfying nor conclusive, but they serve as an approximation to understand the meaning of a subtle term.
Because life is itself rather progress than stagnation, I want to try another definition: religion is an institutionalized and collective path to God. But such a path, it seems, does not exist. Already the late William James wrote in his 1902 lecture series “The Varieties of Religious Experience” that God is experienced quite individually. I guess that there is some good reason then, why modern man does not talk anymore about religion, but about spirituality. In the modern, individualized world, we – at least in advanced industrial nations - do not flock anymore to the church. We have developed our own eclectic and syncretic worldview and as such our own understanding of our path to God; if we still believe in God in the largest sense possible. We draw from Eastern religions and melt them with our own cultural heritage. We ask Jesus to practice yoga. The German weekly Die Zeit dedicated in 2012 several pages to the question if we are allowed to blend our own religious cocktail, and if yes how much it makes sense to do so. I did miss some aspects in the published articles; in particular, I was not satisfied with the purpose of religion and the role of religious practice thereto.
Religion certainly is a cultural phenomenon and as such similar to sports as an intrinsic part of local and regional cultures. I remember a lengthy and fiery discussion with an Iranian scientist colleague of mine, who claimed that all Israelis are Jews. I objected and tried to make a point in showing the similarity between young Poles and young Israelis who live a modern, secular life. Neither are the first Catholics nor the later Jews; unless of course they want to call themselves like that. Ever since this discussion I am even more positive that religion is part of a culture and permeates life profoundly, but still it needs sincere faith or at least a conscious confession to be part of the religion itself. From a sociological point of view the people who confess in a religion form one of many subsystems within a culture. It’s probably only Islam that wants to see it the other way round.
Religion is an important part of the collective psyche, whether people adhere to a state religion or live in a secular society. State ordained atheism falls under the category state religion. So do sports. I realized this when I went into the Alps for a weekend skiing tour early 2015 after many years without practicing my native country’s national sport. I guess we call it Volkssport in German, because it is almost a state-ordained pastime. Alpine skiing, invented in Lower Austria in the 1920ies is to Austrians what is table tennis to the Chinese and baseball to the Americans. There are many Austrians who don’t ski, they are nevertheless part of the society at large. Orthodox Austrian, i.e. skiers, don’t stigmatize the heretics, but those who are not even interested in passive sports run risk to appear awkward and are excluded from much small talk which greases daily interaction.
I don’t watch much TV and I don’t call myself a mainstream Alpine skier, but I have a deep faith in my national sports. When I went down to our basement to look for my equipment and pulled it out of the protective bag, my fingers glided in a loving manner over the edges of my almost 20 year old Silberpfeil, a limited edition Oxygen snowboard. Already back in 1989 I went heretic because I dropped skiing for snowboarding and only returned to Alpine skiing in the early 2000s because of ski touring. But no matter what snow equipment we believers call our favorite, it is the foreplay ritual of smelling the wax, screwing the bindings and loading the car which connects us in our passion to get onto the white stuff that we dream of. When I get on the blades and find my pace after an hour or so, after adjusting my gear several times and leaving behind the thoughts of work life in the low lands, tranquility enters my mind and the rhythm of each step climbing up the mountain turns into a form of meditation; the sound of squeezed snow or a broken twig into a well known tune. I am at peace. I am performing my ritual. I turn inwards for salvation. After about four hours I reach my destination close to the summit and I am close to tears. I ask myself: why did I quit practicing my religion for such a long time. Why did I turn heretic?
Sports are an essential part of our culture, of our collective and individual psyche. Sports are the playground of the body, and the body is the temple of our soul. Thales of Miletus said mens sana in corpore sano. Sports, practiced with love, passion and moderation are beneficial to health and mind and connect to the soul. The Austrian extreme mountaineer Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner mentioned once in a presentation about her K2 expedition that she found her passion for nature already at a very young age, when the padre in her native village took her and a few other children regularly after the holy Sunday service out on hikes into the surrounding mountains. If we still do worship God after all: Why did we separate the worship of God and nature in most contemporary forms of religious practice although they are one?
What is religion, if we strip off all cultural context? Yet another definition: Religion is a practice of atonement. All religions teach their ways of atonement. Whether it is a breathing practice, a physical exercise or the selling of indulgences. If we thus ask which atonement practice has the profoundest effect, we will find that regular, ritual-like exercise, ideally in nature, brings most relieve to this world of sinners. Why is it then that in particular the monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic tradition have installed an almost clear-cut separation between religion and physical exercise? We are probably still burdened with retard concepts of the dark middle ages, when the human body was considered to be full of shame and by many equaled as a gate to hell; then only mental exercise promised absolution. Lets have a brief look at the exercise rituals in our holy shacks: A Catholic semi-genuflects, a Protestant rises up, a Muslim rolls out his carpet – at least with some frequency – and fully genuflects; only orthodox Jews seem to have understood Pink Floyd and bang their heads against a wall. But none of them practice physical atonement exercises, unless we think of Christian pilgrims or dancing Sufis.
The problem with all these religious rituals is that the religion ordains these exercises to worship their God, to show faith, devotion and humility. Men, who exploited religions, to rule over other men, designed them. Religions, which sincerely and continuously try to support their adherents to progress, designed other forms of exercise. Exercises, which make us feel better like yoga, tai chi, qi gong or breathing meditation; Exercises, which try to balance and integrate mind and body; Exercises which make us capable to listen to the whisperer of the soul.
Western psychotherapy followed unconsciously the patterns of its religious heritage. Like the Abrahamic religions early psychotherapy avoided the body and focused on the mind. It was Wilhelm Reich, a gifted Sigmund Freud student, who broke with his teacher and with the taboo of physical contact between client and therapist. He developed the concept of muscle armoring as the physical counterpart of mental abnormality and started with physiotherapy designed to support psychoanalysis. His character analysis, which integrated body posture with character traits, might be seen as the applied Buddhist concept of Luohan or Arhats as I understood it in several Chinese Buddhist temples. Buddha is depicted as perfect human being, while the Luohan are emotionally, mentally and physically imperfect deviations, which all contain the Buddha nature and have the potential to attain perfection and enter Nirvana.
The long and intimate Reich student Alexander Lowen built up on his teacher’s foundations and developed bioenergetic analysis as a new and widely accepted therapy form. It combines psychoanalysis and physical therapy. The exercises are rather static, but interestingly resemble Tai Chi and Qi Gong postures. Lowen’s holistic approach to body and mind reads as such: Man is the total of his experiences, which are integrated in his personality and built into his body. Like a woodsman who can tell the life of a tree from his growth rings, the bioenergetics therapist can read the story of man from his body. […] One can only grow in the present, if the past is made alive [through psychoanalysis and physical therapy]. If the past is cut off from the present, there can’t be any future.
Lets summarize. The purpose of religion is atonement. Atonement can be achieved by both mental and physical means. An integrated approach heeds empirically speaking the best results. Both Abrahamic religions and Western psychotherapy still focus on the mind rather than the body, therefore Eastern physical exercises like yoga or tai chi have increasingly spread since the 1960ies into the Western hemisphere, because the cultural upheavals after WWII, in particular the sexual revolution of that generation, rejected tradition and moved physical desires into the center of existence. One could say that the liberation of the mind from demonizing the body created a need for spiritual experience though the body. All of a sudden the body turned from gate to hell to gate to heaven. The result is a huge variety of individualistic religious practices and an erosion of the collective religious experience.
It is noteworthy that the most brilliant suggestion from an atheist, Alain de Botton, is that even atheists need more ritualistic and moralistic structure, which they could lend from religion. He also observes that in many religions a philosophical idea is backed up with a physical action. I doubt though that e.g. the Jewish ritual bath, the Mikveh, does have the same effects on mental and physical health as frequent Friday afternoon yoga classes or regular weekend ski touring. I fully agree with him that the repetitive power of rituals has more effect than anything else. Man is a beast of habit. Another colleague of mine once quoted the Talmud: Pay attention to your feelings; for they become your thoughts. Pay attention to your thoughts; for they become your actions. Pay attention to your action; for they become your habits. Pay attention to your habits; for they become your character. Pay attention to your character; for it becomes your destiny. Man needs repetitive rituals if his effort shall make a lasting difference.
The American psychologist Martin Seligman picked up one of Abraham Maslow’s central ideas, which was probably too early in the 1940ies to turn into a mainstream concept, and is widely recognized as the main contemporary proponent of positive psychology. He studies depression as well as positive thinking or how he calls it: learned optimism vs. learned helplessness. In his own words, the developed world experiences an unprecedented epidemic of depression – particularly amongst young people. “Why is it that in a nation (the US) that has more money, more power, more records, more books, and more education, that depression should be more prevalent than it was when the nation was less prosperous and less powerful?”
Seligman claims that depression is a disorder of the I, failing in your own eyes relative to your goals. In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable. Individual failure used to be buffered by the second force, the large “WE”. When our grandparents failed, they had comfortable spiritual furniture to rest in. They had, for the most part, their relationship to God, their relationship to a nation they loved, their relationship to a community and a large extended family. Faith in God, community, nation and the large extended family have all eroded in the last forty years, and the spiritual furniture that we used to sit in has become threadbare.
Seligman’s observation is without doubt the new normal. In times of disappearing external structures, failing welfare systems, faltering economies, dysfunctional and most importantly ultra-small families, it is no surprise that many people feel lost. Viktor Frankl, founder of the Third School of Viennese Psychotherapy summarized this new normal already in 1962 as existential vacuum: no instinct tells him [man] what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism). It is Seligman who recommends cognitive behavioral therapy, i.e. yet another psychologist who gives the well meant advice to treat the mind only. Frankl speaks of habits in a broader sense and includes therefore both: repetitive thoughts, ruminations and repetitive behavior, whether it is compulsive or not.
A friend of mine recently recommended attending a transition retreat in Bali. He focused on the retreat itself, but what got stuck in my mind was his description of Bali’s daily life. He marveled how relieving it was after months of stressful life in Shanghai to watch Balinese women going over their chores, which consist to 30 or 40% of fixed rituals. I get the picture of a society, which still lives a collective life that has been passed down from generation to generation. A society where people know their place and are content therewith. Living an expat life in a foreign culture since several years, I have lost everything that resembles a collective ritual. I don’t miss the Christian traditions, but I feel that I would like to have something instead.
Again looking up my Oxford desktop dictionary: Ritual  a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order: ancient fertility rituals.  a prescribed order for performing a ritual ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or Church. she likes the High Church ritual.  a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone: her visits to Joy became a ritual. Again, I am not sure if I can fully agree with these definitions.
Rituals are repetitive actions, in which we find or at least believe to find structure, order, and a safe harbor to which we can return no matter how stormy the waters of life might be. It does matter though which ritual we pick, because the power of rituals is enormous. They can be both a supportive structure as well as a hideous trap. In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety; it is a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder.
I recall in this context the 2002 movie About Schmidt starring Jack Nickolson. On a very personal note I also recall here my father (who looked very much like Jack Nickolson, but didn’t have that hideous laugh) because his late life taught me a lesson about the trap of ritualistic materialism. He covered his anxiety of losing yet another beloved person in a deep attachment to our home and eventually put it over everything else. I believed to understand some years ago when I was stargazing and a passage of Fritjof Capra’s awesome book The Tao of Physics crossed my mind about the illusion of Maya. The dark out there, I realized, is an analogy of this truth; our visual, sensory world is deceit, is Maya. If we would close our eyes and only follow the whisperer of our soul, life would be like a long glide through universe, where time and space warp into a different dimension. Our beloved ones would give us orientation like the stars on the firmament; and so do our sound rituals. They are our true vectors on the canopy. I don’t talk about the obsessive Sunday morning car wash neurotic; although I feel quite some relieve in this activity since I can’t do it here in China ;) Or think of your neighbor mowing the lawn every Saturday. Or your grandmother checking her husband’s grave every Friday since 30 years. If we exchange people with things, friends with idols, shared rituals with lonely compulsive actions, we are lost in Maya. We know who we are, but we turn into the other extreme of an Alzheimer patient, who has lost his identity and his sense of belonging. Instead of following our heart, we follow an attachment to the physical world; false vectors misguide us. Heraklitus of Ephesus once said panta rhei | everything changes, thus the source of all suffering is attachment.
Collective rituals on the other hand can establish connection with others; they ideally keep our mind from attachment because we can lose ourselves within the ritual and community. The ritual turns into a vehicle to forget the I over the we. Eugen Herrigel studied in the 1920ies with a Japanese Zen master the art of archery, his wife the art of flower arrangement, and he later published a short book titled Zen in the Art of Archery. It describes how the ego disappears by practicing a ritual or exercising a skill with full attention. Japan in general is a true treasure chest for ritual geeks; its main religion, Shintoism, is basically a collection of rituals to be practiced by priests and adherents. I have never been to Japan yet, but I imagine life to be like in the movie Okuribito strongly dominated by rituals. Priesthood in Shintoism requires mastering all Shintoistic rituals, but the performance of rituals through layman is part of the cultural texture: archery, flower arrangement, tea ceremonies. Indeed, its no surprise that a collective-Confucian society like Japan does favor a strongly ritualistic religion. As conservative as it may seem though, Shintoism is a non-judging and open religion, which recently even admitted a foreigner into official priesthood.
Rituals are an important part of religion; and if a religion’s purpose is atonement, then rituals are the vehicles to get there. I believe that there are two categories of rituals: those, which are frequently performed to provide routine, a sense of anchoring and a daily atonement practice, and those, which support in moments of transition and change. Both religious organizations and educational bodies need an overhaul. They need to back up moralistic and psychological concepts with physical exercise and they need to provide guidance to how to practice, not only alone, but also within a community to stop the erosion of our societies and the decay of our value systems.
I quote him all over again, because it is Abraham Maslow who first formulated what is in my humble opinion the crossroad of religion, psychology and education. We nowadays dub it positive psychology, but after watching e.g. Tal Ben Shahar’s dry if not to say boring Harvard Positive Psychology course (I prefer the humorous approach of Austrian psychotherapist and comedian Bernhard Ludwig who teaches and entertains in cabaret seminars), I have the feeling that we are still not really clear about what we really mean with it and that there is the need to design a new curriculum or return to a classic one like Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras, which includes nourishment for body and mind.
Abraham Maslow wrote in his 1964 title “Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences” about value free education: The most charitable thing we can say about this state of affairs if that American education is conflicted and confused about its far goals and purposes. But for many educators [and I have to include here the parent as the primary educator of his children], it must be said more harshly that they seem to have renounced far goals altogether or, at any rate, keep trying to. It is as if they wanted education to be purely technological training for the acquisition of skills, which come close to being value-free or amoral (in the sense of being useful either for good of evil, and also in the sense of failing to enlarge personality).
There are also many educators who seem to disagree with this technological emphasis, who stress the acquisition of pure knowledge, and who feel this to be the core of pure liberal education and the opposite of technological training. But it looks to me as if many of these educators are also value-confused, and its seems to me that they must remain so as long as they are not clear about the ultimate value of the acquisition of pure knowledge.
Perhaps I can make my point clearer, if I approach it from the other end, from the point of view of the ultimate goals of education. According to the new third psychology [comparable to Martin E. Seligman’s positive psychology], the far goal of education – as of psychotherapy, of family life, of work, of society, of life itself [and religion] – is to aid the person to grow to fullest humanness, to the greatest fulfillment and actualization of his highest potentials, this his greatest possible stature. In a word, it should help him to become the best he is capable of becoming, to become actually what he deeply is potentially. What we call healthy growth is growth toward this final goal [or atonement from a religion’s point of view].
More on religion here.