Religion and Emotion

February 1, 2007

1. I got into a great discussion today with a few colleagues about the relationship between “religion” and “emotion.” What came up over and over was the role that religious rituals play in the production of specific emotions. For example,

  • Many groups hire professional wailers for funerals. This wailing is contagious.
  • The fervent bedside prayers before a surgery often evoke a sense of God’s presence.
  • Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” never ceases to move even the hardest bah-humbugger.
  • At Japanese weddings there is a codified and ritualized moment for the children to say good-bye to their parents. Crying is expected.
  • Ritual dance causes all kinds of emotions from euphoria to possession to trance.

2. One or two religious studies theorists sometimes seem to suggest that “emotion” as a category is the unique province of our discipline. We found this position untenable as emotion is hardly restricted to religious experiences.

3. In the olden days, “emotion” was often the driving force behind religious theory. Theorists suggested that religion was nothing more than the response to emotions like fear or awe in the face of nature and mortality. These theories have waned considerably given the obvious fact that there is no reason why “religion” would be the most appropriate response to such emotions.

4. Overall, I find the examples noted in the above bullet-points to be nothing more than partial observations about what religion is and does. A lot of folks in the discussion, including a full professor in the department, seemed to be saying that the creation of specific emotions, in large part, explains why people perform rituals. These sorts of functional explanations of ritual and religion always leave me a little cold. While it is true that ritual does function to produce emotions, that hardly justifies the existence of the ritual. In other words, just because a ritual does something does not explain what ritual is.

What religious rituals do you take part in? What do they do for you? What is ritual?

13 Responses to “Religion and Emotion”

  1. Evonne Says:

    I am no great theologian so I don’t know why I think I’m qualified to comment but here goes. To me ritual is very kin to tradition. And most of the traditions that the church I attend follow, do absolutely nothing for me. Most of them I do not agree with, they make me upset cuz most people act like they are gospel and you are a heathen if you do not follow but they can not be proven according to Scripture.
    But I’m not bitter :^)

  2. Charles Says:

    This question has fascinated me for decades and I’ll be checking back to see responses you might receive. I remember back in the ’80s when I was working on my M.Div., I took Psychology of Religious Experience with Ed Thornton. While I was expecting a class that discussed the subject more empirically, he went in a much more experiential direction using Dante’s Divine Comedy as the primary text for the course. It’s getting much too late in the evening for me to continue lucidly but I plan to return to follow this topic.

  3. Liz Says:

    I agree with you, Brett. In education we call rituals “procedures” and they are important in maintaing “order” in the classroom. My autistic student studies the schedule on the board very carefully each morning. If things are not on the schedule, or I have to make changes I say we have a “C.O.P.” which stands for a “Change of Plan” and then Gabe is okay as long as it is written down. A ritual/procedure is soothing to the psyche, don’t you think? When our rituals and procedures are changed abruptly we react “emotionally”.

  4. sheepdays Says:

    Thanks for all the replies.
    Evonne–I appreciate your honesty about the rituals performed in your congregation. As a pastor and minister of ritual, I often wonder what’s happening in and to the people involved. For example, we have communion on the first Sunday of every month. Sometimes, it seems to “take,” by which I mean that it is having an emotional impact. Of course, I’m not sure that this is a good measure of a ritual’s success.

    Hey Charles, thanks for stopping by “Sheep Days.” I’ll hope to see you again here. The Divine Comedy sounds like a great place to do some sort of fictional “ethnography” on what is happening in people’s heads. One interesting issue that comes up in psychology and religion is whether psychology is only related to individuals or if you can also talk about a psychology of the group. This is an important question when considering ritual.

    Hi Liz, keep up the good blogging! I hear what you’re saying about procedures in the classroom. Here’s a question for you to consider: Is there a difference between a routine and a ritual? If so, what is it?

  5. Dave Bonta Says:

    These are good questions. I read this post yesterday, but didn’t comment because i felt that my own so-called rituals are more like routines. But the distinction is a fuzzy one, and I think has much to do with the quality of attention one brings to bear. I do think rituals can be cut loose from tradition to some extent. A friend of mine belonged to a Haitian voodoo congregation for a while where the priestess encouraged a high degree of spontaneity and creativity in the enactment of rituals. Of course, participants in that sort of a tradition aren’t going to spend much time wondering whether or not the spirit is present!

  6. sheepdays Says:

    Dave, well said about how rituals can depart from tradition. I’d say this must happen in all cases in which rituals change. Of course, such things happen more quickly in some groups, eg. your friend’s voodoo congregation. Yeah, if they were wondering about whether the spirit was there or not, I’m sure one of the loa would be quite ready to remind them of his or her presence!

  7. Charles Says:


    I’ve found it interesting that Evonne and Dave have taken the term “ritual” and tied it to the a term which you didn’t use, “tradition.” As a Baptist music minister for the last 20 years, I and my collegues have found ourselves in the maelstrom of “traditional vs. contemporary” or “traditional vs. relevant” or “traditional vs. real” or “dead vs. alive” or “unspiritual vs. spritual” worship.

    I argue that that there is no such thing as a “non-traditional” church. ALL churches have their traditions…or to use a less inflammatory term – rituals. Within our own denomination the rituals can be vastly different from church to church. First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC has been in existence for a couple hundred years. Some, but certainly fewer, congregations have similar “high church” rituals commonly understood as traditional. Other congregations, some of them several decades old, some maybe only born a couple of weeks ago, follow a non-traditional ritual, but still, arguably a ritual. The week to week patterns may not be long established and subject to modification but they are still patterns…still rituals.

    Roman Catholic worship is all about long practiced ritual. The rituals of the free and pentacostal traditions weren’t organized as early as St. Peter’s church but they’ve been around a long, long time, too. On and on the story goes.

    I think the bottom line is that ritual is all about a human need to “touch base”…the need to reorient oneself to the surroundings based on something that is bigger and seemingly more enduring that we know ourselves to be. The structure of the rituals are as varied as are world cultures, worldview within those cultures, personality types within those worldviews, etc. Those who attempt to “touch base” using a ritual that is outside of their personal subset will find it unfulfilling. I expect if you are finding yourself “cold” in the current ritual, you’re outside of your subset, my friend.

  8. Liz Says:

    Brett, the difference between a ritual and routine is that routine is rote, where rituals usually have a spirtual quality. Isn’t that what makes rituals emotional, the link to the divine?

  9. Liz Says:

    Oh, I just thought of something. Rituals in the classroom are often divinely inspired. Who said God is not in the classroom? God is in my classroom all day long. God has to keep a low profile in my public school classroom as the Good Lord has not been fingerprinted.

  10. sheepdays Says:

    Wow, this post is going to set a new record for number of comments!

    Charles, thanks for sharing your reflections on this. You provide a lot of food for thought. I especially like what you say in the last line, something that Liz echoes, rituals–at least from our insider point of view–allow us to reorient ourselves to God. In fact, this viewpoint is quite in line with some of the theories that Religious Studies scholars posit about ritual. Ritual should be different from other actions, it should realign the community based on its deepest structures, and it ultimately is not just an expression of belief. It is, by its own lights, an integral part of a group’s religion.

    Liz, your fingerprint comment cracks me up. I can say only that if you find divine inspiration in your daily work, that must be good.

  11. Matt Says:

    Hope I’m not too late to pick up in this discussion. It’s really sparked some great conversation. In your post you asked about ritual, and then there came the distinction between ritual and routine. The unfortunate truth is that often our rituals become routine, i.e. they lose meaning (at least to the participants, and perhaps to the officiant). Yesterday we too celebrated communion. It’s my firt time doing that at a new church and I definitely should have had an orientation prior to worship.
    At home, bedtime is a routine that can be meaningful. There is a reading, a kiss and hug, and a blessing. Is it a ritual. But is not a pure ritual. The kids can be rambunctious, and have to be settled down. If one of the girls gets her feelings hurt she may not want a kiss, or may avoid the blessing. Maybe that’s not all that different from more established ecclesial settings.

  12. To me, ritual is meaningful and intentional repetition — like Communion. Part of the call in repeating the act is to infuse it with meaning in the present moment. If we don’t do that, it becomes habit or routine or whatever you want to call it that makes it feel empty and, well, repetitious. Rituals are mile markers for the community of faith, like Joshua telling the people to stack up the stones so they oculd tell the stories of what God had done when the children asked what the stones mean. When we do ritual well, no one ever says, “That’s not how we do it.”


  13. sheepdays Says:

    Hey Milton. Good to see you here. I’m sorry I lurk so much on your blog. I should comment more. Thanks for your comment. I really like your reference to Joshua–ritual as a reminder of our story.

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