Pain or Prayer: Anthropologist Studies Religions

You may not be Christian, or religious, but if you live in almost any developed country, you will find it hard to get away from Christmas rituals at this time of year. Of course, many of them are secular: where would the holidays be without rampant consumerism, drunken partying, over-indulgence and family feuds? Then there are the rituals whose religious origins have all but faded, such as Santa Claus.

But while Christmas rituals can be exciting for children, they certainly don't have any of the high drama of those practiced by other faiths.

Take the Australian Aboriginal religious initiation rites that includes scalp biting, fingernail extraction and cutting the initiate's penis with a stone knife, without which a man is not considered spiritually mature.

Or the extremes of the sacred fire dances performed in New Guinea, where in order to commune with their ancestors men enter a trance state wearing masks decorated with blood drawn agonisingly from their own tongues.

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By contrast, the most extreme ritual a Christian is likely to engage in is being dunked during baptism. Why do some religions have rituals that are so much more traumatic than others?

This question has been exercising University of Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse for over two decades. He is not the first to note that religions tend to fall into two distinct types -- those based on extensive teachings, such as Christianity and Islam, and those based on iconography and personal interpretations, including most small-scale religions and cults. Whitehouse's particular take, though, is to suggest that rituals themselves generate this dichotomy.

In recent years, several researchers have developed the idea that religion taps into intuitive ways of thinking. Even as young children we seem predisposed to believe in the supernatural, which probably explains why we develop beliefs in spirits, an afterlife and gods as we get older.

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This appears to explain many of the shared characteristics of religions across the globe. But it cannot be the whole story, says Whitehouse, because it also describes beliefs in non-religious supernatural beings, such as the tooth fairy and Father Christmas. So what distinguishes the fairies from the gods?

Whitehouse points out that even when religions are founded on intuitive ideas, acquiring religious knowledge often comes at a cost, and it is this difficult-to-acquire knowledge that is most highly valued. Indeed, it is the complex concepts that are hard to acquire and understand that give any religion its unique identity. This, he believes, is what distinguishes religions from other beliefs, such as superstition. And this is where the rituals come in, he argues. It helps the religious grasp the hard ideas underlying the religion.

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