Until very recently, I hated rituals. I utterly couldn’t understand them. I grew up in a fairly conservative Muslim household. Consequently, my identity was multi-syllabically summed up as “tee-totaling pork-hater who starved himself 30 days a year.”
Without any explanation into the logic behind rituals, I despised them. To me, rituals represented irrationality. Why do Sunni Muslims wear goofy hats while praying, but then ridicule Shi’a Muslims for pressing their foreheads into prayer stones?
During a trip to Mecca a few years ago, I refused to wear the ihram, a sort of Muslim toga that all pilgrims to the holy city must wear. Failing to adhere to this ritual cost two goats their lives; we went to a butcher, who told me to pick out two goats as sacrifice. Fifteen minutes later, these goats were in the back of our van, their remains neatly packed into plastic containers.
As a recent college graduate, yes, I simultaneously harbor a certain early-20s skepticism of religion and a reverence of “spirituality.” Rituals, however stupid they seemed at the time, actually forced me to reflect daily on the miracle of existence, the great gratitude and humility we must have for life.I tell everyone, “I’m not religious, but I am faithful.” And yet, despite my former resentment of religious rituals and my current love of spirituality and abstractions, I realized something.
Rituals, however stupid they seemed at the time, actually forced me to reflect daily on the miracle of existence, the great gratitude and humility we must have for life. At the age of 17, I wasn’t well-versed on the philosophies of Socrates and Buddha and Descartes and al-Ghazali, but I spent more time every day feeling thankful. Today, I have all these grand theories and ideas in my mind, and yet I definitely spend much more time absorbed in my own world and ambitions. Perhaps this is a function of growing up, or perhaps it is a function of modern life. But it has gotten me thinking about religion and rituals.
First, what is the draw to religion? Humans fear the unknown. There is a possible evolutionary reason for that — if you aren’t sure what something might lead to, there is a risk of death if you choose wrongly. Perhaps that is why we value knowledge, skill, and mastery so much. The strongest hunters were those who knew best the migration patterns of prey, or were those who could best use a spear.
As the famous neuroscientist Read Montague discusses in Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect, learning is valuable precisely because it reduces uncertainty. Through experience and knowledge acquisition, the world around us becomes safer and more predictable. However, there is undoubtedly an element of life that has irreducible uncertainty. For example, you know the odds of a coin landing heads or tails are 50-50. However, that knowledge doesn’t really help in predicting whether it will land heads or tails if you flip the coin once.
As of today, “the meaning of life” has irreducible uncertainty. Whether through scientific inquiry or philosophical musings, we haven’t arrived at a firm answer yet on this. This f*cks with our minds. Another interesting thing with humans is that, while knowing the probability of something makes us feel more comfortable, we are so bad at determining probability. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky explored this in their famous “Linda Problem” experiment. It goes as follows:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which of the following two statements is more probable?
- Linda is a bank teller.
- Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.
Rationally, Statement 2 cannot be more likely than Statement 1. The chances of her being a bank teller must be higher than the chances of her being both a bank teller and active in the feminist movement. However, in a 1983 study by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, fully 85 percent of respondents said that Statement 2 was more probable.
And so what’s more probable? The same big picture or the difference in detail? Most of the world’s major religions and life philosophies generally agree on the value of good deeds, family, camaraderie, fairness, and justice.Most of the world’s major religions and life philosophies generally agree on the value of good deeds, family, camaraderie, fairness, and justice. However, they differ on the nitty-gritty details of how these values arise. Sunnis and Shi’as shed blood over who the rightful successor to Muhammad was. Muslims, Christians, and Jews slaughter each other over Jesus and the nature of God. Monotheists and polytheists wage wars over the number of gods. Deists and atheists hate each other for thinking a Greater Being in The Sky exists or does not exist.
The details kill us all. And yet, as standard logic tells us, the more details we add, the less likely that ultra-detailed scenario is to be correct.
Maybe all these rituals and details came about to assuage the anxiety of life’s uncertainties. Having very detailed and vivid accounts of what is otherwise uncertain gives us the ability to think that, in fact, what is unknown is actually known. The intentions behind rituals are (mostly) good. Thumbing rosaries or praying five times a day or fasting for Lent or Ramadan or mourning the death of a religious martyr — all these have the goal of constantly remembering how miraculous yet insignificant our lives are in the grand cosmos. Whether you are religious or not, this goal is pretty awesome.
Why get hung up on inconsequential details that do not reduce any uncertainty? We recognize that there is something greater than us going on in the world.Who cares if Jesus was the Son or just a prophet or wasn’t anything at all? These details don’t change much. Whether or not we believe there is a bearded man running the show, we recognize that there is something greater than us going on in the world. To honor that, and to hack our short attention spans, we may need rituals. Otherwise, we keep forgetting to acknowledge it.
So, mom, I now get why you always said “Bismillah” before driving or leaving the house or eating or doing anything, for that matter. Maybe one day I’ll get my head out of the clouds for long enough to join you.
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Ammar Mian is a recent graduate of Penn who has spent the past year and change writing, learning, and screwing up over and over again. He recently turned down law school, a move that made aunties and uncles worldwide tremble with rage. Fun facts: he makes electronic music, as well as banana cinnamon omelettes; he tried the paleo diet once and subsequently developed a gluten allergy.