Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

A naturalist examines the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion, science, and more

Why the LDS Church Probably Will Not Take Elie Wiesel's Advice

There's one ritual that is too good to give up.

Elie Wiesel's Suggestion to the LDS Church

Recently, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, was startled to learn that a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) had advanced Wiesel's parents' names as candidates for baptism into the LDS Church. Wiesel was profoundly puzzled and deeply troubled by this news. 

Jews' concerns about this practice are easily understandable. First, for most of the history of the two groups' relations, Christians have regularly employed coercive measures, from exile to death, to force Jews to convert to Christianity.  Second, listing victims of the Holocaust as affiliated with the LDS Church or any Christian group only plays into the hands of Holocaust deniers, who maintain that the number of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis has been hugely exaggerated.

Andrea Stone reports that, upon first learning a few years ago of the LDS ritual practice of the Baptism of the Dead and of their willingness to include Holocaust victims as candidates for that rite, Wiesel suggested that the LDS Church should abandon this practice.  Although religions do not generally change on the recommendations of outsiders, in fact, as a result of discussions with various Jewish groups, the LDS Church agreed to abandon posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims.  In conformity with those agreements, the LDS Church quickly altered the status of Wiesel's parents to "not available" in a database of deceased persons, who might be prospective candidates for such baptism. 

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Stone's report suggests, though, that Wiesel may have also meant that the LDS Church should forsake this ritual altogether.  Work on ritual in the cognitive science of religion suggests that is not likely to occur.  The theory Tom Lawson and I advanced in our book, Bringing Ritual to Mind, holds that the Baptism of the Dead provides a perfect solution to a barrier that all religions confront.

The Paradox of Religious Rituals

Two quite different associations come to mind for most people, when they think about religious rituals.  On the one hand, religious rituals are routine practices that participants carry out so frequently that they become second nature.  People are sometimes described as doing them "mindlessly."  (Think of people blessing themselves when they enter a church.)  On the other hand, people also associate religious ritual with practices marking some of the most important and memorable events in life.  These rituals are as exciting as the first rituals are monotonous and dull.  (In this case, think of weddings, bar mitzvahs, or baptisms.)

Both pictures are right.  Virtually all religions include both types of rituals.  Insuring rituals' memorability matters for many reasons.  Cognitive scientists argue that both patterns have repeatedly arisen, since both kinds of rituals prove memorable—whether by frequent repetition in the first case or by high arousal and continuing attention to their significance in the second.  

Research suggests that participants find the second type of rituals especially convincing and inspiring. Consequently, religions would benefit greatly if participants could not just observe them again, as someone else goes through them, but periodically go through them again themselves.  This presents two problems, at least. First, such repetitions of these high arousal rituals should not occur too often or participants will require higher doses of stimulation each time. Second and more important, the gods do things to the people going through these rituals. Now they are married; he is now ordained, etc. People may observe these rituals again, but they do not typically have any need to undergo them a second time themselves. Usually, what the gods do is done once and for all.

image by Antoine Taveneaux
An Ideal Solution

The problem, then, is how the same participants can serve as the patients repeatedly in these transformative rituals.  Four possibilities for circumventing this barrier come to mind.  The first is simply to proliferate rituals.  Fredric Barth wrote memorably about the seven degrees of initiation among the Baktaman of New Guinea.  In religions of the book, though, such ritual proliferation is generally blocked without new revelation.  Second, transformative rituals can be reversed, so that participants can go through them again.  Think of defrocking and divorce.  This is unlikely to work on a broad scale, though, since indiscriminate reversals risk portraying the gods as fickle.  The third possibility is that ritual practitioners can justify a redo, if the earlier attempt failed.  The advantages of ritual failure as a ground for repetition are that it can apply to large groups all at once and it can create a sense of urgency.  Failure, however, implies iniquity, incompetence, indifference, or impotence on someone's part, and repeated failures only exacerbate that impression. 

This leaves the fourth option, substitution—as when a couple of times per year qualified LDS members serve as proxies for the dead and undergo together multiple, full-immersion baptisms in the course of a single day.  LDS Baptism of the Dead permits a cohort of the most dedicated members to go, periodically, through a series of arousing rituals in particularly sacred settings without provoking any psychological, explanatory, or theological problems.  Ritual substitution in the Baptism of the Dead is a perfect means for the LDS Church to convince and inspire repeatedly without confronting any of the other three options' liabilities. 

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D., is the author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. He is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

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