Psychology for Ministry: Ritual in Spiritual Practice with Laird Edman

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Our series of psychology for ministry interviews with Blueprint 1543 concludes this week with Laird Edman introducing to us the cognitive science of religion (CSR) and the study of ritual. Laird is chair of psychology department at Northwestern College in Iowa, and he is working on a book for church leaders translating themes from CSR. In this interview conducted by Sarey Martin Concepcion, we get a preview of that book. It has been edited for length and readability.

Sarey: Introduce us to the area of psychology known as the cognitive science of religion or CSR.

Laird: Over the last several decades, CSR has been developing theory and collecting data about the way our brains work that make us religious in particular ways. How does our cognitive architecture allow for and constrain the way we experience and practice religious belief and behavior? I’m interested in what this has to say about the way we do church. In what ways are we doing church that are counterintuitive and thus problematic?

Sarey: So, would it be accurate to say that our “cognitive architecture” inclines us to worship?

Laird: Oh, yes. There isn’t a known culture that doesn’t have beliefs and behaviors that are normally characterized as religious. The term “religion” is hard to define. So, what we study are elements of belief and behavior that are often called “religious,” things like belief in supernatural agents, be they gods, spirits, demons, angels, ghosts, or tree sprites. But what is it that makes this trait ubiquitous among the human family? Even in atheistic China, the ancestors are worshiped. Things, like afterlife beliefs, that are ubiquitous across cultures are what CSR studies.

Sarey: This is making me think about the ways we continually seek meaning and purpose in our lives and the lives of our group. To do that, you have to create a narrative that can hold those things.

Laird: That is another one of those cognitive architecture pieces. We seem to be teleologically driven. That is the idea that everything is there for a purpose and for meaning. Why did it rain on my wedding day? Why did I fail that test? The famous example is asking young children why are rocks pointy? Well, it’s so that dinosaurs don’t sit on them and break them. That may be an effect of the rocks being pointy, but that isn’t why rocks are pointy.

One interesting thing about this line of research is that we don’t get rid of those initial intuitive beliefs. We just write over them. So, if you put someone, even a biologist or a physicist, under cognitive pressure, and then ask them questions, they default to the same teleological intuitions they had as children.

Sarey: Am I correct that these lines of research in CSR have led you to study ritual?

Laird: Yes, I have become enamored of ritual. Ritual spreads across our whole life. Ritual does the important work of binding us together with other people.

Our unconscious intuitions come from trying to solve adaptive problems that came up about 30,000 years ago when we were all on a permanent camping trip with a small group of people in the African savannah. One of the problems you need to solve is, who are my people? One of the ways we decide who is safe is “kin recognition circuits.”

Ritual helps us engage in synchronous behavior with other people. We recognize our kin because they act like us. A group of people who are all standing and sitting and chanting the same way are activating their kin recognition circuits. Unconsciously, they think, “These people are my family.” If we want to help a congregation feel like family, ritual is one of the biggest ways. I’m a Minnesota Vikings fan. Fans hit this drum. Everyone’s doing the same thing faster and faster. And you end it by shouting this Viking chant, “SKOL!” It makes you feel at one.

Sarey: Say more about how researchers understand ritual.

Laird: There are two large categories of ritual according to Harvey Whitehouse: imagistic ritual and doctrinal ritual. Imagistic rituals are done by small groups where the religion involves rather intense, extreme rituals, such as rites of passage where young boys must survive alone in the jungle for several days. Individuals generate their own meaning, but they all have the same intense experience. What binds the group together is a shared experience that creates an “identity fusion,” where people identify so strongly with the group that the separation between self and group blurs.

It applies to small tribal groups but also gangs, terrorist cells, and maybe the Proud Boys. If they engage in identity fusion and are willing to sacrifice for each other; if their own identity is more about the group than their individual self, they have been fused by these imagistic rituals.

“Doctrinal rituals” tend to be less intense. They tend to be repeated. The goal is often to help a large group of people share in the group’s beliefs. You identify with the people in the group over time, but there’s no identity fusion. There’s a separation of the self from the group.

Think of a large organization like the Roman Catholic church with over a billion members. Engaging in the weekly or daily rituals of the church is how you confess membership in the body. The rituals are not extreme and intense, but they tell the story over and over. A good Catholic hears the story of Christ’s sacrifice every week in the mass. Doctrinal ritual is deeply imbued with meaning, whereas for imagistic ritual, the meaning is that we are all part of the same group.

Sarey: What makes a ritual spiritual?

Laird: Think of a morning routine. Wake up, make coffee, sit outside, and just sit there and just relax. Is that a spiritual practice? I think a spiritual practice is generated by the meaning that’s given to it.

It’s a funny thing in the psychology of religion literature. Scholars define a spiritual experience as “an experience that the experiencer defines as spiritual.” The Christian church, as a doctrinal community, says we don’t get to create our own idiosyncratic meaning that we plop onto our practices. If your pastor says, “I had a profound spiritual experience, and God told me to divorce my wife, and then take these three young women as my concubines,” then the church will say, “No, God did not say that.” In a doctrinal faith where we have authorities, spiritual experiences become spiritual in the light of the community.

Sarey: You’ve been talking about rituals in relation to group identity. How do you avoid it becoming overly “groupish”? How do we avoid things like cognitive bias and villainizing “the outsider”?

Laird: This is a current project for me that feels urgent. What ways of doing ritual can create tight social bonding within the community of faith, while at the same time being invitational to strangers? I can’t answer that. But I’m confident it is possible. Why? Because there are religious groups that are just phenomenally invitational. Think of the Franciscans. They are remarkably hospitable.

Having a ritual in church helps you get a sense this congregation is part of my family, even when they don’t look anything like you. I remember going to a Sudanese exile church in Kampala, Uganda. Their church service was extremely welcoming. I cannot tell you when I’ve had to jump up and down for longer in my lifetime. They do jump-dancing when praising God. The music portion of the service was about two hours. They loved it when the mzungus (white folks) were jumping, too. It’s like, “You are one of us. We engage in the same ritual together, and we’re related now.” At some point, I found myself being lifted up and marched around the church on the shoulders of a whole bunch of people as we’re jumping and singing away, and it’s just, it’s church. Jump-dancing is part of their ritual, and it’s how they both invite and recognize kin.

Sarey: You told us about jump dancing in Uganda. What about singing?

Laird: Singing does some really important things. Evolutionarily, it’s probably been around for at least 250,000 years. Like religion, every culture’s got some form of music. Every culture had drums, the first musical instrument. Rhythm, pitch, timbre, and dynamic range all do things physiologically to us. They create tension and then release it. When there’s a good, strong beat going, people’s brains and their whole nervous systems are primed to move.

I say music fundamentally has four functions. One is a very powerful social function to help you identify your group. You can express or declare group membership with the songs you sing. Think of teenagers bonding by sharing mix tapes.

Music also has very powerful cognitive functions. When you add rhythm and pitch and different modalities, you create a pattern. Humans are excellent pattern-recognizing creatures. Music can take ideas and concepts that are abstract, stick them into a pattern, and help us remember. That’s why the theology of our hymns becomes our theology.

We also know that music has very strong emotional functions. The right song can help you express an emotion that you had trouble expressing. It helps you understand emotions too. Listening to sad songs sometimes helps the sadness.

Fourth, music has arousal-related functions that help us to regulate our emotions. It can reduce anxiety, or it can ratchet us up and increase tension. If I’ve got a lot of work to do, I’m not going to play Brahms, I’m going to play Led Zeppelin. That is what will get me going.

Music has a lot of power for spiritual formation. I play the electric guitar in our church, and I love to crank it up and add distortion. But we need to turn down the volume, so people can hear each other singing. That is how our praise serves its social binding function. When the congregation sings a cappella, it’s just us, binding through the production of synchronous music.

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