Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Harvey Whitehouse's "The Ritual Animal"

Harvey Whitehouse is a leading anthropologist whose research focuses on the role of ritual in the evolution of social complexity. One of the founders of the cognitive science of religion, his publications include Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science (co-edited with James Laidlaw; 2007), Mind and Religion: Psychological and Cognitive Foundations of Religiosity (co-edited with Robert N. McCauley; 2005), and Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (2004).

Whitehouse applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ritual Animal: Imitation and Cohesion in the Evolution of Social Complexity, and reported the following:
Page 99 [inset below left; click to enlarge] of The Ritual Animal does indeed pass the Page 99 Test! It explains how certain kinds of collective rituals fuse our personal and group identities together (producing ‘identity fusion’) in a way that has had huge consequences for human behaviour across the ages and continues to shape the world we live in today. Why? The book goes into a lot of evidence on this topic but the nice thing about page 99 is that is summarises some of the key features. Firstly, collective rituals can remind us of events that have transformed both our personal and our group identities - this is one of the key reasons why they produce identity fusion. They can also create feelings of fusion temporarily by getting us to march, dance, or chant in synchrony. This creates the fleeting illusion that self and group are one single body. Think of soldiers marching in time or football fans shouting the same chant or crowds at a rock concert singing along together - these acts of social synchrony makes us feel like we and the group are one - which is the essence of identity fusion. Page 99 goes on to explain that when people are fused with a group they will stop at nothing to defend it and this is crucial to understanding acts of military heroism but also, much more darkly, forms of violent extremism such as suicide terrorism. It’s all there on one page of the book! But you have to read the rest to understand how extensively this is supported by psychological experiments, surveys, field studies, historical records, and even brain scans. The book argues that we need to get our head around these bodies of evidence to understand what makes people do extreme things for the sake of a group. And understanding this is the first step to discovering better ways of managing human nature to foster more consensual and peaceful outcomes.
Visit Harvey Whitehouse's website.

--Marshal Zeringue