Last year, there was a tumultuous discussion over Brendan Myers' article on the Wild Hunt.  A comment by Sannion hit me like a load of bricks:

My rituals are done to please the gods. Therefore, if you do not acknowledge the existence of those gods then there is absolutely no reason to be in attendance at the rites because — and I know this will come as a shock to some — true worship isn’t about us and what we get out of the experience however much one may, indeed, get out of it.  (emphasis Sannion's)

You can feel the power of that statement.  I completely disagree with it, but I respect it.  Why?  Because it displays integrity.  Sannion lays out his beliefs in a way that is totally unambiguous: the gods are real, and ritual is for them.

Naturalists are rarely so bluntly clear.  But perhaps we ought to be.

In this post, I offer my views phrased as bluntly as possible.

Goddess Afire

Warning: what follows is no edifying homily.  It captures none of the mystery or wonder of religion, but takes a hard-nosed utilitarian approach, with a radically unconventional way of talking about deities.  Sometimes it's necessary to take such a down-in-the-dirt look at things, in order to more confidently embrace the mystery and wonder.

These represent my views, not those of naturalists generally.  They are built on personal experience as well as extensive research in cognitive science and evolutionary approaches to religion.  They are open to revision based on new evidence.  As Dan Kahan says, "Science is a scale that never stops weighing."

What are deities?

Deities are exactly what they appear to be, once you rule out as extremely unlikely the hypothesis that gods are independent causal agents "out there" somewhere.  Put simply, deities are culture.

More specifically, they are evolving cultural entities whose only "interest"* is replication by leaping from mind to mind.  They encourage humans to pass them on by exploiting innate biological dispositions and providing a suite of enticing psychological and sociological benefits.

Deities and humans exist in symbiosis.  To the extent that they mutually support each others' interests, that symbiosis is beneficial.

Who is ritual for?

Ritual** is for humans and deities.

For humans, ritual is one of the primary means by which we represent and integrate deities, thus cultivating the conditions under which the psychological and sociological benefits of symbiosis may emerge.

Ritual is also for deities.  By deeply integrating deities into human cognitive, emotive, and behavioral structures, ritual makes participants more likely to pass them on.  Further, ritual is itself a passing on of the deity to any newcomers present.

Ritual thus mutually advances the interests of both humans and deities.

Indirectly, ritual benefits may also extend farther.  By motivating human action in favor of the environment, for example, benefit ripples out beyond the human-deity symbiosis.

Can deities and rituals be good for us?


The hypothesized psychological and sociological benefits accrued through symbiosis are many.  For a detailed list, see the article "Why Do Ritual as a Naturalistic Pagan?"

Can we live without deities and rituals?


Despite benefits, humans can still get on just fine without deities and rituals.

Studies show that highly secular societies function quite well.  They do not fall into chaos, nor do their citizens' lives become a colorless malaise.

There may be some significant tradeoffs to secular life, but suffice to say it's not the end of the world.

We can live without deities and their rituals.  We benefit from them, but we do not depend on them.  If they should become detrimental, we can walk away.

Can deities and rituals ever be bad for us?


It is possible for human interest to be compromised in favor of divine interest.  Since deities have only one "interest", that would inevitably mean replication by means detrimental to humans.

Detriment can be defined as overall cost in terms of time, energy, and expense which is not "paid back", as it were, in benefits.  Costly devotion to a deity that produces more anxiety than it alleviates, for example, could be a red flag.

Benefits may not always be obvious, of course.  The situation is complex, as mentioned above.  Nevertheless, we can and should have structures in place to guard against parasitism.

We can do that by keeping two things firmly in mind:

  1. our real, empirically-testable human interests
  2. the true nature of our arrangement: deities depend on us, but we do not depend on them, so we can walk away

Concluding thoughts

Sannion suggests that "true worship isn't about us and what we get out of the experience", it's about pleasing the gods.  Insofar as I understand and respect his hard polytheism, I can't fault his argument on rational grounds.

As a naturalist, however, I take a different tack.  It is dangerous to prioritize the interests of deities above those of humans.  Symbiosis should be mutually beneficial.

The best way to ensure that is to recognize deities for what they really are, and affirm that ritual is for both deities and humans.

*"Interest" is in quotes because, like genes, cultural entities have no actual intentions, but still tend predictably in certain directions.  I hypothesize no consciousness, will, or intention whatsoever for deities.  They are what many refer to as memes, and their only "interest" is replication.
**Here I refer only to rituals involving human-deity interactions.  Secular ceremonies or religious rituals involving no divinity are not considered.