In Defense of Blind Superstition and Ritual

Isaac Morehouse

20 days ago by isaacmorehouse

The point of a ritual is to get the benefit of a certain understanding without needing to understand it.

If wisdom is embodied in a set of practices that improve your life, you can reap those improvements without needing to rediscover the causal relationships that make it work.

This feels like something bad. Like blind superstition. It can be. But it can also be very efficient.

If you were brought up in a tradition of daily exercise and never learned the specific mechanisms that make exercise bring about a better mental and physical state, you’d still enjoy that better state.

The reverse is not true. If you understand everything about what happens in the body when exercise occurs and how it alters chemical reactions, etc. but never actually practice it, you get none of the benefits.

I grew up in the Protestant church and always found Catholics odd. They did a bunch of rituals like praying the Rosary, attending mass, or going to confession, but they never seemed to know any theology. They had no theories of why these things were supposed to help their lives, and they didn’t seem too curious.

Protestants in my circles never wanted to do anything they couldn’t explain with a theology that seemed consistent to them. This resulted in a better understanding of their religious texts and traditions, but a lot less religious practice.

Rituals are an efficient way to embody ideas whether or not you understand them. Again, this can cut in both directions. Many people ritualistically get college degrees with no theories as to what it will do to help their life, and more often than not it’s a huge waste. Blind superstition can be bad. But it is not inherently so. It depends on the superstition.

I sometimes try to get the best of both worlds by not doing anything high stakes without understanding the causal mechanisms at play. But once understood, I try to turn it into a ritual and don’t keep re-asking why and how it works. If it does, keep doing it. I’ve forgotten the specific reasons I was convinced to do certain things more times than I can count. They’re efficiently ritualized now.

In fact, this is how C.S. Lewis defined faith. Continuing to do or believe something you have been convinced is right even in the moment when you’ve forgotten the specific reasons you were convinced, or lost the feeling of conviction. It’s faith in the resolve of your former self’s reasoning ability.

The danger with rituals without understanding is that they might end up harming you when you think they’re helping. The danger of understanding without ritual is that you get no benefit, no transformation, no leveling up.