What Mormons call “ordinances” (what other Christians often call “sacraments”) are a subset or component of what religious scholars term “religious rituals.” It might be a life event thing that happens once, like baptism, or it might be a recurring thing, like taking the LDS sacrament on Sunday. You might think of baptism narrowly, strictly as an ordinance (baptism is immersing a person in water, after a priesthood holder repeats the proper words) but let’s try to think of it more broadly, as a ritual (lots of relatives and some visitors attend, there is a song and a prayer and a talk, then the ordinance in the water is performed, then another talk and another ordinance to confirm the person, then another song and prayer and then some treats over by the kitchen). Rituals have a strong communal component. In fact, scholars who look at religious ritual apart from the supernatural aspect that believers ascribe to such performances focus primarily on the social or communal effects to understand why ritual persists and what it does. Instead of asking “What do ordinances mean?” they ask “What do rituals do?” And what they do is primarily social.

That’s a set up to talk about Chapter 6, “Rituals,” in Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic Books, 2001). His Wikipedia page describes Boyer as “a French-American cognitive anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist.” Not every believer (and certainly not every Mormon) wants their religion explained or wants to ponder the evolutionary origins of religion, particularly their own. If that’s you, click here. Otherwise, read on. I recommend the whole book if you can find a copy, but I’m going to limit my discussion to the manageable topic of rituals. Because Mormonism is full of rituals.

A Western Bias Toward Meaning

I think that in organized religion in the West, in the various Christian denominations but also in Judaism and Islam, participants are inclined to be literate and read/study religious texts and commentaries. It’s easy to think that religion is in good part about learning things (doctrines, history, fixed prayers or scriptures to recite from memory, deep spiritual truths). Religious rituals are often seen through this lens. Boyer suggests this view of ritual is largely misplaced. What did you learn the last time you took the sacrament? The last ten times?

We often say that ceremonies are meaningful to the people who perform them. Through ritual, people perhaps grasp or express important messages about themselves, their relationship to each other and their connection with gods and spirits. This may well be what some ritual participants themselves offer as justification for their performance. But do rituals really convey much meaning? … What is the information transmitted? Not much, apparently. If you asked people what they had learned or expressed through participation in such rituals, they would find the question rather strange.

Religion Explained, p. 232.

That makes sense, actually. Ask an eight-year-old what they learned at their baptism or what it means, I’m not sure you’d get much of an answer. But ask them what is different now or how it changed them, and they’ll say “I’m an official member of the Church now” or, more precisely, “Adults at home and in Primary tell me I’m an official member of the Church now.” It’s not quite a coming-of-age ritual, but the rest of the religious community does treat the newly baptized kid differently, sees them as more responsible and more grown up. On Sunday with the Sacrament, they can actually renew a covenant they made at baptism. They have become a more integrated member of the religious community. The participant’s view of baptism, “my sins were washed away,” is of course relevant to the participant. But plenty of sins accumulate after baptism, and those who are never baptized are not foreclosed from salvation. In practice, baptism doesn’t really absolve your sins nor does the lack of it bar you from salvation. What is often said about what Mormons believe about baptism doesn’t really correspond to our actions in practice. That’s a bit strange, isn’t it?

What Makes a Ritual a Ritual?

Boyer goes on to note three properties of religious ritual that set it apart from other human activities. I’ll note that much of Boyer’s analysis of religious thought and practice is based on human mental processes and cognitive processing. We attribute agency (a mind and intentions) to natural processes and poorly understood phenomena, we infer the existence of many things we do not observe, we often offer (weak) explanations for things that we don’t really understand, our memories play tricks with us, and so forth. Anyway, here are his three properties of religious ritual (p. 235-36):

  1. “Acting in rituals is not quite the same thing as acting in other contexts, as any participant or observer feels quite clearly. However, this feeling is particularly difficult to describe.”
  2. “Many rituals have consequences for social interaction: the wedding makes an honest family of two lovers, initiation makes a man out of a boy, sacrificing a sheep to the ancestors seals your alliance with that other village.”
  3. “Perhaps most important for our purposes, notions of supernatural agents are included in many rituals …. The supernatural participation problem is better understood if we realize that the participation in question is really optional, as witness the number of rituals without any gods or spirits. In other words, you can understand what gods are doing in ritual, so to speak, once you realize that they are an add-on to a human activity that does not really require them.”

There is more in the chapter, such as likening the obsessive focus on detailed rules and particular actions that become part of some religious rituals to the “automatic and compelling actions endlessly and pointlessly performed by individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder” (p. 238). But I think I have covered enough to spur some thinking and support a nice discussion in the comments.

Mormon Rituals

I’ll bet you can suddenly see some interesting things about Mormon ritual. First, it’s broader than an ordinance. The ritual of baptism, as noted above, is an entire social event, not just 30 seconds in the water. Second, some things are rituals that we don’t often think of as such. Testimony meeting once a month is a ritual. I’m sure you can list the components. Serving an LDS mission is a ritual, particularly for young men. It serves as sort of an extended version of the coming-of-age ordeal that some cultures employ: go out a boy, come home a man. People talk about it this way: He was a much better student when he came back, went from getting C’s to getting A’s and B’s, and so forth. The homecoming talk given by returning missionaries is designed to showcase this transformation. Getting married without going on a mission first is seen as sort of cheating, taking a short cut to becoming an adult. Oddly, joining the military is highly regarded in the Church, and is sort of granted pseudo-mission validity as an alternate ritual. Often youth in the ward who are in the military are listed along with missionaries serving and their addresses. Sometimes they get a picture in the glass case out in the foyer, just like missionaries.

Third, this way of thinking about religious rituals and about LDS ritual in particular may actually be helpful and reassuring to some readers. Understanding that religious ritual is so broad and is oriented towards social involvement and activity — and that the supernatural component is, objectively, more like an add-on that lends meaning to the ritual for some participants — makes it easier to participate for some people. If you give a talk at your nephew’s baptism, you’re not endorsing all of the official and folk doctrine that gets associated with the ritual, you’re just helping little Jared celebrate his special day that marks his official entry into the Church. If you accompany the youth to do temple baptisms, you’re not endorsing the belief that great-great-great-grandparent Orville or Prudence spend two centuries languishing in spirit prison until Ethan or Emma was baptized on their behalf. No, you’re just helping the kids experience the temple and come out feeling good about themselves and their group.

Maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn’t. If you object to this way of thinking about LDS ordinances and Mormon rituals, think about someone else’s religion. Have you been to a Catholic baptism or a Catholic funeral? An Evangelical Bible camp? A Jewish passover meal? It may be easier to bracket the supernatural element and highlight in a positive way the social and communal effect of religious ritual if you think about someone else’s religion or denomination.

So tell me, what do you think of Mormon rituals? How positive or negative has your experience been? Have you had a surprisingly positive experience visiting or attending someone else’s ritual in another church or religion? How many Mormon activities suddenly make more sense as a religious ritual with a social and communal effect, with or without an ordinance attached?