As I like to say, religion is not a single thing; it's a whole constellation of things. I had a post where I said that America has a shared moral code which stands on its own, apart from religion. But there are many other cultural phenomena that have some of the traits of religion and not all of them. Can you have ritual without belief? Can you have transcendent experiences without community? That sort of thing.
Today we went to a baseball game, Cubs vs. Nationals, to celebrate my birthday. It was the kids' first ball game, and though they didn't follow much of the game itself, they liked the experience.
It got me thinking, why do we love going to baseball games, even though you can easily catch the game itself on television, and have a better view too?
The reason is that it's a public ritual, but a nationalist one rather than a religious one. It's a way that anyone at all can participate in ritual, without needing to share any specific beliefs.
What do I mean by "ritual," and why do people like to participate in them?
The first characteristic of ritual is memory. Rituals are the same throughout time, and so they give us a sense of continuity with the past. When my in-laws open Christmas presents, they wad up the wrapping paper and throw it at my sister-in-law Iris. It's just what they do. The first year it was a joke, but now it's a tradition. Every time they do it, it brings back memories of Christmases past, and it gives the family a feeling of stability. "Ah, back pelting Iris with wrapping paper! Some things never change."
In the same way, on the way to the game, I was thinking, "Oh, there will be cracker jacks! We'll sing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game'! Just like when I was a kid!" Cracker jacks are not particularly good and the song is kind of cheesy, but it's wrapped up in my mind with good things. Being little and being taken out by my dad, just him and me. Going to a Phillies game with John the first year we were married. All past, present, and future ball games are experienced together as we go through the ritual the same way.
Rituals bind groups together. Each stadium has its own rituals, so at this one we got the traditional race of the presidents. (Oddly, it was actually a dance contest. Abe won, but that is ridiculous -- Thomas Jefferson was CLEARLY the better dancer.) It's a tradition that binds all Nationals fans together, where they can turn to people who don't know or aren't from the area and say, "This is what WE do. We have the race of the presidents." And of all the cheers, the most popular was when a guy named Wilson stepped up to the plate and the whole crowd called in unison, WIIIIIIIL...SOOOOOOON! It's their tradition, they own it and feel possessive about it -- it's the one they won't miss participating in.
When I was a kid, I felt that the more people got into the cheers and traditions, the better. How could some people not do the Wave? You have to do the Wave or you ruin it for everyone! And when the tinkly organ plays the little tune, you have to yell CHARGE! at the top of your lungs. The more involved people were, the better I liked it.
I realize now that participating in things like that with a big group can be a big emotional charge. To do stuff with 10,000 fans, even goofy stuff, seems to take on extra importance. And when you feel things with 10,000 fans -- like when you put your ball cap over your heart for the National Anthem and feel patriotic feelings -- the emotion seems magnified.
There is a kind of peak emotional experience that can't be had alone. When a group of people get whipped up into a shared emotional experience, it reaches a level of intensity very different from what you get alone. I've had it singing on buses, singing around campfires, singing in a choir, singing at charismatic prayer services, and of course at Mass. (Singing is just one way to do it, but it's the way I know best -- it's physical, emotional, and also can be beautiful.) When these experiences are good enough, it can be like a drug -- you keep coming back to the people who you had that experience with. You feel bonded to them. And when you've participated in the ritual according to the rules and got the emotional reward for doing it, you're in a good position to follow or believe whatever the group leader says. In a way, you've opened yourself to the group's influence.
I'm making it sound creepier than it is. Humans are social creatures. We sometimes need to be bound together with one another on a deep level, and that's what rituals do. After singing "God Bless America" with the drunk lady behind me, I felt a bit less of the urge to turn around and tell her to shut up. And she must have felt it too, because she started telling me she thought my kids were adorable. This means even more at times of group stress -- after 9/11, baseball games often became a time for 10,000 fans to cry together. That, too, is just what it should be.
I'm more cagey about this stuff than I used to be. I didn't cheer a whole lot. (Especially since I was in the position of outgroup member, wearing a Cubs shirt.) I noticed when the announcer went on about veterans and thanking our troops. (Well, it was the anniversary of D-Day.) I thought, "Is my suggestible emotional state being taken advantage of to force unthinking patriotism on me?" I'd come a long way from the kid who got mad if people didn't cheer enough. But it also seemed to me no one cheered as much as they had when I was a kid. Is America becoming more individualist, less eager to throw themselves headlong into a communal experience? Or perhaps that's only my perception, because I have become more individualist than I was then.
Either way, baseball seems a public ritual that, so far as I can tell, isn't actually forwarding anyone's agenda. No one is trying to brainwash me; no one is dangling emotional highs as bait to get me to join anything.
No, America's public ritual is much more simple than that. To participate, you don't need to be a member -- you just need to pay for it. And people do, through the nose, because ritual really is worth it to them.