Ritual, Religion, and Reciprocity

In mobile forager social life, ritual, and the esoteric narratives associated with ritual, are in part vehicles for the transmission of norms. But they also play an experiential role, and in doing so they increase group cohesion and hence reduce the fragmenting effects of conflict and disagreement (Lewis 2013, Lewis 2016). So while ritual and religion are relevant to the stability of an economy of reciprocation through their role of transmitting norms and giving them authority, ritual is also relevant to the stability of these forager economies through their experiential effects. I have argued that an economy of reciprocation imposes real stresses on cohesion, and so I suggest that proto-religion emerged (or expanded in its social significance) in part as a response to these stresses. The performative aspects of these proto-religions were important for their powerful and bonding experiential effects. On this hypothesis, proto-religion consisted in multimodal performances of music, ritual and dance, often combined with experience-altering technologies. The experiential impacts of song, dance and performance were often supplemented and amplified by experience-altering drugs or by stressing the cognitive system in other ways: sleep deprivation, extremes of heat or cold (for example, Native American sweat lodges), sensory overload, exhaustion or just through the intensity of these emotionally charged events (Baumard and Boyer 2013). While mythic narratives play a central role in ethnographically documented small-world religious traditions, these are often experienced as part of collective, socially bonding, socially marked, mixed modality performance, and often in the grip of altered states of consciousness. Agents encounter these narratives, which are often themselves far from mundane, as part of a package of intense and unusual perceptual experiences, and often while they are themselves taking an active part in the total performance, themselves engaged in coordinated, entrained song, ritual and dance.

Kim Sterelny, The Pleistocene Social Contract, p. 89-90

August 31, 2023