WE are creatures of habit we humans. As much as we may like to think of ourselves as being spontaneous or free spirited we are tethered like goats to the everyday. Familiarity does not breed contempt it breeds security. It is no genetic accident that we return time and time again to the place of our birth. Prehistoric man (and woman) wandered the globe in search of mammoth but they returned, like salmon swimming upstream, to their caves. Even nomadic tribes move as a homogenous lump carrying their homes and the people they love with them. Religion was not embraced as a way to understand the world but to make it seem safer, more familiar. The rituals of religion are habits. I have seen friends genuflect on passing churches and yet have not set foot in the house of God, except for weddings and funerals, since their holy communion. The habit of religion has stuck fast like God’s glue. Even the most atheistic of us believe we are being watched, that in some small way we will atone for our sins by contributing to charity or slinging the odd euro to a busker.
Early man realised that religion was the ultimate habit forming experience and king and priest alike seized upon the need of humanity to conform thus controlling subject and flock with inflexible rules and rigid value systems. Ritual or habit, what difference?
It was Karl Marx who wrote that “religion is the opiate of the masses”, I’m sorry Karl but you were wrong, it’s not religion per se but the comfort of familiarity and habit that most religions provide that create a calming, subduing effect on the people.
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And before you communists, get all high horse, politics too offers its own rituals and habits. Political doctrines are no different in essence to the Bible in their rigid guidelines (although I have to say that Jesus’ ‘rules’ on how to lead a decent life are amongst the most liberal I have read). Stalin used this need to conform to his advantage, of course the threat of Siberia and a violent death added that little extra incentive. Dictators, kings and queens have all understood the need to create habit forming rituals and behaviour in order to keep dissolution in check. Unfortunately, or fortunately for those of us of a less heroic bent, poets, artist and freedom fighters resent being told how to behave and so form their own ritualistic groups to defeat the despots. Ché Guevara had his own code of conduct as did Nelson Mandela, Rosa Luxemburg, La Pasionaria and Rosa Parks. .
Interestingly enough early social reformists in Britain were from the Fabian Society, an organisation structured along similar lines to the Temperance movement, clean living and a healthy spiritual life. Thanks to Annie Besant, a devout exponent of Theosophy (a philosophy of life that encompasses many religions and ideals) young Match girls were finally given the right to a safe workplace and freedom from the debilitating condition known as ‘Phossy Jaw’.
Finally, in a nod to feminism, it is widely accepted that the first real trade union action was by the Match girls from the Bryant and May factory in 1988 a full year before the general strike.