I understand (I think) the purpose of religious ritual.
Because much of spirituality transcends our ability to comprehend or communicate it with our normal mind or tools of communication, we sometimes need to package it into something else, something more comprehensible. Like language. Many of our ideas are far more complicated than is communicated through the words we use, but it's okay, for the most part, because we realize the words are not the things, but just placeholder for the things, because the things are too subtle, too hard to actually say.
And so rituals become our language for spirituality. They aren't the thing, but if they are good, or we do them right, then they help us think about, communicate and experience the thing the ritual represents.
Though the problem is: we can mistake the ritual for the thing it is helping us approach. I think this is the danger with religion as an institution. It is always in risk of making the institution and it's rituals the thing, rather than a stepping stone to be transcended. So rather than being something to help liberate us, it becomes an anchor that limits and confines us to the rough parts of the world we are trying to rise above.
One thing I love about Buddhism (as it is practiced. Pretty much all religions have this in their source texts) is in its effort to help practitioners achieve liberation, it teaches you even need to transcend Buddhism. Transcend meditation, and ritual. In your effort to be liberated, even those things that are there to help us become liberated become attachments that confine us. (one of the only Zen koans that I understand, says: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." )
I think this is a trap many religions fall into. I think of Mormonism (because it is my heritage,) Believing in Mormonism can make you believe you need the Church. You need the institution and you need the rituals: Masonic handshakes, dunks in water and little bites of food, or that masturbating is in a category of sins second only to murder. So you have then become less liberated, and more attached. Of course, some members and leaders recognize the rituals and institution are not the thing, but a launch pad to the thing. However, I think this is the exception more than the rule.
This is not just a problem in Mormonism, it is a problem of a lot of Christianity, and Hinduism and Islam and Baha'ism, even though all of the source texts are about the opposite.
Virtually all major religions are started by men (I wish women) who are in a culture that has become so focused on ritual and lost sight of what the rituals are trying to explain. So these manic depressive guys come and say(if they are Jesus), Woe unto you.. hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and platter, but inside they are dirty, full of extortion and excess. And walk about breaking the sabbath, trying to show that the rituals and rules are not the point. They may point us to the point, but they are not the point.
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