Harvey Whitehouse

in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion

Published in print December 2007 | ISBN: 9780195170214
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology


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This article examines ritual ordeals that inspire terror regardless of the participants' preexisting beliefs. In such traditions, the relationship between belief and emotion is more or less the converse of that entailed by fears of supernatural punishment. Fear is a major part of the psychological processes that give rise to the gradual formation of mystical knowledge. Focusing on terrifying rituals has the advantage of picking out a generalizable feature of religion—not a feature of all religions, to be sure, but a “mode of religiosity” that is probably as ancient as our species and is still found in every corner of the globe. Given the shocking nature of the rituals in question, it is not unreasonable to refer to these practices as “rites of terror.” Two strategies, broadly speaking, have been developed in an attempt to understand the nature and origins of rites of terror. The first strategy is sociological in orientation, while the second is a psychological one. This article also discusses the rituals, memories, and motivations associated with rites of terror.

Keywords: terror; religiosity; fear; rituals; rites of terror

Article.  8245 words. 

Subjects: Religion ; Sociology of Religion ; Religious Studies

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