Cultural Evolution of Baptism

As a follow-up of his project on forgiveness rituals, Rikard Roitto has launched a new project on “The Cultural Evolution of Baptism: Ritual Practice and Theological Imagination”.

Scholars have meticulously mapped available data on the evolution of early Christian baptism the first five centuries and uncovered variation, continuity and trajectories. However, no scholar has as of yet attempted to explain the development of early Christian baptism in light of current ritual theory and recent scholarly discussions on the mechanisms of cultural evolution. This project aims to create better models for understanding the cultural evolution of baptism in the light of just mentioned theorizing.

Why did some theological interpretations of baptism become more frequent than others? I suggest that research embodied cognition can provide at least one explanatory factor. Other factors, such as the drift towards coherence in cultural systems, are important, too.

Why did the baptismal ritual drift in the direction of increasing complexity, specificity and sensory pageantry? I suggest recent experimental research on what makes us experience rituals as effective can explain this cultural evolution.

Why did baptism drift in the direction of increasing costliness for the baptizand? Why did the emphasis on an authorized ritual specialist to perform the baptism evolve? I suggest that costly signaling theory together with discussions about systemic effects of rituals can provide partial explanation of this development.