Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

When People Cannot Understand the Words of the Gods

Why are people attracted by ritual utterances whose meanings they do not know?

Key points

  • The Latin Mass is gaining in popularity among America's Roman Catholics.
  • Even when they do not understand Latin, many parishioners find the Latin Mass more reverential.
  • When the meanings of religious utterances are unknown, it creates an opening for religious authorities to provide meanings they prefer.

Perhaps the most conspicuous reform of Roman Catholicism from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was the replacement of the traditional Latin Mass with performances of the Mass in the vernacular. For more than a thousand years, Roman Catholics had participated in a ritual employing a language of which most parishioners had scant knowledge at best. In its day, many, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church, regarded this reform as a refreshing liberalization in the practices of an old and sclerotic institution.

The fate of the Latin Mass since might serve as a rough indicator of the comparative influence of conservatives and liberals within contemporary Roman Catholicism. Encouraged, in particular, by Pope Benedict XVI, who loosened constraints on its performance, the Latin Mass has grown in popularity, especially in the United States, where at least 600 American parishes perform it regularly.

In a recent New York Times front-page article titled "Old Latin Mass Finds New American Audience, Despite Pope's Disapproval," Ruth Graham suggests that the Latin Mass has become a political touchstone among Roman Catholics, as Pope Francis has tightened constraints on its performance, arguing that it is divisive and that it shows a disregard for the authority of the Second Vatican Council. The long history of schisms over liturgical matters among Christians offers ample support for Pope Francis’ first argument. (See, for example, Theodore Vial’s book, Liturgy Wars.)

The Appeal of the Latin Mass

One priest, whom Graham quotes, claims that parishes that have adopted the Latin Mass have seen “exponential growth.” Graham suggests that the COVID pandemic has probably been a contributing factor since conservative parishes performing the Latin Mass were more likely to resume in-person services sooner than churches that celebrate the Mass in the vernacular. Whatever the factors that might have affected its comparative popularity during the pandemic, an underlying explanatory question remains: Why would participants be attracted to religious services when many often have little if any understanding of what is being said?

In searching for an explanation, one reasonable place to start is with the participants’ views of the matter. Graham reports that her interviewees deny that any political considerations play a role, pointing, instead, to “spiritual reasons, bolstered by aesthetic ... preferences.” Broadly aesthetic considerations—from sprinkling holy water, to burning incense, to sounding bells, along with organ music and chanting—in performances of the Latin Mass enhance what cognitive scientists of religions term the ritual’s sensory pageantry. These activities engage multiple sensory systems, attract attention, arouse emotions, and, like all ritualized behaviors, discourage cognitive processing.

These features of the Latin Mass almost certainly contribute to a theme that recurs throughout Graham’s interviews with parishioners. They assert that the Latin Mass is more reverential than the Mass performed in the vernacular. One woman, whom Graham interviewed, offered an intriguing gloss on this notion. She said, “I don’t speak Latin. But it feels like you’re connecting more with God.”

When the Meanings of Religious Utterances Are Unknown

Why in a religious context does hearing utterances that you do not understand feel more reverential? Why do many participants, in effect, converse with the gods employing utterances whose meanings are completely unknown to them? Without pretending to have a full account of these matters, three comments must suffice.

First, employing unfamiliar languages is not exclusive to Catholicism. In the Jewish rites of passage, bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, many participants simply memorize the required phonetic strings when (purportedly) reading from the Torah, since they do not understand ancient Hebrew. Similarly, in Islam, the Quran is the word of Allah and the word of Allah is in Arabic, yet tens of millions of Muslims know no Arabic. Most Muslim theologians hold that the Quran is untranslatable. Translations of the Quran into other languages, however helpful, no longer qualify as the word of Allah, but only as interpretations.

Second, if the meanings of religious utterances are unknown to participants, then for those participants even these familiar rituals resemble glossolalia (speaking in tongues) in this regard, and they have similar cognitive effects. Utterances, whether glossolalia or utterances in unfamiliar languages, activate humans’ linguistic processors, generating automatic inferences that these utterances are linguistic and must mean something.

Third, when the meanings of religious utterances are unknown to everyday participants, it creates an opening for religious authorities to supply the meanings they prefer. By such means, those authorities enforce orthodoxy and allay theological incorrectness, where it is likely to arise.


Boyer, Pascal, & Liénard, Pierre (2006). Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29 (6), 595-650.

Graham, Ruth. (November 11, 2022) New Life for Latin Mass Signals Growing Divide. New York Times.

Slone, D. J. (2004). Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vial, T. (2004). Liturgy Wars: Ritual Theory and Protestant Reform in Nineteenth-Century Zurich. London: Routledge.

More from Psychology Today

More from Robert N. McCauley Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today