Posted by: Dan | September 21, 2007

Ritual Ceremonies

As with last week, my upcoming wedding has been a big item keeping my attention lately, so I thought another post would be a good idea. Specifically, I was considering recently about how rituals and ceremonies influence the ways in which we think and feel.

Pascal Boyer, a cultural anthropologist has these thoughts to say about ritual in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (emphasis in original):

…a lot of human culture consists of salient cognitive gadgets that have a great attention-grabbing power and high relevance for human minds as a side effect of these minds’ being organized the way they are. (p.235)

…rituals are organized in such a way that they give a particular shape and tenor to people’s notions of supernatural agents and make more plausible the gods’ involvement in their existence. (p. 237)

Why does it seem obvious that performing particular actions in a prescribed, rigid manner will have particular effects – for example, creating a new family or turning boys into men? We might think that there is a simple solution, which is that everyone around believes that rituals have such effects, so that in the end they do have the effects… But there is a problem here, which is to explain why this belief is convincing at all, and why it always focuses on rituals. (p.253)

Rituals do not create social effects but only the illusion that they do… this illusion is strengthened by the fact that not performing a particular ceremony, when others do, very often amounts to defecting from social cooperation… So the illusion that the ritual is actually indispensable to its effects, although untrue if you consider human societies in general, becomes quite real for the people concerned, as their choice is between going through the actions prescribed – which seems to confirm that the rituals are a sine qua non – or defecting from cooperation with other members of the group, which is not really an option in most groups. (p.255)

That makes a lot of sense to me, and I agree that religious rituals perform those functions. I would only modify it to describe all rituals. There are a great number of rituals and ceremonies that our society performs that are secular (e.g., graduations, civil weddings). Often these do involve references to the dominant local religion, but they are secular nonetheless. This makes me think that rituals aren’t actually a part of religion per se.

And indeed, this will be the case for me and my fiancée – we will symbolically consecrate our relationship, and though nothing will actually physically change, our relationship will progress because our cognitive makeup convinces us that this ceremony has a real effect, as rational as I/we may claim to be.


  1. This is so hard for me to grapple with in my own head. My husband is very moved by the rituals we have in our life–Shabbat, etc.–and I’m trying to come to terms with making them feel real and authentic rather than like a lie. But isn’t the fact that they are not immediate and authentic exactly what the power of ritual is? My head starts swimming….

  2. Purloined,
    I’ve been wanting to respond, but like you, I don’t have a good answer for why many of us still participate in worship to imaginary worlds. Peer pressure? Tradition? Family/community unity?

    I still see “Rites of Passage” as authentic ritual ceremonies, but Shabbat? (or in my case, communion?) Why do we continue such silly practices?

  3. I don’t know if you’ve read much Joseph Campbell, but I think he tends to view societal traditions as the re-enactment of a myth. Myth here does not imply a fictitious religious event, but instead a story “which embodies and provides an explanation, etiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon. (OED)”

    In other words, myth is a vehicle for communicating a story. In the case of tradition/ceremony (such as a wedding or even Shabbat) the myth is enacted rather than read aloud. Although many reenactments of myth also contain religious elements, there are plenty that do not. (An atheist scientist who wins an award will likely attend a ceremony in their honor.) To this end, I think that this reenactment of our cultural myths through tradition is fundamental human characteristic that acts to strengthen communities.

  4. Jacob,
    Absolutely, I agree. Unfortunately however, as PL pointed out, some rituals can come to seem hollow, fake or silly. Such rituals become obsolete, and need replacing, when they fail to perform a necessary social function.

    They become vestigial, in some instances, and are perpetuated in lemming-like fashion.

  5. […] Source : Migration. […]


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