The importance of rituals
Are you superstitious? Do you practice rituals? Are you afraid not to practice rituals? No matter how you answered those questions, you’re far from being alone. I have a specific ritual I do every time I’m about to take off or land. Why do we do it? It’s not always easy to explain, but I’m going to give it a try. All human cultures practice rituals. We have rituals for birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death, not to mention all the rituals associated with agricultural cycles and inaugurations of various types. Recent research suggests that many of our rituals have their unclear roots in attempting to ward off danger and threats. We practice these repetitive, symbolic behaviors even though we can’t explain how they work. Still, they’re comforting, provide a sense of community and shared beliefs and help us (so we believe) avoid disease and possibly disaster. Unfortunately, cultural rituals can also alienate people if another culture finds them strange and even unclean.
The pandemic and new behaviors
Now in our second year of the pandemic, we’re witnessing the birth of new behaviors that may or may not become ritualized in the future, according to psychologist Mark Nielsen, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “It’s too early to tell whether any of these behaviors will become truly ritualized. By definition, this would only be the case when the social significance of the behavior takes precedence over its practical use in avoiding disease or disaster.” However, the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an entirely new group of rituals such as touching elbows or feet, washing our hands for a prescribed period or staying a set number of meters apart. Nielsen believes that this is what sets rituals apart from other cultural practices, such as cooking. When you cook, you cook something for the first time, you’re likely to use a recipe, but after a while, you begin tweaking it to suit your personal taste. Nielsen maintains that rituals are repeated very carefully until “they lose their functional value, and they are exercised for their social value instead.”
The origin of social rituals
Carel van Schaik, the University of Zurich, Switzerland, believes many social rituals began when we started living in large groups, especially after the advent of agriculture, which allowed us to band into even larger groups and remain in the same place. “That fateful decision exposed humans to all kinds of violence, disaster, and disease from conflicts within groups to wars between groups to infectious diseases that could now spread swiftly across entire villages.” Much of the ritualistic behavior originated after we ran into bad luck. We feared we had accidentally offended a demon or a god. The natural thing to do then was to develop a way to keep this from happening again.
Rituals are not set in stone
Although many rituals are repeated over and over, they are rarely set in stone. Instead, they change to conform to the evolving needs and social mores. Vanessa Ochs, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, has studied and conducted research on rituals both old and new. Ochs says one of the reasons we rely on rituals is because they “offer ways for emotion to be contained and channeled” and help us deal with the strong emotions that often occur when we become parents. According to Ochs, “New parents are often anxious about being a parent and caring for someone so vulnerable. The ritual of blessing the baby provides comfort and offers a set, communally wise path for parents to negotiate the rawness of those feelings.” Rituals also offer a sense of belonging and can transcend time, says Ochs. They can connect us to our ancestors and to our descendants. Ochs cites several characteristics of modern rituals.
Spirituality and the feminist movement
They can help separate religion from spirituality. For example, “Many rituals have emerged to accommodate people who want to experience the spiritual and find a sense of community through those experiences, without having to say they belong to a certain religion,” Ochs maintains. Examples of these can include the Burning Man festival, yoga and meditation classes and retreats, peaceful marches and protests, all of which are mostly separate from religious beliefs but still promote a sense of spirituality and community. The feminist movement is another characteristic. Ochs cites new rituals involving the female’s biological life such as pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, menstruation and menopause. And there was no Bat Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for girls) until the 20th century.
LBGTQ and Hanukkah
The LBGTQ community has also gained rituals that have transformed “commitment ceremonies” into marriages. According to Ochs, “These new rituals mark the sanctity of same-sex relationships and make clear to the family and community that the couple relationships is blessed and deserving of the community’s support.” The fourth characteristic is that modern rituals are never static and will continue to change to meet our social, commercial and cultural environments. Take the practice in Judaism of giving eight days of gifts at Hanukkah, for example. “Many Jewish children growing up today imagine that is what Jews have always done, but that’s not true,” Ochs said. “So, rituals change for all kinds of reasons, and it is not always – perhaps even not often – because the rabbi, the minister or the imam says so.” So, whatever ritual you practice, keep it up if you believe it’s working. Rituals are important.