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Introduction to Ritual

In this unit, we will consider religious ritual. As you have probably come to expect, however, we immediately face a problem with definitions.  What is a ritual? The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions offers this definition:   

Actions repeated in regular and predictable ways, both in religious and secular contexts, serving so many purposes that summary is impossible

Livingston offers a similar definition:

"A religious ritual can be defined as an agreed-on and formalized pattern of ceremonial movements and verbal expressions carried out in a sacred context."

This definition serves as a starting point, a challenge and a warning.  

A starting point:

The starting point is that rituals can be identified as actions repeated in regular and predictable ways.  Thus,  rituals consist of actions that are repeated in a set or agreed upon manner. This means that many activities can be classified as rituals. Shaking hands when greeting someone can be considered a ritual. Singing the National Anthem before a baseball game is definitely a ritual. Even within religious traditions, activities that seem to be non-rituals are in fact rituals.

The challenge

The challenge is to discern how religious rituals are different from secular rituals. Since actions can be repeated in predictable ways in both secular and religious contexts, what determines if a ritual is "religious?"  As we have noted, singing the National Anthem before the baseball game and shaking hands when greeting someone are definitely rituals, but they are not necessarily religious rituals. Context makes a ritual religious:    "A religious ritual can be defined as an agreed-on and formalized pattern of ceremonial movements and verbal expressions carried out in a sacred context."  (Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred. Prentice Hall, 5th ed. p.81).  

The idea of sacred context indicates that  religious ritual makes use of  those things that reveal the sacred  (hierophanies).  In other words, religious rituals use sacred times, sacred space, sacred persons and sacred objects to connect participants  to the realm of the sacred. For example, a Church or Synagogue service will use sacred time (the Sunday or the Sabbath), along with sacred objects (for example, the Bible or the Torah) and sacred space (a sanctuary or synagogue) to help people connect to the realm of the sacred.


Connecting to the sacred can be risky, however.  Remember that the sacred is associated with a power that is distinct from the ordinary and beyond the control of human beings. One must be careful when entering the presence of the sacred. (Again - remember the ending to Raiders of the Lost Ark!). Emile Durkheim suggested that  sacred rituals "are the rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in the presence of ...sacred objects." Put another way, rituals  help us to know what to do (and what not to do) in the presence of the sacred. In summary, we can say that a ritual is religious when its intention is to provide an acceptable means of connecting  participants to the realm of the sacred.


The Warning

The warning is that rituals have so many purposes and so many layers of meaning that not we can  not summarize them all in this unit.  Indeed, there is no total agreement on the purposes of any given religious ritual.  Thus, we will try to understand rituals are part of three main categories: 

  • Rituals of Re-enactment
  • Rites of passage
  • Temporal rites and celebrations.

Finally, we will consider the problems with ritual and the purpose of specific ritual actions in the context of worship.