The value of ritual

by Dorian Minors

March 17, 2023

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt

The word ritual is a dirty one. They are dark, they are secret, they are rites to pagan gods. Or perhaps, it’s a silly word. Rituals are things done by woo-woo crystal people, pretending to do magic. In both cases, the word is used to delegitimise the spiritual practices of people at odds with our cultural value set. We know this because rituals in culturally normative religions and institutions are called ‘traditions’. But viewing our actions through the lens of ritual, rather than calling them habits or practices or routines, invites us to question them. And we could all probably do a little more of that.

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Rituals are often dismissed, but they're just procedures with a purpose. We all engage in ritualistic behavior---many habits and routines meet this criteria. Redefining them through the uncomfortable lens of ritual prompts us to question our own practices and beliefs.

Like the word cult, the word ritual is a dirty one. They are dark, they are secret, they are rites to pagan gods. Or perhaps, it’s a silly word. Rituals are things done by woo-woo crystal people, pretending to do magic.

In both cases, the word is used to delegitimise the spiritual practices of people at odds with our cultural value set. We know this because rituals in culturally normative religions and institutions are called ‘traditions’.

But a ritual at its core is simply a procedure in which the actions follow some prescribed form and order. The core feature of ritual is ceremony—the formalisation of some set of acts to recognise some kind of purpose. Any purpose.

In a previous article, I pointed out that:

It’s important that we don’t confuse religious behaviour with religion … Religious behaviour is, at its core ritualistic behaviour around some kind of article of faith … Importantly, religious or not, everyone engages in religious behaviour. Humans take many more things on faith than we might care to admit.

We have to engage in religious behaviour, because in a world as impossibly complex as ours, we have to take a great deal of things on faith. Tik-tok stars, like the pop-science book writers before them, and the philosophers before them compare doctors and lawyers and scientists to priests and shamans and medicine men because the links are obvious. So few of us will ever penetrate these highly specialised bodies of knowledge, yet they determine the outcome of so much of our lives. In many ways we’re forced to defer to their expertise, on faith.

So we defer to ideology—idealised rules of thumb for how the world works, because any other solution would be untenable. And this deferral inevitably becomes ritual—actions which follow a prescribed form and order—because what other kinds of actions can we engage in when the purpose of the action is to adhere to some rule of thumb? It is, in fact, such a productive method of tackling our world that this is the very premise of modern science.

Much of the advice around wellbeing and self-improvement is also predicated on the human tendency toward ritual. We reference our habits, or action routines, or conditioning, or automatic thinking and so on. Perhaps not all of these things could sensibly be described as a ritual, but the vast majority can. Actions of proscribed form to recognise purpose. Morning routines, study routines, workout routines, coffee rituals. Our very biology has adapted to the fact that this kind of automation of behaviour is a sensible solution to a complicated world, and our emotions are the most poignant example of that.

It might seem that this parallel is needless, but there are two reasons I think there is some value in viewing human behaviour through the lens of ritual.

The first is that viewing ritual as the silly or dangerous practices of off-piste people isn’t very productive. It obscures the fact that much of your own life is geared in a similar manner towards articles of faith that you’ve decided are worthwhile. It makes us believe that in a fast-paced, modern world, we have no space for these outdated or trivial practices, when really our life is already full of them.

The second follows from the first. What makes you think the rituals you’ve adopted are worthwhile, when the rituals you denigrate are not? What makes your articles of faith more legitimate? In many cases, the answers to these questions will come quickly. But in many more, I wonder if you might have a moment of doubt. Viewing our actions through the lens of ritual, rather than calling them habits or practices or routines, invites us to question them. And we could all probably do a little more of that.

Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.

Robert Ford


Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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