If we should inquire for the essence of “government,” for example, one man might tell us it was authority, another submission, another police, another an army, another an assembly, another a system of laws; yet all the while it would be true that no concrete government can exist without all these things, one of which is more important at one moment and others at another. The man who knows governments most completely is he who troubles himself least about a definition which shall give their essence. Enjoying an intimate acquaintance with all their particularities in turn, he would naturally regard an abstract conception in which these were unified as a thing more misleading than enlightening. And why may not religion be a conception equally complex?
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture II
What is ritual? The religious studies scholar Ronald R. Grimes presents six pages of short definitions of ritual as an appendix to his The Craft of Ritual Studies; they make for fun reading, but also suggest a hopeless confusion surrounding a tempting and fascinating topic. William James, in his 500-page Varieties of Religious Experience, provides for us, instead of a single essence of religion, what he calls an “apperceiving mass” – plentiful examples through which the nuances of the matter will gradually reveal themselves. Since a blog post is hardly the place for such an “apperceiving mass,” I will attempt instead to define ritual within a tidy framework, keeping in mind that any such reduction will necessarily miss some of the important aspects of a major human domain. Nonetheless, I do think my simple model provides insight into the nature of ritual, and helps us to make sense of the seemingly irrational behaviors of other cultures, as well as the ways in which modern Western culture is itself a strange, ritual order.
Costly Signaling and the Ritual Mental State: Oxygen and Fuel
The first essence of my model of ritual is sacrifice: a costly signal made by participants to the group or to some sacred object of the group. As my colleague Will Newsome put it,
All rituals have a sacrifice. The default one is time.
— Will Newsome (@willnewsome) August 28, 2012
That a behavior is “ritual” is a hypothesis presented when the behavior appears irrational – for example, when resources are sacrificed or behaviors are performed for no visible gain. This may range from the sacrifice of animals or even people, to the potlatch ceremony of giving away (or destroying) gifts on a grand scale, to sacrificing time in prayer or even athletic practice. And with this in mind, a great deal of human behavior comes to look like ritual; it is far from the exceptional case. Indeed, the human order is a ritual order, not a rational one. Language is not our only mode of signaling; much of human behavior, and especially that which is called ritual, is signaling.
Costly signaling is a framework within which the “irrational” sacrifices and acts of ritual can be made sense of. Costly signaling comes from evolutionary biology, and posits that a signal that is very costly to produce is especially likely to be honest. A peacock’s tail is the classic example: only a very healthy and fit bird could get away with growing such a ridiculously impractical tail. Similarly, sacrificing a great deal for one’s group is a costly signal of loyalty, and therefore more likely honest than mere “lip service.”
In my view, this “costly signaling” theory takes us only halfway to understanding ritual effectiveness. Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler’s study of the longevity of communes found that costly signals in the form of behavioral sacrifice (for example, food prohibitions and sexual restrictions) were correlated with the longevity of religious communes – but not secular communes. More demanding religious communes lasted much longer than less demanding communes. And, importantly, non-religious communes had poor survival no matter how much they demanded from their members. The other half of the secret to ritual is the mental states evoked by ritual. A ritual that does not produce the proper mental states will not be effective at facilitating cooperation:
What is important for the argument presented here is that those who experience this numinous sensation perceive the incident to be undeniably true. Because secular rituals do not generate this feeling of numinosity, and the ideology that provides meaning to secular rituals can be evaluated through experience, the ability of these rituals to promote trust and cooperation is ephemeral.
Sosis and Bressler, Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion, 2003.
To someone who has experienced ritual possession by his god, the question of whether his god “exists” is a silly one, not even worth contemplating.
And so, the second essence of my model of ritual is the evocation of specific mental states. If cooperation and the solution of coordination problems is the “fire” of ritual, then costly signaling is its fuel, and the ritual mental state is its oxygen. Here is my model of ritual:
- Traditional behaviors are performed, often including speech acts;
- Time and other things are sacrificed;
- Mental states are evoked and emotional display is constrained;
- Certain aspects (purpose, mechanism, history) are opaque or concealed; and
- A sacred or otherwise “higher” purpose is understood;
With the function of:
- Changing the social status of some member or members;
- Strengthening the group; and
- Solving coordination problems.
To put it another way, ritual is the process by which:
- “ends in themselves” (sacred or “higher” objects generally representing the group or some aspect of it necessary for smooth social functioning)
- are affirmed in value by conspicuous sacrifice and evoked mental states,
- and the social status of members is affirmed or changed in a way that is expected to have effects beyond the context of the ritual.
Ritual is fundamentally social; Roy Rappaport describes ritual as “the basic social act.” The pair bond is a microcosm of the ritual community, a locus of costly signaling and the evocation of mental states to promote the most fundamental human cooperation. Consider Seligman and Weller’s description of the pragmatic effectiveness of ritual, compared to mere speech, within pair bonds:
Anti-ritualist attitudes deny the value to this subjunctive of play, convention, and illusion. They seek to root interaction in some attestation to the sincerity or truth-value of all categories or interlocuters. Yet,…”the map is not the territory.” If, for example, our love for each other registers only through our words (“I love you”), then we are caught in the perennial chasm between the words (of love) and the love itself. Words are only signifiers, arbitrary and by necessity at one remove from the event they signify. Hence the attempt to express love (or any other truth-value) in words is endless, as it can never finally prove its own sincerity or truth – its “unalloyed” nature. Ritual, by contrast, is repeated and unchanging. It avoids the problems of notation and sincerity because its visible performance itself constitutes an acceptance of its conventions. Unobservable inner states are irrelevant.
Adam Seligman and Robert Weller, Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity
Performance, beyond personal attestation or “lip service,” is what evidences and even creates belief. Sex (the original rhythmic ritual), food preparation and sharing, kind behavior, and gazing into each other’s eyes are the behaviors that power pair-bond coordination, with its peculiar mental state of love. Different, but analogous, ritual acts and mental states underwrite cooperation at larger scales.
Ritual Sacrifice of Time and Other Valuable Things
Time is the default sacrifice. It is the measure of sacrifice that underlies our complex economic order, so it is no surprise that it also underlies our ritual order. In religions that have a Sabbath, an entire day of productivity is sacrificed to God every week. Every ceremony involves the sacrifice of the time of participants; often, ceremonies involve the sacrifice of time by high-status persons. An arraignment is a ceremony in which the legitimacy of a person’s incarceration is established; not much information is exchanged, but the ceremony requires sacrifice in the form of a grand courtroom built for the purpose, as well as the time of grand personages such as the judge and two attorneys. Ritual attendants such as court reporters and bailiffs are required as well. The sacred value of “justice” is understood to be the target of these sacrifices.
Money is a phenomenon with roots deep in human prehistory, allowing for coordination on an international scale. Modern wonders such as vaccines, hot running water, and iPads are possible only because of the organization made possible by money. However, money is, at root, a ritual order. It is only rational to sacrifice valuable goods and services in exchange for pieces of paper, numbers in a bank ledger, or bits on the blockchain because of the group hallucination that such things are, and will continue to be, valuable.
The ritual power of money as a sacrifice is seen in a recent study on treatment for Parkinson’s disease, which found that a placebo that participants were told cost $1500 was more effective at reducing symptoms than a placebo that participants were told cost only $100. When effectiveness is difficult to evaluate, money as a measure of sacrifice (whether by the individual or his collective) has real-world effects. Expensive placebos are perceived as more effective than cheap placebos in the magical domain as well as the medical (and of course the two are inseparable); penis enlargement pills and anti-aging serum are often very expensive despite a lack of proven efficacy precisely because the measure of sacrifice in money terms is the only measure of their value available to the consumer.
Note, however, how often ritual sacrifices “for charity” come in forms other than money. Charity runs, walks, and bike rides allow participants to do “useless” activity – to sacrifice time and comfort – directed toward the sacred object of the charity. This sacrifice allows them to feel less shame at collecting money for the charity, and gives those who would donate, and themselves, a visceral sense of their commitment. Consider the recent popularity of the “ice bucket challenge.” People desire to prove their bravery and sacrifice their comfort for higher purposes, and this viral ritual gave people the opportunity to do that. The opportunity to simply donate money to a charity is not nearly as motivating.
The signaling theory of education posits that education has little effect on intelligence or aptitude, but functions almost entirely as a costly signal (of diligence, intelligence, low time preference, and perhaps faith in the ritual order of our society). In a similar manner to expensive placebos, the high cost of education may act as a signal to participants of its own value. People are willing to pay enormous amounts of money just for the opportunity to invest years of their lives in attempting to become more valuable to their groups. That others are also willing to do so, and that the opportunity is so very expensive, support the belief that education is very valuable.
Another kind of sacrifice is food restriction; many religions enforce dietary restrictions, with taboo foods and prescribed (and proscribed) methods of food preparation. While ritual dietary laws often have health benefits (see the food examples in my essay on cultural evolution), it seems that people have a desire to engage with food in a ritual way that has nothing to do with measurable health. Vegans are often highly empathetic people who desire to sacrifice their own pleasure and health for the sake of the “higher purpose” of reducing animal suffering. Others take a different route, excluding highly processed foods and eating a “primal” diet in order to connect ritually with the humans of the past. The popularity of fasting and “cleanses” (e.g. drinking nothing but lemon juice mixed with chili powder) suggests that people have a desire to engage with food in a religious way, and that food restrictions as costly sacrifices are desirable for their own sake.
I mentioned in my definition of ritual that some aspects of ritual, such as purpose, mechanism, or history, are concealed or otherwise opaque. Not taking a skeptical view of sacred stories and sacred objects may be seen as a form of sacrifice. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, famously says of the sacred, “The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.” Haidt notices that politics is a domain of the sacred, and that the way sacredness functions is to “bind us” (to each other) and “blind us” (to information threatening the sacred value). My co-guest-blogger Haley Thurston defines sacredness in terms of this opaque, concealed quality: “a thing you think is so important that in order to preserve it, you’re willing, consciously or unconsciously, to not examine it.” Maintaining the sanctity of sacred stories and objects is a kind of sacrifice – often taking the form of “mental gymnastics” – symbolically protecting sacred things from profanation, if only by the mind. Sacred, protected things also invoke a special mental state when brought to mind. The next section considers the special varieties of consciousness – mental states – that are the second chief ingredient of ritual.
Ritual Mental States and Group Proprioception
Ritual mental states are not all pleasant. In many rituals, what Harvey Whitehouse calls “dysphoric rituals,” what is sacrificed is comfort: extreme fear, pain, and even humiliation are inflicted on participants. Dysphoric rituals have a particular feature: they help small groups become tightly knit in what Whitehouse calls “identity fusion.” (It is difficult to separate the costly signaling aspect of ritual from the mental states thereby evoked.) Tribal initiation rituals and modern boot camps are examples of this type of ritual. Whitehouse says:
[W]e think dysphoric rituals are a bit like coming under fire in a warzone, except that they are more powerfully bonding, partly because they cannot be explained in any simple causal way. The range of interpretations that one can place on a painful or unpleasant ritual is inexhaustible: it sucks you into an interpretive vortex. In fact, our lab experiments suggest that one’s sense of a ritual’s significance actually increases over time, rather than decaying. In communal ceremonies it is usual to witness others undergoing the same experience, and to imagine them sharing the same rich interpretive process. The forces shaping one’s own sense of self are recognised in a special cohort of others, causing members to ‘fuse’.
Harvey Whitehouse, Human rites
Ritual is play, but it is not all fun; it is frequently painful or humiliating. For examples of dysphoric rituals other than initiation rites, see the rituals of naven and noganoga’sarii in Papua New Guinea. (I have been advised by a reliable source that the fun-sounding Hindu ritual of Holi is actually a pretty unpleasant ritual. This also makes sense of giant stadium concerts.) The unpleasantness is not a side effect to be eliminated, but precisely the source of the rituals’ power.
One way of thinking about this “identity fusion” is as group proprioception: the perception of one’s small group as an extension of one’s own body. Consider this description of a hunting party in New Guinea by E. Richard Sorenson, recording group proprioception from the outside:
One day, deep within the forest, Agaso, then about 13 years of age, found himself with a rare good shot at a cuscus in a nearby tree. But he only had inferior arrows. Without the slightest comment or solicitation, the straightest, sharpest arrow of the group moved so swiftly and so stealthily straight into his hand, I could not see from whence it came.
At that same moment, Karako, seeing that the shot would be improved by pulling on a twig to gently move an obstructing branch, was without a word already doing so, in perfect synchrony with Agaso’s drawing of the bow, i.e., just fast enough to fully clear Agaso’s aim by millimeters at the moment his bow was fully drawn, just slow enough not to spook the cuscus. Agaso, knowing this would be the case made no effort to lean to side for an unobstructed shot, or to even slightly shift his stance. Usumu similarly synchronized into the action stream, without even watching Agaso draw his bow, began moving up the tree a fraction of a second before the bowstring twanged.
E. Richard Sorenson, Preconquest Consciousness
This sense often extends to the sacred objects of a group. A trick of drill instructors in Marine Corps boot camp, in the middle of screaming at a worthless group of recruits in their first few weeks, is to casually allow the flag representing the unit to fall; in almost all cases, one of the recruits will dive to save the flag from touching the ground, even though the recruits have not been told that this is expected of them. Rituals such as drilling together and suffering together make the recruits perceive the sacred objects of their group as in need of protection, almost like a precious body part.
Here is how the Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh speaks of group proprioception, in the Catholic tradition:
Neurologists point out that a human being, so far from being born with innate coordination of its senses, must grow itself into a sort of envelope of sensation which then forms for the individual his or her own peculiar physical and emotional self-image….
Analogously, a corporate entity such as a church might perhaps be said to grow itself into a sort of envelope of sensation which then forms its own peculiar self-image, its own real awareness of corporate identity which is its own fundamental principle of operation. The stimulation process which is most responsible for a church’s growth into its own identity-envelope, and which is therefore responsible as well for how that church functions in the real order, is its life of constant and increasingly complex worship. For in worship alone is the church gathered in the closest obvious proximity to its fundamental values, values which are always assuming stimulative form in time, space, image, word, and repeated act. The richer this stimulation is, under the criteria of the Gospel, it follows that the more conscious, aware, self-possessed, and vigorously operational the given church will be.
Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology, p. 62.
Some ritual mental states, of course, are extremely pleasant, activating subjective experiences not obtainable in mundane life. A Balinese dancer describes the trance state: “the feeling of a flow, no mind, everything is under control by the other realm.” The altered mental states achieved in such rituals as Balinese dance, glossolalia, ritual possession, and less exotic forms of worship are crucial to the efficacy of the rituals, in terms of facilitating group harmony and cooperation. As I noted in the previous essay in this series, cues such as synchronized motion and rhythmic entrainment can produce mental states that facilitate cooperation and bonding, even allowing groups to be braver (and perhaps violent) toward other, threatening groups. How can groups cooperate and trade despite humans’ violent tendencies? The next section explores a major class of rituals that channels violence into harmless ritual: ritual combat.
Ritual combat includes athletics, games, and even some actual combat; we might even view combat occurring within the rules of the Geneva Convention, for example, as a form of semi-ritualized combat.
My sport, fencing, is a highly ritualized form of athletic competition that descends directly from lethal forms of combat. Many hours of practice are sacrificed before presenting oneself to compete in a collegiate bout. A very particular uniform is worn, and as with group sports, cheers may be performed prior to a match between teams. Combat is limited to the “piste,” a precisely measured strip of ground, often covered in metal to facilitate electronic score keeping. Before combat, each participant’s weapon is examined and measured; participants salute each other, the scorekeeper, and the officiant in a ritualized manner practiced thousands of times in practice bouts. The signal to be ready and to begin is given, and when a point has been scored, the action is halted. In my essay on children’s ritual culture, I noted that children often have a “respite word” to call a “time out” when play gets too dangerous; the only analogy in adult culture exists in games, and in fencing, this is accomplished by stamping one’s back foot repeatedly on the piste while raising the non-weapon hand (such as when you discover your shoe is untied).
Strong emotion is evoked in athletic ritual, but the range of emotions that may be expressed is also constrained, in different ways depending on the sport and the era. In fencing as in many sports, it is poor sportsmanship to celebrate a victory too raucously, or to fall on the piste in sorrow when one loses (I have seen it happen, but it is rare and considered shameful). Participants must solemnly shake (non-weapon) hands at the beginning and end of bouts. This ritual control of emotional display – in the service of “sportsmanship” – is one of the most important features of athletic ritual. I have also had the good fortune to experience an altered mental state during a fencing tournament, what is often described as “flow” – a narrowing of vision and perception, combined with what seemed to be the ability to slow down time, to reach in and touch my opponent with the point of my weapon wherever I wanted, and protect my own target effortlessly. Perhaps those who have experience with team sports can advise me as to whether “group proprioception” or other altered states occur in that form of ritualized combat.
Restricting emotional display is a sacrifice, both in the aforementioned courtroom, in ritual combat, and in other ceremonies – it is difficult to rein in one’s emotions! But restricting the display of emotion (as well as engaging in ritual display of emotion, such as weeping, tearing clothes or cutting hair in mourning) can also help evoke the proper ritual mental states. Again, the sacrifice is often inseparable from the evocation of mental states.
Clifford Geertz’ excellent Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight provides a model of ritual combat in which “irrational” amounts of money are bet in proportion to the status and reputation of the owners of the roosters, which in turn is proportional to the quality of the roosters themselves. This ritual violence, while perhaps shocking to Western sensibilities, provides a satisfying and effective substitute for human-on-human violence:
Fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite, because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”
Ingroup formation and conflict with the outgroup are human universals; channeling this tendency into cooperation is a major challenge (see, e.g., Muzafer Sharif’s Robbers Cave Experiment). The play of ritual, including ritual combat, allows our dangerous “murder ape” tendencies to be subverted.
From Grooming to Ritual
Our species’ nearest relatives solidify social bonds mostly through one-on-one fur grooming. Grooming takes time – it is a costly sacrifice – and also, presumably, creates a mental state in the participants that helps the sacrifice achieve its cooperative ends (think about how pleasant it is to be cuddled or massaged). Robin Dunbar’s theory of grooming and gossip posits that for groups too large and complex for one-on-one grooming to organize, language, especially social gossip, takes over the role of grooming. Having explored the nature and power of ritual, it seems likely to me that ritual – including music, rhythmic entrainment, dance, singing, and the like – form a more general candidate for “what replaced grooming” in our own complex social species.
Human-specific behaviors include not only language, but also tears and laughter. Kevin Simler has argued that the human-specific phenomenon of tears acts as a costly signal to conspecifics, sacrificing status and evoking a mental state of pity, offering “friendship at a discount.” Laughter is a social phenomenon, occurring much more often when people are together than when they are alone, and often in response to social cues rather than a genuinely mirthful stimulus.
The field of evolutionary musicology is a relatively new field in an early stage of development and rigor, but offering at least hypotheses about the origin of music. I suggest that music is a part of the ritual order that builds on and replaces grooming, and that language may originate in this new rhythmic ritual order, with ritual preceding language. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, possess some of the capabilities underlying rhythmic ritual, although among primates only humans have elaborated this capacity into music, dance, and ritual. Perhaps ritual found us first, and the words only discovered us later.
What is the opposite of ritual? Defecation, an act shared with all animals, does not seem like a ritual; rituals are social, and defecation is performed in private; rituals involve the sacred, and defecation is the epitome of the profane. However, the act involves many behavioral sacrifices for the community; it must only be performed in particular locations, and hygienic rituals such as wiping with toilet paper or washing oneself with the left hand (and tabooing its use in other contexts) are required. Hand-washing after defecation is a sacrifice to the health of the group that is more likely to be performed if others witness one’s performance. We have a rational reason for hand-washing – the prevention of infectious disease – but the practice precedes the germ theory of disease, and many hand-washing ritual performances today are not actually effective at preventing the spread of disease. Interestingly, the very privacy expected during defecation is subverted toward ritual ends by the historical (and perhaps contemporary) practice of boot camp “heads” (bathrooms) not having walls separating the toilets. Perhaps the extreme destruction of privacy facilitates group “identity fusion.”
While there is probably no domain of human activity that ritual does not invade, watching television must score very low on the ritual spectrum. It involves the sacrifice of time, in a sense: perhaps some people watch television in order to participate in social gossip with other people, a sacrifice of time for community. But there is another perspective that probably accounts for more viewer hours: perhaps television absorbs time that the community has no other use for, ritual or economic. Advanced industrialization has left us with cognitive surplus – spare time that our groups have no demands on. Spare time that is of little value to our groups may also be of little, or even negative, value to us; television offers a way to get through time. It does not offer us much in terms of opportunities to be valuable to each other.
The internet, under the definition presented here, holds much more promise than television as a ritual domain. Our sacrifice of time to the internet, our mutual evocation of mental states, and our display and constraint of emotional response, are much more likely to be directed toward others, or toward sacred objects of our groups, than time sacrificed to television. New groups are forming and changing, offering new sacred objects and new rituals, including new forms of ritual combat. Social status is negotiated, affirmed, and changed within the ritual order of the internet. Perhaps seeing internet rituals for what they are will helps us select the best ones, and elaborate new ones to participate in.