Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 23/02/2020

Last modified: 21/10/2020

Some religious practices have specific rules about how they are performed, these practices are sometimes called rituals. There is no hard line between 'religious practice' and 'ritual', but practices with more rules can be described as more ritualistic.



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Religious practices include a wide variety of activity, but in some cases these practices might be described as rituals, a term that carries many conflicting associations. We can look at ritual as a type of religious practice, which pays attention to not only what is done, but also the broader context in which the action is situated.

In other words, rituals are religious practices with some degree of specificity that separates them from ‘everyday’ religious activities.

This definition finds common ground with a dictionary definition, which describes ritual as ‘[a] religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order’ (Oxford University Press, 2018).

This sense of ritual as a mechanism of order and control recurs in a variety of contexts, but we should be wary of making things too simple! Catherine Bell (2006) points out that:

…scholars may be at the point of relinquishing the idea that there can be a single theory of ritual, for ritual may not be any one thing.

What makes a ritual?

We can start to appreciate the differences between ritual and non-ritual religious practices by considering diet. For many people, choosing what food to eat is a decision based on their religious culture and beliefs, but isn’t actually a ritual.

Jewish dietary law (kashrut), requires that only foods of appropriate types can be consumed; these appropriate foods are described as kosher, suitable for consumption. However, the decision to eat (or not) in accordance with kashrut doesn’t appear to be ritualistic; it isn’t ceremonial, and although the prescribed foods suggest a sense of order, kashrut doesn’t dictate where, when, or how a meal is eaten.

By contrast, the slaughter of animals for consumption could be described as a ritual because it involves a deliberate action by an authorised person (in the case of Jewish slaughter, this person is called a shochet) with prescribed methods, intentions, and outcomes.

In Judaism, this ritual slaughter is known as shechita, but it’s worth noting that the British organisation Shechita UK doesn’t consider the act a ritual, and instead describes the process in medical terms, focusing on the claimed humaneness of the method.

There is no ritual involved in shechita.

The procedure consists of a rapid and expert transverse incision with an instrument of surgical sharpness (a chalaf), which severs the major structures and vessels at the neck. This causes an instant drop in blood pressure in the brain and immediately results in the irreversible cessation of consciousness. Thus, shechita renders the animal insensible to pain, dispatches and exsanguinates in a swift action, and fulfils all the requirements of humaneness and compassion.

You can read their comments in full here: A Guide to Shechita

Overlapping boundaries

An interesting overlap between ritual and non-ritual practice is found in the act of eating. Making the opening remarks at the Shoresh Food Conference (a Jewish event), Risa Alyson Cooper questions whether it’s enough for Jews to eat kosher foods, or whether they should introduce additional (ritual) behaviour:

‘Does eating Jewishly mean creating space for the divine at our tables? Does it mean acknowledging the role of an ultimate Creator, an [sic] unifying energy or breath of life? Does it mean saying a blessing, expressions of gratitude?’

You can read her remarks in full here: http://shoresh.ca/shoresh-food-conference-opening-remarks-or-inspiration-move-me-brightly/

The activities that Cooper describes (creating space for, and acknowledging, the divine) would shift the act of eating further into the realm of ritual, creating a more deliberate approach to consumption, a better sense of order, and clearer outcomes (appreciation and gratitude among the eaters).

This exploration also hints that the boundary between ritual and non-ritual may be permeable – in other words actions might move between ritual and non-ritual depending on a variety of factors including what the action is, why it’s performed, how it’s done, where, when, and with whom.

Every aspect of a practice can influence how that practice is experienced and perceived, and create boundaries in the social and emotional lives of religious practitioners.

The video below features a talk on ritual delivered by Dimitris Xygalatas - pay attention to what he suggests about the function of ritual, and the form it usually takes.

Boundaries, and their utility, according to Xygalatas, form the basis of ritual; rituals create a sense of order which contrasts with the more common experience of disorder.

He notes that rituals can function as methods of mitigating the stress that comes with uncertainty:

We see that the more stressed [experimental participants] get, the more repetitive, rigid, and redundant their hand movements become; in other words, the more stressed they get, the more ritualised their behaviour.

Rigid rules?

The sense that ritual involves formalism (strict rules about behaviour) is found across a variety of religious contexts, but is ritual behaviour just rigid and repetitive?

Let’s look at the high energy environment of African Neo-Pentecostal Christian churches, for example the Cherubim and Seraphim church of Nigeria.

You can see an example of the C&S church activity in the video below:

The church rituals involve physical activity such as clapping, kicking, dancing, and singing, and each has its own meaning and purpose. For instance, kicking symbolises spiritual power and helps to manifest it for the adherent, clapping symbolises victory, and singing symbolises joy (Harris, 2006, p.194).

One of the tenets of C&S churches (and Pentecostalism more generally) is that people are moved by the power of the Holy Spirit (one of the three Christian aspects of God), and these ecstatic expressions (dancing, clapping, etc.) aren’t specifically premeditated, but there’s nonetheless an expectation that spontaneous movements can take place within the context of worship, and so they too form part of the ritual.

The highly charged, spontaneous ritual activity found in Neo-Pentecostalism seems to disagree with how Xygalatas talks about ritual as an activity characterised by repetition and rigidity.

The religion and ritual studies scholar Catherine Bell (2006) suggests that, in part, the modern understanding of ritual as something unthinkingly repeated and detached from authentic engagement with the world has been inherited from Western Protestant attitudes towards the Catholic church, and notes that this bias should be carefully negotiated.

Among the many attitudes towards ritual in the history of religion is the Protestant distrust of rites. That distrust is taken the furthest by groups like the Quakers, who shun any kind of orchestrated activity. Even today, a self-consciously “modern” attitude tends to equate a full ritual system with a “primitive” form of religiosity. This cultural continuation of a Protestant aversion to ritual tends to equate heavily ritualized practices with Catholic excesses and with the Catholic corruption of a prior, pristine period. These inconsistent assessments of ritual - ritual as a merely primitive activity versus ritual as excessively priestly pomp - avoided expose by being applied to different religions in different parts of the world. Hence primitive religion was to be found in illiterate Africa and corrupted Buddhism in literate Asia. Despite sensitivity to these tendencies, some argue that there remain subtle biases. “Ritualistic” still connotes thoughtless and dogmatic.

Bell, 2006, p. 399

Not only is our modern understanding of ritual based on historic distrust, but the way we justify this distrust shifts depending on our circumstances.

If the rituals are committed by a large organisation (like the Catholic Church), then they are examples of religion that has grown too large, become too formal and stiff. This criticism wouldn’t work in a pre-literate society, for example a remote tribe living in the wilderness, so instead the justification is that ritual is simplistic and primitive - religion in its infancy, superstition.

As Bell points out, even after we attempt to correct for these inherited ideas about ritual, very often negative bias still exists - if not within ourselves then certainly within the wider society and culture.

Some religious groups that have transitioned into a Western context show an awareness of this bias and try to make it work in their favour, for instance the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu order originally from India with temples in the UK, takes care to assert that their rituals ‘…are not rooted in blind faith or superstition; rather, they have a practical application and relevance to people’s everyday lives’ (https://www.baps.org/About-BAPS/WhoWeAre/BasicBeliefs/ThePhilosophy/HinduPracticesandRituals.aspx).

Negotiating chaos, creating order

Whether ritual is understood as rigid or flexible, the idea that it generates and sustains order is reinforced by the work of Mary Douglas.

Using dietary restrictions as an example, Douglas explored how an experience of order is built out of distinctions such as purity and pollution, often based on seemingly superficial assessments.

Her explanation of the dietary rules expressed in the Jewish scripture, for example, is that within the cultural context of early Judaism, sheep were the ‘normal’ animal for food. Animals were therefore assessed based on how closely they matched this standard – pigs did not match very closely at all, and were therefore excluded from the diet. These sorts of social categories provide the context within which the ritual operates, and explain how it produces and sustains a sense of order.

Returning to the Cherubim and Seraphim church, there are many elements of C&S worship that help to reinforce the ritual distinction between chaos and order, such as white garments (symbolising purity), removal of shoes in places of prayer (preventing pollution), and prohibitions against menstruating women (the power of bodily fluids plays into Douglas’s ideas about things being in their appropriate place – bodily fluids ‘belong’ in the body).

Finding the function

This interpretation of ritual as a method of establishing (or re-establishing) order finds common ground with Robin Horton, who suggests that rituals are methods of controlling the environment; this is a functional theory of why ritual arises, i.e. ritual serves a function and should be understood in that light.

Horton claims that the views and beliefs that underlie ritual activities arise as a way to understand what the world is, and why it behaves the way that it does.

This functional approach suggests that ritual is an intentional action, which makes use of relationships (or perceived relationships) between phenomena; the restrictions on how and by whom a ritual is conducted make sense when considered within this framework.

In other words, ritual is a kind of science, where actions are believed to have specific outcomes, and so are used when the outcome is needed. If some people or things invalidate the outcome, they must be prevented from performing the ritual (leading to ideas of purity and pollution).

When performing a scientific experiment involving the cultivation of bacteria in a petri dish, it is important to keep the equipment clean, to work with pure samples, and to use the same method for each run of the experiment. According to Horton, this is very similar to ritual behaviour because they are both expressions of the same tendencies - if you want a repeatable outcome, you have to follow a particular method.

Handling the egg

Where this approach may fail to explain ritual is situations where rituals emerge without premeditated purpose or even a framework of established rules about what ritual leads to what outcome.

An excellent example of this sort of naturally occurring ritual is provided by Ronald Grimes (2011), who describes establishing a ritual practice with his students that he intentionally does not explain in advance.

He hands out a small wooden egg-shaped object repeatedly throughout his classes, and even takes the ‘egg’ on field trips with the students.

In the absence of a provided meaning or intention, ritual behaviour nonetheless developed through the repetition of an activity (handling and discussing a wooden ‘egg’). Grimes observed that meaning was independently developed by the participants, who, having grown attached to the object and the ritual, didn’t want to throw the ‘egg’ away at the end of the year, and instead suggested repeating the process with the next group of students as a way of establishing a link between them all.

Clearly, though ritual is often repetitious to the point of formalism, it doesn’t need be as tightly regimented as the liturgical rites of a church to qualify; by the same token, Horton’s functionalism (i.e. a ritual’s intentional, purposive aspect) might come after a ritual has developed, rather than being a pre-requisite.

Encoded history

Nonetheless, rituals often do fulfil many functions, one of which is to record events and experiences across time and space; the performance of ritual provides a link between practitioners no matter where or when they exist.

The Shi’ite Muslim rituals of Ashura (https://www.ashura.com/) both in Iraq and the wider world are a good example of ritual preserving memory; the ceremonial gatherings, or majalis, provide opportunities for communities to relive not just the narrative of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, but to embrace and embody the emotions first felt over a thousand years ago. You can watch a quick overview of Ashura in the video from Euronews below.

Claims of antiquity can help to establish rituals as authentic by connecting participants to their history and ancestors, but maintaining a ritual over vast distances is just as important for members of dispersed communities. For example, the Hindu diaspora (Hindus who have left their homeland of India) can often find themselves in alien societies and cultures, so ritual acts, ranging from nitya puja (daily devotion) to the construction of a mandir (temple) and installation of murtis (divine statues), can all help to ensure a connection between adherents’ original home and their new one.

At its root, ritual seems to suggest that there are moments worth preserving because of their orienting power; these moments point towards order, even if that order comes from a sense of pain or despair. Since disorder can represent uncertainty and anxiety, people will tend to preserve moments of order by repeating, approximating, or re-enacting them.

However, for all this talk about order and meaning, ritual is clearly not one single thing; Catherine Bell (2006) notes that in contemporary ritual studies ‘…the emphasis is on how people ritualize…’ as opposed to looking for a universal definition (much like contemporary religious studies).

If we were to hazard a provisional definition of ritual, we might say that ritual practice means taking care to perform an action in accordance with a formula that emerges from human engagement with disorder, either consciously or subconsciously, so that order might be preserved, generated, or utilised. It takes on many forms, and serves many emergent functions, but at its root involves a relationship between chaos and order that positions the human individual as mediator, and regulates its own development by tending towards conservatism.


  • Bell, C. (2006) ‘Ritual’, in The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Grimes, R. (2011) ‘Ritual’, in Material Religion, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 76-83 [Online]. Available at https://doi.org/10.2752/175183411X12968355482097 (Accessed 20 November 2018).
  • Harris, H. (2006) Yoruba in Diaspora: An African Church in London, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Oxford University Press (2018), ritual [Online]. Available at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ritual (Accessed 20 November 2018).

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