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The Sunday Sermon; Rituals and Rational Actors.

I grew up in the Catholic Church, with the rules and rituals that implies. Girls were not allowed on the altar, that privilege was reserved for boys.(Little did we know at the time just what a blessing it might be to not be a priests favoured child). You must never turn your back on the altar, communion must not be chewed, a whole litany of ways to behave were set out. It wasn’t just the rituals we took part in I can remember, but those I observed. I can still remember the colouring sheet I had to complete preparing for my first Holy Communion, naming the various altar plates, and their functions,

It’s easy for those looking at a reason to mock or attack another group to fixate on the rituals. Look at those funny people over there doing something I don’t do seems to be almost a default reaction. The fact is we all have rituals, its only those who aren’t self-aware who like to pretend they don’t. When I go into college I buy a large tea from the same barista, it’s a ritual. It helps start my day and in some ways marks this as a college day. There are other coffee shops I could go to, but that would alter the ritual.

Or when I am lucky enough to spend time with my fellow traveller here, I always wait in the same place. This may have originally begun as a knowing reference to O waiting for Rene but it has become a ritual with its own significance. I know it has a significance because upon occasion Carter has ordered me to change this ritual. In such a simple command he can throw my mind into a spiral, which is exactly his intention. Like seeing an altar girl, or using gluten-free bread rolls instead of the white wafers for communion when a ritual has power it can be even more powerful to acknowledge it exists and change it.

Whether it’s a footballer putting the left boot on before the right, or a child kissing their eddy bear good night we are surrounded by rituals. There seems to be a deep human need fulfilled by them. It may be a need for structure and order in our lives, and is often a cultural or social shorthand. If for example Carter turned up and I was sitting waiting for him at the kitchen table he would know something must have happened, and it would be an important something to change my behaviour so radically.

Ritual can of course sometimes replace awareness, or even become a form of self-deception. I am thinking of those married couples where the love seems to have died, but the ritual of the good morning kiss and the “I love you” is still observed. Or those men who believe they must be “nice guys” because they observe the mating rituals of flowers and chocolate and then believe sex is a right that should not be denied. However the condemnation of ritual can also come from a place of deception and lack of awareness. Economics invented the idea of the rational actor, and in doing so condemned us to a view of humanity with no basis in fact and zero understanding of how the world really is. Sadly many have decided they are rational actors, some strange breed without communities, histories, socialization or rituals. They will have rituals of course, but claim not too in order to separate themselves from those they look down on.

Embrace your irrationality, celebrate your rituals, revel in the fact we are not robots, and yes, we all know touching a certain brick before a football game will not magically make a goal happen, but it may make the individual who does it play better, content that the ritual has been followed. Only those who want to reduce the human mind to a few points on a graph would want to ignore, or remove the power of ritual to inspire, move and lift up human beings.


4 comments on “The Sunday Sermon; Rituals and Rational Actors.

  1. Peter Perfect
    March 29, 2015

    Human beings are incredibly irrational. I think most people make decisions at a sub conscious level, and than dress it up with reasons and logic afterwards


    • jemima2013
      March 29, 2015

      I agree, self awareness is about recognising those processes


  2. ValeryNorth
    March 29, 2015

    I was just reading a month-old New Scientist article about rituals, and how it’s been observed children will imitate far more closely the purposeless acts of an adult, than the purposeful ones. They theorised that ritual is part of how groups develop a sense of belonging and collective endeavour.

    (I theorised that perhaps if you understand an action’s purpose, you can improvise, whereas if you don’t, then to be sure you get the intended outcome you have to follow the steps precisely – like the difference between knowing the theory of baking versus simply following a recipe blindly.)

    So everyone has rituals, because that’s how you know you belong in your group.

    Equally, when you talk about rituals above, and improvising or altering them, I think it’s that point of understanding the purpose: and finding ways to see who belongs not because of ritual but because of shared understanding.


    • jemima2013
      March 29, 2015

      i think you are spot on. I hadnt seen that research, but it makes a lot of sense, children copy that which doesnt have meaning perhaps due to fear of exclusion if they get it wrong, as you say if you understand you can improvise.


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