The Resilience of Ritual

Sara Frueh at the National Academies: “Even among those who share the same faith or ethnic background, small differences in rituals can seem insurmountable, added Legare, relaying the example of a friend’s deep disagreement with her new husband over whether presents should be opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. “There was a lot of family strife surrounding something that seems pretty trivial.”

Why do these small differences matter so much? Rituals help support group identity and preserve communities over time – which means they aren’t easily altered, said Legare. “Resisting change is part of the structural fabric of ritual.”

Reshaping Rituals Big and Small

If rituals are built to resist change, what happens when massive change — like a pandemic — is forced upon them?

We responded not by scrapping our rituals but by modifying them, which attests to their importance, said Legare. “The functions that these rituals serve are still things that humans need, that we crave.” For example, rites of passage — birthday parties, baby showers, funerals — have moved online. “We still need these critical life events to be commemorated, to be respected.”

One reason the pandemic has been uniquely difficult is that it’s a normal reaction to gather together in times of uncertainty and hardship — something made difficult or impossible by the social distancing needed to slow the spread of disease, said Legare. “It explains why rather than just omitting a lot of these rituals, we have changed and transformed them.”

Rituals are particularly helpful in situations of uncertainty or danger; they can help us reestablish a feeling of control, explained Legare, and theories hold that rituals support our physiological and psychological drive to reach homeostasis — a feeling of stability and balance. Reading or praying together in collective settings, for example, can have powerful psychological effects in reducing anxiety. “It’s a big part of why we find engaging in synchronous, collective activity so soothing,” she said.

In addition, Legare noted, anthropologists believe that rituals may be part of a hazard-precaution system — a psychological system geared toward responding to threats in the environment, such as pathogens and contamination. “Since reducing contamination and promoting hygiene is essential to human health and survival, using rituals to spread these practices is really useful,” she said. “So it’s absolutely not a surprise that we ritualize hand-washing.” This is nothing new, she added; for very functional reasons, hygiene is part of both secular and religious rituals around the world…(More)”.