Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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In the social scientific study of religion, refers to symbolic actions, the customary ceremonies, the prescribed forms of rite that manifest belief in the Divine through patterned and closely regulated social means. (In older usage, ritual refers to the words involved in such events—both words spoken and written directions—while ceremony refers to the actions.)

Religious rituals have manifold functions of propitiation, of rendering worship, and of the conferral of powers and delegations. Rituals operate with a hierarchical order and proclaim a power to reconstitute the social and the physical. Religious rituals can be classified according to their stipulated functions and the elaborate or simple nature of their ceremonial forms.

Some forms of ritual have instrumental properties, hence are magical in their explanatory functions and the causal reconstitution of what they effect. But religious rituals, especially those of Christianity, operate in a more indirect and indeterminate manner in relation to the powers that transcend their basis. They display an absence of concern with tangible ends that lends a disinterested, objective quality to their rites. In their ritual actions, the actors give witness to a gift beyond their discretion to invoke, hence the proper distinction between religious rituals on the one hand and magic on the other.

The Paradox of Ritual

Religious rituals have a property of danger where powers of the unknown are confronted in forms of petition. Sacrifice in ritual manifests a gift destroyed to secure that which cannot be realized solely through social means. These elements point to a crucial function of religious rituals, of providing social means of domesticating fear of the unknown. These capacities give them a mysterious power of transformation and representation that invokes faith in the symbolic and hidden basis of the transactions. Somehow they manage to implicate the definiteness of their form into the indefiniteness of that which they signify. As settled social procedures drawn from tradition and custom, these rites also serve to handle routinely transitions in life cycles in the setting of religious belief. They contribute to social and spiritual notions of health in their capacity to domesticate fractious issues in a harmonizing manner where otherwise the social fabric might be rent. Religious rituals embody cultural values that relate both to the secular and to the sacred. Civic and traditional properties merge with those of the sacerdotal, especially in English society. Religious rites relate to values of national pride and are vehicles for sentiment, such as mourning. They give condensed expression to national sensibilities of grief or celebration such as royal funerals and weddings. They also have a dual collective function of ameliorating egoism and at the same time affirming the necessity of belief in the transcendent and the mysterious. These dual spiritual and social functions have led to divisions of understanding within sociology and anthropology.

Like other ritual forms, religious rites dignify transactions that risk sliding into the trivial. The ceremonial resources of rite, its stylized actions, its formalized gestures, elaborate clothing and speech serve as artificial means of providing a protective mantle to theological propositions that might otherwise slip into trivia, into presumption, and into insignificance. Religious rituals operate in a series of paradoxes that are routinely overcome: The tradition that makes them seem unoriginal endows them with the authority of servicing a lineage of collective memory (Hervieu-Léger 1993) and making rites anew in the present; the fixed order of enactment that diminishes discretion permits the routine handling of dangerous emotions and that which might evaporate into ephemeral enthusiasms; and despite a tangible social apparatus that represents the unutterable, they manage to re-present utterances that belong to the Divine in a mysterious manner. The fixedness of ritual form contrasts with the unfixed properties they routinely handle, of death, marriage, and initiation. This fixedness proclaims a security, a witness to a mysterious capacity for inexhaustible repetition.

The multitude of functions of religious rites and readings that can be derived from their stereotypical social facades generates a sociological fascination as to their ritual style and order, their symbols and procedures for handling routinely the unknown. But this management of antinomies and ambiguities in a credible manner marks a limit to sociological understandings of the social basis of rite.

There is a dramatic quality to the facility of rites to service often contradictory ends. Religious rituals can be understood as forms of theater (Turner 1982). As social transactions, these rites can be characterized as forms of play or games that give them a significance in a culture of postmodernity (Flanagan 1991, Gadamer 1979, Huizinga 1949). Music, silence, awe, terror, and joy are some of the experiential properties so released that also form the characterizing phenomena of rite. The numinous and mysterious properties of being acted on by forces beyond human manufacture provide a fascination for the actors so engaged in this holy hunt.

Religious ritual forms are microcosms of social and cultural values. In a Durkheimian understanding, rituals sacralize the social, affirm the collectivity, and provide indispensable means of harnessing the social to heal fragmentation (Durkheim 1915). Even in civic and secular cultures, religious rituals have powerful legitimizing powers that rulers invoke through symbols to secure recognition of their right to rule (Bloch 1992, Cannadine 1983, Cannadine and Price 1987).

This overlap between polity and theodicy draws attention to wider issues of ambiguity that sociology faces in striving to arbitrate between the social form of rite (its describable ceremonial rules and procedures), which is literally not what it is about to its adherents, and the content, of the mysterious, the intangible and transcendent properties it signifies and sometimes evokes, which lies outside sociological accountability but that is central to its theological language of purpose.

Sociological Interpretations of Ritual

Sociology faces a dilemma of interpretation of religious rituals, of either providing reductionist explanatory accounts of the social mechanisms that overturn the sensibilities and the self-understandings of the actors involved in the reproduction of rite, or of bracketing suspicion and trying to understand the link between the theology proclaimed and the ritual so enacted, which the actors strive to fuse together if the action is to be credible to themselves.

Sociologists might wish to confirm suspicions of the Enlightenment that these rites are inherently deluding, that they service the irrational, the superstitious, and that Feuerbach, Marx, Frazer, Freud, and Durkheim were right, that they simply mirror the social and, in intensified use, are ceremonial neuroses, rites of delusion for their adherents. But this reductionist tradition has been overturned since the early 1970s, with acceptance of the notion of performative utterances, that doing is a form of saying (Austin 1979), that there is an internal relationship between action and context (Winch 1963), and that culture is a form of text (Geertz 1988), thus action has a hermeneutic dimension (Ricoeur 1981). These shifts have led to changes of expectation over how religious rituals are to be authentically understood. Rituals are read increasingly in sociological and anthropological terms as openings, as operative and performative ceremonies (Lewis 1980, Skorupski 1976, Tambiah 1979). Rites have their own language, and their actors play their enactments by the book (Grainger 1974).

In these approaches, symbols are to be deciphered (Geertz 1968), tacit meanings in action are to be read for what is unstated, and sociology has to find a grammar for reading religious rituals in terms of their own criteria of authenticity and self-recognition. The move from reductionist functionalist accounts to those that seek to amplify the meanings rituals make manifest has facilitated a link between sociology and hermeneutics that has wider implications for debate on sociology and culture. Religious rituals, especially those of Catholicism, combine the ingredients of hermeneutic debate, action, symbol, text in a way that merges perspectives of Gadamer and Ricoeur with sociological considerations (Flanagan 1991).

As these rites are to be deciphered in the fullness of meanings they amplify, interest moves to understanding how actors convert the determinate into the indeterminate. But if rites are indeterminate in effect, the scope for deceptions becomes enormous, as "lies are the bastard offspring of symbols" (Rappaport 1979). Sociological questions emerge about the impression management of religious rituals that suggest that they are paradigms for understanding the sacredness of all social transactions.

Rituals provide a tale in their ceremonial orders, the reading of which tells much about a society, its cultural heritage, what it values and what it believes. In Catholicism, the link can be understood in the term inculturation , the imperative to reflect the cultural genius of a people in ritual styles (Chupungco 1982).

Using symbols and formalized actions, religious rituals convey a power for dealing with the mysterious through social means that has wider sociological implications. This sacramental power was understood by Max Weber and is central to the understanding of recent approaches to the sociology of culture (Bourdieu 1987).

Christian Rituals and Sociology

There are structural reasons within sociology for the neglect of Christian religious rituals that have so shaped the culture of advanced industrialized secular societies, and whose metaphors still haunt the sociological imagination. The issue of ritual seemed to belong to anthropology and ethnography. Apart from Durkheim's seminal contribution, the issue of religious ritual seemed not a sociological question. It belonged to the nonrational principles of efficacy and intervention of magic, and to accounts of the structure of primitive society. Neither did it belong to sociology of religion. Of late, sociology of religion concentrated on debates on secularization and on sects, the fringes of the main Christian tradition, all of which confirmed the notion that its religious rituals were incredible and had failed. Ironically, in turn, sociology of religion was marginalized from the main theoretical concerns of sociology.

But as the issue of culture is becoming of central concern in sociology, the importance of religious rituals as fields for theoretical reflection can only expand. For instance, the issues of time, space, and structuration of Giddens have been fruitfully explored in relation to the liturgies of the medieval parish church (Graves 1989); the term habitus , central to Bourdieu's approach to sociology and culture, derives from an appreciation of the link between disposition, belief systems, and architecture (Bourdieu 1977); and the notion of the liminal for understanding ritual and structure has clear implications for approaches to culture (Holmes 1973, Turner 1969).

Little sociological attention has been given to understanding the liturgies of Catholicism and Anglicanism, their public stipulated forms of worship whose ritual order abides by ecclesiastical authority (Martimort 1987). These rites exemplify an important link of praxis between theology and sociology, where grace mingles with the social. Sacraments can be understood in liturgical contexts as rites of initiation (Gennep 1960, Smolarski 1994). Sociological comments on liturgy tend to be traditionalist and critical of the confusion between renewal and modernization since Vatican II. Thus one finds unexpected anthropological appreciations of the Tridentine Mass (Turner 1976), the use of sacramental metaphors to understand culture, and a sympathetic understanding of the estrangement felt by those whose memory of rite was obliterated in the face of the havoc wrought after Vatican II (Bourdieu 1991).

Flanagan's study of liturgy (1991) was an attempt to understand its ritual basis from within the assumptions and expectations of sociology. The methodological difficulties of studying these rites in relation to theology and sociology were explored. To uncover their possible social assumptions, the study concentrated on the precariousness of their ceremonial social mechanism in their realization of the liminal and the numinous. The focus of the study was on the minor liturgical actors, the choirboys and the altar servers, those marginal to the rite but who exemplified its basis. They seemed obvious complements to the playful, the angelic, and the antinomic properties characterizing liturgical operations. These rites are instruments of the enchantment being sought in a culture of postmodernity (Flanagan 1996a).

The Wider Sociological Significance of Ritual

One of the interesting movements in contemporary sociology in relation to the debate on postmodernism is the rehabilitation and reappreciation of rituals. With growing concern with New Age religions and new religious movements, the issue of ritual practices has come to the fore in debates on postmodernity. These movements against secularization, that seek to reenchant, should not distract attention from the study of the more traditional rituals of the main religions that are still undertheorized.

Ritual operates as a form of solace for the self in late modernity, where it marks the return of the repressed (Giddens 1991). Even in the consumer culture characterizing postmodernism, ritual services a need for some form of sacred symbols in a secular society (Featherstone 1991). This broadening of the use and significance of ritual relates to the enduring significance of Durkheim but also to debates on civil religion (Bellah 1967). Far from postmodernism marking the demise of ritual, it seems to have accentuated its significance (Gellner 1992)

Debate on ritual is likely to center on the effects of internal secularization on the autonomy of rites in traditional Christian theologies. The fundamentalism that marks a revolt against modernity signifies a reevaluation of the sacred and ritual in the context of postmodernity. Second, as the self is connected to understandings of ritual (Flanagan 1996b), issues of authenticity will emerge in terms of the politics of representation of the sacred in the marketplace and the degree to which postmodernity facilitates, if at all, experimentation in forms of rite. Issues of authenticity and credibility will enhance the quest for understandings between theology and sociology in dealings with culture. Finally, as the implications of virtue ethics are being subject to sociological appreciation, the internal cultural characteristics of ritual are likely to increase in significance, especially in terms of the actor's account, a tale of rite that qualitative sociology is well fitted to articulate.

Kieran Flanagan


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P. Winch, The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1963).

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