By some accounts ritual behavior is utterly natural, “hard-wired” into the structure of the brain and nervous system, a function of our biological or animal “hardware” rather than our cultural “software.” Even if we try to escape explicit rites, tacit ritualization nevertheless emerges unbidden. If we do not initiate youth into adulthood, they will, perversely in all likelihood, initiate themselves. Ritualizing and dramatizing are universal, givens in human nature. Our very biosocial being is dependent upon these twin foundational activities. Even if people avoid formal rites and refuse to attend stage plays, they can’t escape ritualizing and dramatizing. These forces permeate human actions the same as they do the mating and aggressive behavior of birds and fish.

By other accounts, however, ritual is a most unnatural activity, not the sort of behavior one cannot help doing. Ritual is not like eating, sleeping, digesting, and breathing, or even copulating and speaking. Ritual is optional—you can choose not to engage in it. Whereas being alive requires eating and sleeping, it does not require ritualizing. Even if  we claim that humans and other animals exhibit an inherent urge to ritualize, responding to that urge is optional, and because it is optional, ritual is cultural rather than natural.

The dichotomy, cultural versus natural is a staple of Western thought and typical of its dualistic tendencies. Ritual is not the only human activity to be hoisted onto the horns of this perennial dilemma. But the dilemma is easy to overstate, rendering it a false dualism. There are ways around the problem; a third, less polarized view is possible. For instance, we may try to argue that it is perfectly natural for humans, given their upright postures and large brains, to be cultural. Or we may observe that cultural activities, when sustained for a sufficient time in the right environmental niche, can have genetic, evolutionary consequences. Even though a noticeable cultural / natural divide characterizes much human behavior, this great divide is not impassable. It is a membrane rather than a wall. The distinction between things cultural and things natural is relative rather than absolute, making it conceptually possible that ritual, like language (but unlike digestion) is both natural and cultural, a cultural edifice constructed on a natural foundation.

If this is the case, the question becomes: What is this natural foundation? If brains and tongues and ears lay the groundwork from which human languages sprout and then diversify, what is the bedrock upon which human rites are built? The question is really two:

(1) How essential is ritual to being human?

(2) By what basic biosocial means does ritual operate?

Is ritualizing just one activity among many others, and doing it or not doing it like the decision to wear green rather than red, or like opting to ride bikes rather than paddle canoes as your hobby?

Is the choice merely aesthetic, a matter of taste or personal preference? Or does something larger, grander, and greater depend on the choice to ritualize or not?

Examined historically and cross-culturally, the consensus answer to the question would seem to be that participation in certain specific rites is an indicator of whether you are truly human or not. The view that ritual is merely optional or only decorative is anomalous in human religious and cultural history. It is an attitude mostly recent and largely Western. Who is truly human? What is truly natural? The truly human people are those most truly in tune with nature, and those most truly in tune with nature are those who dance this particular rhythm in this particular ritual dance. So the natural, the human, and the ritualistic are, in the final analysis, one.

Ritual participation (or not) has been utilized as a primary behavioral indicator not just of who “we” (as opposed to “they”) are, but of who is truly human and what is truly natural or supernatural.

This equation generates a peculiar torque in our thinking about rites. One the one hand, a rite is a cultural human construction. People make it up, revise it, and evaluate it. Politics and economics swirl about it as they do about any other human activity. On the other hand, the gods delivered it or the ancestors bequeathed it; a rite is not a work of fiction; a rite has no author, and no one dreamed it up out of his or her imagination. In the popular mind rites, especially religious ones, are above critique and debate.Those who evade the revealed sacred liturgy are unnatural and inhuman. Do it or die.

The contemporary form of the ritual conundrum is slightly different from the more historic form. The older form was: Which rite (thus which tribe, which nation, which tradition, which people) is the right one? The question seldom posed a real option. If you were a so-and-so, you knew your own ritual system was the right one.

The newer form of the ritual question is: To ritualize or not? Being born into a society with a divinely given rite is no longer the norm. Instead, this rite and that one seem equally plausible (or equally implausible). Besides, who wants to fight and die for a way of performing cultural ideals, all of which are relative anyway?
Rites often express associated cultural myths, predications of what is real and not, what is worthy and not. For cultures in which the question is, ‘To ritualize or not?’ the dominant myth is scientistic and technocratic. Scientists study nature, things as they really are, not supernature, things as they might, or should, be. So we who are steeped in Western cultures look to theory, fact, and evidence to warrant our decisions and evaluations. We resist labeling these as “myth” even though they work in much the same way as more obviously mythic myths do.

What does current scientistic myth say about the necessity, or lack of it, to ritualize? It is seriously out of scientific fashion to talk as if human behavior issues from an urge, instinct, or drive. The current way of speaking of something as built-in is to say it is “encoded” in the genes, the DNA. But genes and DNA do not account for everything any more than the old drives and instincts or the older gods and spirits did. Environment and natural selection are today’s other co-star actors. Together, DNA, environment, and natural selection make us who and what we are. We are embodied, be-brained, mammalian, bipedal hominoids. Some of us ritualize and some do not. So the question is not, Do we ritualize? but Should we? The ritual question is morally and practically driven. The long form of the current existential ritual question is: Should humans ritualize in order to be attuned to nature and thereby avoid planetary destruction?

Why would it ever occur to anyone to pose the question this way? There are two reasons: (1) Ethnographic social science is presenting rich traditions in which rites are understood to be the primary means of being attuned to the environment; (2) psychological and anthropological science is tendering theories that claim ritual activity synchronizes the halves of the brain, thereby diverting human tendencies to make war on their fellow conspecifics, making us better stewards of the earth’s deep structure.

The import of the ethnographic testimony is that many ritual participants believe their rites enable them to live in synchrony with the natural world, especially animals and plants, sometimes even rocks, mountains, bodies of water, and specific places. This ritual sensibility is not characteristic of every ritual system, but it is typical of many of them, especially the local, smaller scale ones. In these, people behave with humility and receptivity. They are not more powerful than other creatures, and the human task in life is not only to use the creatures but to be receptive to their teachings. In the ritualized world presented by ethnographers, what we in the West think of as nature (as opposed to culture) is peopled. Animals and plants and places are people too. So the nature / culture divide either does not exist or it is much less pronounced. In rites, animals and plants and places are addressed with respect as equals or even superiors.

The ethnographic evidence is that ritual participants believe they attune themselves with rites to the natural-supernatural world. Some non-participants believe this too, and they wish the Western technocratic world were more ritually saturated than it is. Animals and plants are also treated in ritually rich cultures as food. With performed apology, song, and prayer, they are killed or harvested, then distributed and eaten—either that or avoided altogether.Animals, like exceptionally generous people, give themselves to hunters, and hunters are the kin of animals. But hunters also track, stalk, study, and strategize. The ritual attitude, then, does not preclude a pragmatic attitude. Prey are persons, but they are also targets for arrows.

The ethnographic evidence reminds us that rites are not foolproof; the game become angry. They are sometimes shot out and the fields over-harvested. Although rites attune, they do not do so perfectly or completely. Not all indigenous people in every place and time have been “natural ecologists.” Rites not only attune participants to nature, they insulate people from nature. Rites can become ends in themselves or tools for wreaking environmental and social havoc. Everything depends on which people at which times in which specific places of nature are engaging in which kind of ritualizing.

In the current Western scientistic and technocratic world, true believers, look with some skepticism on the claims of ethnographically presented ritualists. At best, their testimony is soft rather than hard evidence. At best, ethnographic reports present stories, beliefs, descriptions, occasionally even hypotheses, or theories, but not proven facts, not demonstrated and replicable ones. So the best one can claim, and still honor the sacred tenets of scientism, is that certain ritual practices may have survival value. They may enhance the adaptability and the longevity of the human species on the planet earth.

We must reiterate the “may” as long as we have not eliminated the alternative, namely, that deeply ritualized human life can become more one-dimensional, stereotyped, and inflexible than non-ritualized human life. In short, rites may make us humans maladaptive. If “stereotypy” (to use a term explicitly used in one theorist’s definition of ritual) were ever a ritual virtue in some other place and time, it is, in the Darwinian universe that most encyclopedia-readers inhabit, most definitely a vice. Loss of postural and gestural diversity and flexibility would not stand us in good stead with Natural Selection, the reigning deity of the current, almost inescapable Darwinian myth. Loss of bodily flexibility, like loss of cultural and biological diversity, would jeopardize human health and longevity. If ritualizing implies rigidifying, we are courting earthly extinction rather than planetary salvation by engaging in it. So the answer to the question, “To ritualize or not?” depends on how we define ritual, or on which kinds of ritualizing we practice and which kinds we forego.

Anthropologist Charles Laughlin and psychologist Eugene d’Aquili, along with their colleague John McManus, have articulated some of the strongest theoretical arguments in favor of ritual’s adaptive import. If they are right, ritualization is more natural (in the sense of having more survival value) than is non-ritualization. In their view ritual, which emerged evolutionarily along with encephalization, is crucial for both the control and the transformation of consciousness. Rites employ various driving mechanisms such as drumming, chanting, dancing, ingesting, ordeals, and privations as means of retuning, or returning balance, to the autonomic nervous system. Ritual activity facilitates the entrainment (penetration and embodiment) of symbols into the human system.

Ritual practices facilitate simultaneous discharge of the excitation (ergotropic) and relaxation (trophotropic) systems. Laughlin and company posit a drive toward wholeness in all biological systems and consider rites a primary means for achieving both social and neuropsychological wholeness. They stop short of claiming that rites are the only means. Since they say many of the same things about both play and contemplation as they do about ritual, it seems that ritual is not the exclusive agent of wholeness unless both play and contemplation are conceptualized as kinds of ritual. For Laughlin and associates it is neither the “natural” nor the “supernatural” that takes precedence but rather the holistic. In the end, Laughlin, d’Aquili, and McManus espouse a wedding of what they call “mature contemplation” (in my view, a species of ritual activity) and neuroscience as the most holistic (in an older vocabulary, “natural”) form of consciousness.

Their claims are less appropriate to some kinds of ritual and more appropriate to others, especially those at top and bottom end of the scale, for example, trance dance and meditation. These require, respectively, either sustained exertion or else the stilling of physical and mental activity. More than mainline worship and liturgy, these kinds of ritual activity evoke the extremes of the autonomic nervous system, facilitating the “crossing over” that these theorists treat as the primary virtue of ritual.

Another anthropologist, Roy Rappaport, is intent to restore ritual’s authority, hoping it can close the maws of several great beasts: desertification, ozone depletion, species extinction, and environmental degradation. Against the Goliath of quality-denying, monetized epistemologies rooted in cost-benefit analysis, which he clearly considers maladaptive, he marshals the slingshot of ritual, hoping its emphasis on complementarity and reciprocity can displace the forces of disintegration. Rappaport is more willing than most anthropologists to admit that the very idea of ecology is as much a religious conception as it is a scientific hypothesis. Ecological ideas encourage the preservation of the world’s wholeness in the face of pervasive fragmenting and dissolving forces. For Rappaport the idea of an ecosystem not just as a scientific hypothesis but an active intervention, a guide for how to behave in the world. He actively calls for ritual performance grounded in the concept of the ecosystem. For him, ritual performance is not merely a means for humans to illustrate ideas about the world. Rather, ritual is the way the world itself tries to ensure its own persistence.

But much ritual is in the custody of the so-called world religions. They claim to have a repository of wisdom, much of it ritualistic, that can help save the planet from ecological destruction. But the large-scale, multi-national faiths have been slow to mobilize, and they are typically saddled with environmentally hostile or indifferent myths, ethics, and rites.

Religious leaders are now scouring the scriptures in search of images that might inspire ecologically responsible behavior. The big religions are defending their traditions against attacks that blame them for the sorry state of the environment. In self-defense, they launch criticisms of economic greed and human failure to exercise stewardship of the land.

The monotheistic traditions bear a large share of the blame, because of their entanglement in Western ideologies of natural domination and dualistic separation. None of the large-scale religions has resources adequate to the crisis. None of the “world” religions is an earth religion. The non-local religions are in no better shape than the multinational corporations. Because so much pollutes the spiritual environment, cleaning it up is every bit as urgent and challenging as cleaning up the physical environment.

Assuming religious leaders were to take a more creative and critical ritual initiative, what might an eco-rite look like? Clear cutting in Thailand has become so extensive that monks began preaching about the suffering of trees and land. In the 1970s, after his ordination, Phrakhru Pitak noticed the deforestation around his home and the consequent damage to watersheds and local economies. He started to preach against the destruction but found that the villagers, even those who believed him, went home from temple services only to continue clearing the land. Moral admonition was not enough. So in 1991 he ordained a tree, wrapping it in monk’s robes. To down an ordained tree would be to kill a sentient being and incur religious demerit.

At first the monk led people in sprinkling holy water on the trees. Later he upped the ante by requiring village leaders to drink holy water in front of a statue of Buddha by a tree. This way, community leaders ritually enacted their identification with the tree, and thereby pledged themselves to its protection. Sometimes, posted on an ordained tree would be a sign saying, “To destroy the forest is to destroy life, one’s rebirth, or the nation.”

Sincere Buddhists do not want to tamper with their rebirth.

This improvised ritualizing is now attracting upstanding citizens. As a result, the Thai debate is no longer purely political but also moral and religious. The metaphoric act of ordaining trees has made it so. If trees have Buddha nature, to saw one down is to slice yourself in half. Now, it costs moral and religious capital to lay low the ancestor-teacher trees. Ritual is a primary means of ensuring that moral behavior does not become merely moralistic, that instead, it is embodied and enacted.

Originally published in the  Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, edited by Bron Taylor

Publisher: Continuum

Print Publication Date:2006

Published online:2010

Current Online Version: 2010