I’m plagued by an earworm,

a question that repeats and repeats,

overheating the lobes of my brain:


Is ritual robotic?


Don’t ask the question in front of therapists or liturgists,

otherwise, incarceration in the cuckoo’s nest.


The question is:


  • a category mistake (like “a green feeling”)
  • divinatory (anticipates the future)
  • silly (makes no sense)
  • a rhetorical ploy (just to keep you reading)


I’ve written a dozen books about ritual.

I’ve taught students how to document, analyze and construct rituals.

I think, write and make videos about rituals.


As with every important academic word,

your life can become a reflection of that word.

You imagine the world the world as ritual.

The word ritual self-inflates,

consumes the brain,

becomes a worldview.



In two essays, “Performance Is Currency“ and “Improvising Ritual,”

I’ve hinted that ritual might be necessary for planetary survival.  

I’ve spent most of my academic life treating ritual as flexible, creative and adaptive.

I’ve argued that rituals can be personal, made up, created, improvised.

I’ve argued against scholars who define ritual as


  • repetitive
  • rigid
  • formulaic
  • unchanging


Having written The Craft of Ritual Studies, a question now nags me:

What if I’m wrong?


One way to avoid the problem is to say


  • Good rituals enhance life
  • Bad rituals are death-dealing


Ritual is neutral like art or music or atomic energy.

Everything depends on how you use it.


I haven’t yet entertained the idea that rituals might be bad for the planet.


  • Which rituals alienate humans from the planet?
  • Which rituals make humans resistant to change?
  • Which rituals are atavistic and their practice, deadly?
  • Which rituals are capable of guiding humans into the future?


I’ve suggested some rituals could have survival value,

but only rituals close to the earth, adaptive to its flux and flow.


I’m need to consider the counterargument.

Ritual is


  • bad for human and animal health
  • bad for the planet
  • bad for the future of humanity




In the sanctuary of my attic,

when no one is watching,

I stare without blinking like a robot.

I moan and stumble like a zombie.


In the attic I’m a kid who doesn’t know the difference between ritual and play.


I am intrigued with what I see in the future—a growing human-machine interface.


I like robots.

For now, they are programmed machines.

For now, they are not human.


I’ve watched Better Than Us, The Walking Dead AI, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica.

I enjoy struggling to come to terms with humanoid machines,

who are sometimes more humane than humans,

sometimes more diabolical than humans.


Even though ritual is obviously human—since we humans engage in it,

there is also something not quite human about ritual activity.


What is it? Call it


  • transcendent
  • elevated
  • spiritual
  • transformative
  • performed
  • mechanical
  • mindless
  • demonic


if any of these words keep your attention on the question: Is ritual robotic?


When the Pope lifts a hand in blessing

or an evangelist pounds the pulpit with a fist,

you may be attracted or

wince in embarrassment.

Everything depends on what you imagine

is going on inside the performer’s brain and heart.



In Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity Adam Seligman and his co-authors set ritual against sincerity-seeking, which they identify with Protestantism.


Sincerity-seekers value speech and action from the heart, without the artifice of conventions and formulas.


The authors like ritual and don’t like sincerity-seeking.

They claim they aren’t choosing sides.

They are.


Ritual is superior because it “recognizes the ambiguous nature of reality and registers it, rather than deny it…. Ritual’s opening to subjunctive worlds allows this play with different versions of rituality, unlike the singular approach of sincerity.”


Sincerity-seekers, as depicted by Seligman and company, are rigid true believers.

Ritualists are more flexible, better able to imagine and adapt.


Are they?



The genius of ritual is that a group of people can participate in it,

while holding different, even conflicting, views and values.


Participants may agree to participate in a ritual,

but with quite different attitudes and beliefs.


They can say they are performing their beliefs,

but they can be hiding their values behind the performance of a ritual.


  • Gestural lies happen
  • Postural lies happen
  • Ritual lies happen


During World War II a German could shout, Heil Hitler,

shove a raised, down-turned palm in salute—but be planning to assassinate Hitler.


A Roman Christian could burn a pinch of incense for Caesar while believing Christ is king.


The German soldier and the Roman Christian are doing what they are expected,

or commanded, to do by an external source—a book, a ritual authority, a program.


Ritual activity is programmed.

Robotic behavior is programmed.


What’s the difference?


If ritual is robotic, its gestures are one-dimensional,

so rigid they can’t adapt to a changing environment.

Robotic ritual makes participants inflexible rather than flexible,

maladaptive rather than adaptive.


Human rituals are an expression of collective human intelligence, but what kind?


  • Programmed?
  • Artificial?
  • Extraterrestial?
  • Divine?


Some reputable ritual theorists argue that beliefs, intentions and feelings have nothing to do with ritual.


  • Rituals are performed
  • Rituals are prescribed
  • You do a ritual. Or you don’t
  • Whether you like the ritual or feel good about it matters not at all
  • Whether you intend it to influence the gods, keep the world the same, change the world, matters not at all


It’s inaccurate to assume that people who perform rituals, believe.


  • I can shake your hand and hate you
  • I can smile and not like you
  • I can say I love you and not mean it
  • I can fake being possessed by a spirit
  • I can worship and be an atheist or agnostic


In a ritual situation it’s easy to dodge,

say or do what everyone else is saying or doing,

blend into the collective.


Humans can lie gesturally, ritually.




So far robots don’t blend.

We know one when we see one.


But robots are changing rapidly, becoming increasingly humanoid,

perhaps more flexible and adaptive to the environment than we mere humans.


If so, we humans will survive by becoming robots.


What if I am already a robot?

What if you are already a robot?


Who wrote our programs?


  • We robots programmed ourselves
  • Our robotic parents
  • A team of MIT programmers
  • Elon Musk
  • God
  • The Unconscious
  • The Universe
  • Mother Earth