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Comparative Ritual Theory

Exit Standard 2.2

The study of ritual often indicates that religion is a "problem to be solved." How does this aspect of ritual studies affect your experience of ritual? (min. 150 words)

Treating ritual as a "problem to be solved" is primarily done in reductionist schools of thought, such as Freudian, Marxist, and Frazerian schools. These schools view ritual as symptomatic of larger problems: Freudians see psychosis; Marxists see socio-economic pressures that revolve around notions of ensuring that the proletariat are too busy with ritual to see what’s really going on; and Frazer tended to explain ritual (including magical and religious ritual) as superstitious remnants of an earlier (and lower) level of culture.

Each of these approaches (and they are a convenient sub-set of "problematical" approaches, not the end-all of them) will grant different insight into what happens in ritual. Freudians will seek filial guilt in the action of "kneeling before god" or understand the concept of sacrifice as reenactment and mitigation of guilt over a primal murder of the father. Marx will view religious actions as developing out of the current socio-economic needs, and will call into question why we do our actions in the light of modern movements. Frazer will give us a scientific curiosity about what action is truly occurring in ritual, and how a different (more scientific) act could lead to the same result.

As a person who believes that most reductionist and anti-reductionist schools of thought have merit and value, these views tend to affect my experience of ritual similarly as they affected Isaac Bonewits: we can (and should!) recognize the pressures that these "problem-solving" approach to ritual examines, and we should find ways to make the "problem" positive.

Those who are leading ritual should recognize the power structures they are creating, and should use them to empower the folk. Having an understanding that magic is "what works," they should be quick to take credit for ritual work if it deepens the experience for others (but not if it leads to a Marxist "power-over" style of relationship).

In the end, I am able to recognize when I or others are using a "problematical" approach and alter that approach when necessary, and revel in it when it is needed. Recognizing that ritual is not always perfect, and that there are not always irreducible reasons related to "the sacred" that can cause that imperfection, means that we accept that our religious work and our ritual are products of the times. These approaches ensure that we do not think of our religion as "going back to ancient days" and that we are fully aware of the power religion can have.

My experience of ritual is generally deepened by notions of the "problem to be solved." These approaches have given me new ways to think about ritual, and occasionally given me ideas about how to develop ritual in new and interesting ways. By allowing for ritual to be a "problem," I do spend more time than I might like critiquing it in my mind, but it has led to constant improvement and refinement, as well as a careful and deep examination of my own reasons for including things in ritual.


  • Pals, Daniel. Seven Theories On Religion.


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