Secular Ritual: Forms and Meanings – My Reflection

contentReligious rituals and secular rituals are two terms, which are confusing to define and understand their meanings at times. Religious rituals have symbolic value attached to them that are normally prescribed by a religion. Whereas, secular rituals are the actions that are performed in a communal custom. “Secular Ritual: Forms and Meanings,” is an introduction to the book Secular Ritual written by Moore and Myerhoff. In the aforementioned chapter, the authors discusses the study of ceremony and ritual that has been confined largely to consideration of religious procedures. This according to the two authors, is because scholars (anthropologist) have so often dealt with societies in which everything has a religious significance, where daily life is imbued with the sacred and unseen spirit world that is present all the time and intervenes in the visible world.

However, the two authors remind that “if religion is defined in the Tylorian manner as having to do with spirits, then surely the sacred is a wider category than the religious(3).” Sacred maintains its high quality due to its unquestionability. Moore and Myerhoff reports that “unquestionable tenets exist in secular political ideologies which are as scared in that sense as the tenets of any religion. Secular ceremonies can present unquestionable doctrines and can dramatize social/moral imperatives without invoking the spirits at all (3).” Therefore, authors determine ritual as a structured side of social behavior that can also be construed as an attempt to structure the way people think about social life. In this book, Moore and Myerhoff said that the authors uses term ritual in its non-technical meaning in order to make the religious analogy visible throughout and it confines itself to collective ceremonial forms in order to keep the social context at the center of attention.

Referring to Bocock’s (Bocoak 1974 on England) example, the two authors note that 4quadrantsrevised2secular ceremonies are common in industrial societies and are found in all contexts such as court trials, installations, graduations, and so on, which are part of the ordinary framework of collective social life. The authors then raises some theoretical questions saying, what do any of these occasions have in common other than their stylized and conventional forms? Why do they have formality in common? In what processes of social life is form emphasized and why? Moore and Myerhoff then articulates that any general answer is likely to apply to religious ritual as well as secular ones.

Durkheim is brought in, to discuss his analysis about the Australian aborigines. Durkheim argued that “the rites and collective representations of aborigines symbolized the social cohesions of their assembled groups and simultaneously acted as the vehicle for bringing about that very social solidarity (5).” However, two authors states that Durkheim was thinking in terms of an established totemic cult, an existing society and already formed culture and thus, did not address the creation of new rituals but it is noticed that his arguments could apply to the creation of a new cult. Therefore, Moore and Myerhoff assert that “collective ceremony can traditionalize new material as well as perpetuate old tradition (7).” It is also mentioned that Durkheim linked ritual with community, and that insight illuminates many secular ceremonies. However, it is also noted that secular ceremony often takes place outside of community in the sense of “corporate group” and “common culture.”

Moore and Myerhoff then discuss about “The Dimensions of Explanation Offered by Ritual and of Ritual: Doctrinal and Operational Efficacy.” While discussing the Doctrinal and Operational Efficacy, they pose questions about religious and secular rituals. “”If a religious ritual is simultaneously a declaration about religion and demonstration of its operation, what does a secular ceremony declare and what does it demonstrate (10)?” The answer that follows is that “a secular ceremony may, but need not be “attached” to a work-out, elaborate ideology (10).” The two authors state that secular ceremony is more connected with specialized parts of the social/cultural background, whereas religious rituals are attached to all-embracing ultimate universals. Thus, secular ceremony is not attached to an elaborately worked out ideology. They argue that “the religious ritual move the other world to affect this one. [However,] secular ceremony moves this world and this world only (14).” While discussing about the doctrinal and operational efficacy, they bring in Moore’s chapter about local and political meetings, as a medium to create connection between Tanzania’s newly independent government and socialist ideology. In such cases, the authors argue that doctrinal and operational efficacy are urgent issues. They mentions that “a religious ritual always has an explicit doctrinal dimension that explains… the basis of its efficacy and a secular ceremony is less likely to have  as well-developed  a rationale of how it works (15).” However, it is noted that  one common objective of both religious and secular ritual is to influence this world.

In addition, the “Dimensions and Ritual Outcomes” are then discussed in five ways of looking at the secular ritual. They are: 1. Explicit purpose, 2. Explicit symbols and messages, 3. Implicit statements, 4. Social relationships affected, and 5. Culture versus chaos. Furthermore, “order,” which is mentioned with two features of connection and predictability are discussed. For Moore and Myerhoff, ritual must be orderly because it frequently interrupts or manages or accompanies various forms of disorder. The repetitive relationships and connections in ritual are understood as the message of predictability. Authors mention that “by definition, the connection provides explanation, implies meaning and comprehensibility (17).”

At the end to discuss “Sacred and Secular,” Mary Douglas is brought into conversation. Douglas offers the Ituri Pygmies and the Basseri as example of her term “Secular” as these people have very little ritual. She argues that secular societies are organized around ego-centered networks rather than bounded groups and ritual elaboration occurs in societies with well developed structures. However, Moore and Myerhoff states that their concern is first with ceremonies and rituals and not with whole societies. “The approach is from the micro-ethnographic end of the problem. The unit of analysis is a ceremony, not a society (20).” Thus, for the two authors and the symposium organizers, “if sacred is understood in the sense of “unquestionable” and traditionalizing, then something may be sacred, yet not religious (20).” Therefore, they provide a framework of a four-fold set of categories, religious/non-religious, sacred/ non-sacred to consider non-religious sanctity and to note that religious symbols are also exhibited on non-religious occasions. The examples offered are, a prayer said at the opening of a session of Congress, or oath taken on the Bible in a courtroom. Finances of churches as non-religious non-sacred aspect and the flags, patriotism, loyalty to family and country as sacred but non-religious objects and ideas.

Therefore, for Moore and Myerhoff, “if ritual is considered a set of formal acts which deal with or refer to postulated matters about society or ideology then the notion of a secular ritual is not a contradiction in terms (22).” For them, “secular” exists only as a counterpart of “religious.” They can be defined only by implying each other. If one use these as discontinuous and exclusive categories, one would be walking arm in arm with Durkheim for whom all things religious will be sacred and all things non-religious are profane.




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