Over dinner recently, a friend told me about someone he works with who is very rational and intelligent, but happens to be highly religious. “It’s odd,” he said, “she is such a logical person, and yet when we were all going out one friday evening, she said she couldn’t join us, because she couldn’t travel after sundown on the sabbath. When I asked her why, she replied that is just the way she does things.”

I told him that all of us have rituals we cannot logically explain, that we do just because that is the way we do things. When he disagreed, I gave him an example.

“Suppose,” I said, “I were to pick up your fork right now off your plate and eat your food. Wouldn’t that be breaking an unspoken taboo with no logical basis?”

“That would be unsanitary,” he replied.

“You know I don’t have a cold,” I said. “After all, a little while ago you and I tasted some wine from the same glass, and you didn’t even think about it.”

At that point he agreed. We are all bound by many little rituals and social constraints that we cannot logically justify, yet which form the very fabric of our social interactions.

One Response to “Rituals”

  1. Phil H says:

    I’ve been thinking about this recently. I think a culture defines a set of public and private expectations of its members. People that do not conform to these expectations are cold-shouldered. We usually call it being rude, or antisocial. In one society, one finishes everything on the plate to show it was good. In another, we leave a little to show we the host was generous. There is probably a historic reason for each, and doing the wrong one will make us seem rude.

    The key is that a culture needs to be largely predictable for it to function. I need to be able to expect to go to dinner without taking a plate, or to know to take my plate. The more uncertain the behaviour of everyone else, the more precautions and preparations I have to make.

    In a village, social cohesion is important, and there are not that many people, so I can and should greet everyone I pass. But in a city, I cannot afford to greet everyone I pass, and the culture must permit this. So we have cities where no-one makes eye contact, despite inhabiting each other’s personal space.

    A different slant, however, is provided by the religious or moral code. Often, particularly for the believers, these are not merely rituals but ways to honour their diety; the ritual represents their own hierarchy. She chose to observe her ritual instead of socialising, which some will respect and others will see as an affront.

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