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James Croft of the Humanist Community Project gives a simple but workable definition of ritual:
By “ritual” I mean any reasonably regular practice that an individual or community engages in which has a primary or significantly symbolic purpose.
Halstead summarizes four levels on which Neopagan ritual may be experienced:
1. Exoteric: Celebrates the changing of the seasons and connecting with the Earth.
2. Symbolic: Employs the changing of the seasons as an outward metaphor of inward personal changes, including the changes of the human life-cycle or the ebb and flow of enthusiasm that we experience psychologically.
3. Spiritual: Facilitates the process of individuation, by incarnating, consecrating, and integrating the daemonic/shadow elements of our psyche.
4. Mystical: Instead of the integration of the psyche, a (controlled) dis-integration of the psyche or sublimation of the ego.
Ritual might be seen as a form of embodied cognition. Dr. Adrian Harris writes:
Bell claims that ritual is a “bodily strategy that produces an incarnate means of knowing” (Bell, 1992: 163), while Grimes (Grimes, 1995) makes the provocative suggestion that ritual is a bodily way of knowing designed to move consciousness from the head to the body. Though Grimes doesn’t elucidate, Asad applies Mauss’s notion of the habitus to problematize the distinction between religious ritual and more general bodily practices. Asad concludes that the role of ritual is not to express a symbolic meaning but to influence habitus, thereby helping to create district subjectivities (Asad, 1993: 131). Crossley makes a similar argument that rituals “are a form of embodied practical reason” (Crossley, 2004: 31). Drawing primarily on the work Mauss, Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, he concludes that rituals are “body techniques”, that is to say “forms of practical and pre-reflective knowledge and understanding” (Crossley, 2004: 37). As such they can “effect social transformations” through transforming our “subjective and intersubjective states” (Crossley, 2004: 40).
Cognitive scientists have also worked out technical theories of ritual. For example, see Alcorta and Sosis’ 2006 paper Why Ritual Works.
See also “Embodiment.”
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