Rites and Rituals: A Modern Perspective

I have discussed at length about the importance of rituals in traditional societies, however our modern perspective highlights several sociological and anthropological complexities that ought to be discussed, and which I will be presenting here. The first are the semantics on which modern anthropologists and sociologists rely on to define and explain rituals: if initiatory rites define the relationship between God – or the many gods – and the individual, as well as the relationship between the individuals themselves, they fail to fully define such relationship in our secular societies, that spearheaded a world free from any theological instinct. Initiation that we witness in the modern world has sometimes been defined as a “meaningless ritualism” for those who submit themselves to it, effectively opposing to the “dignity” of ancient religions. Ritual forms in modern societies are considered less opaque and easier to decipher, because the modern rite expresses social and community ties above all else. Modern rites are thus inscribed in a secular framework rather than in a religious one, thereby, the significance of the symbols that we perceive touches on areas that shy away from a sacrosanct complex: sports, workplace, and the domestic dimension. M. Segalen explains that the idea of tradition is “articulated around behaviors whose repetitiveness provides a framework for a shared intelligibility of facts.”Whereas some modern rituals claim a close proximity to occult traditions (such as Freemasonry), the contemporary landscape stands out mainly through a secularization of initiatory rituals, which today tends to move towards the individual, who becomes de facto the main social actor.

The atheistic approach articulates to some extent rituals in the context of religious ideologies, and as drawing its foundations from a set of behaviors that one would consider outdated and for which, consequently, one questions their necessity in the modern world; broadly speaking, sociological pedagogy is an ersatz for Van Gennep’s heuristic, that affirms the social value of ritual above all else2. This approach contrasts with the theory of Mircea Eliade, who conceived individual members of traditional societies as trying to protect the sacred from the profane, and who manage, through rites, to transcend the latter to reach the former.

The second complexity is the definition of the structural principles of the rite, that render a universal definition complex, because the plurality of theoretical positions – complementary or contradictory – do not allow the creation of a formal frame of reference. Indeed, to make sense of ritual in societies different from ours is not without difficulty; neither observation nor indirect participation can account for the complexity of the various rites, just as they do not allow to answer the very organization of the ritual action.

Finally, the third complexity lies in the fact that the sociological, theological, ethnographic, and anthropological approaches do not easily get away with the problem of universalism, that is, attempting to extract precepts and laws which govern in a universal fashion the societies that the researcher studies. This is what Van Gennep tried to avoid by defining the structure of rites of passage outside any “historization”; in so doing, the universal principles that he established made it possible to understand the structure of rites of passage decoupled from any cultural specificities. Universalism misleads the researcher, who derives a common and universal sense on the basis of the observation of a given group; sometimes one assumes the meaning of ritual practices for a society when one observes a similar practice in another culture. While it is possible that a set of magico-religious practices and beliefs become part of the belief systems of other cultures, or that certain religious or proto-religious influence did spread throughout the ages (this is what I discussed when I identified themes in the shamanic practice or the rites of puberty in some of my other writings),  it cannot be asserted with certainty that the meaning of the themes remains constant across cultures, because doing so limits our ability to grasp the essence of rituals as well as their effectiveness; by systematizing them excessively, we fail to grasp their true meaning.

The same ritual action, for example sprinkling water, can signify fertility in marriage rites, but also expiation of sins. Van Gennep managed to get rid of such a universalism by focusing on the link between a social structure and the rites that such a structure integrates, and by rejecting the historical explanations in order to confer the rites an intrinsic value, and finally, by considered only “each element of this set in its relations with all the other elements”3, this is what he had called the “law of sequences”4. Although Van Gennep’s approach has been criticized by Mauss, it nevertheless makes it possible to articulate a coherent and systematic schema that does not reduce cultural differences to a set of aggregates with purely universalist purposes.

In the continuation of Durkheim’s work, who considered religion as the projection of social experience, I propose to articulate modern initiation by reducing its utility to its fundamental unity: initiation reflects human needs, whether individual or collective. This makes it possible to conceive the rite as a meaning-making enterprise. It becomes endowed with a certain timelessness, and functions as well in traditional societies as our modern societies, and the link to the religious is no longer a necessity for the rite to function.

Such a modern perspective categorizes and integrates all the models that guide the principles of rituals in traditional societies, but avoids trapping one’s own models in universalism. Thus, we can understand and classify the set of initiatory phenomena in order to obtain a rigorous and fair classification, even if the classification is not an end in itself; that is to say, one tries rather to understand the social essence that animates initiatory rites. Indeed, we see in the pragmatic of the initiatory rites what justifies their existence: phenomena of rupture with the mundane and profane life, the rites make it possible to go beyond moments of doubt through a set of shared actions. Thus, the individual regenerates his or her existence, and as Durkheim argues, allows for a better understanding of the dependence to a primary transcendence that dictates an ethos and a moral order that abolishes chaos. The sociological analysis of the rite allows us to understand the initiatory phenomenon as something that produces a set of mental states, individual and collective, through which the community meets, revitalizes, and celebrates Life in society. Thus, sociological analysis relegates theology to the periphery: what matters in the initiatory rites are the means by which they manage to generate a shared meaning for the collective. In doing so, the social group reasserts itself periodically.

The definitions that Durkheim and Mauss proposed makes it possible to conceive the effectiveness of the rite in its capacity to symbolize – but also to support – a belief through which we confer magical and special influence to such rites. The symbolization makes it possible to give life to all the signified (the divinities, the demons, the allies, etc.) that allow the rite to function; it is a perspective that Mary Douglas, an English anthropologist, tried to expand by conceiving the rite as a symbolic action that she labeled as “effective”5; this efficiency allows the rite to survive the test of time. Many thinkers faced difficulties in trying to understand this efficacy, and because, as JZ Smith puts it, “[religion] is not a native category. It is not a first-person term of self-characterization. It is a category imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture”. In other words, when we define religion, we define rather contemporary understanding of what it means. Therefore, by trying to understand the nature of rites in the modern world, one encounters similar limitations. In trying to understand the rite through observation, it imposes certain aspects that are inherent in this observation. The efficacy cannot be fully grasped, rather it reveals a set of messages that the researcher tries to integrate into a functional and coherent framework.

The Durkheimian perspective enriches our understanding of the modern rite, that can be called a “creative act” that gives life to a set of phenomena which, without the rite, would remain meaningless. Here we have the need for symbolization and narration in a controlled structure, true in itself and for itself. Rites have a symbolizing action that order life in society. In her book, Rites et rituels contemporains (Modern Rites and Rituals), Martine Segalen defines the rite as “a specific spatio-temporal configuration, through the use of a series of objects, by systems of behaviors and specific languages, by emblematic signs whose coded meaning is one of the common goods for a given group.”It is a definition, she explains, that makes it possible to retain morphological criteria while insisting on the collective dimension; such a definition also makes it possible to understand the very nature of individual behaviors during the initiatory rite, and mental adherence “is based on values ​​relating to social choices that are deemed important.”7

Modern societies are therefore characterized by a certain social discontinuity engendered by detachment from the sacred, even if there is always a set of rituals whose value does not escape us. Anthropologists such as Max Gluckman have affirmed that the need for ritualization diminishes as society becomes more complex (that is to say, it detaches itself from magico-religious complexes through forces of modernity); however, such an approach does not fully dissociate the initiatory rite from a strictly religious complex, because this complexity – as discussed by Gluckman – presupposes a progressive secularization that abolishes de facto the power and the need for ritual. Moreover, such a theory fails to explain the value and the significance of the rites that persist in the modern world, which always seem to fit within Van Gennep’s three-phase schema. Some festivities or public initiation rituals such as the “Usinage” – making – in the Arts et Métiers ParisTech, a French engineering and research graduate school, appear to be the antithesis of such an analysis, which only reduces initiatory rites to actions constituting religion and constituted by religion. However, I believe that we have not fully abandoned in our societies the actions and symbolic thoughts that give to rituals their raison d’être. In contrast to Gluckman’s perspective, Pierre Bourdieu described modern rites as rituals of institutionalization, that is, rituals that reform the status of the individual, insisting on the presence of a primordial authority that formalize such actions (delivering of passports, marriage, death, etc.). The Bourdieusian approach confers to the rite its vocation of structuring the social.

Traditional rituals remain nowadays only a set of rituals whose symbolic poverty does not escape us, probably because of the shallow historical depth that characterizes the functioning of the social in the modern world. Gestures and ceremonies remain survivors of the past, but have failed to adapt to the many changes in our modern societies. The rites we observe are intelligible, as opposed to the “opacity” often found in traditional societies. Can we then qualify our modern rites as initiatory rites? And if so, what is the value of initiation, if it fails to reform the condition of the individual or group? The search for meaning does not exhaust the soil of the symbolic structures of rituals, which perhaps explains why we are witnessing the birth of rituals which maintained themselves over the years, and which manage to express the need for a collective experience in the modern world.

Many scholars tried to decipher the immutability of the traditional rites, having “always striven to uncover general principles, be their functions, structures, or meanings”8 but with no interest to their evolutionary nature. The latter is first and foremost part of an effort to preserve history and the collective memory; as proof, we notice the nostalgia that overhangs the collective consciousness when rituals are forgotten or transformed. Modernization gradually erases a footprint, which is paradoxically the product of a set of iterations over time. Thus, the traditions do not always resist the test of time, that is what Eliade had clearly identified when he discussed dei otiosi, who participated in the life of the village before becoming deities whose names and functions faded.

The modern rite can therefore be described as a true syncretism that expresses at first a universal aim for collective redemption through continuous celebrations. Let me mention the celebration of the Day of the Dead (Día de muertos), a synthesis between Mesoamerican beliefs and European influences, which allows the believer to remember the presence of loved ones through offerings and gifts. In understanding the essence of rituals in traditional societies, we can better see how modern rituals seek to recreate themselves perpetually; they invite reforms and the definition of new codes, thus seeking universal adherence and the expression of the sacred in the confines of a secularization. Drawing from a heterogeneous material, rituals recycle a set of traditions born from an ever-evolving cosmopolitanism; but it is above all a material that can be partly explained by the neglect of the traditions that used to articulate the ritual phenomenon. On top of this, the lack of belief in the hereafter turns rituals into an institutionalized experience; such it is the case for rituals surrounding death, which suffer from the burden of administrative procedures. Practices such as incinerating quickly make the deceased disappear, and by the same token all the gestures that would allow a return to the normal course of life after such a shock9. Thus, the grieving process fails to fully honor an experience outside of time. And without such rites of separation and incorporation, the collective struggles to find the required maturity for revitalizing itself (as an example, Van Gennep explains that social life is suspended when death occurs in the village10).

Celebrations, such as the Christmas holidays, have been progressively declining since the 13th century, and if a certain populist sentimentalism takes hold of such rites in an attempt to maintain the weight of a tradition that secularization revokes, a modern material tries to become a heterogeneous substitute for the mythical and religious systems. Since from now on, this celebration has important economic and cultural stakes in the countries that celebrate it11. These celebrations allow us to understand the ongoing tension between secular and religious desires. The collective tries as best it can to preserve its history through a set of shared actions. This shows how the modern world is trying to sketch its own narrative through a hybrid material that responds to modern needs. We have as proof all the other celebrations which are great commercial successes; this is the case of marriage, the cost of which varied from €9000 to €15 000 in 2009 in France 12. Multiple forms express ambiguous relations with the traditional perspective, at the crossroads between memory and progress, inscribing consumerist logic as a state of affairs. By dissolving so-called “relics”, the metaphysical value is declining, but modern rituals fail to create a true revitalizing experience.

Thus, the sacred dissolves, and the scientific and normative approaches deconstruct the myth as they deconstruct traditional dynamics which are deemed obsolete. The very language of anthropology reinforces the schism between the civilized and “semi-civilized” world. Worse even, when one denigrates the traditional societies that one describes as “barbaric” and “savages”. This avoids the need to look into the usefulness and value of initiation when traditions fade under cover of such rejection. The questioning of beliefs and the progressive industrialization of our societies therefore relegates beliefs to the private domain, and it is not uncommon for their public manifestation to lead to the establishment of a set of reforms, as to better define the religious expression in public space⁠13.

I believe that rituals possess both a utilitarian function and a value, because their symbolic strength allows for the collective to act on its social reality and allows to order the world by abolishing the chaos. It allows us to understand our place as a human being, and in the image of Pascal’s Wager14, I see in the ritual the structuring of certain social dynamics, especially during major passages in society. Let me mention the importance of marital ritual, which is a symbolic, material, spiritual, and social event. Martine Segalen, on the rites in the modern world speaks of “ritual deficit” depriving the individual of a “collective support”, leaving him “in his intimate solitude against the passage of time.15” As a consequence of the impoverishment of the rituals, collective moments become diminished, and modern individuals battle with certain difficulties – let’s call them existential – because, in failing to participate in the collective ritual, they are equally lacking in answers.

There is no doubt that the modern world offers an explanatory and interpretative depth about the world we all inhabit, but such a “mechanization” does not pretend to fully address all theological, metaphysical, and religious needs. Modern models that allow rituals to meet metaphysical needs are discrete; those needs do not concern only a purely abstract and metaphysical conception of the world; on the contrary, they concern the immediate and the present: sexual life, relationships, understanding what being a man or what being a woman means, understanding the value of work; all speaking to a need in the face of everyone’s responsibilities as an individual in society. And if the individual struggles to understand his or her place as a human in the cosmos, life in society becomes the mirror of such a predicate. In becoming individualized, rites are fabricated and recycled, but without ever really touching the essence of what constitutes a human being. For the young, therein lies a constant back and forth between social complexity and psychological difficulty; he or she fails to enter fully into life, probably because the impoverishment of ritualistic forms crystallizes modern practices that partially work. In many ways, modernization fails to integrate the initiatory function of the rite; and if these modern rites legitimize the passage of the individual from one social status to another, the “socializing” function conferred to the modern rite shows how the deeper meaning has been lost. One loses the understanding of emotions and their management, the evacuation of personal crises and the metaphysical anxieties that one cannot fully dissolve; as a consequence, we seldom witness those “moments of effervescence” that reform the condition of society members. This attests to the many difficulties of the modern world, which mirrors the fragmentation of ritual phenomena.

It is also a need that addresses existence as a primitive object, attempting to define itself outside of any “inculturation”. The modern rite socializes and institutionalizes, but fails to unambiguously distinguish the different stages in the life of everyone; let’s quote as an example the rituals surrounding marriage, which have experienced many upheavals between the 1960s and the 1970s. Even worse for the individual who submits to such injunctions, but without really grasping their meaning; this is the case when one obeys a set of precepts because “it has always been like that”.

Such behaviors are to be found around the violence for the many hazing, which are real apparatuses of collective pressure that corner the student who then becomes the subject of numerous humiliations, thus some of the positive features of rituals diminish as they are being privatized. The establishment of mechanisms to compensate for the ritual poverty – babies’ books (first teeth, etc.), initiation between friends, bachelor and stag parties – possess a symbolic connotation that seems to be the substitute for the disappearance of initiatory rituals. It may be that the modern thinker, who promotes progress and a scientific perspective on the world relegates at the periphery the power of symbols. We are here touching on the fundamental problem for our modern societies, no doubt because they are expressed in a set of pragmatic and materialistic models, all the more so at the end of the first industrial revolution. Joseph Campbell, inspired by the work of Carl Jung, proposed a novel reading on the initiatory rites as well as on the different traditional myths that have punctuated many civilizations. This perspective, which emphasizes the psychological utility of the rite, allows Campbell to define the initiation rite as central to individual growth and collective regeneration.

Indian hindu wedding, bride with mehendi-heena on her hand.
Indian hindu wedding, bride with mehendi-heena on her hand. Milind Ketkar, Dreamstime.com, 2012

Consumerism and the business world seem to have absorbed much of the place that the rite once held. We “consume” the products of culture, which seldom possess a true symbolic value – sufficiently strong – that would make them a true substitute for the ritual phenomenon as experience by the premodern societies. Consumerism has a symbolic function, and as a mean of escaping, allows – in the space of a purchase – to give access to what Durkheim labeled “moment of creative effervescence”. However, for many consumer products, and this includes works of Art, we lose the participative and the collective aspect. Paradoxically, if collective experiences are not lacking – games at the stadium, celebrations in the cities, akin to Turner’s communitas – they are wobbly representation of rituals, perhaps because Van Gennep’s model is not systematic We witness the separation and liminality (for example, retirement celebrations in companies are similar to Turner’s anti-structure), but rites of incorporation are not always present. Public holidays, such as Christmas holidays, quickly fade once the 26th of December is over; weddings often betray the administrative and financial gain, and which, by articulating themselves around such benefits, turn into a rushed formality18. Events such as Black Friday exacerbate social fragmentation and many divisions, mainly ideological, thus sowing doubt about the presence and merits of such celebrations or customs. In the absence of initiation rites in society, individuals condemn themselves to drag out a certain malaise, whereas a plenary existence is nothing but a discrete voice that does not reach the depths of a struggling psyche.

Such a trend explains why new movements and new communities emerge and develop rapidly, like the New Age movement; they represent the need for a realization that modern ideals – whether religious or spiritual – have failed to fully achieve. The growing adherence to alternative ideologies reflects the need for access to a new spiritual existence. This speaks volumes about the weak presence of social and cultural structures that make it possible to approach metaphysics from both a scientific and an unscientific angle, without resulting in misunderstanding and systemic rejection between two parties. So far, I believe that we have not really been able to penetrate the nature of the ritual for at least three reasons: 1 – phenomenological complexity, 2 – the imposing presence of many stigmas around religion and spirituality, thus preventing an honest conversation from emerging 3 – the impossibility of conceiving modern societies as unified entities, even if globalization aggregates many cultures and offers a normative perspective.

We must therefore engage in a dialectic in which the experiences as well as the individual representations can function in a more general context, that integrates the society and the communities. Otherwise, one is condemned to simply miss the depth of such a problematic. This is a problematic that concerns both the fulfillment and the many answers to timeless issues, both allowing the structuring and the organizing of praxis that is shared between the individual and the group.


  1. Martine Segalen, Rites et rituels contemporains (Modern Rites and Rituals). Armand Colin, col., 128 Sociologie (Sociology), p. 70. 2013.
  2. See the structure of rites of passage, as discussed in the following paper.
  3. Martine Segalen, op. cit., p. 35.
  4. Van Gennep, op. cit.
  5. Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. Routledge, 2003.
  6. Segalen, op. cit., p. 26.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid, p. 93.
  9. Regarding the complexity of funerary rites, we can mention the Kol people, who structure these rites around many stages, which are both complex and intriguing.
  10. Van Gennep, op. cit., p. 152.
  11. In the United-Stages, eight-in-ten non-Christians celebrate Christmas, but most view it as a cultural holiday rather than a religious occasion: Alan Cooperman et. al., Celebrating Christmas and the Holidays, Then and Now. Pew Research Center, 2013.
  12. Segalen, op. cit., p. 105.
  13. In France, in 2004, a law prohibited the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols.
  14. Pascal’s argument consists in saying that it is better to bet on Christian faith rather than rejecting religion, that is, to believe in God, because one has more to lose than to win. In this regard, read his Thoughts, Brunschvicg Publishers, § 233.
  15. Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason, advances a similar argument, even if the statement differs: it is better to choose an idea which is morally preferable when reason fails to answer a question. For example, if we ignore the “truth”, we must choose the “good”. Kant postulates that religious dogmas favor morality, notably by prescribing respect for a moral law.
  16. Ibid., p. 46.
  17. J. Campbell, op. cit.
  18. Florence Maillochon, La passion du mariage (The Passion of Wedding), Puf, col., Le lien social, 2016.

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