Jonathan Z. Smith and Catherine Bell (who tragically died in 2008) have both heavily influenced scholarship on ritual studies over the past three decades. Ritual used to be viewed as “an outward expression of inward faith”—actions that reflected deeper mythologies, sincerity, belief, or symbolism. Smith and Bell (along with a few other key scholars) helped to turn the focus away from inward states of mind to the outward performativity of ritual. Hence, in the video, I asked: “What does ritual DO?” Ritual is foremost an action, so the best way to go about defining ritual is focusing on the action and what that action seeks to accomplish.
The definition “Ritual is an assertion of difference” is a short way to try to capture the purpose of ritual and turn the focus to its performativity. When we assume rituals exist only to convey deeper meanings, we forget about the bodily actions implicated in a ritual. When you take the Eucharist, the whole body is at work. You might be kneeling, you open your mouth, you taste the food, you might bow your head…the ritual engages the whole body and structures your experience of the event. This is why some anthropologists describe rituals as a “bodily performance.” They recognize that the body generates rituals, and not simply the mind.
This is where Adam Seligman comes in. His co-authored book Ritual and Its Consequences critiques our common assumption that a person’s inward, sincere belief underlies ritual actions. We often assume that if a person participates in a ritual like, for example, the Eucharist, then they MUST believe in what they are doing (ie. believe in the resurrection of Jesus). However, since a ritual is fundamentally an action, what matters most is the person’s willingness to participate in that action, and not their cognitive assent to any mythology that might be associated with that action.
Seligman, Adam, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon. Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. 2008.
Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, 1987.