No-Nonsense Ritual: What ritual really does

Last year, the Sunday before the winter solstice, my Unitarian Universalist minister led our congregation in a solstice service. When Unitarians do religious services that aren’t sermon-centric, they tend to consist of a series of quotes and hymns, more or less tied together by theme–in this case the solstice. During one part of the service, our minister read from a script describing the meaning of the Wheel of the Year and the role of ritual. The service was recorded so I was able to transcribe it:

“Our ancient ancestors believed they played an important role in the turning of the Wheel of the Year. They understood that the ritual celebrations helped the season to change, encouraged the sun on its journey. Some of them erected great monuments to mark that journey. If we enlightened moderns are too sophisticated for such beliefs, is it not our loss? The same science that has shattered these beliefs has also made it possible for us to puncture holes through the protective ozone layer, to pollute the air and water, to plunder the earth, to use the sun’s energy for nuclear weapons. Is it not time to return to reverence for the earth? to play our part in caring for it? to engage in the changing of the season? to turn the Wheel of the Year?”

There is so much wrong with this.

1. Science is not responsible for environmental devastation.

Let me say that again: Science is not responsible for environmental devastation. The culprit is industrial capitalism.

From our beginning, human beings have been a rapacious species. Though there are some human cultures which have found a harmonious equilibrium with their environment, since the discovery of massive reserves of fossil fuels and the adoption of an economic model based on unlimited growth, we have been on an accelerating course toward ecocide and species suicide. But that is not the fault of science.

Science is not technology. And technology is not the political, economic, and cultural systems which put that technology to use. The science which discovered how to harness atomic energy was not responsible for the use of that power by one empire against another in 1945. And the science which discovered how to harness the power of fossil fuels is not responsible for the irresponsible and gluttonous use of that power by industrial capitalists and their political lackeys over the 70 or so years.

2. Ancient peoples were not ignorant.

We moderns love to imagine our historical and pre-historical ancestors were ignorant. It makes us feel superior. But it’s likely that they would look on us as ignorant in many ways. Yes, we have a lot of fancy doodads, but almost none of us actually know how they work, much less are we able to repair them.

Meanwhile, we have lost many basic skills which would immediately become necessary should our doodads stop working: making a fire, building a shelter, purifying water, hunting animals, gathering/growing and storing edible plants, disposing of waste, and so on. Most millennials I know can barely cook, even with their technology. You don’t even have to go back that far to see how much knowledge we have lost. I would be challenged if I had to repair a bicycle or can tomatoes. My grandparents would have been appalled by my ignorance.

Ancient peoples were far more observant and far more competent in their natural environments than we moderns. They could navigate by the stars. Most of us can’t find the North Star. Did you know that certain stars and constellations only rise above the horizon at certain times of the year? Ancient peoples used these celestial events to time agricultural work. Ancient people, especially seafaring peoples, knew the earth was round by observation. They discovered the precession of the equinoxes, a 26,000-year astronomical cycle, in the 2nd century BCE, eighteen centuries before the telescope was invented!

And an amateur archeologist recently decoded evidence of a lunar calendar on Paleolithic cave walls tracking the reproductive cycles of animals, which was “hiding in plain sight” among the famous paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere.

There have been stupid people in every generation, going all the way back to our beginning. But I do not accept for a second the notion that ancient peoples believed that their rituals were responsible for the changing of the seasons or the rise and fall of the sun in the sky. They were too observant to believe such tripe. We are the ignorant ones for believing that they were so ignorant.

3. Science-or-ritual is a false dichotomy.

My minister’s exegesis above implies that we need to choose between science and ritual. This is a false dichotomy. We don’t have to believe that ritual makes the sun rise and fall in order to have a reason to do ritual. Can we really not imagine any other reasons for ritual other than literally making the seasons change?

Ritual does a lot of different things. It can be an expression of wonder and reverence at life and nature. It can foster a sense of meaning, relation to something bigger than ourselves, and alignment with the cycles of life and nature. It can create certain salutary states of mind (like reducing anxiety). It can encourage personal transformation, as well as group cohesion and cooperation.

We don’t use ritual to turn the Wheel of the Year outside of us. That’s absurd. The changing of the seasons obviously happens with or without our rituals. But we can use ritual to turn the Wheel inside of us. As the seasons change, we do ritual to acknowledge the change and to prepare ourselves emotionally and mentally for the change.

The fact that so many people don’t get that, that they resort to such strained explanations for ritual, shows how disconnected we are from nature. Most of us live and work in air-conditioned and heated homes and work spaces, and we travel between these in air-conditioned and heated vehicles. Our work schedules do not change with the lengthening and shorting of the days (and in fact, twice a year we change our clocks to accommodate our work). Most of our food comes from gigantic grocery stores, and the food we buy there is grown, packaged, and shipped from half way around the world. And, if you live in the city or in suburbs like me, then you live in a simulacra of nature, where nothing is permitted to grow wild. (Rural areas with their monocultural agriculture are hardly better.)

Still, we cannot entirely escape our embodiment. The suns till rises and sets. The seasons still turn. We still need to breathe, eat and sleep, urinate and defecate, touch one other and copulate, work and rest, and sleep. As Samuel Beckett wrote, “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.”

And ritual is the most natural response to that. Ritual, or what religious studies scholar Michael York calls “cultic” behavior is “instinctually natural, even though its outward forms are learned through cultural transmission”. It is the a function of a “fundamental and atavistic human urge to express honor and homage.” It is a spontaneous response to being human in the wild world.


John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism.  John has written for numerous online platforms, including PatheosHuffington PostPrayWithYourFeet.orgGods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.or

4 Comments on “No-Nonsense Ritual: What ritual really does

  1. The transcribed part at the top is originally from the book “In Nature’s Honor” by Patricia Montley– it’s a book filled with liturgy specifically for Unitarian Universalist Pagan services. It is quite outdated though. My congregation still uses many of the ideas in the book but heavily adapted. For the “Wheel of the Year” ceremony, we kept the responsive reading that comes after, but adapted the intro to this:
    “We now light our festive fire and turn the Wheel of the Year, to celebrate the changing of the seasons. This wheel symbolizes the complete cycle of the four seasons, represented by four candles. For our ancient ancestors, and for us today, ritual celebrations help us internalize the changes of the seasons and to live in harmony with Nature’s rhythms, to not only have reverence for the natural world, but to feel it reflected in our hearts and minds as well. The wheel of the sun turns in the sky, the seasons circle round, and the turning gears of life roll on. Let us join in the circling, and be at one with Nature’s cycles…”

  2. It’s nice to read such a clear description of what ritual is, and can do for the individual, as well as the collective. It was by integrating rituals into my daily life, that I have disciplined myself for greater victories. Thank you for the post.


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