The idea of rituals as something uniquely human is not a new one in academia – or even in more basic and ancient philosophy. Myths, authors such as James George Frazer argue, are likely as not explanations for rituals as they are the source for them. His book the Golden Bough tracks aimlessly through world mythologies looking for an explanation of a single Classical ritual. Many are the critiques of this idea, but it is an interesting starting point from a literary standpoint in approaching things like people’s belief systems, folklore, “old ways,” and the roots of tradition. South Chinese rituals of burning papercraft objects to provide ghostly analogs of modern consumer electronics show that just because rituals and traditions are old, they are not hidebound to long-forgotten worlds or ways of life that are, by narrative/historical necessity, lost.
I think one thing that people often overlook when confronting the idea of ritual is that it has to be grounded in some kind of faith in the supernatural, or some larger idea of religion. Sure, we hear about “sports rituals” or “rites of passage” that are entirely secular, but I would argue that many of us still see in them the same sort of animating spirit as that which underlies animal sacrifice or hanging ribbons with wishes on particularly lovely trees. But secular rituals, that is, commonly-known and practiced activities that we repeat, are incredibly potent forces for bringing people together. Whether they are creeds of faith or pledges of allegiance to a national idea, songs about community members past or present, or the repetition of inside jokes meant to simultaneously include and exclude, rituals come in all forms.
On the other hand, it is tempting to define all of human activity in some framework of “rituals,” since any action can become repetitive and nearly any action can bring people closer together or align people’s emotional states in tune with one another. I cannot claim to offer an objective definition of the term, even though I abhor when philosophical arguments break down entirely into Wittgensteinian semantics and fights over who is permitted to define basic terms. But ritual is one of those words that truly means something different to different people and in differing contexts.
One thing to think about is how this plays out when you create a world or shape a character while writing a story. Whether we call them quirks, idiosyncrasies, or habits, most people develop something akin to rituals as almost a kind of emotional scar tissue around the cuts and scrapes of life as they age. Conversely, in childhood, we seem to develop and dismiss whole theologies of this kind from week to week while we are figuring out who we are and what we stand for or believe in. That, by itself, can provide the fuel for a dramatic conflagration of plot and development, but when used in conjunction with the many other skills in the authorial toolbox, adds a whole additional level of realism to what we write.