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10.4: Elements of Religion - Rules and Rituals

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    Religious beliefs are an important element of social control because these beliefs help to define acceptable behaviors as well as punishments, including supernatural consequences, for misbehavior. One well-known example are the ideas expressed in the Ten Commandments, which are incorporated in the teachings of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and prohibit behaviors such as theft, murder, adultery, dishonesty, and jealousy while also emphasizing the need for honor and respect between people. Behavior that violates the commandments brings both social disapproval from other members of the religious community and potential punishment from God.

    Buddhism, the world’s fourth largest religion, demonstrates the strong connection between spiritual beliefs and rules for everyday behavior. Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha, who was an ordinary human who achieved wisdom through study and discipline. There is no God or gods in some forms of Buddhism. Instead, individuals who practice Buddhism use techniques like meditation to achieve the insight necessary to lead a meaningful life and ultimately, after many lifetimes, to achieve the goal of nirvana, release from suffering.

    Although Buddhism defies easy categorization into any anthropological category, there is an element of animatism represented by karma, a moral force in the universe. Individual actions have effects on one’s karma. Kindness toward others, for instance, yields positive karma while acts that are disapproved in Buddhist teachings, such as killing an animal, create negative karma. The amount of positive karma a person builds-up in a lifetime is important because it will determine how the individual will be reborn. Reincarnation, the idea that a living being can begin another life in a new body after death, is a feature of several religions. In Buddhism, the form of a human’s reincarnation depends on the quality of the karma developed during life. Rebirth in a human form is considered good fortune because humans have the ability to control their own thoughts and behaviors. They can follow the Noble Eightfold Path, rules based on the teachings of Buddha that emphasize the need for discipline, restraint, humility, and kindness in every aspect of life. [36]


    The most easily observed elements of any religious belief system are rituals. Victor Turner (1972) defined ritual as “a stereotyped sequence of activities … performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests.”[37] Rituals have a concrete purpose or goal, such as a wedding ritual that results in a religiously sanctioned union between people, but rituals are also symbolic. The objects and activities involved in rituals “stand in for” or mean more than what they actually are. In a wedding ceremony in the United States, the white color of the wedding dress is a traditional symbol of purity.

    A large amount of anthropological research has focused on identifying and interpreting religious rituals in a wide variety of communities. Although the details of these practices differ in various cultural settings, it is possible to categorize them into types based on their goals. One type of ritual is a rite of passage, a ceremony designed to transition individuals between life stages.[38] A second type of ritual is a rite of intensification, actions designed to bring a community together, often following a period of crisis.[39] Revitalization rituals, which also often follow periods of crisis in a community, are ambitious attempts to resolve serious problems, such as war, famine, or poverty through a spiritual or supernatural intervention.[40]

    Rites of Passage

    In his original description of rites of passage, Arnold Van Gennep (1909) noted that these rituals were carried out in three distinct stages: separation, liminality, and incorporation. During the first stage, individuals are removed from their current social identity and begin preparations to enter the next stage of life. The liminal period that follows is a time in which individuals often undergo tests, trials, or activities designed to prepare them for their new social roles. In the final stage of incorporation, individuals return to the community with a new socially recognized status. [41]

    Definition: rite of passage

    A ceremony designed to transition individuals between life stages.

    Rites of passage that transition children into a new status as adults are common around the world. In Xhosa communities in South Africa, teenage boys were traditionally transitioned to manhood using a series of acts that moved them through each of the three ritual stages. In the separation stage, the boys leave their homes and are circumcised; they cannot express distress or signs of pain during the procedure. Following the circumcision, they live in isolation while their wounds heal, a liminal phase during which they do not talk to anyone other than boys who are also undergoing the rite of passage. This stressful time helps to build bonds between the boys that will follow them through their lives as adult men. Before their journey home, the isolated living quarters are burned to the ground, symbolizing the loss of childhood. When the participants return to their community, the incorporation phase, they are recognized as men and allowed to learn the secret stories of the community.[42]

    Definition: separation

    The first stage of a rite of passage in which the individual withdraws, or is removed from, ordinary society.

    Definition: liminality

    The second stage of a rite of passage in which the individual is in a marginal or in-between phase, which often includes a time of testing and trials.

    Definition: incorporation

    The third stage of a rite of passage in which the individual returns to society in their new status and role.


    Life Event Example
    Birth Naming ceremony, Baptism, Dedication ceremony
    Transition to Adulthood Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Quinceñera, Communion, Graduation
    Marriage Wedding Ceremonies
    Death Funeral Rites, Memorial Services

    Rites of Intensification

    Land Diving
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Land Diving on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu.

    Rites of intensification are also extremely common in communities worldwide. These rituals are used to bind members of the community together, to create a sense of communitas or unity that encourages people to see themselves as members of a community. One particularly dramatic example of this ritual is the Nagol land diving ceremony held each spring on the island of Pentecost in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Like many rituals, land diving has several goals. One of these is to help ensure a good harvest by impressing the spirits with a dramatic display of bravery. To accomplish this, men from the community construct wooden towers sixty to eighty feet high, tie ropes made from tree vines around their ankles, and jump head-first toward the ground (Figure 5). Preparations for the land diving involve almost every member of the community. Men spend a month or more working together to build the tower and collect the vines. The women of the community prepare special costumes and dances for the occasion and everyone takes care of land divers who may be injured during the dive. Both the preparations for the land diving and the festivities that follow are a powerful rite of intensification. Interestingly, the ritual is simultaneously a rite of passage; boys can be recognized as men by jumping from high portions of the tower witnessed by elders of the community.[43]

    Definition: rites of intensification

    Actions designed to bring a community together, often following a period of crisis.

    Definition: communitas

    An intense spirit of unity, solidarity, and togetherness that encourages people to see themselves as members of a community.

    Rites of Revitalization

    All rites of revitalization originate in difficult or even catastrophic circumstances. One notable example is a ritual that developed on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific. During World War II, many islands in the South Pacific were used by the U.S. military as temporary bases. Tanna was one of these locations and this formerly isolated community experienced an extremely rapid transformation as the U.S. military introduced modern conveniences such as electricity and automobiles. In an attempt to make sense of these developments, the island’s residents developed a variety of theories about the reason for these changes. One possible explanation was that the foreign materials had been given to the islanders by a powerful deity or ancestral spirit, an entity who eventually acquired the name John Frum. The name may be based on a common name the islanders would have encountered while the military base was in operation: “John from America.”

    When the war ended and the U.S. military departed, the residents of Tanna experienced a kind of trauma as the material goods they had enjoyed disappeared and the John Frum ritual began. Each year on February fifteenth, many of the island’s residents construct copies of U.S. airplanes, runways, or towers and march in military formation with replicas of military rifles and American blue jeans. The ritual is intended to attract John Frum, and the material wealth he controls, back to the island. Although the ritual has not yet had its intended transformative effect, the participants continue the ritual. When asked to explain his continued faith, one village elder explained: “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to Earth, and you haven’t given up hope.”[44] This John Frum custom is sometimes called a cargo cult, a term used to describe rituals that seek to attract material prosperity. Although the John Frum ritual is focused on commodities, or “cargo,” the term cargo cult is generally not preferred by anthropologists because it oversimplifies the complex motivations involved in the ritual. The word “cult” also has connotations with fringe or dangerous beliefs and this association also distorts understanding of the practice.

    Definition: rites of revitalization

    Attempts to resolve serious problems, such as war, famine or poverty through spiritual or supernatural intervention.

    Definition: cargo cult

    A term sometimes used to describe rituals that seek to attract material prosperity. The term is generally not preferred by anthropologists.


    1. Andrew Skilton, A Concise History of Buddhism (New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2000).
    2. Victor Turner, “Symbols in African Ritual” Science 179 (1972): 1100-05.
    3. Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 1960).
    4. Eliot Dismore Chapple and Carleton Stevens Coon, Principles of Anthropology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1953).
    5. Anthony F.C. Wallace, “Revitalization Movements” American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264-281.
    6. Victor W. Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” The Proceedings of the New American Ethnological Society, 1964.
    7. Casey Golomski, “Rites of Passage: 1900’s to Present: Africa,” in Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, & Africa: An Encyclopedia (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2012).
    8. For more information see Marc Tabani, “The Carnival of Custom: Land Dives, Millenarian Parades and Other Spectacular Ritualizations in Vanuatu” Oceania 80 no. 3 (2010): 309–329.
    9. Paul Raffaele, “In John They Trust,” Smithsonian Magazine,

    Adapted From

    "Religion" by Sashur Henninger-Rener, Pasadena City College. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    10.4: Elements of Religion - Rules and Rituals is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.