Would you say you perform any kind of ritual in your daily life?
Unless you’re the initiate of a coven or some elusive lodge, chances are you’ll answer this question with “No.”

The average civilized, educated, more or less privileged modern Western person generally smirks at the idea of ritual. We think of aboriginal tribes far from our homeland casting protective circles and banishing spells under a waxing moon in the thicket of the jungle, scarcely clad individuals trancefully shaking their limbs to the beat of a prehistoric drum, animals scandalously running around the place without supervision, illiterate juveniles jumping over a raging bonfire at some ominous turn of the season.
Ritual just doesn’t seem to fit our predominantly urban lifestyle, where we tend to work using sometimes a lot of our minds a lot of the day.

Behold this image of a Malawian initiation rite, which happens to be one of the first results in an online search for “Ritual.” #Q.E.D.

Behold this image of a Malawian initiation rite, which happens to be one of the first results in an online search for “Ritual.” #Q.E.D.

But if I asked you whether you had any habits, what would you say?

Perhaps I caught you sneaking in a quick cigarette on your way back to work. Or maybe we met at a party, where you were casually holding a bottle of microbrew / a glass of Chardonnay in your hand, as you conduct your networking and your catching up with the world at large.
Or you are currently stuck under some blinding commercial light, waiting for your gel nails to dry.
Or I may be interrupting your daily news fix as you scroll through your sensational, outrageous Facebook feed.
Or you are standing in line at the pick-up area of your favorite coffee shop and really have nothing better to do than pondering this question. (Or checking your Facebook feed.)

I love my pathologies. (Nick Cave: 20,000 Days on Earth)

Somehow, our habits are ubiquitous. Our days are filled with them. We don’t usually mind them. Pop culture might celebrate habits, and encourage you to cultivate more of them. We might even go so far as to say we have certain obsessions, or we might label ourselves a something-holic. No matter the pathological origin of these terms, aren’t we all a little bit sick? A little bit broken? Isn’t this what makes us beautiful?

Why do rituals strike us as irrational by definition?

Well, we can probably thank the early anthropologists, such as Sir James George Frazer, author of the famously infamous “The Golden Bough” of the early 20th century. In his wide-ranging study of magical thinking, he names what he calls the “primitive mind” the first developmental stage in a linear progression from magic over to (more civilized) religion and, finally, to science (the highest developmental stage of humanity, conveniently the societal status quo of the author in his armchair.) Modern-day anthropologists and researchers of comparative religion usually think of Frazer’s work as historically important, albeit outdated and culturally insensitive. Yet, his notion of ritual being the doings of the primitive lives on in folk belief.

Enter the San Francisco-based gourmet coffee brand Ritual.

Enter the San Francisco-based gourmet coffee brand “Ritual”.

Fast forward to the later 20th century, and some smart branding folks out there discover that ritual and habit are not so very different after all.

Because really, what else is your daily morning coffee other than a ritual? Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, making the United States the leading coffee consumer in the world. Studies have shown that caffeine doesn’t really do much in waking you up – at least not for longer than 15 minutes, and probably leaves you even more tired after that time is up, thinking you “need” more coffee. So our drinking coffee is really not much of a functional behavior. Interestingly enough, many of us don’t even really like the taste of coffee! But what we do love is the – wait for it – “ritual.”

So in recent years, Ritual Coffee decided to go all out on its occult-themed branding. One sunny Sunday while shopping in an elitist succulent boutique, I almost spilled my espresso when I encountered Ritual’s latest designs for tote bags and t-shirts.

Sir James George Frazer even gets his own homage on a Ritual T-shirt.

Look! Sir James George Frazer gets his own homage on a Ritual T-shirt.

How rational are you?

We can dig a coffee brand bearing the name “Ritual”, we’ll even buy their shirts displaying occult symbolism most of us have no inkling of, besides the fact that it vaguely reminds us of an obscure folk band. Yet we consider ourselves a science-based, worldly bunch all at the same time.

We have replaced the power of ritual with the power of habit. But does that really make us so much more rational? What, then, is really the difference between a rural and an urban ritual? A Central African and a Northern American one? Isn’t all of our regularly performed, meaning-laden behavior a sort of ritual? Why does it make us less uncomfortable calling our ritual a habit? Why is the stigma of pathology somehow less embarrassing than the stigma of irrationality?

And why does it seem at all like we are holding a competition to find the world’s most rational individual?


Vesna Westbrook, M.A., could talk about the human belief system all. day. long. She even got her degree in that stuff, and maintains a philosophical practice in the Bay Area, CA. You should check it out.