Rediscovering ritual

Religious practice has declined in the United States. The share of the population describing themselves as religious fell from 65 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2017.1 The share affiliated with any specific religion fell from 84 percent in 2007 to 71 percent in 2021.2 During that period, the share affiliated with Christianity fell from 78 percent to 63 percent.

However, the decline in religious affiliation was not accompanied by an equivalent rise in atheism or agnosticism.3 While the share describing themselves as religious fell by 11 percentage points, the share describing themselves as spiritual fell by only 3 percentage points, from 78 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2017.4

The decline in religious practice was a decline in formal aspects of religion like ritual. Ritual does not obviously transform the world in a constructive way, and some may have abandoned religious practice because they see little value in ritual. However, ritual is a powerful tool for shaping our lives.

Our lives reflect our attitudes. When Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he does not cite a commandment governing behavior. Instead, he cites two commandments addressing attitude.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37 – 40 ESV)

The Law and the Prophets refer to the other instructions in Hebrew scripture. Those instructions depend on the commandments Jesus cites because the behavior they prescribe is the behavior that proper attitudes would induce.

Ritual is a powerful tool for shaping our lives because it is a powerful tool for shaping our attitudes. In the Bible, God makes a covenant with the nation of Israel under which Israel agrees to keep the Mosaic Law, which includes instructions for rituals. Among the rituals prescribed in the Mosaic Law are animal sacrifices, including those made in atonement for sin.

If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally…and realizes his guilt…he shall bring for his offering a goat…for his sin which he has committed.  And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill the sin offering….  And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:27 – 31 ESV)

By laying a hand on the head of the animal, the sinner identifies with it, and when the animal killed, the punishment for the sinner falls symbolically on it. Sin was also acknowledged through several other rituals, including a sacrifice offered on behalf of all of Israel on the Day of Atonement.

Sacrifice is also mandated for the Passover celebration. In the Bible, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases Israel from slavery after a series of punishments culminating in a deadly plague. That plague passes over the house of Israelites who have sacrificed a lamb and marked their doorframe with its blood. The lamb is eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, a meal to be repeated by future generations.

When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony.  And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”  (Exodus 12:25 – 27)

These sacrifices provide Israel with the opportunity to humbly acknowledge their sin and gratefully remember their salvation. Through the rituals of the Mosaic Law, Israel could practice the proper attitudes toward God. When Israel eventually falls away from God, the prophet Hosea rebukes them for failing to maintain those attitudes, saying,

Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. Therefore…my judgment goes forth…. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:4 – 6 ESV)

Modern Christians perform a ritual closely related to both the sin and Passover sacrifices. Christians believe those sacrifices presage the death of Jesus. As punishment for sin fell symbolically on the animals sacrificed, when he is crucified the punishment for the sins of Christians falls on Jesus. Paul writes,

…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23 – 25 NIV)

As punishment from God passed over the houses of ancient Israel because of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, punishment passes over Christians because of the crucifixion of Jesus. Before his death, Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples and warns them of what will come. At the meal, he breaks bread and distributes it to them, calling it is his body and telling them to eat it. Similarly, he shares wine with them, saying,

Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood…, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:27 – 28 ESV)

Christians revisit that meal through a ritual called variously Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.  The name “Eucharist” derives from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving,” and, as with the sacrifices of ancient Israel, the ritual provides Christians with an opportunity to humbly acknowledge their sin and gratefully remember their salvation. In a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul rebukes them harshly for failures of attitude in implementing the ritual, writing,

…when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse….  When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat…. Whoever…eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup…. (1 Corinthians 11:17 – 28 ESV)

In the Bible, Israel embraces God but later falls away. A similar pattern holds for each of us as we improve our attitudes but later regress. When Hosea rebukes Israel for falling away, he tells them that God wants steadfast love, not sacrifice. Rituals like the sacrifices of ancient Israel and the Communion of modern Christians are tools for making good attitudes steadfast.

Ritual can be empty if we overlook the relationship between ritual and attitude. Some may have discarded empty ritual by leaving organized religion. To discard empty ritual is a kind of progress, but to discover the power of ritual is greater progress.

  1. Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz, “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious,” Pew Research Center, September 6, 2017,
  2. Gregory A. Smith, About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated (Pew Research Center, 2021),
  3. Smith, About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.
  4. Lipka and Gecewicz, “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious.”