Xavier Marquez reviews Randall Collins' book Interaction Ritual Chains.
A ritual, for Collins, is basically an amplifier of emotion. (I pause to note that an amplifier of emotion is not necessarily a generator of emotion, though it is not clear whether or not Collins sees any important distinction here). We are literally “pumped up” by a successful ritual – we experience a buzz, exhilaration, enthousiasmos, “collective effervescence.” A great lecture, a sports spectacle in a vast stadium, a great concert, a fire-and-brimstone sermon, the rituals of solidarity among small military units; these interactions motivate us, that is, they set us in motion, send us on our way to act beyond the immediate confines of the group situation (to read the book discussed in the lecture, follow the news of your sports team or music band and wear the team colors, proselytize for your sect, attack the enemy, and perhaps also to do the crappy jobs necessary to gather the material resources to do all of these things). Not every ritual is successful, of course (and not every ritual is equally successful for all participants, even when the ritual is generally successful – more on this point later); some ritual situations bore us, sending our attention wandering, and we end up feeling drained and depressed: think of a boring meeting at your workplace, or an awful lecture. These rituals are demotivating; as Collins puts it, they sap our “emotional energy.
Perhaps the most important bit is this one (emphasis mine):
Though Collins does not say this, this view implies that ritual is prior to belief: belief “in” a cause, or a leader, or a god, or anything of the sort is primarily attachment to particular symbols of group membership that have been charged with value by powerful rituals, and should tend to decay in the absence of rituals “recharging” these symbols. (Collins suggests that a week is a good estimate of the half-life of the emotional charge of most symbols; hence the weekly services of churches or the weekly frequency of many intimate rituals, for example). Moreover, motivated reasoning should be ubiquitous, as indeed it seems to be; for the most part, we do not reason our way to most of our important beliefs, but acquire these through participation in communities with their interaction rituals (which may not look like obvious rituals; note that as long as we are participants in a successful interaction ritual, our focus is on the things the ritual is about, not on the ritual itself). Sociologists time and again find that many (most?) people join social movements before they acquire clear beliefs about issues; we then justify these beliefs ex post and defend them against perceived threats. And when a particular belief becomes entangled with an identity – when it becomes, in other words, a focus in some chain of successful interaction rituals, circulating as a marker of membership in some group– it then becomes more or less immune to rational argument. This is not to say that we cannot on occasion reason our way to various positions; but solid “belief” (in the sense that people most people have in mind when they say that they believe “in” something, ranging from Christianity to socialism) needs a lot of help from interaction ritual chains (understood as repeated, focused interactions that charge certain symbols with value). Belief without ritual and community is typically a fickle thing, discarded just as easily as acquired.