Ritual in the 21st Century

When one thinks of rituals, dances around ancient fires with painted or masked faces may come to mind, but this is not the modern reality. Rituals can be defined as any practice regularly conducted at a designated time. A simple act such as brushing your teeth every morning upon rising is in fact, a ritual. Though they may usually be paired with cosmological belief systems, rituals are the fabric of any organized society; weaving the intrinsic values and history of the community into each person’s daily life.

To understand this concept, we can examine, the ritual that K-12 students participate in each morning, verbally pledging allegiance to the United States of America. This ritual consists of pausing all activity, standing in unison, facing a symbolic representative of the United States of America – the flag, reciting words aloud that reinforce commitment to America, fellow citizens, and God, and then resuming daily activity.

Ronald Grimes, a groundbreaking researcher, has described methods for “mapping the ritual field” in his work, “Beginnings in Ritual Studies” (Grimes, 1982). The methodology that he outlines for categorizing a ritual consists of pinpointing the ritual place, foods, objects, time, and sounds. In the case of “The Pledge”, as we colloquially term it, the ritual place is the classroom, a place that children are almost guaranteed to be in each day. Ritual food is not used in this case. The ritual objects are the American flag, and usually a loudspeaker, so that the whole school can hear the recitation at once and speak along with it. The ritual time is usually an hour or so into the schoolday, when everyone has had time to arrive. The ritual sounds are the recitation itself, and usually a moment of silence afterwards.

In examination of “The Pledge” ritual practice, one must also consider the mental implications of collective participation as a classroom and society. “The Pledge” is not analyzed by students for current viablity, most do not understand its meaning, and though recitation is not mandatory, the option to not participate is not publicly presented by teachers or administrators. In fact, children who do not participate are looked on as odd or unpatriotic by faculty and fellow students. A collective evaluation of “The Pledge” through the eyes and minds of modern day multiculturalism, societal issues, and varying belief systems may result in a new pledge, uplifting love and acceptance of all, and unity beyond the lines of race, religion, and sexual preference. How would it affect American children to recite each morning, “I will greet each person I meet with a smile and treat everyone as valuable human being.”?

Can you name other rituals that we practice collectively as an American society? What about rituals you practice in your personal life? Do you think that our collective rituals should be reanalyzed? What about “The Pledge”? Do you think that all of the words are still viable or that we could create a new commitment to allegiance that reflects 21st century American society? Reflect and respond.


Grimes, Ronald. (1982). Beginnings in ritual studies. Virginia: University Press of America.

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