Living and Doing
Religion is just as much about doing as it is about believing, feeling, or thinking. Religious rituals are not just window dressing for the core beliefs of a religious tradition; ritual practices form identity and sustain tradition. Some would even suggest that religious ideas, belief, and faith would have no energy without ritual.
Borrowing from sociology and anthropology, religious studies teaches us to observe. When we start looking at what religious people do, we can only be struck by wonder and curiosity. Why in the world do religious people perform certain actions? Why would someone walk hundreds of miles to bathe in a river? Why do people go to so much trouble to eat the right food at the right time? How does someone arrive at the point where she feels that a divine spirit is speaking her? These questions (and so many others like them) are addressed through close attention to, and then interpretation of, ritual.
But the examination of ritual is not limited to the precincts of a church, temple, or holy place. Even for the most secular among us, life is guided by rituals. Everyday activities guided by rules and conventions seem to offer us both practical results and a sense of meaning and structure. For the religious person, there seems to be a deep connection between religious practice and the way life is lived.
As students of religion, we might talk about the importance of ritual this way: religious ritual is practice, in the same sense as practicing a jump shot or a dance routine. But religious rituals are practice not just for a game or performance: they are practice for the whole of one's life. As a consequence, when we study religious ritual, we gain a deep understanding of the way another person lives, thinks, and acts.