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Religious practices are the collection of behaviors that religious people perform as part of the conduct of their religion. This includes the rites, rituals and worship practices they perform more specifically:
The two best known religious actions are prayer and sacrifice. The most general religious action is prayer. It can be done quietly by a person all alone, but people can also pray in groups using songs. Sacrifice is also a widely spread religious action. Prayer and sacrifice often form the basis of other, more complicated religious actions like pilgrimage, processions, or consulting an oracle. Many rituals are connected to a certain purpose, like initiation, ritual purification and preparation for an important happening or task. Among these are also the so-called rituals of transition, which occur at important moments of the human life cycle, like birth, adulthood/marriage, sickness and death. A special religious action involves practices that result in religious experiences of spirit possession and religious ecstasy. Religious specialists, such as priests, vicars, rabbis, imams and pandits are involved in many religious actions.
A religious avoidance is when a person desists from something or from some action for religious reasons. It can be food or drink that one does not touch because of one's religion for some time (fast). This abstinence can also be for a longer time. Some people do not have sex (celibacy). Or one avoids contact with blood, or dead animals. Well known examples are: Jews and Muslims do not eat pork; the celibacy of Catholic priests; the purity rules of Hinduism and Judaism.
These avoidances, or 'taboos', are often about food and drink.
Religious avoidances are often not easily recognisable as (part of) religious behaviour. When asked, the believers often do not motivate this kind of behaviour explicitly as religious but say the avoidance for health reasons, ethical reasons, or because it is hygienic.
A ritual is a set of actions, often thought to have symbolic value, the performance of which is usually prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community by religious or political laws because of the perceived efficacy of those actions.
A ritual may be performed at regular intervals, or on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community; in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it; either in public, in private, or before specific people. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between religious or social states.
The purposes of rituals are varied; they include compliance with religious obligations or ideals, satisfaction of spiritual or emotional needs of the practitioners, strengthening of social bonds, demonstration of respect or submission, stating one's affiliation, obtaining social acceptance or approval for some event — or, sometimes, just for the pleasure of the ritual itself.
Religious rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religions and cults, but also the rites of passage of certain societies, oaths of allegiance, coronations, and presidential inaugurations, marriages and funerals, school "rush" traditions and graduations, club meetings, sports events, Halloween parties, veteran parades, Christmas shopping and more. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as jury trials, execution of criminals, and scientific symposi, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by regulations or tradition, and thus partly ritualistic in nature.
In any case, an essential feature of a ritual is that the actions and their symbolism are not arbitrarily chosen by the performers, nor dictated by logic or necessity, but either are prescribed and imposed upon the performers by some external source or are inherited unconsciously from social traditions.
Due to their symbolic nature, there are hardly any limits to the kind of actions that may be incorporated in a ritual. The rites of past and present societies have typically involved special gestures and words, recitation of fixed texts, performance of special music, songs or dances, processions, manipulation of certain objects, use of special dresses, consumption of special food, drink, or drugs, and much more. Religious rituals have also included animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, ritual suicide, and ritual murder. Ritual lamentation -- song performed with weeping -- in many societies was regarded as required to ritually carry the departed soul to a safe afterlife (Tolbert 1990a, 1990b; Wilce 2006).
Ritual serves diverse purposes including, but not limited to:
- Ritual purification with the aim of removing uncleanliness, which may be real or symbolic.
- Cult (religious practice)
- Religious affiliation
- Religious beliefs
- Religious groups
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