Ritual Fail

ducksSeveral of our students and faculty members were at the College of Arts & Sciences’ tent this past Saturday for Homecoming, when Departments are invited to staff a table or two for a few hours and do something creative for fans and alumni attending the football game. There’s face painting and beanbag games, lots of candy and performances by students from the School of Music. While we can’t compete with the huge snakes that the Department of Biology always brings, we did have badly made balloon animals that were a big hit.

But the thing that we did that’s worth mulling over is that we had a rubber duck game — colored dots on the bottom of yellow ducks floating in water and, when kids picked a duck, they got a prize — trouble is that regardless how much attention our students paid to learning the color of their duck’s dot (and, to their credit, the students — like Lexi and Ben, pictured above — staffing our table really sold it each time), it turned out to be meaningless information because the prize was always the exact same duck that the kids had just plucked out of the water.

Some kids were a little disappointed, yeah, but most looked perplexed and were clearly trying to figure out what had just happened; the older ones thought it was neat (in fact, some turned the game into an experiment by repeating it, to see what prize they’d get next time) and all the moms and dads just stood back and laughed.

It was a lesson in a failed ritual exchange that causes anxiety in the participants — producing, in this case, the strange looks and the laughter. Chalk one up to critical thinking in practice.

I recall my dad, in the gas station that my parents owned and operated and in which I grew up, once being asked by a customer: “Can you change a $20?”. My dad said yes, took the man’s twenty dollar bill and put it in the cash register while taking out a different twenty and then handing it straight back to the man and closing the register’s drawer.

It was hilarious.

It was also very sophisticated.

(Thanks to Sarah Rollens for the above pic.)

[This post originally appeared on the Studying Religion in Culture blog of the
Department of Religious Studies at the
University of Alabama]

2 Replies to “Ritual Fail”

  1. very interesting!
    I sort of interpreted this as an extended metaphor for religion in general. As human civilization has progressed, it seems as if people’s views regarding religion has only become more confusing and complex. I like the example that the author provided about the gas station and the $20 bill. I think you could make the argument that religion is like the $20 bill situation; people tend to focus on the differences between religions rather than realizing that all religions are similar to the extent that they seek to help humans. Also, the duck-game that was mentioned in the original post is very interesting; it’s sort of a mind-game with the little kids. I think religion sometimes plays a mind-game with us, as well. We get so confused about the hundreds of different religions in this world, and we get bogged down by trying to differentiate between religions.

  2. In the spirit of this site I’d like to push back a little and ask what this thing religion is, in your comment, that it seems to have agency and does things (it plays mind-games with us? To what does the pronoun point…?). That is, it’s pretty clear that you presume some non-empirical core to religion (the thing that apparently transcends, or undergirds, their observable differences). This very strategy you seem to be employing, to create the impression of uniformity and sameness despite diversity, is itself among the identification techniques we’re examining on this site.

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