On going out for a sandwich, I pass these guys protesting against Huntingdon Life Sciences. Although their cause is good, everyone's ignoring them. The protest seems a terribly bad way of persuading people.
This, I guess, is true of most protests; whoever changed their opinion about Iraq as a result of seeing an anti-war demo?
This misses the point. Protesters aren't trying to rationally persuade anyone. Instead, they are engaged in ritual. They are signalling the strength of their belief, and reinforcing that belief by meeting like-minded people.
Here's my hunch - we secular rationalists under-estimate the importance of ritual.
The Church has not made this mistake. It has long known that ritual matters. I suspect bells, smells and music have done more to strengthen religious faith than any ontological arguments. Is it a coincidence that the religions that are in decline are those, like methodism, that offer few rituals, whilst the growing religions, like American evangelism, offer spectacles like speaking in tongues, healing and charismatic preachers?
But it's not just the Church where ritual matters. In this fine book, Gerd Gigerenzer says the doctor-patient relationship has a big ritualistic element; the patient looks for reassurance and the doctor offers it. The TV drama House illustrates this nicely; doctors' puzzlement about the patient's condition is discussed in a separate room, whilst the patient usually gets a display of confidence and certainty.
And both Gigerenzer and Deirdre McCloskey (pdf) argue that a lot of statistical testing is not an attempt to get at the truth, but rather a ritualistic going through the motions. (But see this for a different view.)
These, I suspect, are not isolated examples. I reckon many - most? - of what we think of as efforts to change the world, or people's behaviour or thinking, are in fact ritualistic. They are efforts to signal the sort of people we are, or to strengthen our own views. Into this category, I'd put: parents' disciplining their children; condeming others' behaviour; political speeches and writing (including blogging) and - of course - management.
The strange thing is - sometimes, ritual works.