Reinventing a theism-free culture will require rethinking ritual. Here's a start from Scientific American. My impression is that rituals help us cope mentally and emotionally when we're under pressure. Of course they don't actually change anything in the environment.
Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In one recent experiment, people received either a “lucky golf ball” or an ordinary golf ball, and then performed a golf task; in another, people performed a motor dexterity task and were either asked to simply start the game or heard the researcher say “I’ll cross fingers for you” before starting the game. The superstitious rituals enhanced people’s confidence in their abilities, motivated greater effort – and improved subsequent performance. These findings are consistent with research in sport psychology demonstrating the performance benefits of pre-performance routines, from improving attention and execution to increasing emotional stability and confidence.
People perform mourning rituals in an effort to alleviate their grief – but do they work? Our research suggests they do. In one of our experiments, we asked people to recall and write about the death of a loved one or the end of a close relationship. Some also wrote about a ritual they performed after experiencing the loss:
I used to play the song by Natalie Cole “I miss you like crazy” and cry every time I heard it and thought of my mom.
I looked for all the pictures we took together during the time we dated. I then destroyed them into small pieces (even the ones I really liked!), and then burnt them in the park where we first kissed.
We found that people who wrote about engaging in a ritual reported feeling less grief than did those who only wrote about the loss.
While more research is needed, these intriguing results suggest that the specific nature of rituals may be crucial in understanding when they work – and when they do not.
Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true. While some rituals are unlikely to be effective – knocking on wood will not bring rain – many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective. [emphasis mine]