Ritual and religion are, as everyone knows, closely intertwined. So tightly linked are they that some scholars, such as Emile Durkheim, seem to have mistaken one for the other or at least conflated the two. For those who cannot accept Durkheim’s position, there are two competing explanations for the origin of ritual. The first is known as the “costly signaling” hypothesis and the second as what I will call the “propitious coincidence” hypothesis.
Although Richard Sosis and Joseph Bulbulia are both major proponents of costly signaling theory, the seminal article in this area was written by Barbara Smuts and John Watanabe (1990); it revolves around ritualized genital greetings between male baboons. While costly signaling has substantial merit when it comes to explaining ritual, I find the propitious coincidence hypothesis more compelling.
The classic example of this is of course B.F. Skinner’s pigeon experiment, in which he was able to demonstrate how random events followed by positive reinforcement can lead to superstitious or ritualistic behavior. Another variant on this idea comes from the historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith, who in his well known article “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” grounds the concept in the “thrill of coincidence.” The Romans were of course famous for their careful recording of correlations between rituals and events, resulting in a massive body of ritual-augury-omen record-keeping. Such records certainly exorcised Hume and Kant to no end.
Today I am happy to present you with an actual case study involving ritual and what some might call religion. It was written and posted yesterday on a subscriber’s only message board for Nebraska football fans. Based on message board exchanges following this remarkably frank posting, it appears the author of a “Nebraska Fan’s Confession” did not write this in jest. It is somewhat longish, but for those interested in ritual (or solipsistic delusions), it will amply reward your reading:
I’ve been “husking my corn” for as long as I can remember. The high water mark was probably when I became a teenager and the hormones really started pumping. Intentionally or unintentionally, this is also the time in Catholic grade school when they impress upon you the fact that husking your corn is a sin. Which wasn’t enough to stop me, of course, but the guilt was there all the same.
The teenage years are also when sports means more to boys than at any other time in their lives. For me, that meant one thing: Nebraska football.
These seemingly independent and unrelated aspects of my life unexpectedly converged during my transition from grade school to high school. That fall, during eighth grade, my beloved Huskers had gone undefeated and had earned the right to play for a national championship against Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward and Florida St. Despite being huge underdogs, the Huskers succumbed only after missing a last-second FG. I was crushed. As a middle-class white kid from Omaha, this was probably the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
However, hope springs eternal, and the next fall Nebraska appeared to have made the leap from good but not great team to legitimate national title contender. At the same time, I was preparing to transition from grade school kid to high school young man.
In my personal life, my appetite for corn-husking had not diminished, nor had my accompanying guilt. So, with the sincere belief that my actions somehow impacted such things, I struck a deal with myself/God (there was no bright line distinction in my head between the two): I would not husk my corn for as long as Nebraska kept winning.
In retrospect, beyond the obvious absurdity, this was somewhat of a foolish agreement on my part. This was the best Nebraska team in over a decade, and had already gone undefeated the previous regular season. Additionally, I was at least an above-average corn-husker: I remember at one point in 1994 nearly averaging 4 corn-huskings a day with nothing more than Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas” music video and my imagination to motivate me. Nonetheless, the deal was struck, and I was not about to back out for fear of derailing a potentially magical Husker season.
You can probably guess the rest. Four and a half months (and a number of wet dreams) later, Nebraska completes an undefeated season, winning its first national championship of my lifetime. This plants the seeds for what has thus far been a lifetime obsession with Nebraska football coupled with the sincere belief that my actions actually influence the outcome of games.
Thankfully, despite the fact that I decided not to enter into a similar arrangement the following year, Nebraska again went undefeated and won another national championship. My megalomania, however, manifested itself in other ways. I attended nearly every home game over the next three years, and ate the same pregame meal of a meatball sub with extra jalapenos from the Subway at the student union. The fact that Nebraska did not lose a home game during this time only fed my delusions of grandeur. I remember being convinced that Nebraska lost to Arizona St. in 1996 because I had watched the game on a big screen television. In fact, I can probably identify a perceived self-failing which I convinced myself led to nearly every Nebraska loss until losing became all-too-frequent in recent years.
As I grew into adulthood, my guilt regarding husking my corn all but vanished. As I moved into my mid-twenties, I grew more and more skeptical of the church as I found it difficult to reconcile what seemed to be endless internal inconsistencies with church doctrine. Ultimately, I questioned the very existence of god, and have yet to comfortably answer this question either way.
Nonetheless, there is one area of my life in which my faith has not wavered: my belief in the college football gods. The college football gods are not all warm and fuzzy either. They are Old Testament/gods of Greek mythology. They are not forgiving. They demand sacrifice.
I admit that this is, at best, a complicated mythology. On the one hand, although logically I recognize the absurdity, there is a part of me that can’t shake the belief that what I do somehow affects the fortunes of my beloved Huskers. I won’t bore you with the mental gymnastics and possibility of multiple realities necessary to accommodate this belief. Needless to say, I carefully plan my outfit, my meal, who I watch the game with, inflate my 10-foot Lil’ Red, in addition to a number of other minute details that may somehow impact the game.
On the other hand, I also absolutely believe in the college football gods on a macro-level. For example, in 2003, after firing Frank Solich, Athletic Director Steve Pederson memorably stated: “We will not surrender the Big 12 Conference to Oklahoma and Texas.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. The college football gods don’t let you get away with stuff like that. Nebraska hasn’t beaten Texas since, and only last year finally overcame the curse and defeated Oklahoma.
Nebraska may have been able to similarly overcome their inability to beat Texas this year. They came oh-so-close in the Big 12 Championship game less than a month after beating Oklahoma, and were poised to complete the job this year in Lincoln. And then, this happened:
“Wear Red. Be Loud. Beat Texas.”
Nebraska’s media relations department came up with this gem last summer. The college football gods do not easily forgive such blatant challenges to their power. In fact, as an added bonus, the college football gods deemed that Texas would lose the two games prior to the Nebraska game, leading to Nebraska being a 10-point favorite, and making the eventual choke job in the actual game this past Saturday that much more difficult to stomach.
Which brings me, finally, to the point of this little story. This is a confession of sorts. I’m not sure if it is to the college football gods directly or what. It might be better characterized as a plea. You see, I started dating the woman who turned out to be my loving wife and the mother of my child in October 2001. In fact, we began dating only days after I attended the Nebraska victory that fall over second ranked Oklahoma, known to most Husker fans as simply the “Black 41 Flash Reverse Pass” game.
You might be able to guess the rest. Nebraska was slaughtered by Colorado only weeks later 62-36. They somehow snuck into the national championship game, only to get destroyed by Miami in the Orange Bowl. Solich was fired, the Callahan era (yeesh), and now the future certainly looks brighter in the capable hands of Coach Bo Pelini.
Few would dispute that Coach Pelini has Nebraska on the right track. However, amazingly, incredibly, Nebraska has not beaten a team ranked higher than 20th since that day against Oklahoma. A period of nine years. In fact, they are 0-21 during that time period against teams ranked higher than 20.
This coming Saturday, Nebraska plays undefeated Oklahoma St. in Stillwater, OK. The Cowboys are ranked in the Top 20. Is redemption possible?
As far as I know, no one affiliated with the University has done anything to anger the college football gods in such a way as to preclude the possibility of victory on Saturday. My self-important, delusional worldview can’t help but notice that Nebraska’s fall from the nation’s elite directly coincided with me starting my relationship with my wife. I can’t imagine that this union, which has already produced an adorable little Husker fan, could have somehow displeased the college football gods.
So I’m laying all my cards on the table. By reducing these thoughts to writing, I’m coming clean and giving power to the lunacy in my head. Yet, somehow, I feel like this is necessary. I want to beat Oklahoma State. I really want to beat Mizzou the next week too, but I won’t be greedy right now (plus, I foolishly purchased Big 12 Championship game tickets before Big 12 play even started. I’m not optimistic that the college football gods are going to let than one slide).
Please, college football gods, allow Nebraska to win this game so I can permanently put to rest the misguided idea that I somehow caused Nebraska’s downfall. I think Husker Nation has suffered enough.
Oh, the ritual power of Onan.