Secret Fraternity Rituals Miscommunicate Its Value

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It is unfortunate that fraternity men and women place an intense, dramatic focus on their secret rituals. We would be better people and organizations if we gave such care and attention to our members. 

On occasion, someone will try to explain the difference between fraternities and other campus organizations and will use ritual as that defining quality.

“Other organizations offer you friends, you can do service with any organization on campus,” they say, “but we have a ritual and secrets that bind us into something too difficult to explain,” politely sold with a, “you have to experience brotherhood to know it.”

This fundamental misunderstanding of what makes fraternity and sorority “different” from other student organizations is telling, because our current best practice is to sell the two most mysteriously inexplicable things about our organizations: ritual and brotherhood.

Neither can be neatly summed up to a potential member, and it seems as if members and national organizations alike have blurred their “secrets” with “ritual.” The two are not necessarily the same. . .

Let’s keep this post down to Earth and out of the hilariously grand strategic shifts recommended on this website. Why should you, your chapter or your group of alumni volunteers/friends stop treating Ritual as some untouched token left behind by a creator for your eyes only?

1. YOUR RITUAL WAS WRITTEN BY A HUMAN MEMBER OF YOUR ORGANIZATION

I have yet to hear of a fraternity convention (conclave, congregation, whatever you want to call it) at which a matterless deity flew down from the heavens and blasted a ritual with knowledge so secret and sacred that it would put the human species at risk to reveal it to those too careless to understand its importance.

Maybe I am behind on my understanding of other fraternity’s conventions. . .

The fact is that there are clever secrets in each fraternity ritual, but those are more utilized as a way to identify members or to serve at what is perhaps the greatest bonding agent of fraternity membership: the inside joke that we treat our secrets as something of immense contribution to the human condition. That’s not to say that values and ritual don’t have meaning, only that they’re very likely based on the values and rituals of the world’s religions and other secret societies.

There’s not need to make your ritual public, but I don’t think it would hurt any organization as much as some of us make it seem like it would. Someone wrote it. Someone else can rewrite it. Some have already made theirs public (and even public rituals can still have secrets like those mentioned above).

2. FRATERNITIES HAVE MERGED AND SPLIT, AS HAVE RITUALS

Our unique little history of fraternity and sorority life is filled with organizations absorbing other organizations or breaking off of parent organizations.

With those shifts in ownership, most fraternity rituals have been morphed by being combined with a merged fraternity’s ritual or mutating after one fraternity split off from another. In the end, however, the ritual is a simple means to an end of explaining a way of life typically rooted in Christianity or Judaism. Even if an organization wasn’t aligned with a religion at its founding, it was likely influenced by societies which were.

Our rituals are different, yes. They involve different characters, symbols and teach different ways of life. But each of our rituals is some transformation of a previously existing ritual, whether your founders were Christian, Jewish, black, white, atheist or hockey enthusiasts.

The greatest, most prolific, most impactful religions of the world have open rituals. It does you no harm for others to think of you less like a secret, cultish oddity and more like a character-development friend club. We must let people better understand who we are BEFORE they join our ranks.

3. RITUAL IS VALUABLE AS A TOOL TO GET TO OUR ULTIMATE PRODUCT: EXCELLENT PEOPLE

There is one thing that each fraternity has that no other fraternity or sorority has: its unique composition of members.

The more focused and driven an organization is in recruiting the right members and providing them with the right opportunities the greater an impact it will have on this world.

Some fraternities and sororities are oriented toward service, and so they recruit men and women who wish to contribute service. Some are aligned with a profession, and so they recruit men and women who exemplify excellence and support one another through their profession.

Some are social, and they exist to connect men and women of a variety of backgrounds and interests, but who share a loosely defined way of life. A way of life outlined in the ritualistic initiation into that organization.

That being said, Ritual is not the end, but part of the means to an end. It’s your brand, and no company succeeded by keeping the meaning of its brand a secret, even if there are hidden inside jokes within said brand.

Ritual and the secrets within it are incredible opportunities to build camaraderie and friendship within our organizations, but does it do the secrets of Delta Sigma Phi (my fraternity) any harm for me to tell you all that the themes of what we learn through our ritual are to embrace others, prioritize friendship and live a balanced life? Without revealing any secrets, you know exactly what our initiation ceremonies are about, and chances are that many of your fraternities teach similar themes.

Your ritual is not what makes you unique, your members are. Any fraternity can copy any others’ ritual, service events or t-shirt design – but they can’t recreate your membership. Let your new members understand what’s expected of them before they join. Let your parents know what’s expected of you when you join.

Keep your secrets a secret, but if you are going to say that ritual is an important element of the fraternity experience then be prepared to explain what its importance actually is.