Rites of Passage: A versatile project

OvergangsrituelenThe project Rites of Passage wishes to contribute to the creation of a harmonious society by bringing attention to the value of the diversity as well as to the similarities of different people and peoples. Trough the recognition of the "same" in the otherness of the other, we tend to be more open to this same otherness and the alterity of other cultures.

Rites of passage are a unique lever to stimulate mutual tolerance between people. Recognition and acknowlegment come into being by referring to the universal of these rites of passage (birth, adolescence, marriage, death) while at the same time we can share what is particular to our own culture.

This project collects information about rites of passage in various cultures, philosophies and religions. The information is compiled in a book and is used to provide educational parcels on tolerance. In addition there are exhibitions, lectures, seminars,…All activities have the same central objective in mind: creating more tolerance in our society.

Click here for a detailed brochure of our passed activities.

On the other, and the equal

Christian Van Kerckhove
Eva Vens

Since the Enlightenment, the human being is considered continuously striving for ‘improvement’. This optimism led to many movements such as movements concerned with human rights, voting rights, women’s liberation, gay marriage etc. The focus of these movements was and still is the equality and equivalence of people.

In the 70s of the last century, this egalitarianism came to a turning point. Ever more people started assuming people’s differences. Egalitarianism was being replaced by a differential thinking. In the core of modern feminism, for example, the idea is growing that women and men differ. Feminism of equity is superseded by a feminism of difference. Also in the field of human rights, to take another example, we see questions rising concerning their actual universality.

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From Egalitarianism to a focus on diversity

In cultural anthropology and philosophy, differential thinking –which also gave rise to the emergence of diversity thinking, acquired an important position. Based on the human diversity and the different worldviews we gained respect for the alterity of the other. The appreciation of human diversity (in our case restricted to cultural diversity) is an important means to gradually achieve a more harmonious society. It aims to evolve from a multicultural into an intercultural society.

Strangely, we find that the theory of human diversity and differential thinking in social and political life achieved the opposite of its initial aim. This has to do with the growing conflict between ‘cultural diversity’ and the ‘yearn for a national identity’ where striving for egalitarianism is put aside out of convenience.  The increased attention for diversity seems to have caused a crisis in the concept of cultural identity (for example in Western Europe). We see this happening in two areas:

The tension between cultural diversity and identity

Due to the globalization – the World has become a village, traditional western and national (Belgium) or regional (Flemish) identities are being questioned. There’s a growing alienation. In this globalizing world we see a growing need of people to emphasize the local identity or as Wallerstein described, a need for ‘a reinvention of difference’ (Hall, in Lemert (ed.), 2004, p. 604).

The tension between diversity and identity also grows between different groups within one society. (Pinxten, 1994; 2006). Cultures seem to clash. Various parties feel that their identity is threatened. The immigrant community does so due to the fact that it was forced to integrate into a society that is itself in transition (Pinxten, 2006), and indigenous communities because of the presence of a growing immigrant community. The result is that both groups reach for an “authentic”, threatened cultural identity (Appiah, 2007, pp.122-124). The indigenous community (even when having a positive attitude) feels threatened and it takes turn in asking where the limits of culture lay and whether their identity is being affected. “No wonder”, notes Slavoj Zizek (1998, p. 52-53), “the liberal multicultural tolerance is caught in a vicious circle: it offers both too much and too little space for the specific culture of the Other. Multiculturalism tolerates the Other as long as he’s not really different, when he is a ‘sterile other’ with pre-modern ecological wisdom and exotic rituals. When we are faced with a Real Other (one who circumcises women, forces women to wear veils, tortures enemies to death) and how the Real Other might regulate the individuality of our pleasure, the bounderies of tolerance are drawn.” We can add to Zizek’s list of examples of the ‘other’:  the immigrant who does not understand the language, the refugee, the veiled woman, the immigrant in a weak position in labour market and education etc.

This means that people accentuate the difference between themselves and the ‘Other’ and evaluate it negatively. This is exactly what the theory of human diversity and differential thinking did not want to accomplish. Moreover, on this level differential thinking and cultural diversity goes back to ‘rethinking the own identity’. In France for example people are searching for the identity of the Frenchman ‘Who is this Frenchman?’, in Belgium the Flemish ask themselves: ‘Who am I? What is it exactly to be Flemish?’..

The search for identity

The renewed need for the articulation of the own identity betrays a feeling of insecurity or alienation. This feeling makes it difficult to really meet the Other, to see the equality and universality besides the differences. The Other is experienced as strange, and what is strange, prompts fear.

This renewed quest for ‘our’ identity is understandable (reduction of fear) but it also holds some dangers. Imagine that the question ‘what is a Fleming?’ could be responded rigidly, monolithicly. This narrow approach is very likely, just because the answer is born out of fear. This static perspective on  ‘identity’ weakens any possibility of emancipation and is or can be fertile ground for racism. The line of thought is simple: those who do not fit in this tight Flemish identity, do not belong to the Flemish society.

But despite the danger of this ‘need for an own identity’ it is a necessary basis for accepting cultural difference and diversity and for an open and tolerant society. In this project and in our book we assume that we can only appreciate the alterity of the other when we are aware of the value of the own culture and of the fact that a cultural identity is dynamic and not static nor authentic. In this perspective diversity and differential thinking on the one hand and identity thinking on the other are communicating vessels.

Our approach

In all projects we have chosen an exemplary approach that addresses the question: “Can tolerance be promoted by referring to the universality of rituals?” The fact that different cultures, ideologies and religions have ‘rites of passage’, uppers the question whether there’s a kind of common humanity, a common denominator that connects all humans and whereby the other becomes a human just like us, and the other way around if it were just because we all ritualise or celebrate important moments in life.

The mere consciousness of the universality of rites of passage, or the universal need to celebrate turning points in life, reminds us of some kind of shared identity that in its turn refers to the abstract idea of human universality. But by recognising the universality of rites of passage, we can also generate more understanding for culture-specific interpretations. In this project we hope to contribute to the creation of a feeling of recognition and acknowledgement and consequently, more tolerance. This is where thinking on diversity, differential thinking and thinking on identity come together. By being aware of the specificity and the uniqueness of the particularity of the rites of passages within my own culture/philosophy or religion while at the same time realising that these rites of passages are quite universal, I can, not only understand and accept that others also want to live their own rituals, but also that they want to live and imbue them in their own way analogue to their culture, philosophy or religion.

In this project we work with and about rites of passage in different philosophies and religions namely in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Secular humanism, Hinduism, Buddhism and in some cultures. We chose cultures that still exist, have a territorial delineation, or a people that has some kind of recognizability towards the outside world. We chose to focus on those cultures that we visited ourselves in these past years namely: the aboriginals from Australia, the Inuit from Greenland, the Kuna Indians from the San Blas islands in Central America and the Bétamaribé from Togo and Benin in Western Africa.


This beautifully illustrated book ‘Rites of passage’ was presented in Ghent at ‘Het Vredeshuis’ on Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. and at the annual book fair in Antwerp from October 31 to November 11, 2010. On February 19th 2011 it was presented in Boekhandel Limerick (click for folder).


The book ‘Rites of passage’ is basic work for educational parcels, training and working sessions. View our training documentation: How different is the difference?


Attend various lectures in ‘Het huis van Alijn’ Ghent. .


On Friday, November 26, 2010 Seminary on Traditions and Rituals. In cooperation with Volkskunde Vlaanderen. View the full program.


Following the publication of the book ‘Rites of passage’ three exhibitions were put together. The exhibitions are subdivided in modules. Currently these modules are travelling around Flanders. Read more.