An Anthropological Approach to Religion

A summary of "Religion as a Cultural System" by Clifford Geertz (1965)

  1. Religion is a system of symbols which
  2. establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by 
  3. formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and 
  4. clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
  5. the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

What does Geertz mean by "symbol"?

Examples of symbols

Sacred symbols function to

For example, a Plains Indian on a vision quest who dreams of a buffalo takes that symbol as a message from the spirit world, as interpreted by the wisdom of the tradition of the elders.

"by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence"

We ordinarily believe that we can meaningfully participate in an understandable universe. However, when we face bafflement, suffering, and moral dilemmas . . . Religion gives meaning through a cosmology or philosophy of the universe.

"clothing these conceptions with an aura of factuality"

. . . in other words:

making the religious conceptions of reality seem true by presenting them artistically in an
appealing and persuasive way.

". . . the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

in other words: the religionist feels that his or her feelings and action commitments seem to
come from God (or are in tune with deepest Reality). E.g., a person makes an excellent moral
decision and feels a new divine invasion of his or her soul.

Is Geertzís definition reductionistic?

Is Geertz claiming to tell an important part of the story of religion or the heart of the story?
Does he claim to explain religion?

Is the social-psychological study of the function of religious symbols inconsistent with belief in
the reality of the spirit world?

CG: "We believe all that we can and would believe everything if we only could."

Copyright 2002 - Kent State University - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Problems? Questions? Need help? Contact
Course built and delivered by Kent State University Distributed Learning.