Monday, July 18, 2011

Religion as a Cultural System

Clifford Geertz – Religion as a Cultural System
Religion as a Cultural System. In: The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Geertz, Clifford pp. 87-125. Fontana Press 1993.
            Despite the copyright for this being in the 90s, this essay of Geertz’ was written in the 1960s.
            Let me preface my summary of this article by saying that this is actually the second time I’ve read it. I still had just as much difficulty comprehending it, digesting it, and making my way through this as I did the first time. If life were a video game, I would have leveled up upon completing it. My intelligence stats would increase. That is not to say that it was not interesting or enlightening, and I actually enjoyed it more and gleaned more from it by rereading it and forcing myself to take meticulous notes.
            Geertz begins his essay by commenting on the fact that anthropologists had not created any new theories since World War II, and additionally, the theories that were in use at the time came from a limited source. He lists Durkheim, Weber, Freud and Malinowski as being the big names in thought at the time. He laments the fact that no one was looking to other fields to gain a cross-disciplinary view. He calls for a widening of theories as well as greater precision in our definitions. This, however, is not the topic of his essay. Geertz lays down his definition of what a religion is. It is as follows:
“A religion is: a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (90).
            He then spends the next twenty-odd pages explaining exactly, and in near excruciating detail, what he exactly means by that. He breaks up his definition into nice little sections and explains it bit by bit.
1)      “a system of symbols which acts to…”
He says that a system of symbols is merely something that conveys meaning. It is a physical, tangible object or act that signifies an abstract notion, feeling or idea.  He explains that culture patterns are unique in the world in that they are a model for and a model of the society that they come from. They are “society writ large” as the saying goes, AND they dictate how the society came to be as it is in the first place.
2)      “to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by…”
Religious activity creates or induces moods and motivations. A motivation is a longstanding characteristic of a person. Like a personality trait. Geertz says that they are NOT acts or behaviors, but it is the liability that a person will do certain things. A mood is a fleeting emotion. The difference between the two “is that motivations are “made meaningful” with reference to the conditions from which they are conceived to spring” (97). In other words, motivations cause you to do things, while things that happen to you create moods.
3)      “…by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and…”
Religion affirms that the world has an order and a sense. Humans have a difficult time coping with “a threat to our powers of conception, a suggestion that our ability to create, grasp, and use symbols may fail us” (99).  Basically, humanity got to where we are through our clever use of symbols. Without that, we are screwed. Humanity can cope with nearly everything, except chaos. Confusion, suffering and ethical paradox are problems in the world that we often times turn to religion to explain and make ok.
Confusing things, things that just don’t add up make us uncomfortable. We use religion to explain things, and when ones religion fails to account for bigger questions over a period of time, people may begin to lose faith.
 “As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering, but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable, supportable” (104). Faith gives suffering a context and a meaning. It makes the unbearable bearable.
Evil, which is often blamed for the suffering in the world, must also be accounted for. This typically occurs through the creation myth. The creation myth explains the state of the world. Religion also typically lays down a moral code, which details what must be done to avoid evil.
Religion also gives a meaning to the chaos. The old adage ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and ‘God works in mysterious ways’ spring to mind.
4)      “…and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that…”
Geertz raises the question of what it means to believe, and how do people come to that belief. He says that the aspect of belief had long been relegated to psychology and largely ignored by anthropologists. “But the problem will not go away¸ it is not “merely” psychological (nothing social is), and no anthropological theory of religion which fails to attack it is worthy of a name” (109). And so he tackles it.
Geertz says that it all begins with “a prior acceptance of authority” (109). The pain, suffering and confusion we discussed earlier are driving factors, but they are not the basis for faith. We accept authority and listen to what that source has to say to find out how and who to worship. Examples of this authority would be the Bible, a Pastor, a Shaman, or any kind of clergy person.
He then begins to explain the religious perspective. He contrasts it with other perspectives such as scientific, aesthetic and common-sense. Basically he is saying that the religious mode is what people are in the heart of the ritual, and the common-sense is what most live their daily lives in. He says that rituals are what induce and reinforce the moods and motivations.
Ritual both creates and displays the faith, and the moods and motivations that it inspires. Geertz details the Rangda and Barong tale of Bali. In a nutshell, Rangda is an evil, terrifying witch and Barong is kind of a silly dog/dragon creature. They do battle in the form of a ceremony where a man plays Rangda, and two men play Barong. He says that he has seen those playing Rangda kind of go crazy with her spirit and literally run amok to the point where they must be restrained by several others. Rangda and Barong do switch it up a little, sometimes she acts a little silly while Barong acts menacing. It is a town wide ritual and most of the town gets involved either by playing another minor witch, or by becoming entranced by her. Others get involved by caring for the entranced, or in the case of the Preists, they sprinkle those who become comatose after their trance with holy water to wake them.
The drama always ends in a draw, with Rangda fleeing. He says that the two main themes, fear and farce, and two of the main motivations and moods that pervade Bali. The fight between Rangda and Barong never end. The drama displays the beliefs and creates or justifies them. People see others becoming entranced from the spirit of Rangda, therefore it is real.
5)      “…that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic”
We live in the common world, and not constantly in the religious/symbolic world. Geertz says that the shifting itself is quite interesting, despite also being ignored by anthropologists. The mode that a person is in during the middle of a ceremony is not the same mode that they are in the next day while eating lunch. During the religious act, it is as though they are in a different world. He says that the failure to realize this has caused some issues with theories. Levy-Bruhl only acknowledged the religious perspective and said that ‘primitive’ peoples live in a mystical world of spirits. Malinowski on the other hand, only dealt with the common-sense perspective, and said that their religious beliefs were practical actions that served a completely common function. They both failed to see that people use different perspectives at different times.
Religion can bend reality a bit. A Bororo man says that he is a parakeet, he is not saying that he is literally a winged creature. He means it in the mythical sense, and it is no less true for him. “In the religious, our Bororo is “really” a “parakeet,” and given the proper ritual context might well “mate” with other “parakeets” – with metaphysical ones like himself…” (121). In the common world, he is only a parakeet in the sense that his clan identifies with the parakeet as their totem. In the religious sense, he IS a parakeet, and must follow what it means to be one.
Experiences in the religious realm usually have an important impact upon the person in the common realm. This is what shapes the character and personality of a culture. He does acknowledge that a group is not uniformly affected by this. It exists in each person a little differently, and varies greatly cross-culturally.
He concludes by discussing the importance of religion to anthropologists, especially in that it is both a model for and a model of a society and it gives insight into the moods and motivations.
It also acts as a kind of schema from which to place events into a context and make sense of them. It gives a background from which to react to things.
Geertz says that studying a religion is a two part attack. First you must analyze the symbols and decipher the system of meaning. Then you must see how these relate to the social structure and the psychology of the people. He mentions that we have done the second part decently, but that we are slacking on the first stage.

Oh Geertz. Such a critical man. Kind of tough to read. But I'm very glad I did. I think I just might read another of his for my next entry.
BTW: OMG I'M SUCH A SLACKER!!!! I'M SO BEHIND. I missed a few weeks. I've been busy. Not that anyone is actually reading this. I still feel bad.


  1. It's the internet eventually someone will read it.

    I just finished reading the Geertz essay and I think you did a good job of explaining it.

    I like Gerrtz's definition of religion. But there are some minor points I would quibble about.

    I thought the section on common sense, scientific, and aesthetic sensibilities was an unnecessary digression. It may have made more sense in the context of the time it was written.

  2. Thank you for this. I know it has been years since you read this and wrote the post but it was a life saver for understanding this dense text. My grades and sanity thank you so much!

  3. Thank you! This was a very helpful breakdown of Geertz's writing. Tomorrow I will be able to contribute so much more in my religious studies class because of you.

  4. Thank you! This was a very helpful breakdown of Geertz's writing. Tomorrow I will be able to contribute so much more in my religious studies class because of you.

  5. Thank you for this!!! So great.

  6. Bless whoever you are....I have a hard time understanding it that in end it create confusion. Thank you for thee clarity^^