Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

RELIGION AS A CULTURAL SYSTEM:

THE THEORY OF CLIFFORD GEERTZ

 

 

When we study about religion in the university we treat religion as an academic subject, like geography or psychology or physics. We do not try to find out the nature of God or the meaning of the universe or other "ultimate truths." A religious studies course may help you formulate your own ideas on such issues of religious truth. But that is not the aim of the course. Rather, our purpose is to understand human beings. We study human life in its religious dimension.

But how do we know what the "religious" dimension is? How do we know what the word religious means? Religion is not an objective thing, like a chair or a clock. In order to study it, we first have to decide what we shall study--what shall count as "religion" and "religious." In academic religious studies, we typically define our subject in one of two ways.

Some scholars define religion in terms of a particular kind of experience, a "religious experience." They use words like sacred, holy, ultimate, infinite, and transcendent to describe that experience. For most of these scholars religion need not refer to any supernatural being or higher power. They say that anything can be experienced as sacred, ultimate, etc. Any experience that has this quality counts as "religious." Someone who has a religious experience may feel convinced that it is an experience of God or some other higher power. But a religious experience can also be evoked by the Grand Canyon, or making love, or even an unusual rock sitting on the ground. Of course no two scholars agree exactly on the features or characteristics that make an experience sacred, ultimate, etc. But this group of scholars agrees that religion refers to a special, extraordinary kind of experience. For scholars who take this approach, it is the quality of the individual's inner experience, not the source of the experience, that serves to define what counts as "religion" and "religious."

Another group of scholars of religion takes a different approach. They focus on societies, or groups of people, rather than individual experience. When they look at an individual's experience, they see it as part of the individual's larger group (family, tribe, nation, etc.). For these scholars, religion is primarily the overall framework a group uses to understand its world and guide its life. This overall framework shapes every moment of the group's experience. It is not something extraordinary; it does not transcend everyday life. Rather it is the constant foundation of everyday life.

This "everyday" approach to defining "religion" is generally favored by social scientists. In this course we will focus on this social scientific approach to religion, for a very practical reason: it gives us an interesting tool to gain some new ways of understanding of our contemporary society in the U.S.

One of the most influential figures in this social-scientific approach to religion is the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In an essay titled "Religion as a Cultural System" (1965) he spelled out a definition of religion that many others have borrowed, adapted, and employed in studying religion. Geertz's definition gives us a starting place for understanding religion in this social scientific way. It suggests that every group--and every individual--may have a religion, even if no one in that group believes in a god or an afterlife or any of the more familiar trappings of organized religion. Every group has a religion because every group has some overall framework that all its members share in common, to make sense out of life and guide behavior.

According to Geertz, religion is "(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by 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." He goes on to explain each of these five points in detail.

1. Religion is a system of symbols... Symbols can be pictures; they can also be objects, actions, events, relationships, or anything else that conveys some meaning to someone. The familiar sillhouette of Bart Simpson is a symbol. So is a new BMW, and a recycling bin, and the American flag, and a kiss. These symbols all have meanings: they convey some message to us about the nature of our world; they teach us to see or understand our world in a particular way; they shape our experience. In other words, they communicate something about our worldview--a picture of how things are in the world. These symbols also give us a message about how to respond to our experience. They tell us how we live, or how we ought to live. They communicate something about our ethos--our ideals, values, and way of living.

But are these examples of religious symbols? According to Geertz, religious symbols perform a distinctive function: they persuade us that there is a direct connection between our worldview (how the world is) and our ethos (how we live or ought to live). Religious symbols tell us that we ought to live a certain way because the world is a certain way. They also tell us that the world is especially well suited to the way that we live. In religious symbols, worldview and ethos--the way we see the world and the way we live in it--seem to fit together perfectly, so each reinforces the other. (Peter Berger, in his book The Sacred Canopy, uses the term nomos to describe the combination of worldview and ethos. As we shall see, he views religion as the most powerful way of creating and sustaining a nomos.)

2. Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations... Moods are the way we respond to and feel about the world. Motives are the things we aspire to; the values we hold. These two together make up our way of life or ethos. Religious symbols therefore tell us that, because reality is constructed in a certain way, we ought to feel a certain way and aim to fulfill certain values. They also tell us that, because reality is constructed in a particular way, those particular feelings are especially rewarding and those values can, in fact, be fulfilled.

Let us take one familiar example of an obviously religious symbol: the Christian cross. The cross can communicate many messages. For many Christians, it has said something basic about how the world works: crucifixion is the prerequisite for resurrection. In other words, there can be no new birth without a prior death; things don't get better until they first get worse. This worldview implies a particular value and way of living: allowing oneself to be "crucified," setting aside one's own needs to meet the needs of others, rather than asserting one's own needs. For many Christians, the cross has symbolized the idea that a self-denying way of life will lead to ultimate happiness or fulfillment precisely because of the way the world works--because death leads to new life, and what seems to be a defeat is actually the way to a victory. Therefore seeing a cross may encourage Christians to adopt self-denying moods and behaviors. It may also makes those moods and behaviors feel especially valuable. So it can give positive meaning to experiences of having one's own desires denied.

3. Religion formulates conceptions of a general order of existence... Religious symbols intend to persuade us that there is a good fit between the nature of reality and the way we live. So they aim reassure us that both reality and our lives make sense--that there is some meaningful order (what Berger calls a nomos) rather than mere chaos in our lives. Most of the time we take this for granted. But each of us encounters times of crisis, when the world simply doesn't make sense. These crises most often arise when we must endure some kind of suffering (and ultimately death), especially when that suffering seems unjust or undeserved. Religious symbols do not take the pain away; they do not always give clear explanations for such crises. But they do make the pain endurable because they affirm that there are answers, even if we will never understand them. A religious symbol tells us that the confusion and suffering we may experience is not the ultimate meaning of reality. The religious symbol represents a wider or more permanent reality--an overall cosmic order in which the crisis ultimately has meaning and makes sense.

Here, too, the Christian cross is a good example. It can give Christians reassurance that even the worst suffering ultimately has a positive meaning, for every kind of suffering can be interpreted as imitating the sufferings of Christ, which lead to resurrection. The cross may not explain why the suffering happens at this particular time or takes this particular form. But it can make the suffering endurable by claiming that all suffering has a divine purpose and a divine model.

4. Religion clothes its conceptions of order with an aura of factuality... People do not first face crises and then develop a religious symbol to deal with them. The process works in reverse: in order to endure the crisis without breaking, one must first embrace the symbol. One must believe that the symbol does reflect and describe the overarching, permanent nature of reality. So one must also believe that the lifestyle implied (or required) by the symbol is the only right way to live, no matter how painful life becomes. To imbue and reinforce such belief, every society develops rituals. A ritual is a way of acting out a symbol. It is a way of behaving that is supposed to reflect the ultimately true nature of the world and the ultimately true way to live, and to show how the two fit perfectly together. Ritual is also supposed to show that the community can experience this "ultimately true" reality in its group behavior. As Geertz puts it, in ritual "the world as lived and the world as imagined turn out to be the same world."

5. Religion makes the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic... The most important function of ritual is to send us back into everyday life convinced that our worldview and way of life are indeed true, good, and ultimately fulfilling. Symbols and rituals together reinforce our commitment to our nomos, which is the way that our society teaches us to live and to experience life. In other words, the important thing about religion is the way it undergirds and shapes our ordinary everyday experience. From this perspective, there is no contradiction between religious belief and common sense. Rather, religious symbols and rituals are the foundation of what we call common sense.

To understand Geertz's view of ritual better, let us take an example of a clearly religious ritual: Christian baptism. As with the cross, there are many interpretations. But according to one common Christian view, the act of immersing in water is essentially a kind of spiritual washing. The ritual says that before becoming Christians people are somehow dirty; i.e., sinful. So it makes a claim about the world as well as human life: they are inherently sinful. Only a special religious experience (which Christians call grace) can overcome or wash away that sin. But the water also reminds Christians that this experience of grace is available to everyone, when and if they become Christian. So the ritual of baptism tells Christians that they should be Christians and live the Christian lifestyle because of the way the world is: naturally dirty yet always washable. And baptism tells Christians that everyone can be washed by living a Christian life precisely because the world has this particular structure. Baptism tells Christians that the way they live their lives and the way they imagine the world to be coincide perfectly with each other. This message is supposed to sustain Christians in times of crisis and in their ordinary everyday lives.

But what about secular symbols like Bart Simpson, a new BMW, a recycling bin, an American flag, or a kiss? Are they religious symbols in the contemporary U.S.? Surely they are all familiar parts of what we call the ordinary, everyday, common-sense world. But do they reflect or communicate any sense of a larger, more permanent reality that goes beyond the mundane here and now? Do they tell us that there is a larger order that can give meaning to our times of crisis and suffering? What do they tell us about our nomos--our picture of the world, our values, and the way we live our lives? Do they tell us that there is a proper fit between our worldview and way of life?

What is the prevailing worldview and way of life in our contemporary society? How is it symbolized? Do we have ways to act it out ritually? Are acts such as voting, or going shopping, or watching a football game, or taking university courses examples of rituals today? Do they act out symbolic images? Do they reassure us that there is a perfect fit between our worldview and our ethos? Do we even have a single worldview and ethos that all Americans share? If not, what are the alternative worldviews and lifestyles available to us? What are their symbols and rituals?

These are some of the questions we will explore in this course.


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