Soc 461
Lecture 7 Outline: The Cultural Meaning of Religion: Symbol
Monday, April 12, 1999



Writers such as Clifford Geertz, Peter Berger, and Robert Bellah con-ceive of religion as a special kind of symbol system which evokes a sense of ultimate meaning, transcendent, encompassing meaning. But what this conception does, in addition to drawing on the social sci-ences, is to save religion from the onslaught of post-Enlightenment positivism. Specifically, this feat is accomplished by positing religion as a type of symbolism concerned w/ the meaning of the whole of life.

     Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (1988: 302)

Geertz’ picture of religions as symbol systems begins on empirical grounds, that is, publicly available symbols.

Geertz’ concept of culture: human animals are “suspended in webs of significance that they themselves have spun.”

Culture is, in other words, made up of the meanings people find to make sense of the their lives & to guide their actions, & those meanings are inside a cut-lure, not outside it.

Geertz offers a new model for how to study culture, the inner nature of society.

“Religion as a Cultural System” in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973 [1966]: 87-125)

Geertz defines religion as
a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, & long-lasting moods and motivations in men [& women] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these concep-tions w/ such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (90-91).

The Problems of Meaning, Suffering & Evil

Religion formulates “conceptions of a general order of existence.”

Three points where chaos threatens to break in upon human beings.
1) at the limits of our understanding;
2) at the limits of our capacity to endure difficulty; &,
3) at the limits of our moral insight.

Sustained failure to make sense of things that demand some sort of intelligibility tends to be disturbing.

“It is,” say Geertz, “this sense of the ‘really real’ upon which the religious perspective rests.” And it is in ritual that the conviction that religious conceptions are “really real,” & that their moral implications are sound, is generated.
What makes religion socially powerful is its ability to place everyday activi-ties in an ultimate context.

For Geertz, the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve as a “model of” reality and a “model for” acting well within that reality. Religious symbols provide a representation or a picture of the way things are (models “of”) as well as guides directing human activity (models “for”). It is from these cul-tural functions that its social & psychological ones flow.

Through his interpretive approach, Geertz goes after an understanding of how it is that men & women’s notions of the “really real,” & the dispositions these notions induce in them, color their sense of the reasonable, practical, humane, & moral.

“Ethos, World View & the Analysis of Sacred Symbols” in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973 [1957]: 126-141)

Premise: symbolic meanings & practices constitute a society’s moral meaning

A people’s “WORLD VIEW” “is their picture of the way things in sheer actuality are their concept of nature, of self, of society” and “contains their most comprehensive ideas of order….”

A people’s “ETHOS” “is the tone, character, & quality of their life, its moral & aes-thetic style & mood; it is the underlying attitude toward themselves & their world….”

A religion is “a cluster of sacred symbols, woven into some sort of ordered whole….”

SACRED SYMBOLS relate a people’s picture of reality to their morality, an ontology (from ontos = being or existence; a kind of picture of reality) to a morality. Their power comes from their ability to give to the actual a moral significance.

Sacred symbols are “moral pictures” that synthesize one’s moral outlook with one’s view of the world or, in Geertz’ terms, such symbols fuse world view & ethos.
Sacred symbols integrate the world views & moral outlooks persons hold, their sense of “is” & “ought,” their vision of what is really real in human existence & how we ought to live in accord with this reality.
Power of sacred symbols also rests on their ability to make sense of experience.

However its role may differ at various times, for various individuals, and in various cultures, religion, by fusing ethos & world view, gives a set of social values what they perhaps most need to be coercive: an ap-pearance of objectivity. In sacred rituals & myths values are portrayed not as subjective human preferences but as imposed conditions for life implicit in a world w/ a particular structure (131).

The view of human beings as symbolizing, conceptualizing & meaning-seeking beings, says Geertz, opens up a whole new approach to the study of religion & to understanding the relations between religion & morality.

The drive to make sense of experience & to give it moral meanings is, Geertz asserts, just as real & pressing as our more familiar biological drives & eco-nomic interests.

Religions—along with art, ideology & common sense—are, says Geertz, “at-tempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.”