Explain religion as a cultural system

Explain religion as a cultural system.

One of the most influential work on religion in anthropology is that of Clifford Geertz who ushered in a new generation of anthropologists interested in the symbols and the meanings associated with religion and rituals and moving beyond functional reductionism. To Geertz, human beings live within a system of meanings that is the culture of any group. All dimensions of human life are constructed through symbols that make sense only within the system of meaning of which they are a part.

In his own words he is interested in developing what he calls the “cultural dimension of religious analysis”. Culture is defined by him as “an historically transmitted patterns of meaning embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life”.

Unlike the functionalists who concentrated on action, explaining the action through the way people thought about them; Geertz is primarily rooted in the deductive process of thinking about phenomenon, giving secondary place to the action that follows a particular state of mind that in turn is dependent on the powerful meanings emanating from the symbols. His view of religion is purely esoteric and supra-organic. He posits a circular relationship between a world-view and a way of life; because people have a particular view of the world they prefer to live a kind of life that in turn upholds the worldview by its practices.

However, the symbols are real and tangible and are representative of all the beliefs and meanings present in the culture. Religion is thus defined by Geertz as the 1) a system of symbols which acts to 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 conception with such an aura of factuality that 5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

In other words through the religious symbols whose power Lies in their representing some of the most fundamental values of the people of that culture conditions are created that led to the performance of practices and acts that may be termed religious in content but that may have large ranging social significance; like people waging a holy war carrying flags that symbolize their religious meanings. The presence of the flag stirs powerful emotions and sets the moods for action. To Geertz the term ‘moods’ is static in content for in itself it does not lead to action but it sets the stage for acquiring a ‘motivation’ that is certainly action oriented. Moreover, the religious symbols makes sense only within a particular value system. Thus a saffron flag may stir emotions only in the people to whom this colour is linked to a larger system of meanings and it is this linking to this system of meanings that is responsible for the creation of powerful emotions.

Saroj Meher

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