Kyoto Cosmos Club: Sub-Page Two
THE NATURE OF RELIGION AS A CULTURAL SYSTEM
The great cultural anthropologist, Clifford Geertz of The Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (the same Institute where Einstein worked for decades), defines religion as a cultural system in the following manner:
“Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long lasting moods and motivations in men [and women] 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.”
Although each religion’s importance is by no means limited to the fact that it is a societal or “cultural system,” this aspect of religion adds important and little-known dimensions to our knowledge concerning literally every religion. The key phrase in the above definition is “a system of symbols.” Geertz refers here, first of all, to those symbolic stories or myths upon which each religion explains its own notion of the origins of human beings, as well as the origins of the earth, sun, moon stars: everything. Each religion always ascribes all this to the Ultimate Reality or Ground that is unknowable by ordinary human knowledge and reason; this Ground is called by names that are also symbolic: “God,” “Allah,” “Ultimate Dharma-Body,” “kami,” “Amida,” “Brahman” and many others. These “creation myths” are only the most foundational of a whole host of other symbolic things, objects, acts and ceremonies. They all go together to constitute what Geertz calls a “symbol system.”
All of these religions engage in rites, prayers, and meditation which stir up deep emotions or moods, ways of seeing, as well as motivations that clothe these notions of a general order of existence with the deep feeling of reality. Each of us feels our own religious Way to be uniquely worthy of belief, but we of the Kyoto Cosmos Club are convinced that there are ample commonalities shared by all of us, and these common beliefs and values allow us to see ourselves as brothers and sisters. To pursue these ideas further, click the link, Religion as a Symbol-System.
Religion Seen as a “Symbol System”: The first thing we must hasten to say is that—for us believers—religion is also true. But both the academic and the believers’ ways of looking at this important matter of the truth of religion is the subject of the next section. Here—in order to adequately deal with our central conviction that all religions are in a real and meaningful sense true—we feel it important to first briefly unfold the nature of religions when seen objectively from the view of the social sciences. Once we understand the nature of any society’s religions, and understand why and how they represent an important human source of truth and goodness, we will realize why organizations like the Kyoto Cosmos Club are not only of genuine worth but are in today’s world very important.
For many reasons this first question of exactly what a religion is when seen as an objective social phenomenon we turn to a preeminent expert in the matter, the social anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his now-famous cultural definition of religion as a “symbol-system” (Quoted above). So why do Clifford Geertz and very many of his fellow social scientists think it important to describe religion as “system of symbols”? As a cultural anthropologist, Professor Geertz cannot pronounce on the subject of whether or not these religious symbol-systems are true. He cannot declare that they are false either. He doesn’t even want to try. He only wants to take a new step in understanding what they are, as one of the many cultural systems that go together to make up any society, anywhere, in any age.
The ultimate truth value of something which by definition is beyond the reach of empirical or rational human abilities must, for Geertz (but not for Bellah) remain an open question, and so the former is content to conclude his famous definition of religion with the observation that the “moods and motivations” and the “conceptions of a general order of existence” have “such an aura of factuality” that each of these religious system of symbols--to its members at least--“seems uniquely realistic.” That is another way of saying that for Buddhists, or for believers in any other religion, Buddhism or its equivalent is uniquely real. Bellah concludes that—for those within that society or sub-societal belief group—it’s true! Its truth is not fully apparent even to its unenlightened adherents, but for committed practitioners it is even truer than empirical scientific reality, precisely because by faith it leaps to an understanding of the ultimate reality upon which ordinary reality or truth depends.
What is so great, then, about an anthropologist describing religion as a system of symbols that acts to establish moods, motivations and conceptions of reality that seem uniquely realistic? It is great precisely because it does something that very few anthropologists had hitherto done: it goes beyond simply reducing religion to something “more basic,” as Marx and Freud had done. Geertz, however, in the tradition of Max Weber—and in the manner of one of his own mentors, the social phenomenologist, Alfred Schutz—takes religion as a irreducible human phenomenon in its own right. He offers something new: an understanding of religion that takes into account not only the work of previous great social scientists and thinkers; he goes beyond them to uncover a deeper side of religion. He sees religion as a society’s symbolic expression of the meaning and value of reality itself as that society has come to see it.
Geertz begins this task by outlining and elaborating the role of symbol in the whole of human truth and knowledge. He describes symbol as any object, act, quality or relation that is for humans a vehicle for conception—the conception being the symbol’s meaning. Every word in any language is a sound symbol. Linguistic philosophers may disagree about most everything else but they generally agree on one thing at least: not only language but all of human knowledge of any kind arises through the mediation of, and all of human knowledge utterly depends on, those sounds made in the human throat which serve as vehicles for conceptions: meanings. Meaning may lie deeper than language, coming through all of the information of the six senses, but it always depends on the mediation of those symbolic sounds that issue from human throats.
Human beings depend on symbols other than linguistic ones in many important ways, explains Geertz. Human are, fundamentally, symbol-users; other living beings on our planet share somewhat in this use of symbols to express feeling and meaning, but only in a relatively primitive way. Beyond the most basic linguistic use of symbol we use symbols to express more complex things: poetry for instance depends utterly on such symbols, flags are symbols, as are dance and fictional literature as a whole.
Religion is but one of a Number of Symbol Systems in Every Society: Geertz brought the anthropology of religion forward by a giant leap when he pointed out that religion is just one of a number of symbol-systems in any society that serve to give meaning to a chaotic world. ”Unlike genes and other non-symbolic information sources, which are only models for [something], not models of [that same thing] cultural patterns have an intrinsically double aspect: they give meaning, i.e., objective conceptual form, to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping it to themselves.” That’s what any society’s legal system does, what its monetary system does, what its literary system does—and what its religious system does. Each of these and other symbol-systems are very different, but they are not totally independent of one another. Together they give any society its unique ethos.
Religion’s symbolic stories of how the world came to be are creation myths; every religion has various symbolic stories or doctrines that can be described in a general manner as its creation myth. The Buddha’s denial of the independent reality of the human self and his declaration that only in Enlightenment can one see the real—the “Empty”— reality of one’s self and all of this world is not a provable or falsifiable truth. One takes it on faith, however many indications of its truth one may find. So do the believers of every religious symbol system take “creation myths” on faith.
Religions, however, have a whole complex system of symbols, like Wheel of the Dharma, music, like Gregorian Chant, sacred dances of a hundred kinds, such as those of the Sufis or of the Native Americans. Ceremonies, like fire ceremonies in Hinduism and Buddhism, and non-ceremonial but deeply symbolic and meaning-filled religious actions too, like sitting in silent meditation, are all important parts of the religious symbol systems that we know as religious. Facing Mecca, and touching one’s forehead to the floor in adoration of and submission to Allah, ceremonies like the Catholic Mass are all symbols. In any religion they all go together to make up the very fabric of the belief system.
And in every religion they all work together to produce very special powerful “moods” and modes of consciousness as well as potent, sometimes ecstatic, emotions. In each religious system all the symbols, beliefs and practices go together to correspond with and help to show the authenticity of, a particular understanding of the fundamental nature of the world, and why human beings should do certain things—and of course not do certain others. These kinds of “motivations” and ways of doing things, Geertz argues, are powerful elements in the “ethos” of any people—even if, as with modern multi-cultural democracies—many different religions exist side by side in the same society. And of course they also embody and express the ethical or moral values of a whole people—or of groups of people in the case of modern democratic societies.
To declare that all religions share certain key values and ethical principles is certainly not to say that all religions have identical ethical or moral values. Naturally, these vary immensely—from society to society, from culture to culture, and from age to age. All religions are not the same; one religion is not “as good as another.” They differ immensely in worldview, in ethos, in customs, values and in literally almost every other human way. And yet the old Latin saying, Nihil humanum mihi alianum est—Nothing that is human is alien to me—is not only true, but clearly points out the deep truth that underpins common religious values and serves as the foundation of the Kyoto Cosmos Club.
There are an immense variety of actions, commandments and taboos recorded within the history of religions. Our club is based on an additional simple fact: all religions do have certain “do”s and “don’t”s—certain values, and moral principles—in common! These common elements are also, very significantly, near the center of each of their extremely different overall ethos.
Among the most important of these commonalities of the world’s religions are: compassionate love (even towards those not directly related); generosity to the poor, the sick, the old and weak; self-restraint as regards human beings’ most powerful drives, such as the drives to acquire food and drink, sex, clothing and shelter, and power in its many forms. Also included in the virtues or moral values common to all or most religions are justice, honesty, fairness, and above all, peace, peace among brothers and sisters, peace among societies and among nations, and finally at least the ideal of non-violent benevolence to all other human beings. Each of these common “virtues” may be found more central in one and weaker in another, and they may fit into the overall ethos with a hundred different assigned meanings, but there they are.
Of course these ideals of peace must be set against human beings’ “dog eat dog” determination to survive at all costs. Starving or oppressed people quickly forget their religions ideals of peace. Neither religion nor any other of a society’s many interacting systems always follow the rules that lie at their center—neither financial, nor governmental nor religious systems.
History is full of examples of religion-inspired war, torture and brutality done in the name of religion. The reason for this core of communality in a sea of great difference is not hard to find: humans all have basically the same bodies and the same brains, and humans, being by nature gregarious and social in their very genes, must all do certain things and avoid certain other things in order to live—or at least to live in harmony together. Of course they all must eat, sleep, reproduce and provide clothing and shelter for themselves, but they are a clever species and so they all learn to accomplish these things in a moderate and peaceful manner—or at least know that everyone must strive mightily to do so.
Religions, says Geertz, works “to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men. . .” They motivate some to avoid alcohol or pork as well, while motivating others to include wine in their most sacred ceremony. And in doing so they are both expressing models of ancient customs and ways of doing things, and providing a model for the continuation and the perfection of these time-proven ways of performing life’s most central actions.
According to Geertz, a religion’s symbols (whatever these may be), “both express the world’s climate and shape it. They shape it by inducing in the worshipper a certain distinctive set of dispositions (tendencies, capacities, propensities, skills, habits, liabilities, pronesses [sic]) which lend a chronic character to the flow of his activity and the quality of his experiences. . . so the Plains Indian’s bravura, the Manus’ compunctiousness [sic], and the Javanese’s quietism…[are] the substance of their piety”.
Similarly religious symbols function as motivations. “As a motive, “flamboyant courage” [of Native American tribes in the desert plains] consists in such enduring propensities to fast in the wilderness, to conduct solitary raids on enemy camps, and to thrill to the thought of counting coup [touching the body of the enemy in battle]”. What Geertz is doing here is unpacking the nature of religious symbols in a manner and in a depth that had never been done before. He knew that humans are in essence creatures whose brain allows them to use verbal and many other symbols in a manner and to a degree that no other living beings on our little planet even approach. He applied this awareness to unlocking the very essence of religion as a cultural system.
That is, he explained how every human society has expressed its own deepest feelings and convictions about the goodness and ultimate meaningfulness of reality in the only way that this is possible (even in today’s world!): by symbol. There have always been unbelievers in every tribe and culture and those for whom things do not ultimately “make sense.” But this is not the foundation on which societies and cultures are built and endure. Peoples have committed themselves to religious symbol-systems, perhaps, because they “feel” right. The sun always has been “rising” and the spring coming and birth occurring billions of years before humans arrived on the scene. Humans inherited in their genes the warmth of confidence that this gave their pre-human ancestors—and built into their own culture and knowledge the symbolic expressions that made the most sense to them. Being certain that everyone dies was only a part of what human ability to know and think brought to light, and such very negative realizations were also bundled up together with the joy and gratitude that facts of light, life and birth inspire in every religious system.
Near the heart of all religions there is what Geerz’s definition calls, “formulating conceptions of a general order of existence.” Both Jews and Christians see the Genesis creation story as not only telling (at least symbolically) where the universe came from, but also why men and women sin and die—Eve and Adam disobeyed God’s command and ate the apple. In an analogous way Buddhists see that men and women’s inordinate desires tend to hinder them in following the Buddha’s dharma and proceeding in his Way straight towards enlightenment. In both cases human suffering, evil and death are put into a meaningful and positive context.
“Clothing those conceptions [of reality] with such an aura of factuality”—is always the rub. In every age, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and all the others have no doubt been hard put to it to re-explain or re-interpret their foundational symbolic stories in the light of new and more or less unquestionable facts. In our day that takes the form of new facts uncovered by science or from exploration of our planet—now especially with the Hubbel telescope, of the cosmos itself.
So, some of the best theologians in both the Protestant and Catholic traditions, today not only see the Genesis creation story as simply an important symbolic myth about the relation between God and humans. Many see the resurrection story of Jesus, as well as the notion of the immaterial, immortal nature of the human soul—separate from the body—as symbolic and mythological, apparently disproved by the vast new knowledge about the functioning of the human brain and the role of language in the origins of human truth. Notions like the immortality of the soul and its function as the ground of all truth were universally accepted for millennia, while very proper in their day, as the great Greek philosophers attest, not necessary today for believe in and commitment to Jesus and his teachings.
Likewise Buddhists today are often embarrassed by their sutras’ relative disregard for justice and human rights in what was seen as the illusory world of unenlightened secular society. Many have proceeded to re-interpret them, in the light of today’s worldview, a give greater importance to justice in our present “illusory” world. This process of updating religion’s doctrines and beliefs in the light of newly discovered truth will no doubt continue on as long as human truth and religion are what they are. Religions and believers today are also learning from each other; all the sources of truth continually rub against one another and influence each other.
Religions, in Geertz’s notion, are far, far more than just an elaborate smokescreen that societies and individuals use to keep them from facing the absurdity of all human endeavor—even all of realty—that the certainty of death brings with it. Geertz argues that religion does indeed fill life—even pain—with meaning through its elaborate systems of symbols. His basic stance takes for granted that every society and culture sees the universe as full of meaning, and that religion has always had a hand in this, even though Geertz himself does not imply that religion is the only way for humans to express the values and meaning in their world. It was traditional types of religion which typically served to symbolically express the meaningfulness of the world that was already felt deep within them—and thus to bring each society’s worldview into a single whole. Today with democratic governments such a single worldview is no longer necessary for a society to exist as a functioning whole. Still, Geertz has done us the great favor of elaborating how religious symbolism was, and in many ways still is, the basic tool for expressing this “felt” meaning and value.
Geertz’s definition of religion and his brilliant unpacking of it gave both the scholarly and the religious world a great gift. He did this by showing how symbols and myths give societies a worldview and how these myths, together with accompanying religious practice, produce very strong moods and motivations which confirm the validity, goodness and truth of modes of action and thought that had already been in place and proved themselves through long decades and centuries of practice.
To illustrate the “uniquely realistic” quality of the practitioners trust that such is the ultimate truth of the reality of things, Geertz describes his own witness of a certain Balinese festival in which the horrible witch Ranga and the brave warrior Barong fight to the death within the context of wild dancing and singing of the whole village. Slowly the whole crowd enters into a sort of mass ecstatic trance state. Geertz asked the man who played the witch whether or not he thought Rangda was real; the man looked in disbelief at the idiot who could possibly think she was not real. The celebration of Mass for the Catholic and the chanting of Namu Amida Buddha for the Pure Land Buddhist believers and sitting zazen for the Zen believer still produces similar reactions. Such is the power of the religious faith that arises out of the continual enactment of religious practice.
1. For Geertz’s best presentations of his ideas on religion as a symbol system, see, Clifford, Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays,” Religion as a Cultural System,” 88-125, (New York:” Basic Books, 1973).