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Religion (1986) 16, 1 9-32



Henry Munson, Jr .

In his influential essay `Religion as a Cultural System', which was first
published in 1966, Clifford Geertz argues that religion should be studied as a
symbolic system in terms of which believers interpret the world and live their
lives .' While endorsing this general approach to religion, and much of what
Geertz has said about the study of culture in general, I shall argue that in his
own ethnographic writings on religion, Geertz has often reduced the semantic
substance of religion as a symbolic system to the overt appearance of behavior
and personality traits as they appear to an external observer .
This reductionism, I shall argue, is related to Geertz's tendency to interpret
meaningful action without adequate attention to the structures of meaning in
terms of which it is understood by `the actor' . The study of symbols in the
context of the symbolic systems of which they are a part, as advocated by
Geertz in his early writings, and their study in the context of `an ongoing
pattern of life', as advocated by Geertz in his later ones, are complementary
and equally indispensable aspects of any attempt to understand a religion
from the believer's point of view . While Geertz's theoretical statements
sometimes suggest that he realizes this, his ethnographic writings often
suggest that he does not . 2


In `Religion as a Cultural System', Geertz defines religion as 3

(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 conceptions with such an aura of factuality
that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic .

At the core of this definition is the idea that religion consists of a set of
interrelated symbols (elsewhere referred to as `sacred' symbols) that fuse an
ethos, i .e . a set of `powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations',
with a world view, i .e . a set of `conceptions of a general order of existence' .
Elsewhere in `Religion as a Cultural System', Geertz speaks of a people's ethos

0048-721 X/86/010019+14 $02 .00/0 ©1986 Academic Press Inc . (London) Ltd .
20 H. Munson Jr.

as `the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style
and mood' . ¢
Geertz's usage of the term ethos actually confuses two distinct things : (1) `the
tone, character, and quality' of overt behavior and personality traits as
perceived by an external observer ; and (2) the values in terms of which people
believe they ought to act . Insofar as people's overt behavior and personality
traits (their characteristic `moods and motivations') generally manifest some,
but not all, of their values, these two sets of phenomena tend to be closely
related, but the nature of the relationship between them is obscured by their
conflation .
Although Geertz does not mention ritual in his definition of religion, later in
`Religion as a Cultural System', he contends that it is primarily in ritual that
sacred symbols serve to fuse world view and ethos in the mind of the believer . 5
And he stresses that it is in ritual, especially in its more `elaborate' and `public'
forms, that the fusion and reciprocal reinforcement of world view and ethos
can best be observed by the external observer .6 Thus Geertz attributes a
central role to ritual in religion and the study of religion, although he does not
discuss the role of myth at all . (We shall see that Geertz's neglect of myth is
related to his neglect of world view .)
Geertz stresses the social character of thought and the idea that to understand
how people think, we need to study how they act during the course of `social
events' . 7 The attempt to understand a religion from the believer's point of view
involves the study of `cultural acts' rather than empathy . And `cultural acts,
the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms, are social
events like any other ; they are as public as marriage and as observable as
agriculture' . $ While we cannot perceive the world exactly as it is perceived by
the believer, we can study how the believer uses the symbols that embody his
or her belief and thereby gain a fairly good idea of how a religion is understood
by its adherents . As Geertz puts it in ` "Native's Point of View" : On the Nature
of Anthropological Understanding', which was first published in 1976, `The
ethnographer does not, and, in my opinion, largely cannot, perceive what his
informants perceive . What he perceives, and that uncertainly enough, is what
they perceive "with"-or "by means of", or "through" . . .', i .e . symbols . 9
Gertz defines a symbol as `any object, act, event, quality, or relation which
serves as a vehicle for a conception' . 10 Although this definition encompasses
`events' and `acts' (as well as anything else that has meaning) Geertz insists, in
`Religion as a Cultural System' and his other early essays at any rate, that the
symbolic facet of `social events' should be carefully distinguished from their
social and psychological ones . 1
In the concluding paragraph of `Religion as a Cultural System', Geertz
writes : `The anthropological study of religion is therefore a two-stage operation :
first, an analysis of the system of meanings embodied in the symbols which
Geertz on Religion 21

make up the religion proper, and second, the relating of these systems to social-
structural and psychological processes' . 12 And he criticizes those anthro-
pologists who concentrate on the second stage while neglecting the first . 13 But
Geertz himself tends to do the same thing .


In order to demonstrate the essential role of ritual as the primary locus of the
fusion of world view and ethos in `Religion as a Cultural System', Geertz
describes the Balinese ritual combat in which the `terrible witch' Rangda
attempts to spread `plague and death upon the land', but is opposed by the
`endearing monster' Barong . 14 He tells us that this ritual combat is usually
presented `on the occasion of a death temple celebration', but he does not tell
us what such a celebration is ." Nor does he interpret the combat of the witch
and the monster in the context of Balinese myth . He justifies this by saying that
the myths which the ritual `supposedly enacts' are `various and variable' and
`seem to play only a secondary role in the Balinese' perception of the drama' . 16
This may well be true, but if it is, then it is difficult to see how the Rangda-
Barong ritual could illustrate the fusion of the Balinese world view and ethos
because world views, i .e . basic conceptions of the world and of the human
condition, are inevitably embodied in myths, in sacred narratives of some
kind, e .g . Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the exodus from bondage in
Egypt, and the persecution of the Prophet Muhammad by the infidels of pre-
Islamic Arabia .
Having dismissed the myths associated with the ritual combat between
Rangda the terrible witch and Barong the endearing monster as being of
secondary significance, Geertz goes on to interpret the ritual as representing
the conflict between `horror and hilarity' . He writes : `the twin themes of horror
and hilarity find their purest expression in the two protagonists and their
endless, indecisive struggle for dominance . . . . They-or rather the relations
between them-are what it is about' ." Geertz elaborates on this interpretation of
the ritual combat as follows 8

Rangda evokes fear (as well as hatred, disgust, cruelty, horror, and, though I have
not been able to treat the sexual aspects of the performance here, lust) ; but she also
depicts it . . . . And on his side Barong not only induces laughter, he incarnates the
Balinese version of the comic spirit-a distinctive combination of playfulness,
exhibitionism, and extravagant love of elegance, which, along with fear, is perhaps
the dominant motive in their life . The constantly recurring struggle of Rangda and
Barong is thus-for the believing Balinese-both the formulation of a general
religious conception and the authoritative experience which justifies, even com-
pels, its acceptance . 18

As already noted, Geertz discusses the Rangda-Barong conflict to illustrate

how world view and fusion are fused in ritual . And by world view, Geertz
22 H. Munson Jr .

means `conceptions of a general order of existence' and `an envisaged cosmic

order' . 19 But Geertz's interpretation of the Rangda-Barong ritual combat does
not actually tell us anything about the Balinese world view in this sense of the
term . It seems unlikely that the fundamental Balinese conceptions of the world
and the place of humans in it boil down to the idea of a conflict between fear,
disgust, cruelty, horror and lust, on the one hand, and `playfulness, exhibition-
ism, and extravagant love of elegance' on the other . Such lists may provide
some insight into some of the values of Balinese religion that affect behavior,
and they may even capture the significance of the Rangda-Barong drama as
understood by the Balinese, but they definitely do not give us any insight into
the basic Balinese conceptions of the world and of the `cosmic order' in which it
is thought to be embedded .
Rather than illustrating the relationship between world view and ethos,
Geertz's account of the Rangda-Barong conflict illustrates his tendency to
reduce the former to the latter . And even the Balinese ethos in the sense of a set
of values is largely reduced to ethos in the sense of `the tone, character, and
quality' of the manifest behavior and personality traits of the Balinese as
perceived by an American observer .

Geertz's book Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia
was first published in 1968, two years after the initial publication of 'Religion
as a Cultural System' . In the preface of this book, Geertz writes that it is
intended `both to lay out a general framework for the comparative analysis of
religion and to apply it to the study of a supposedly single creed, Islam, in two
quite contrasting civilizations, the Indonesian and the Moroccan' . 20
In Islam Observed, Geertz elaborates on the ideas presented in `Religion as a
Cultural System' . (These two works contain Geertz's most systematic reflections
on religion .) He notes that `what a given religion is-its specific content-is
embodied in the images and metaphors its adherents use to characterize
reality' . 21 He states that `the major conceptual themes' of a religion `must be
isolated and related to one another' . 22 And he reiterates that the fusion of
world view and ethos is at the core of the religious perspective : `What sacred
symbols do for those to whom they are sacred is to formulate an image of the
world's construction and a program for human conduct that are mere reflexes
of one another' . 23
While condemning the reductionism of the Durkheimian tradition, Geertz
emphasizes, in Islam Observed, that the student of religion needs to examine
the relationship between religious and social change . 24 And he says that Islam
Observed is intended to be `a social history of the imagination' ." This striking
phrase relates to one of Geertz's most important contributions to anthropology-
namely, his role in bridging the gap between anthropology and social history .
Geertz on Religion 23

While reiterating most of the main themes of `Religion as a Cultural System',

Islam Observed improves upon the framework of the latter essay by explicitly
situating religion in its social historical context while continuing to reject the
reduction of religious conceptions to mere behavior or social structure . 26
But, like `Religion as a Cultural System', Islam Observed manifests a
significant disparity between Geertz's theory and his practice . And it illustrates
the same kind of reductionism we saw in Geertz's description of the Rangda-
Barong conflict, namely the reduction of the semantic substance of religion to
the overt appearance of personality traits and behavior .
In the conclusion of his discussion of `the classical styles' of Islam in
Indonesia and Morocco, Geertz contrasts `the characteristic conception of
what life was all about' in the two countries as follows . 27

On the Indonesian side, inwardness, imperturbability, patience, poise, sensibility,

aestheticism, elitism, and an almost obsessive self-effacement, the radical dissolution of
individuality; on the Moroccan side, activism, fervor, impetuosity, nerve, toughness,
moralism, populism, and an almost obsessive self-assertion, the radical intensi-
fication of individuality . L7

Geertz's contrast between the `aesthetic' and `self-effacing' Indonesians and

the `moralistic' and `self-assertive' Moroccans is reminiscent of Ruth Benedict's
contrast between the Pueblo Indians, `whose way of life is the way of measure
and sobriety' and the Dobuans, who are allegedly `dour, prudish, and
passionate, consumed with jealousy and suspicion and resentment' . 28 Such
contrasts may well convey considerable insight into contrasting patterns of
behavior and personality types and even into some of the values that shape
them . For any American who has traveled in the Orient and the Middle East,
there is no doubt something quite persuasive about the contrast between
aesthetic, self-effacing Indonesians (and Orientals in general) and moralistic,
self-assertive Moroccans (and Middle Easterners in general) .
But in presenting us with this contrast, Geertz claims to be conveying a
sense of how Indonesians and Moroccans understand Islam . He is ostensibly
discussing the `classical' world views of Indonesian and Moroccan Muslims .
But terms such as `moralism, populism, and an almost obsessive self-assertion'
do not tell us anything about the fundamental conceptions Moroccan Muslims
have, or ever had, about what life is all about . They tell us nothing about their
conception of the meaning of the human condition . And even if we grant that
such terms may give us some insight into certain values affecting Moroccan
behavior, the same terms could characterize the behavior of revolutionary
guerrillas and religious zealots all over the world . The point is not that such
terms are necessarily `wrong', it is rather that they do not enable us to
understand religion from the believer's point of view . It will be recalled that
Geertz declares, in Islam Observed, that `what a given religion is-its specific
24 H. Munson Jr .

content-is embodied in the images and metaphors its adherents use to

characterize reality' . 29 Terms such as `nerve', `toughness' and `moralism' do
not convey any insight into these `images and metaphors' .
When one studies the main Islamic rituals (e .g . the five daily prayers) as
well as everyday life in Morocco, as Geertz insists we should although he
himself does not, we find that the Moroccan world view includes `sacred
symbols' such as Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the day of reckoning (yawm
al-hisab), this world (ad-dunya) and the hereafter (al-akhira), purity (at-
tahara) and impurity (an-najas), and believer (mu'min) and infidel (kafr) . 3o
These are among the basic symbols in terms of which Moroccan Muslims
apprehend the world . But Geertz does not discuss them at all . He does discuss
some other important symbols of Moroccan Islam, notably the saints (as-
sadat), the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (ash-shurfa), and al-
baraka, which we may provisionally translate as `blessedness' . But he fails to
examine these symbols in the context of the world view and overall ethos (in
the sense of a set of values) in which they are embedded and thus reduces them
to their behavioral and social effects .
For example, the concept of baraka includes that of purity (at-tahara) .
Sharifian descent, that is descent from the Prophet Muhammad through the
male line, implies the possession of baraka and is also known as `the pure
descent' (an-nasab at-tahir) . 31 This idea is linked to that of the purity and
impeccability of the Prophet Muhammad himself." The close relationship
between baraka and purity is also illustrated by the fact that Muslims who
return from the pilgrimage to Mecca are believed to be imbued with the baraka
of that place and are said to have been cleansed of all their sins so that they are
as pure as newborn children . 33 And baraka is believed to be defiled by contact
with infidels . It is thus linked to the distinction between the pure believer and
the impure infidel . 34 In short, the meaning of the notion baraka is grounded in
the basic Islamic world view-which Geertz does not discuss .
Geertz wrenches the concept of baraka from the religious system from which
it derives much of its meaning and likens it to personality traits and various
genetically transmitted attributes of individuals . He says the basic meaning of
baraka boils down to the idea that `the sacred appears most directly in the
world as an endowment-a talent and a capacity, a special ability-of
particular individuals . Rather than electricity, the best (but still not very
good) analogue for "baraka" is personal presence, force of character, moral
vividness' . 35 Geertz suggests that Moroccan holy men `have baraka in the way
that men have strength, courage, dignity, skill, beauty, or intelligence' . 36
Geertz describes baraka in much the same fashion in `Centers, Kings, and
Charisma : Reflections on the Symbolics of Power', which was first published
in 1977 : 37
Geertz on Religion 25

Baraka has been analogized to a number of things in an attempt to clarify it-mana,

charisma, `spiritual electricity'-because it is a gift of power more than natural
which men, having received it, can use in as natural and pragmatical a way, for as
self-interested and mundane purposes, as they wish. But what most defines baraka,
and sets it off somewhat from these similar concepts, is that it is radically
individualistic, a property of persons in the way strength, courage, energy, or
ferocity are and [is], like them, arbitrarily distributed . Indeed, it is in one sense a
summary term for these qualities, the active virtues that, again, enable some men to
prevail over others .37

Aside from the fact that baraka is also possessed by places and objects, it is
difficult to see how such characterizations help us to understand the baraka of
men and women who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca . But more impor-
tantly, in so describing baraka, Geertz is reducing it to personality traits and
political functions associated with it . He has severed it from the world view in
which it is embedded and he has therefore stripped it of much of its religious
significance as understood by the Moroccan Muslim .

Aside from the influence of Max Weber, which pervades all of Geertz's work,
the theoretical framework of many of Geertz's early writings of the 1960s,
notably `Religion as a Cultural System', bears the impress of Talcott Parsons,
with whom Geertz studied as a graduate student at Harvard . Parsons too
speaks of religion as `a system of symbols' . 38 He too emphasizes the importance of
the fusion of world view and ethos, which he characterizes as `a sense that
man's relation to the supernatural world is in some way intimately connected
with his moral values' . 39 And he too emphasizes the role of the symbol in
`programming' meaningful behavior (action) .'
But already in `Religion as a Cultural System', we can see the influence of
Gilbert Ryle and Wittgenstein with respect to Geertz's emphasis upon the
social character of human thought . And the influence of these philosophers,
and that of Paul Ricoeur, becomes more evident (and Parsons' much less so) in
Geertz's essays of the 1970s, notably `Thick Description : Toward an Interpre-
tive Theory of Culture', which was first published in 1973 .
`Thick' description (Geertz borrowed the metaphor from Gilbert Ryle) is
the description of action in terms of what the observer thinks it means `from the
actor's point of view', whereas `thin' description is the description of overt
behavior as perceived by the observer . A thick description would distinguish
between a meaningful wink and a meaningless twitch of the eye . A thin
description would not ." The basic dichotomy in question is a familiar one in
both the cultural anthropological and the phenomenological traditions (which
converge in Geertz's work) .42
Geertz notes that the thick description of action entails reference to the
`stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures' in terms of which those who act
26 H. Munson jr .

interpret their acts and their lives . 43 Conversely, therefore, lack of reference to
this `stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures' inevitably results in thin
description, i .e . the description of overt behavior as it appears to an external
observer . This is precisely why much of Geertz's ostensibly thick description
turns out to be thin, e .g . his descriptions of the Rangda-Barong conflict and of
baraka .
Although Geertz continues to speak of `cultural systems' in `Thick Descrip-
tion', he suggests that many of the elegant models produced by structuralists
and systematic symbolic anthropologists such as David Schneider are 'impec-
cable depictions of formal order in whose actual existence nobody can quite
believe' .' And one of the main reasons for Geertz's prominence in American
cultural anthropology is that this view is shared by a great number of
anthropologists, including the one writing these words . But even if we concede
that many of the symmetrical binary oppositions and mythically mediated
contradictions that pervade the analyses of the more structurally oriented
anthropologists are elegant fantasies, it is none-the-less true that people's
conceptions of the world and how they ought to act in it are a set of interrelated
parts, i .e . a system . And, as Geertz has himself observed, we need to study
these sets of interrelated conceptions if we wish to understand people's actions
as they understand them themselves . 45 The study of meaningful action and the
study of structures of meaning are complementary rather than antithetical .
But some of Geertz's theoretical statements in `Thick Description' appear to
deny this .
In place of David Schneider's conception of culture as an autonomous
symbolic system that is best studied independently of how people actually
behave, Geertz advocates the Wittgensteinian position that the meanings of
`cultural forms' derive from the manner in which they are used `in an ongoing
pattern of life' and must therefore be studied in the context of the latter : 46

Behavior must be attended to, and with some exactness, because it is through the
flow of behavior-or, more precisely, social action-that cultural forms find
articulation . They find it as well, of course, in various sorts of artifacts, and various
states of consciousness ; but these draw their meaning from the role they play
(Wittgenstein would say their "use") in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any
intrinsic relationships they bear to one another . . . Whatever, or wherever, symbol
systems `in their own terms' may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspecting
events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns . 47
Ignoring for present purposes the ambiguous reference to `states of con-
sciousness', one point seems clear : if it is indeed the case that symbols (cultural
forms) do not derive their meaning `from any intrinsic relationships they bear
to one another', then it is pointless to study such relationships . And one should
instead attempt to interpret the meanings of symbols in terms of their role in
, an ongoing pattern of life' . And this is what Geertz has generally done, despite
Geertz on Religion 27

the conspicuous theoretical role played by the notion of `cultural system' in his
early writings and despite the fact that the expressions `symbol system' and
`systems of significance' continue to appear even in Geertz's later writings .`
Sherry Ortner goes so far as to suggest that Geertz has `never paid much
attention to the systemic aspects of culture' . 49 This is somewhat of an
exaggeration given the relatively systematic character of `Person, Time, and
Conduct in Bali', which was first published in 1966, and Kinship in Bali, which
was first published in 1976 .50 But certainly insofar as Geertz's work on religion
per se is concerned, Ortner's point is well taken .
Geertz's assertion that symbolic forms derive their meaning from their role
`in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to
one another' overlooks the crucial point that meaning derives from both of
these sources . If we want to understand a religious conception such as baraka,
for example, we certainly do need to study how it is used in an ongoing pattern
of life . It is only by studying how believers of various social backgrounds use
religious symbols in both ritual and secular contexts that we can get a good
idea of what such symbols mean from the believer's point of view . And
changing ways of life often do result in the infusion of new meanings into old
symbols . 51 But, at the same time, we also need to study symbols in terms of the
symbolic systems of which they are a part . Geertz's own descriptions of baraka
demonstrate what happens when such study is neglected .


It is certainly true, as Geertz has emphasized in his later writings, that the
meanings of symbols depend on the specific contexts in which they occur . 52 To
use a baseball metaphor, the meaning of a third `strike' with two men `out' in
the `bottom' of the ninth `inning' of a baseball game is quite different from that
of a first `strike' with no men `out' in the `top' of the first `inning' . But as Geertz
himself observes in ' "From the Native's Point of View" ' : On the Nature of
Anthropological Understanding', `in order to follow a baseball game one must
understand what a bat, a hit, an inning, a left fielder, a squeeze play, a hanging
curve and a tightened infield are, and what the game in which these "things"
are elements is all about' . 53 This is not to say that one needs to know every rule
in the official rule books in order to understand the difference between a'strike'
at the beginning of a baseball game and one at its end . Nor is it necessary to
chop up the rule book in structuralist fashion . But without some sense of how
strikes fit together with the other basic concepts of baseball one is not likely to
understand how the significance of a strike varies in different contexts .
Similarly, different aspects of the meanings of religious symbols may be
emphasized in certain contexts and not in others . For example, the notion that
an `unbeliever' is outside the faith, impure and doomed to burn in the fires of
hell may not be of major importance in the context of business dealings or
28 H. Munson Jr .

casual friendships . But it becomes of central significance when the unbeliever

wants to marry the believer's sister . However, this contextual variation does
not mean that the meaning of religious identity is solely derived from social
context . 54 Such identity derives much of its meaning from its role in a religious
system involving a set of basic conceptions about the world and about how
human beings ought to act within it . And in order to understand such identity,
one needs to examine it in the context of the religious system of which it is a
part as well as in the context of various social situations in which it occurs . As
has already been emphasized, the study of symbols entails the study of
symbolic systems as well as the study of how symbols are used by people
during the course of their everyday acts in the context of an ongoing pattern of
life .

Geertz is among the most important theorists in American cultural anthro-
pology today . He has led many anthropologists to appreciate to what extent
the study of `other' cultures and religions is inevitably a reconstruction
affected by the observer's conceptions .
Geertz has also led many to recognize the crucial methodological role of the
symbol as a means of getting at least a good sense of what it means to be what
one is not . And he has encouraged anthropologists to focus on how symbols are
used in everyday life and in concrete social situations rather than construct
elegant models that often appear to bear no relationship to how real people
interpret the world and their lives . And he has also stressed, at times, that even
when focussing on the interpretation of concrete social events, one must link
what people do to the `stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures' in terms of
which they interpet what they do . For all of these reasons, Geertz has made a
major contribution to anthropology .
With specific reference to religion, Geertz has emphasized, especially in
`Religion as a Cultural System' and Islam Observed, that a religion is best
studied as a set of sacred symbols embodying a set of basic conceptions of the
world and of how people ought to act in it. He has pointed out the central role
played by ritual both from the point of view of the believer and from that of the
observer (the two roles may be played by the same person, but not at the same
time) . And, especially in Islam Observed, he has stressed the importance of
viewing religion in its social historical context without reducing its semantic
substance to a mere reflection of social structure . These are extremely valuable
contributions to the study of religion .
Moreover, Geertz has continued to remind anthropologists, and academia
in general, of certain basic truths that have perhaps attained the status of
shibboleths in American cultural anthropology, but which nonetheless bear
Geertz on Religion 29

repetition . The following passage from the Introduction of Local Knowledge :

Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology is a case in point : 55

To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening . To see others as sharing a

nature with ourselves is the merest decency . But it is from the far more difficult
achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms
human life has actually taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the
largeness of mind, without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a
sham, comes .

But despite Geertz's very important contributions to the study of religion

and culture in general, there remain some serious problems in his approach to
these matters . Despite his own references to religion as a symbolic system
embodying a set of conceptions about the world and how people ought to act
within it, he has tended to reduce the semantic substance of religion to the
personality traits and behavior of the believer-as they appear to an external
observer . Like Ruth Benedict, and more so, Geertz has tended to view religion
as `personality writ large' . In the words of Sherry Ortner, 'Geertz's heart has
always been more with the "ethos" side of culture than with the "worldview",
more with the affective and stylistic dimensions than with the cognitive' . 56 But
as Geertz himself has emphasized, every religion consists of a vision of the
world and a set of values each of which reinforces, and affects the meaning of,
the other . Descriptions of the emotional characteristics of behavior and of
ostensibly typical personality traits may give some insight into some of a
religion's values . But such descriptions do not enable us to understand how
these values are related to a world view and do little to enable us to understand
a religion as it is understood (consciously and unconsciously) by the believer .
While Geertz's emphasis, especially in his later writings, on the need to
study symbols (including religious ones) in terms of how they are used in an
ongoing pattern of life is well taken, this does not entail the neglect of the
symbolic systems in which all symbols are embedded . The study of symbols as
used in various social contexts and their study in the context of the symbolic
systems of which they are a part are complementary and equally indispensable
aspects of the study of religion .

I would like to thank the following people, some of whom disagree quite
emphatically with my view of Geertz's work, for their comments on earlier
versions of this paper : Don B . Brown, Vincent Crapanzano, Mary Douglas,
Dale Eickelman, Richard Feinberg, Richard Handler, Elvin Hatch, George
Joffe, Roger Joseph, Bruce B . Lawrence, Shirley Lindenbaum, Michael
Meeker, Allan Meyers, Mattison Mines, Raymond T . Smith, Paul Roscoe,
Don Symons and Jean-Claude Vatin . An earlier version of this paper, which
30 H. Munson Jr.

focused exclusively on Islam, was presented at the Princeton-CNRS conference

on `French and American Perceptions of North Africa', held at Princeton
University in April of 1982 . A French version of this earlier paper is being
published under the title `Clifford Geertz et 1'etude de l'Islam au Maroc', in
Jean-Claude Vatin (ed .), L'Anthropologie americaine du Maghreb, Paris,
Editions du CNRS (in press) . The fieldwork in Morocco, upon which this
paper is partially based, was made possible by fellowships from the Social
Science Research Council (U .S .) and the Fulbright-Hays program of the
Office of Education .

I Clifford Geertz, `Religion as a Cultural System', in Michael Banton (ed .),
Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, London, Tavistock 1966, pp . 1-
46 .
2 For appraisals of Geertz's work that focus on other issues, see Talal Asad,
`Anthropological Conceptions of Religion : Reflections on Geertz', Man 18 :2 (June
1983), pp . 23-59, and Paul Shankman, `The Thick and the Thin : On the
Interpretive Theoretical Program of Clifford Geertz', Current Anthropology 25 :3
(1984), pp . 261-279 .
3 Geertz, `Religion as a Cultural System', p . 4 .
4 Ibid., p . 3 .
5 Ibid., p . 28 .
6 Ibid., p . 29 .
7 Ibid., p . 5 .
8 Ibid.
9 Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge, Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, New
York, Basic Books 1983, p . 58 .
10 Geertz, `Religion as a Cultural System', p . 5 .
11 Ibid., pp . 5-6 .
12 Ibid., p . 42.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., pp . 29-35 .
15 Ibid., p . 30 .
16 Ibid., pp . 33-34 .
17 Ibid., p . 31 .
18 Ibid., p . 34-35 .
19 Ibid., p . 4 .
20 Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia,
New Haven, Yale University Press 1968 . For further discussion of Geertz's work
on Islam, see Henry Munson, Jr ., Islam and Inequality in Northwestern Morocco,
University of Chicago Ph .D . dissertation, Anthropology, 1980 ; Henry Munson,
Jr., The House of Si Abd Allah : the Oral History of a Moroccan Family, New Haven,
Yale University Press, 1984, pp . 26-28 ; and Henry Munson, Jr ., `Clifford Geertz
et 1'etude de l'Islam au Maroc', in Jean-Claude Vatin (ed .), L Anthropologie
americaine du Maghreb, Paris, Editions du CNRS (in press) .
21 Ibid., p . 2 .
22 Ibid., p . 20 .
23 Ibid., p . 97 .
Geertz on Religion 31

24 Ibid ., p . 20 .
25 Ibid ., p . 19 .
26 It should be noted, however, that one of the most common criticisms of Geertz's
work is that in practice he himself tends to neglect the broad social historical
context in which the cultural phenomena he describes are situated . And this
criticism of Geertz's practice, as opposed to his theory, is in my opinion, valid . See
Dale Eickelman, `New Directions in Interpreting North African Society', in Jean-
Claude Vatin (ed .), Connaissances du Maghreb, Paris, Editions du CNRS, 1984,
pp . 285-288; Michael M . J . Fischer, Iran : From Religious Dispute to Revolution,
Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1980, p . 266 ; William Roseberry, `Balinese
Cockfights and the Seduction of Anthropology', Social Research 49 :4 (1984), pp .
1013-1028; and Ronald G . Walters, 'Signs of the Times : Clifford Geertz and the
Historians', Social Research 47 (1980), pp . 553-556 .
27 Geertz, Islam Observed, p . 54 .
28 Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, New York, Mentor Books, 1960 (1934), pp .
120, 151 . The similarities between Geertz's work and that of Ruth Benedict have
been noted before . See Michael Fischer, `Interpretive Anthropology', Reviews in
Anthropology 4 (1977), p . 403 ; Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, New York, Col-
umbia University Press, 1974, p . 48 ; Sherry Ortner, `Theory in Anthropology
since the Sixties', Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984), p . 129 .
29 Geertz, Islam Observed p . 2 .
30 See Henry Munson, Jr., The House of Si Abd Allah: the Oral History of a Moroccan
Family, pp . 28-36 ; and Henry Munson, Jr ., `Clifford Geertz et 1'etude de l'Islam
au Maroc' .
31 Ahmad Al-Bu 'Ayyashi, Harb ar-Rif at-Tahririyya wa Marahil an-Nidal . Al Juz'
al-'uwwal, Tangier, `Abd as-Slam Jassus and Sochepresse, 1975, p . 272 .
32 Munson, Islam and Inequality, pp . 82-85 .
33 Edward Westermarck, Ritual and Belief in Morocco, New Hyde Park, University
Books, 1968 (1926), Vol . 1, p . 229 .
34 Munson, The House of Si Abd Allah, pp . 39-54 .
35 Geertz, Islam Observed, p . 44 .
36 Ibid .
37 Geertz, Local Knowledge, p . 136 .
38 Talcott Parsons, `Religious Perspectives in Sociology and Social Psychology', in
William Lessa and Evon Zogt (eds), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthro-
pological Approach (fourth Ed), New York, Harper & Row 1979 (Parsons' paper
was first published in 1952), p . 63 .
39 Ibid.
40 Talcott Parsons, Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory, New York, The
Free Press, 1977, pp . 118-21 .
41 Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, pp . 6-8 . See Gilbert Ryle, Collected Papers,
New York, Barnes & Noble, 1971, Vol . II, pp . 480-482 .
42 See Robert Redfield, `Anthropological Understanding of Man', in Margaret
Redfield (ed .), Human Nature and the Study of Society : the Papers of Robert Redfield,
Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1962, Vol . I, pp . 454-455 ; and Maurice
Natanson (ed .), Philosophy of the Social Sciences, New York, Random House, 1963,
p. 9.
43 Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, p . 7 .
44 Ibid., p . 18 .
45 Ibid., p . 7
32 H. Munson Jr.

46 Wittgenstein's concept of `forms of life' is analysed in Henry Finch, Wittgenstein-

The Later Philosophy : An Exposition of the "Philosophical Investigations", Atlantic
Highlands, Humanities Press, 1977, pp . 89-102 .
47 Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, p . 17 . Wittgenstein's conception of the
relationship between meaning and use is discussed in Finch, op . cit . pp. 21-29 . See
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G . E . M . Anscombe,
Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1953, p . 20 .
48 Geertz, Local Knowledge, pp . 3, 70 .
49 Sherry Ortner, `Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties', Comparative Studies in
Society and History 26 (1984), p . 130 .
50 `Person, Time and Conduct in Bali' is reprinted in The Interpretation of Cultures,
pp . 360-411 ; and Clifford and Hildred Geertz, Kinship in Bali, Chicago, University of
Chicago Press, 1976 .
51 Munson, The House of Si Abd Allah, pp . 42-54 .
52 Geertz, Local Knowledge, pp . 4, 12 .
53 Ibid ., p . 69 .
54 This pertains to Geertz's discussion of what he refers to as the contextual character
of personal identity in Morocco . See Geertz, Local Knowledge, pp . 64-68 .
55 Ortner, `Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties', p . 129 .
56 Geertz, Local Knowledge, p . 16 .

HENRY MUNSON, J R. i s Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Uni-

versity of Maine . He received his Ph .D . from the University of Chicago in
1980 . His book The House of Si Abd Allah : the Oral History of a Moroccan Family
was published by Yale University Press in 1984 .

Department of Anthropology, University of Maine .