25 Aug 2022


Clifford Geertz's Approach to Religion and Anthropology

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According to Clifford Geertz, religion “shapes our apprehension of the [everyday] world” (Pals, p. 364) , and offers humans a “way of looking at the world” (Pals, p. 365) . He further cites that to the religious believer; this is more powerful and meaningful compared to “commonsense ideas” (Pals, p. 366). Consequently, some imagine that “religious belief” is “authoritative” in its pursuit of interpreting human experiences (Pals, p. 365). The claim by Geertz implies that while religion recognizes the connection with other aspects of life such as art and common sense, it apparently emphasizes the need to be “viewed against the background of the purported insufficiency of common sense” (Pals, p. 364). As a result , religion insists not only on a different orientation towards life but also emphasizes on the formative impact of common sense. Hence as Geertz argues, the perceptions of religion towards life are neither introspections nor behavioral, but instead, religion has “created patterns of meaning” (Pals. p. 364), which differ from the perceptions held by the majority in society. Most p eople tend to believe that the approach offered by religion has some degree of authority over the common perceptions and beliefs as associated with basic reasoning . 

The aspect of authority in religious beliefs is therefore advanced by the fact that most people tend to approach them with a notion that they are values grounded in the inherent structure of truth. Hence, unlike philosophical, scientific and even commonsensical belief, religious beliefs are considered not to be conclusions from experience (Pals, p. 365). Human experiences are built from the day to day occurrences which eventually culminate into individual interpretations or perceptions about certain phenomena. However, the situation is different with religious beliefs since they require no prior experience to formulate but rather are believed to have been in existence before the experience. In other words, the experience is developed from religious beliefs. The beliefs subsequently provide illustrations for their truth and not the evidence to justify those truths . Therefore, they present “a particular manner of interpreting experience” (Pals, p. 364) which assumes superiority over all other human perceptions.

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The degrees to which certain people believe, engage and uphold rituals and related symbols also inform the authoritative capacity of religious belief in the interpretation of human experiences. Geertz notes that such factors as the need for nurturance, affection, capacities for truths and external authority determine individual recognition of the symbols. Thus, beliefs are theologically explained as the workings of the social and psychological religious symbols (Pals, p. 365). The dominant psychological, social and cultural factors, therefore, compel people to participate in certain religious rituals and the acceptance of metaphysical beliefs implicit in such rituals (Pals, p. 365). Once such mentalities and compulsions come in, anything about common sense and conventional interpretation of human experiences therefore changes. Believers of such ritual and “sacred symbols” (Pals, p. 365) harbor feelings of righteousness and consider themselves as true compared those who do not share the same beliefs. And as a result, the affected persons tend to attach some authority to their perceptions, judgements, and views about human experiences.

Geertz also argues that the purported superiority of symbolic anthropology over the functionalist social theory is the basis of the imaginary authority of religious beliefs in the interpretation of human experiences. According to the symbolic anthropology which came to be referred to as interpretative anthropology, ideas, emotions, and beliefs are the fundamental aspects that confer meaning to the activities in human life (Pals, p. 342). The wisdom in the assertions of the symbolic anthropology, therefore, implies that once the human mind is manipulated to hold certain beliefs as true, then there is an attached feeling of superiority. Proponents of the symbolic anthropology, therefore, regarded the principles of the functionalist social theory as less exhaustive and unable to explain the origin of human social behavior. In the same context , symbolic anthropology assumes some power over the functionalist social theory.

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 15). Clifford Geertz's Approach to Religion and Anthropology.


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