Re: Religion: definition of

Gerold Firl (
31 Mar 1995 13:19:37 -0800

In article <> (Tom Johnston-Oneill) writes:
>JP Bailhe (71202.2712@CompuServe.COM) wrote:
>: I wonder if anyone wants to take a crack at definning religion.
>: This awesomely powerful cultural force found throughout human
>: culture is a slippery goose. I thought about posting this in one
>: of the religious groups, but I'm looking for more scientifc
>: responses.

>"A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and
>long-lasting moods and motivations in men [sic] by formulating
>conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those
>conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and
>motivations seem uniquely realistic."

>Geertz explicates this definition in an article entitled "Religion as a
>Cultural System". Originally published in "Anthropological Approaches to
>the Study of Religion" (M. Benton ed. 1965) but an abridged version can be
>found in the Lessa and Vogt "Reader in Comparative Religion" (4th ed).
>The definition quoted above does not seem very profound or illuminating
>until you read Geertz's explication of each word and phrase. Geertz's
>approach owes a good deal to Weber's idea that religions are profoundly
>concerned with solving or, at the very least ameliorating, "problems
>of meaning". I'm curious as to why you are searching for "more scientific
>responses", more than what? The article by Geertz is 30 years old but thank
>goodness knowledge is not a commodity and newer ain't necessarily
>better. :-}

I think it probably is possible to define religion more "scientifically"
than the kinds of approaches used 30+ years ago. Marvin Harris jumps to
mind as an example.

Weber talks about "problems of meaning"; to me, this is typical of the more
loose, qualitative kind of thinking which characterised the social sciences
until recently. I would suggest that problems of meaning are only
significant once more fundamental issues have been resolved: problems of
survival, such as food, water, and violent conflict between people.

>From this perspective, religion appears first and foremost to be a system
for *organising* the social unit, for coordinating the actions of large
numbers of people. Ideology, issues of meaning, of identity, of all the
high-order mental processes which are part of human life, are important. No
doubt about that. But what is often overlooked is the extent to which these
high-order processes are tailored around the requirements of the lower-
order processes of raw survival. The most rarified aspects of abstruse
spirituality are, in my opinion, mere superstructure, ribbons and bows,
bells and whistles; the handmaidens of the driving problem of staying

For example, consider the evolution of monotheism in the mid-east a few
thousand years ago. The first trial run occured in egypt under the
reforming pharoe (what was his name - amon hotep? - can't remember - he
attempted to institute a monotheistic regime, but was unable to overcome
the inertia of belief and the vested interests of the temple system). This
attempt failed, but was succeeded by the success of the israelites.

I see the successful adoption of monotheism as a consequence of the
economic and political situation in palestine; the israelites occupied a
very precarious position, between egypt, sumer, and anatolia, caught in the
middle of a constant struggle between powerful states. Few in number, the
israelites needed a command-control-communication (C3) advantage to be able
to compete, and monotheism gave it to them. From birth, each member of the
society was inculcated with the idea of an absolute, immutable, rigid
heirarchy of power and command, emmanating from God and extending down
through the chain of command to the lowest sling-bearer. Disobediance
carried heavy consequences; think of lucifer. Obediance to higher authority
was rewarded; think of abraham, the good soldier, who was willing to
sacrifice his sons life on the alter of obediance, and who is still revered
as the father of his people throughout the mideast. The entire cosmology of
monotheism is built around the military command structure, and it has
produced marvels of military success; not only the victories of the jews,
but also the islamic conquests can be directly linked to the discipline of
monotheistic C3.

That's one example; there is no shortage. I find this kind of analysis,
based on material cause and effect, much more satisfying than the kind of
explanation quoted above. Not that I disagree with what geertz says; I
think he is absolutely right. But I also think that we can look beneath the
surface effects to see more fundamental causes, and these should be sought
using the evolutionary perspective of differential survival. If it can't
last, it's already gone.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf