Clifford Geertz – Religion as a “System of Symbols”


Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) is a well-known name within Religion Studies for his understanding of religion being a “cultural system.” This he articulated in his essay Religion as a Cultural System (1966) which examined anthropological approaches to religion. Anthropologist Talal Asad suggests Geertz to have provided “the most influential, certainly the most accomplished, anthropological definition of religion to have appeared in the last two decades” (1).

Geertz’s Definition of Religion

For Geertz, the pathway to religion is culture which he defined as a “historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols” and “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (2). Within this process of the development of knowledge Geertz attempts to articulate the function of religious symbols, notably how “sacred symbols function within the cultural context.” Religion and religious activity are shaped by culture and it is important to approach the topic of religion as being an integral element to culture itself. This requires religion’s elements and workings to be described, which Geertz attempts to do:

“[Religion is] [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” (3).

Geertz first defines a symbol, which he says denotes “any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception – the conception is the symbol’s “meaning””. The symbol functions as a bearer of meaning connected to an object, event, quality, or relation. Examples could include a number (such as the number 6), a painting (that conveys meaning), a word (i.e. “God,” “reality,” “man”), a holy book (Bible, Torah, Book of Radiance, etc.), a story (a creation story), or a ritual (the Eucharist or meditation). Symbols are typically public, observable, concrete embodiment of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs. In Zen Buddhism, symbols would include the Lotus Sutra, a temple, a stone garden, etc. Such items and phenomena possess symbolic meaning in the form of ideas, attitudes, etc. beyond itself.

Secondly, sacred symbols establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people. In other words, symbols are powerful for they not only invoke deep moral sentiments concerning how the world should be but they also shape human behavior and influence how human beings interpret reality. They provide a representation of the way things are and guide human activity. Think, for example, of meditation in Zen Buddhism that functions to clear the mind from clutter and chaos in pursuit of enlightenment.

Religious symbol systems also formulate conceptions of general order in which they form a part of the worldview that shares unquestioned assumptions about the world and how it works. When religionists and devotees act together they begin to accept the group’s symbolic interpretations of the world as if they are real. People believe that they are participating meaningfully in an intelligible universe and this meaning is given through the religion’s cosmology or philosophy.

Religions clothe their conceptions in an “aura of factuality” by making their conceptions of reality appear true by presenting them appealingly and persuasively. Here symbols seem intensely real and factual to believers within the religious tradition although to non-believers or outsiders the symbols can appear to be mythological or false. The religious believer’s moods and motivations “seem uniquely realistic” in that she feels her feelings and commitments come from God (or are in tune with deepest Reality). In Taoism, if one lives in harmony with nature and the Tao, then he can live a spiritually fulfilled existence.

Geertz claims that although definitions themselves establish nothing they do provide an orientation, an effective way of developing and controlling inquiry. As such, his definition provides only “a useful orientation, or reorientation of thought” that can develop and control a novel line of inquiry.

Even up until recent times Geertz’s definition of religion was frequently quoted and cited. For example, theorists having examined the secondary literature around Geertz discovered that between 1966 and 1996 his essay, Religion as a Cultural System, was cited at least five hundred times in journals of religion or anthropology (4). Geertz has often therefore served as a basis for understanding religion or the meaning of religious symbolism.

Criticism and Critical Reflection

However, not all scholars agree with Geertz’s definition. Some have criticized him for failing to define and adequately develop some of the terms he introduced within his definition (5). For instance, his idea of a symbol is somewhat ambiguous and he has failed to adequately define what he means by “conception” which is crucial to his definition since a conception is the meaning of a symbol. A lack of clarification makes it difficult to interpret the meaning of the terms such as ”vehicle,” “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception.”

A strong criticism is that Geertz’s definition does not do enough to distinguish religion from phenomena that are not religion or religious. Non-religious phenomena, including philosophy, social ideologies, politics, and more, contain systems of symbols that establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (and women). These too clothe their conceptions with an aura of factuality. A socialist’s worldview and philosophy, for example, encompasses symbols (e.g a factory owned by capitalist symbolizes capitalism’s exploitation of the working class) that establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people. Certainly Karl Marx was emotionally invested in his socialist theory, which he too clothed with an aura of factuality. Writing for the Academy of Religion, W. Richard Comstock suggests that “Even the representations of art and literature have an “aura of factuality” about them, though they make no ontological claims. The proposal would seem to have little to commend it when taken as an essential definition” (6). For Comstock, the best Geertz’s definition does is to refer to religion as “a system of symbols”, but this itself does not provide a succinct definition capturing the essential feature that determines what religion is.

Finally, Geertz’s definition is also context-specific rather than universal. The purpose behind his definition is to bring light to what anthropologists have not sufficiently paid attention to, which is what religious symbol systems do for society as well as what they purport to mean to its members (7). Geertz’s definition is not, then, an absolute definition of what religion is in all times and places but a context-determined one.


1. Asad, Talal. 1983. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man, New Series 18(2):237-259. p. 237.

2. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. p. 89.

3. Geertz, Clifford. 1966. Religion as a Cultural System. London: Tavistock. p. 4.

4. Frankenberry, Nancy., and Penner, Hans. 1999. “Clifford Geertz’s Long-Lasting Moods, Motivations, and Metaphysical Conceptions.” The Journal of Religion 79(4): 617-640. p. 617-618.

5. Frankenberry, Nancy., and Penner, Hans. 1999. Ibid. p. 619.

6. Comstock, Richard. 1984. “Toward Open Definitions of Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52(3):499-517. p. 502.

7. Comstock, Richard. 1984. Ibid. p. 502.



  1. I think it’s a mistake to simply say things like politics aren’t a religion. As I interpret Geertz, and with my own observations, religion is that which your life revolves around. Socialism is very much a religion because a great many people base their every move on its tenets. They also see it as the path to salvation or utopia. They serve the Greater Good like others serve deities. The same could be said for many who obsess over fitness or any number of other things. Religion is basically that which you hold sacred and how you act because of it.

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