What Are Religious and Secular Symbols?


For over half a century sociologists and anthropologists have examined modem societies using approaches drawn from analyses of ritual, ceremony, and symbolism. This article focuses on symbols, defines what they are, identifies how they might differ, and how they have been used by scholars of religion.

What is a Symbol?

Symbols are located in language and in the objects or events to which they refer (1). The lion is a symbol of strength, a tree perhaps symbolic of life, the colour red of danger, a white flag of surrender, and so on. There are also different levels of symbol, which Clifford Geertz, the father of symbology, showed in his example of Balinese cockfights. Geertz observes that cock-fighting is, on one level, a gambling game and/or a sporting event. At a deeper level, the cocks are representative of the men who own them, those who bet on them, and those whose fortunes will be affected by victory or defeat. At an even deeper level, Geertz interprets the cockfighting as symbols of Balinese society in the form of contrast: on the one hand, of the aggression of the cock-fighting and the gentle formalism of Balinese behaviour on the other. Another view of symbols was presented by Charles Peirce. Peirce considered symbols to be icons resembling a referent (a painting of a lion resembles a lion) and as something indicative of a certain object that points to the object (paw prints in the sand or stands of fur pointing to a lion) (2). Peirce claims that symbols have no inherent relation to the objects they refer but are dependent on convention (the word “lion” or a painting of a lion, for example). Further, symbols depend on who they appeal to. What may be symbolic for one person or audience may not be symbolic for others. Gusfield and Michalowicz use the example of the American flag that “symbolizes national feeling or the “presence of the nation,” but that meaning is quite manifest to socialized members of American society. It is not interesting or surprising to describe it as symbolic to American audiences. For an anthropologist from the Trobriand Islands, it could be a hidden meaning of considerable interest to the Trobriand Anthropological Association” (3).

Secular Symbols

A number of scholars have studied secular symbols in societies (4). These symbols are secular as they have nothing to do with the transcendent, religious, or the sacred. For example, the British coronation has been viewed as a symbol of the moral values uniting British people. Studies of the police have revealed the public’s perception of them being “crime-fighters”, although in reality the police have relatively little control over the occurrence of crimes and also serve numerous functions beyond crime-fighting. This symbol is a myth, as in reality the police preventing crime and apprehending most criminals is contradicted by the facts, although this has increased both public understanding of and support for police practices. An analysis of political rituals in the Soviet Union has emphasized the role of rituals in maintaining allegiance to the elite’s authority and how symbolism, such as weddings, births, institutional events, graduations, labour rituals, and political holidays, cultivated collective identity. Philosopher Michel Foucault’s studies show how the physical punishment meted out by the historical French authorities symbolized the absolute control of the state over the subject’s body. In modern societies, sports have a symbolic role. Objects of a sport represent a great deal more than just the objects alone: team costumes and colours symbolize unity and solidarity, certain team positions represent agility (like a winger in rugby union) or strength (like the guards on the offensive line in football), national teams and anthems represent their nations, numbers on the scoreboard at the end of the match symbolize the victor and the loser, and so on. Studies of consumer culture evidence how goods are used and viewed as status symbols extending far beyond their mere instrumental utilities. Clothing, perfumes, cars, houses, and technology are all representative of something to a person, which could be one’s own wealth, hard work, or poverty at seeing what others have. Some items have more symbolic value than others: a finely chiseled dinner table in one’s dining room might not be as prized as the Lamborghini an owner drives around the town as a symbol of his wealth. Even food can be symbolic. Vegetarianism can be representative of a person’s desire to avoid contributing to an industry that causes animals pain merely for human consumption. Food also includes religious symbolism, such as Hebraic dietary laws and halal foods representing allegiance to a religious tradition and obedience to God’s commands. Some scholars have viewed food as a system of signs. According to Roland Barthes, sugar is a sign of indulgence and sweetness as demonstrated in the popular American song “Sugar Time.” Secular symbols are found in many other places, including body language, interactions, mass communication, celebrity culture, and more,

Religious Symbols

Symbols of a verbal, material, and ritual kind have an important role in religions. Importantly, theorists have argued that it is because human beings possess a symbolic consciousness that religion emerged to be so remarkably successful among homo sapiens (5). It was symbolic thinking that allowed the pre-historical peoples, perhaps as early as 100 000 BP (before present), to perceive their rituals as causing them to participate in the power inherent in the being to whom their sacrifice or communion is directed. There was a further flourishing of symbolic expression 30 000 to 35 000 BP in Europe. Today symbolic thinking has certainly not disappeared. Walter Capps identified symbolic forms, cultural symbols, and the process of symbolization as belonging to the world of religion, a fact acknowledged by its earliest theorists (6). Suzanne Langer (1895-1985) purported symbol making to constitute “one of man’s primary activities, like eating, cooking, or moving about” essential to acts of the mind (7). Symbol making expresses the human being’s basic needs and distinguishes them from other animals. Capps reveals that for some theorists, the data of myths and symbols have constituted the primary materials upon which reflective analysis and interpretation are exercised (8). It is helpful in that it enables one to organize, synthesize, and cross-reference content. Laurenti Magesa says that understanding religion calls for an appreciation of symbols because, through their expression within rituals and myths, they are used to explain the origin, purpose, and meaning of the world and humanity’s place within it (9).

Where can one find symbols in contemporary religion? To be a religious symbol, the symbol itself needs to satisfy certain criteria to qualify as being religious. Edward Machle offers the following (10),

[1] The group within which the symbol is meaningful is itself defined, at least in part, in terms of that symbol. The term “Christ” is religiously meaningful within the Church of Christ, and many a devout Christian knows the frustration of trying to communicate that meaning outside the circle.

[2] Religious symbols claim supreme importance for their referent; they denote and invoke or evoke power or importance rather than indicate a class or a definition.

[3] Religious symbols can conflict, compete, or substitute for one another within the same religion

Religious texts are symbols because they are representative of much more than the paper, scrolls, or papyri on which they are written. Texts symbolize divine revelation from God, speak of historical and future events full of religious significance, and contain lessons of moral instruction for communities. The Qur’an is to the Muslim more than a book as it is the revealed Word of Allah, as are the Vedas and Upanishads reservoirs of divine truth to Hindus. The Rabbinic literature represents the wisdom of rabbis who have reasoned diligently on laws in their attempts to live faithfully in obedience to God.

Rituals are symbolic and function as a devotee’s affirmation of a specific religion. Placing the Qur’an on the highest shelf in the household represents the Muslim’s reverence and absolute respect for Allah’s eternal revelation. Meditation is, for the Buddhist, symbolic of the Buddha’s pursuit and attainment of enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree; the wine or grape juice of the Eucharist is representative of the spilled blood of Christ on the cross; chanting the names of Krishna is symbolic of the devotee’s love and devotion to Lord Krishna, and so on. The New Ager and Pagan’s strict vegetarian diet speaks of a deep commitment to and respect for the natural environment thought to be the province of Spirit.

Many material objects used in some way by a religion’s devotees possess symbolic value: the Wicca’s athames represents the devotee’s power to manipulate the energies of nature; the New Ager’s crystal evidences the Earth’s energy and its healing properties; the crucifix worn around the neck of the Christian attests to belief in salvation from sin through Christ’s crucifixion; idols of gods in Hindu temples are objects signifying devotion to the gods represented; and structures, such as temples, mosques, Kingdom Halls, and churches are sacred spaces for worshipping God, gods, and superhuman entities. Religious persons gathering together represents solidarity, community, and likemindedness.

Observation of events in the world have symbolic value for the religious: to the Christian, seemingly pointless death and destruction produced by wars and evil persons represent sin and alienation from God, whereas to the many atheists they are proof that God does not exist; humanity’s corruption and greed is, to the Hare Krishna, proof that people have forgotten their inner divinity which they need to once again attain; materialistic and sensual attachment to the world is evidence of humanity’s failure to embrace the Middle Way, so reason Buddhists.

As noted above, what is symbolic for one group or person might not be for another. The wine of the Eucharist to a non-Christian will not be perceived as a symbol representing salvation from sin, whereas to the Christian it is; meditation to the Muslim does not symbolize the goal of unity with Divine energy or consciousness, although that is what the New Ager believes, and so on.

Symbol Analysis

Symbol analysis has featured in the work of religion scholars, one of whom is David Chidester and in his analysis of symbolic contestation (11). According to this framework, the scholar should identify how symbols are mobilized to fashion a human identity. Three components of symbolic analysis are central to this framework: symbol ownership, appropriation, and alienation, all of which occur between different religions and their members.

Ownership of symbols is a central feature of religion because religions perpetuate the stealing back and forth of sacred symbols (12). These symbols have power because of the personal and collective claims to their ownership, through which religious believers and communities invest them with revered sacredness. Ownership is evident in efforts to appropriate symbols, own them, and alienate others from them. Think of how some religions claim to own certain symbols: Christianity and Islam both claim to own Jesus Christ, a person who in both traditions represents much more than just his skin and physical form.

Religions intend to appropriate symbols by claiming ownership of them and by ascribing them with a new meaning representing the interests of a religious community (13). One can see the battlefield of contestation over the Bible prior to the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1992. During this era, the Bible functioned as a symbol fiercely contested by apartheid ideologues, liberationist theologians, and several other groups, all of whom appropriated the biblical texts to use them as a vehicle of power to be deployed to satisfy interests. For the liberationists, its power lay in its use against religious and political justifications for the apartheid regime’s ideology. The interest here was of one day transitioning South African society into one founded upon equality, justice, and egalitarian principles that could be applied across the racial and cultural spectrums. For the apartheid ideologues, the Bible was used as a tool for the separation of races. The interests here lay primarily with the prosperity of a white minority while all non-whites were ‘othered’ as inferior and therefore treated with prejudice and discrimination.

Thirdly, alienation is a strategy through which members of a religion seek to alienate and exclude others from ownership, access, and use of sacred symbols (14). One group usually reserves privileged rights and access to the symbols at the expense of the other group. Think of Muslim-Christian debates over who genuinely owns Jesus Christ. Both religions view Christ highly but also incompatibly. Both seek to alienate each other from the symbol by claiming legitimate ownership: Muslims attempt to own Christ by proving he was a Messenger sent by God but not God himself; Christians attempt to own Christ by proving he was God incarnated in a human body and therefore more than a messenger.


1. Gusfield, Joseph., and Michalowicz, Jerzy. 1984. “Secular Symbolism: Studies of Ritual, Ceremony, and the Symbolic Order in Modern Life.” Annual Review of Sociology 10:417-435. p. 418.

2. Peirce, Charles. 1931. Collected Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

3. Gusfield, Joseph., and Michalowicz, Jerzy. 1984. Ibid. p. 421.

4. Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Turner, V. W. 1974. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Douglas, Mary., and Nicod, Michael. 1974. “Taking the biscuit: The structure of British meals.” New Society; MacAloon, J. J. 1981. This Great Symbol: Pierre Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games. Chicago: University Chicago Press; Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon.

5. Culotta, Elizabeth. 2009. “On the Origin of Religion.” Science, New Series 326(5954): 784-787. p. 764; Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 37.

6. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 210.

7. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 216.

8. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 22.

9. Magesa, Laurenti. 1997. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. New York: Orbis Books. p. 3.

10. Machle, Edward. 1953. “Symbols in Religion.” Journal of Bible and Religion 21(3):163-169. p. 164.

11. Chidester, David. 1985. “Word against Light: Perception and the Conflict of Symbols.” The Journal of Religion 65:45-62. p. 45-48; Chidester, David. 1989. “Worldview Analysis of African Indigenous Churches.” Journal for the Study of Religion 2:15-29. p. 21.

12. Chidester, David. 1989. Ibid. p. 21.

13. Chidester, David. 1989. Ibid. p. 24.

14. Chidester, David. 1989. Ibid. p. 23.

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