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Clifford Geertzs methodology of the study of religion poses a challenge and

critique to Levi-Strauss methodology of the analysis of religion, in that he (Levi-

Strauss) focused on the language that is used within the myth. Geertz, on the other
hand, says that one cannot divorce the anthropological interpretation from its context.
Hence, he states, Cultural analysis is guessing at meanings, assessing the meanings,
and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the
Continent of meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape (Geertz, pg 21). He
asserts that it is not enough to know the language of the people. One must know the
context and the culture in order to understand. One is required personal experience
within the culture to understand. He says that anthropology is a context that cannot be
thickly describedthe point of ethnography is thick description (Geertz, pg 9). On the
contrary, he states, One cannot draw conclusions based on similarities in gestures.
This is called thin descriptions. Geertz calls this private theory.
Geertz argues in favor of a semiotic approach in doing anthropology of cultures,
thereby gaining a conceptual world of the subjects, to be able to converse with them.
He expound on the clinical study of culture where one builds theory based upon
previous ones. The goal is to refine the previous theory. Geertz expresses that the
ethnographer must be very careful in the study of culture. One cannot be too subjective
nor too cabbalistic. He concludes the first chapter by stating that the interpretative
anthropologist does not need to answer the deep questions, rather, to add information
to the known record of a given subject.
Geertz presents the problem with social anthropology in that there have not been new
theories developed. He asserts that all who study religion build upon Weber, Durkheim,
Freud, and Malinowsky. This leads him to explore religion in relationship to human
suffering. Next, he continues his discourse on the nature of evil and criticizes Weber,
saying that he was influenced by monotheism (Geertz, pg 107). He then delves into
the realm of the world of belief. He states that no social anthropologist gets into that,
leaving it to the psychologist. In contrast, he states, Believing, with Max Weber, that
man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun, I take
culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental
science in search of law, but an interpretative one in search of meaning (Geertz, pg 5).
He adds to this by saying, Culture is public because meaning is (Geertz, pg 12).
Furthermore, he states, The interpretatio naturae tradition of the middle ages, which,
culminating in Spinoza, attempted to read nature as Scripture, the Nietszchean effort to
treat value systems as glosses on the will to power (or the Marxian one to treat them as
glosses on property relations), and the Freudian replacement of the enigmatic text of
the manifest dream with the plain one of the latent, all offer precedents, if not equally
recommendable ones; But the idea remains theoretically undeveloped ; and the more
profound corollary, so far as anthropology is concerned, that cultural forms can be
treated as texts, as imaginative works built out of social materials, has yet to be
systematically exploited (Geertz, 449). Once again, Geertz is criticizing his
predecessors approach to anthropology. In conclusion, he agrees that the
ethnographer must delve into the culture through first-hand experience then present
the culture as if it were a text.
In Geertzs approach, one begins answering the question, What leads humans
to seek religion? He answers that The Problem of Meaning is the driving force in
seeking gods. Geertz stresses the importance of the study of ritual as a means to
understanding from the inside of any religious tradition. He says that the ritual itself
leads the practitioner to respect the religious authority. Therefore, he states, For an
anthropologist, the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual
or for a group, as a source of general, yet distinctive, conceptions of the world, the self,
and the relations between them, on the one handits model of aspectand of rooted,
no less distinctive "mental" dispositionsits model for aspecton the other. From these
cultural functions flow, in turn, its social and psychological ones (Geertz, pg 123). He
states that the goal of the social or psychological role of religion is to be able to
understand how it affects people in their moral behavior and humanity. Geertz sums up
the anthropology of religion as, a two-stage operation: first, an analysis of the system
of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up the religion proper, and, second,
the relating of these systems to social-structural and psychological processes (Geertz,
pg 125). Overall, Geertz is dissatisfied with the theories of his day and states that the
second stage is meaningless without the study of the theoretical analysis of symbolic
Talal Assad criticizes Clifford Geertzs definition of religion, stating, My argument
is that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent
elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself
the historical product of discursive processes (Assad, pg 116). He also criticizes Geertz
on his approach to the study of culture through symbols. Geertz states that the symbol
is differentiated from conception. However, Assad points out that Geertz contradicts
himself because sometimes he equates the symbol with the conception. Assad
practically states that Geertzs theory of anthropology is based on a privatized Christian
concept of religion.
Geertzs approach to anthropology in order to understand a given culture seems
wonderful from a scientific standpoint. However, if one were to study the Jewish
tradition, one would have to specify the time period and the region. If one desired to
study the pre-Exilic Jewish tradition, Geertzs theory would fall flat on its face. The
only way to understand that time period and culture is through the various Biblical and
extra-Biblical texts that shed light on the social-political-cultural context. Moreover, one
would have to study the Hebrew language of that specific time period. It must be taken
into consideration that not only the Hebrew language evolved, but also philosophical
ideas, and the meaning of rituals. This in itself poses a huge problem to Geertz who
wants to over-simplify religion. Perhaps one could use his theories in studying new and
contemporary sects, in light of their social-political-cultural contexts.