Sligthly distracted by having the children staying home during summertime, I have now moved on to read Talal Asad. In his book Formations of the secular (2003), he asks the question “how will an anthropology of the secular look like”. Asad is a Foucault inspired writer. He writes about concepts, how they change (genealogy), how they are used and how they (in)form action. The basic idea is that the notion of the secular cannot be grasp as the oposite of religion, myth, belief and so on, but that its anthinomies rests upon changes in the formation of society. I was not too inspired by his writing, so I did not read the entire book.

Parallel with the reading of Asad, I am reading the book: The interpretations of cultures (1973), a collection of essays/articles made by Clifford Geertz. Geertz is inspired by Gilbert Ryle and his project is to promote a semiotic approach to the analysis of culture by making “thick descriptions” of cultures, moving from the particular towards a more general description of culture.

The aim is to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them in exactly with complex specifics. (p. 28)

One article is of special interest to me. In “Religion as a cultural system”, Geertz treats questions pertaining to meaning and religious belief. Again, he builds his argument on the idea that the human behavior is less determined than is that of non-human species (see other article: He is inspired by molecular genetics and neurology, p. 45). From this condition follows the freedom to choose among possible solutions to a “problem” (such as what to eat, how to eat, when to eat etcetera). When biology “fail” to regulate human lives, culture is needed to inform (or determine their choice) humans about a choice. The line of reasoning imply a rejection of human reason as something detached from culture (the Enlightenment notion of human reason). Reason is not cultivated it is partially culture, because culture is what is used in order to think in the first place. So far so good.

According to Geertz, religious belief is a matter of the way we grasp the world with help from symbols (each parts of a larger all-encompassing symbolic system) to which we adhere. In ritual the “symbolic reality” or as Geertz puts it “the really real”, is presented (not represented, but displayed and visited by the performers of the ritual) and its authority accepted (through the act of participating in the ritual). It is this acceptance of what the ritual presents as real that can be called belief. Once accepted, the ritual changes the everyday experience of the participant (p. 109). This understanding of “belief” makes belief not solely a private matter, but a public one (the participation in the ritual is objective and has little to do with being personally convinced). After believing – accepting the presentation of the real – we can know the world (metaphysics) and how to act in it (ethos). Without the symbolic apparatus, understanding and acting is impossible.

This is how I read Geertz. Cultural acts are the construction of symbolic forms used to interpret the world. These also motivates people to feel in a specific way about events in life (p. 97). A religious perspective is applied the everyday encounters with pain, moral issues etc. enforcing their actuality (p.112) rather than analysing them. In ritual “the world lived and the world imagined” (p. 112) is fused. For a moment, the realm of the gods is open for visitors and the really real presents itself to humans in the world of humans. The gift of religion is its power to organize the understanding of life, and guide action.

What I make of this, is that Geertz puts a lot of trust into cognitive abilities to make sense of the world.