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Monday, October 11, 2010

Monday Ground Up: Psychological Approach to Religion and Primitive Thought According To Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz argued for a broader psychological analysis of religion. He approaches the subject using sociology, history, and semantics to arrive at the notion, religion should be studied using a mature theory of religion. Thus, this will integrate certain approaches into a more comparative and conceptual system. He relates his findings to "primitive thought", making comparisons to western and non-western societal groups, thus concreting the subject's influence in the anthropological approach to religion.

Geertz explains:
Two characteristics of anthropological work on religion accomplished since the Second World War strike me as curious when such work is placed against that carried out
just before and just after the first. One is that it has made no theoretical advances of major importance. It is living off the certain empirical enrichment, to it. The second is that it draws what concepts it does use from a very narrowly defined intellectual tradition. There is Durkheim, Weber, Freud, or Malinowski, and in any particular work the approach of one or two of these transcendent figures is followed, with but a few marginal corrections necessitated by the natural tendency to excess of seminal minds or by the expanded body of reliable descriptive data. But virtually no one even thinks of looking elseware-to philosophy, history, law, literature, or the “harder” sciences=as these men themselves looked, for analytical ideas. And it occurs to me, also, these two curious characteristics are not unrelated.

What is the psychological approach to religions as described by Clifford Geertz?

Prior to WWI, the rise of evolutionary thought processing found its way into the background of the social sciences. Consequently, these views split anthropological thought into a more psycho-dynamic and socially structured approach.

Freud’s approach to religious systems therefore stems from the neurological symptoms of the human and their so called “primal” instincts. This approach has been incorrectly assessed, as Freud was describing deep seeded urges expressed in one’s collective unconscious. In other words, Freud described the unconscious as intrapsychic sources of behavior found in individuals.

On the other end of the spectrum, Geertz describes Kardiner’s Neo-Freudian approach as a projection of one’s own ritualistic practices, based upon behavior, or structure thereof.

All studies, according to Clifford Geertz, have stemmed from Freud’s approach to unconscious psychological forces. Today, unconscious studies have now fallen into the psychoanalytic approach, which describes urges, possibly construed as normal, being treated as a mental illness.

There are, however, the Jungian influences which seek to interpret cross culturally and temporally related themes, described as “expressions of transpersonal constancies in unconscious thought. In one instance, you may experience the awe theory when faced with cosmic forces. The second theory concerns constancies concerning suppression of one's inner fears by involving oneself in ritualistic ceremonies to quiet such fears. Both of these so called cosmic theories combine a feeling of grandeur after confronting the universe or cosmic forces.

Geertz, however, views these approaches as lacking in “systematic conceptualization of mental functioning". Therefore, these approaches must be assessed further for clarification sake.

According to Michael Martin, Geertz has stated that social scientists study meaning rather than behavior, seek understanding rather than casual laws, and reject mechanistic explanations of the natural science variety in favor of interpretive explanations (1993).

Geertz’s exploration of “primitive thought” in the development of religious behavior

Primitive thought refers to association of peoples with a lack of written language, technology, few extra societal contacts, small numbers, and lacking in uniformity. Geertz explains anthropologists, as well as many individuals observing primitive cultures, look to rationalize the ideational expression, increasingly concerned with the vehicle in which is used to complete a task, perform a ritualistic activity, etc.

There are two phases involving primitive thought, those before and after WWII. The first phase concerns itself with “primitive man” and rational thought. The second involves a slight deviation from the subjectivist emphasis of earlier works. The language of the act performed is, therefore, investigated for a deeper meaning.

Clifford Geertz explains that the first phase, although clearly a comparison of religious beliefs and practices of tribal peoples, results in a qualitative difference in the rational processes of primitive and civilized man.

Anthropologists, however, have considered these ritualistic practices “religious activity”, therefore the differences between civilized and primitive man are few and far between. Acts such as magic, ritual, and science are all part of the everyday religious traditions of tribal and preliterate people; therefore primitive thought based upon a religious view can be skewed in many circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Geertz's approach to religion has been coined “Symbolic Anthropology”, where religion, modern or primitive, can only be understood as an integrated system of thought and logically sound.

  • Geertz Picture
  •  Banton, Michael. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Routledge, 1966. xxx. Print.

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