Chapter 2: The Cultural Dimension

Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspectives on Religion in Contemporary Society
by Robert Wuthnow

Chapter 2: The Cultural Dimension

In this chapter I argue for the continuing importance of perspectives that emphasize the cultural dimension of religion. I also examine some of the theoretical assumptions that, in my view, have hindered the development of a cultural perspective in the sociology of religion, and I suggest some of the ways in which the so-called "new cultural sociology" may be able to make a positive contribution. New directions in the cultural analysis of religion will, I believe, be closely associated with the rediscovery and redirection of cultural analysis in the discipline more broadly.

There is nothing novel, of course, in suggesting the presence of a close connection between religion and culture. Religion, after all, is constituted by symbolism — whether in primitive amulets, totems, and rituals, the earth and sky god mythologies of ancient civilizations, crucifixes and relics of the medieval church, formalized texts and creeds of the world’s great modern religions, or even the sacred rites and markers we use to define ourselves, our relations to nature, our sense of personal identity, and our collective loyalties and destinies. If symbolism is the essence of culture, then religion surely has an important cultural dimension.

This is not to say that religion consists only of symbolism and is nothing more than culture. Like any social institution, religion consists of power and status relations, it depends on financial contributions which in turn make possible the provision of salaried professionals, and its strength or weakness in any society depends greatly on the bonds that inhere within its membership, the organizational resources it can mobilize to pursue ends in competition with other organizations, and its relations to broader patterns of wealth distribution, time allocation, communications media, and perhaps above all the state. To emphasize the cultural dimension of religion is not to deny the importance of any of these other characteristics. But such an emphasis does reflect a conviction that religion is something more than the nuts and bolts of social networks, that it is something more than the population ecology of competing organizations, and that its essential features cannot be understood entirely in the same terms one might use to understand a political party or an economic transaction. A focus on the cultural dimension of religion represents a decision to take seriously the symbolism of which religion is constituted as an object of study. Rather than merely pointing out the symbolic vistas along the expressway to an analysis of organizations, economics, motivations, and other "determinants" of religious belief, one sinks roots into the neighborhood of religious symbolism itself.

Many kinds of observers have, in fact, taken up residence within the cultural domain of religion. Anthropologists and ethnographers of all kinds come most readily to mind because of their insistence on understanding the expressions and language and mores that hold religious communities together. We have in the sociological literature a rich tradition of field work, including in recent years a large number of participant-observer studies conducted in new religious movements and an increasing number of congregational studies, many of which have paid close attention to the ways in which religious symbols (both verbal and behavioral) are patterned. We also have many fine examples of phenomenological work that has compared the symbolism of various religious traditions and sought to uncover the deep structure of religious mythology. Much of this work has been concerned first of all with problems of description, recording, induction, and the generation of greater appreciation for the richness, depth, diversity, and power of religious culture.

Sociologists of religion have generally been receptive to this broader body of work, benefitting from it, incorporating some of it into our standard accounts, and contributing to it as well. We have, however, been most deeply influenced by the theoretical orientations within our own tradition. These orientations have given us a common language with which to talk about religious culture, provided the jumping off points for empirical studies and critical discussions, and in these ways limited the kinds of problems we could address and given us the tools for addressing them.

Each of the major classical theoretical traditions from which sociologists have drawn inspiration have pointed to a close connection between religion and culture. Marx discussed religion within the more general framework of criticizing Hegel, Feuerbach, and other more popularized versions of what he and Engels described as the "alienated life elements" and "false consciousness" of bourgeois society. Though his work was always more seriously focused on the laws of oppression and expropriation internal to capitalism itself, Marx was also a brilliant analyst — and producer — of ideology, and he contributed some valuable, if sometimes neglected, insights into the workings of symbolism and discourse. Weber was, of course, far more conscientiously devoted to the systematic study of religion than was Marx. In Weber, we have a rich tradition of sociological analysis that takes seriously the cultural content of religion — its theological orientations, its understandings of evil, its soteriological teachings, the utterances of its charismatic leaders, and so on. And in Durkheim, a lifetime of work in which the changing bases of moral community lie at the center culminates in a full-scale discussion of religious myth and ritual, a discussion rich with insights about the ways in which symbolic categories are constructed and how they function. From these traditions, we have inherited not only the specific substantive emphases that distinguish each from the others but a legacy of common themes as well: (1) a theoretically grounded rationale for the importance of studying religion in any serious effort to understand the major dynamics of modern societies, (2) a view of religion that recognizes the significance of its cultural content and form, and (3) a perspective on religion that draws a strong connection between studies of religion and studies of culture more generally — specifically, studies of. ideology in Marx, studies of rationalization In ~ and studies of the symbolism of moral community in Durkheim.

The Geertzian Legacy

While the impact of these classical theories has remained strong, I would like to point to a specific contribution that, in my view, has served as a kind of watershed in our thinking about the cultural dimension of religion: Clifford Geertz’s essay "Religion as a Cultural System," published in 1966.1 Although Geertz, an anthropologist, was concerned in this essay with many issues that lay on the fringes of sociologists’ interests, his writing is clear and incisive, the essay displays exceptional erudition, and it provides not only a concise definition of religion but also a strong epistemological and philosophical defense of the importance of religion as a topic of inquiry. Few essays have been as widely reprinted in anthologies on the sociology of religion, as routinely cited in textbook discussions of religion, or (I suspect) as commonly required on the reading lists for graduate courses and general examinations in sociology of religion.

Given the clarity and power of its prose, Geertz’s essay was important in its own right; nevertheless, it entered an ongoing stream of theoretical discourse in the sociology of religion, and, like any such contribution, its significance lay not only in what it said but also in what others read into it. It shaped, I believe, the ways in which we have as a subdiscipline thought about religious culture over the past two decades, but it did so only partly because of the theoretical and methodological stance that Geertz himself adopted. Rather than simply presenting a powerful new way of thinking about religious culture, he provided a point around which a number of themes already evident in the sociology-of-religion literature crystallized.

As evidence, let me reconstruct briefly the theoretical milieu Geertz’s essay entered in 1966, showing how this milieu reinforced certain of Geertz’s themes, and then contrast this reception with the quite different way in which anthropologists themselves have depicted Geertz’s work. As a brief excursion into the sociology of knowledge, this exercise will provide a backdrop for the more critical observations I wish to raise. Of the various intellectual concerns dominating the sociological environment to which Geertz contributed in the mid1960s, three seem particularly worthy of mention.

First, the theoretical perspective of Talcott Parsons still exercised a powerful influence over the discipline in general. Geertz’s essay was by no means an example of Parsonian analysis, and Geertz’s work generally fell much farther outside the Parsonian framework than did the work of contemporaries such as BelIah, Eisenstadt, or Smelser. But Geertz had been a student of Parsons at Harvard, and his use of the phrase "cultural system" corresponded with Parsons’s systems terminology.2 Moreover, some of Geertz’s language (especially his usage of terms such as mood, motivation, and orientation) was compatible with Parsonian terminology, and upon publication of the essay, these terms were quickly appropriated by Parsons and others working within the Parsonian framework at the time, such as Bellah and Roland Robertson.3 It was, therefore, impossible to escape entirely from thinking about the relation between Geertz’s essay and Parsonian theory.

Second, within sociology of religion (as, to some extent, within the larger discipline of sociology) a relatively complex battle was being waged between the various proponents of empirical positivism and their detractors. Survey research in particular, through the work of Gerhard Lenski, Joseph Fichter, Charles Glock, Rodney Stark, and others, was beginning to shape the ways in which sociologists thought about religion, on the one hand, while on the other hand Parsonian theories, speculative and comparative work in the classical tradition, and some of the newer perspectives of phenomenology posed challenges to empirical positivism. Geertz’s essay was ripe for appropriation by both sides in this struggle because it reflected the broader Parsonian and hermeneutical orientations and yet provided a concise definition of religion and a discussion of some of its empirical manifestations.

Third, sociology of religion was also caught up in a debate over the relative merits of substantive and functional definitions of religion. In the late 1 960s at Berkeley, for example, Charles Glock had become a vocal proponent of a substantive approach, arguing for the importance of distinguishing between the supernaturalism of religious worldviews and the naturalism of humanistic worldviews, while Robert Bellah was advancing a functional approach that defined religion more in terms of any system of symbolism capable of inducing a sense of personal meaning.4 Elsewhere, J, Milton Yinger, Peter Berger, and Thomas Luckmann were also engaged in defending various definitional approaches to religion. Geertz’s essay, which championed a functional approach, was followed in the same volume by an essay by Melford Spiro that advanced a substantive definition of religion.

In addition to heightening the overall interest in Geertz’s essay, the effect of these circumstances was, I believe, to sharpen a particular interpretation of Geertz’s argument — an interpretation that focused heavily on the subjective characteristics of religious culture. For those who interpreted it within the Parsonian framework, conceiving of religion as a cultural system entailed (1) drawing a distinction between culture and the more tangible realities of social structure and behavior of which social systems are composed; (2) conceiving of culture as a system of general values, goals, or value orientations that define the desired end-states of individual and collective action; and (3) emphasizing the ways in which religious culture reinforces cognitive, cathectic, and conative commitment to these end-states. Those who viewed Geertz as departing from the Parsonian scheme were thereby enabled to view religious culture more in terms of concrete views, moods, and motivational factors that could be studied empirically, especially with survey research methods. And for those concerned about functional and substantive definitions of religion, Geertz basically settled the issue by suggesting that symbols themselves might vary greatly in substance but could be studied usefully in terms of their subjective functions, such as creating moods and supplying meaning and motivation. In any case, I think it significant that Geertz’s essay seemed to inspire no new or distinct lines of inquiry among sociologists of religion but was cited sympathetically, if only in passing, by scholars with as diverse interests as grand Parsonian theory, survey research, ethnography, and phenomenology.

This reception might be taken to suggest either that Geertz focused mainly on the subjective functions of religion or that he had written in such general terms that nothing distinctive could be found. It is interesting, therefore, to observe that anthropologists drew a very different lesson from Geertz. As Sherry Ortner has observed in a useful survey of the literature, anthropologists mainly understood Geertz as having argued for a stronger connection between culture and practice.5 They considered Geertz’s critical contribution to be his departure from the Parsonian framework, especially his rejection of the Kluckhohns’ emphasis on value-orientations, which Parsons himself had appropriated. They also considered Geertz’s rejection of any Marxian or Freudian approaches that focused on the consequences of culture to be significant. And above all they believed that Geertz was trying to focus attention on the lived realities in which symbols came alive. It was important, from this perspective, to observe how people talked about themselves and their social relations, to look closely at their rituals, and to pay special attention to the actual situations in which labor and discourse took place.

I am not concerned here with trying to settle the issue of whether tie anthropologists’ reading of Geertz was more or less accurate than ‘that of the sociologists of religion. Both confronted Geertz within the constraints of problems that were of greatest interest in their own disciplines. Geertz was considered authoritative in both contexts but was read in quite different ways. At present, therefore, we find rather different views of what it means to study culture within the anthropological community than we do among sociologists of religion.

If this expedition into the historical backwaters helps to relativize our understanding of Geertz, it should also suggest the value now, some twenty years later, of looking critically at some of the assumptions in our own tradition. I suggested briefly that our reading of Geertz mainly helped to reinforce a "subjective" perspective on religion. Now we would do well to consider the specific ways it has done so, and on what basis.

Problematizing the Modern Conception of Religion

By subjective, I mean an understanding of religion that privileges its connection to the individual, its location within the inner part of the individual (beliefs, outlooks, felt needs, emotions, inner experiences), and its role within the individual’s personality (providing meaning, wholeness, comfort, psychological compensations, even a sense of attachment or belonging). As I have suggested elsewhere, conceiving of religion in this way tends to underemphasize its collective features or leads to conceptions in which its collective features are depicted in ad hominem terms, such as "collective conscience," "soul of the nation," "group spirit," and the like.6 Thinking of religious culture in this way also reinforces a view of the world in which social structure is equated with behavior or with the way things "really are," while culture becomes nonbehavior — mood, attitude, feeling — and only a perception or interpretation of the way reality actually is (an "aura of facticity," in Geertz’s words). It is easy, of course, once a conceptual dualism of this kind has been established, to argue that culture cannot be understood sociologically unless it is "explained" in terms of social structure — unless the "sources" or "causes" of religious beliefs are located within such obdurate features of the social world as class interests, power relations, social networks, family backgrounds, and the like.

A further concern that may arise from this understanding of religious culture is that it is difficult to observe or measure it. Some argue that religious culture cannot be observed adequately at all. How, they ask, can one really explore the life of faith, the richness of the spirit, the complexity of inner conviction? Others are more confident of their ability to create adequate measures, but these measures tend to entail many assumptions about the observer’s ability to probe the inner psyche of the individual. Attitude scales, projective tests, indexes of belief, and measures of consistency are the result.

I am not in any way denying the importance of the psychological or social-psychological dimension of religion. In a modern society such as ours, in which religious pluralism has resulted in a great deal of private or individualized religion, the connection between the inner life of the person and the subjective aspects of religious belief and conviction are especially significant. However difficult, partial, and inadequate they may be, studies of individual religious commitment remain vital to our understanding of modern religion. But given the many aspects of religion, few would be willing to argue that the social-psychological approach alone is adequate. Studies of churches, sects, cults, and denominations — all conceived of as concrete organizational entities — abound. So do studies of the more behavioral dimensions of individual religiosity: attendance at religious services, giving to religious organizations, participation in religious movements, support of religious lobbies, viewing religious programs on television, and so on. We have in recent years witnessed a number of new theoretical schemes — or attempts to revive old schemes in which collective, behavioral, observable variables predominate: ecological theories, economistic models, market metaphors, notions of moral order and moral economy, and cybernetic and behaviorist approaches, to name a few. We have not, in my view, sufficiently come to terms with the concept of culture. It is one thing to recognize that religious organizations exist independent of the subjective characteristics of individual religiosity and quite another to speak of religious culture itself without falling into terminology such as "moods and motivation," "worldview," "meaning," and "value orientation."

Furthermore, the attractiveness of the main alternatives — various "poststructural" or "decentered" approaches — as ways of thinking about religious culture remains limited. To take the individual entirely out of the picture, focusing only on the formal characteristics of language, may be appropriate in studies of linguistics. To consider only the ways in which genre is put together may be desirable in literary criticism. To emphasize the rationality of validity claims, warrants, and backings may be useful for understanding jurisprudence and political discourse. But religion is different: it is more personal, less rational, often deliberately expressive, often not deliberate at all.

If we want to move toward a more adequate concept of religious culture, then, it would seem best to work with (and move through) our present understandings of religion, subjective as they may be, rather than opting for some entirely different perspective on culture. In my view, we need a view of religious culture that is broad enough to subsume and problematize the subjective approach to religion itself; that is to say, we need to think about the assumptions of this approach as a product of cultural construction itself.

We need to view the individual and the internal dimensions of the individual as problematic cultural constructs rather than simply taking them for granted as the starting point for studies of religion. If we ask someone, either in a survey interview or in real life, what he or she believes about religion, we are making certain presuppositions: we are assuming that the individual is a meaningful unit of reality, that he or she has a certain degree of self-awareness regarding his or her role as a unit of reality, that this unit is or can be conceived of apart from some feature of external reality about which one can have beliefs, and that belief (or commitment in general) is an appropriate way of relating to this external reality. Assumptions like these are scarcely remarkable: in modern society we operate on the basis of such assumptions most of the time. Were we to engage in broader historical and comparative research, however, they would immediately become problematic. We would learn that they have not always been present and, for this reason, it has not always been possible to conceive of religion as a problem of personal commitment. Recognizing these assumptions as cultural constructions in our own context should also render them problematic. We could then ask empirical questions about the bases upon which these constructions are produced and disseminated.

These considerations point, of course, to the relevance of work in the social sciences that has sought to problematize the modern concept of individuality. Two lines of inquiry seem particularly interesting. One concerns the ways in which social institutions provide cues and markers that help us to think of ourselves as bounded units of reality. The state’s propensity to assign individuals identities through voter registration lists and social security numbers or more generally to reinforce conceptions of individual rights serves as an example; the roles of educational systems (through individualized test scores) and professional careers (organized around cumulative skills attached to the individual’s biography) provide further examples.7 This work is important because it shows the dependence of self-constructs on markers in the culture at large: the self is understood not only in terms of internal development but also as a product of external reinforcement. Also of interest are inquiries that problematize the relation between private selves and public roles. These studies suggest that the modern individual has to an important degree been the creation of a more sharply defined public sphere from which the private realm can be more clearly differentiated.8 Questions of interior space then become more important, as do the relations between these inner realities and those that constitute the public or external realms.

In addition, beliefs and commitments should be understood not simply as the individual’s sense of attachment to something external but as expressions that depend on language. It is not the case that we have no observable evidence to substantiate assertions that modern religion is distinctly a matter of belief or that it depends on a particular understanding of the individual. Clues about the ways in which reality is categorized can be obtained from the language of religious discourse itself. When a person tries to convert a colleague by saying, "Let me share something that I’ve found to be true in my own life," we learn something vital about the location of religion in relation to that person’s sense of identity. Or when a pastor tells a congregation, "Each of you must find Jesus in a way that is meaningful to you," we also learn something vital about the nature of contemporary religion.

We can, of course, jump immediately to the obvious conclusion — namely, that contemporary religion has become acutely individualistic — and we can decry the loss of community and predict the eventual demise of religious tradition as we know it. But we can also credit religious discourse with a more active, powerful role than that and, in keeping with that, pay closer attention to what is actually said. Religious discourse lies at the intersection of the individual and the community. It individuates conviction, as these examples suggest, but it also reinforces a sense of collectivity at the same time. The very act of attempting to convert one’s colleague may be an act of solidarity, a way of creating a mutual bond, and the pastor who preaches in individualistic terms may still invoke a sense of community by calling — in the collective setting of the morning worship service — for unity amid diversity.

Once discourse becomes part of the picture, greater attention must also be paid to its content, as opposed to its context. It is one thing to say, as Peter Berger does, that conversation about religion supplies a plausibility structure, a social context in which shared conviction strengthens the commitment of all by making subjective belief an intersubjective reality.9 It is another thing to say that the content of this conversation itself must become an object of serious investigation. The one approach says merely that social interaction with like-minded believers is an important phenomenon and that we should know more about how often, with whom, and in what settings this sort of social interaction takes place. The other approach says that such interaction is merely the setting in which an important cultural drama takes place. We would not attempt to understand what goes on in the halls of Congress by merely counting the number of times meetings are held; we would want to know what was said. Similarly, we should not seek to analyze religious belief merely as a function of its plausibility structure; we should also seek to know what is said.

A sermon that carries conviction and authority does so not only because it is presented to a large audience in a large auditorium by a pastor with a fine reputation. It carries conviction and authority because of its content. The pastor does not simply preach the sermon; he or she also constitutes authority within the sermon through a strategic choice of examples and self-disclosures. Stories in the newspapers about religious leaders do not offend or persuade us simply because we bring to them certain educational levels and political inclinations; they offend or persuade because something in the stories signals to us that the reported event violates certain standards of common decency or that it can be understood within some familiar framework.

More emphasis also needs to be placed on discourse as practice. The examples I have just given should also underscore this point. A long tradition of theological study has focused on the content of religious discourse — in scriptures, creeds, sermons, and theological statements. In many cases, only a given text is studied. A sociological approach, in contrast, is inevitably more interested in the text’s relation to the social world. This relation should not be construed in a way that gives priority to the social world, or even in a way that creates a sharp distinction between text and context; rather, it should emphasize the active —and interactive — exchange between the behavior of speaking and the behavior of doing. Speaking itself is, as J. L. Austin has shown, a way of doing.10 But whether it accomplishes something through the act of speaking itself or only characterizes something that must be done separately, speaking occurs in time, involves an expenditure of resources, and imposes constraints on the sequence of its own unfolding.

A sermon develops over time: it can be analyzed in terms of the resources that constitute it (biblical references, the work of biblical commentaries, the homiletic instruction the speaker received as a student, the authority to speak that is bestowed on the office of pastor), and it can also be examined in terms of the effects it has on its audience (their ability to remember key arguments, whether they agree or disagree with these arguments, whether phrases from it are incorporated into their own discourse). Beyond this, though, a sermon rextualizes certain features of its own context (e.g., it offers comments about the weather, refers in passing to the previous day’s anniversary celebration, reflects on the week’s political events). These references are not incorporated into the text simply as themes that can be understood through standard content analysis procedures. The sermon itself conrextualizes them and thus alters their meaning by placing them polemically in relationship to other arguments, by selecting some of their features at the expense of others, by incorporating them into narratives, and by presenting them in a way that evokes a certain response or identification from the listener. In short, the sermon contains its own rhythms, its own redundancies, its own image of time and space, and it paints a social canvas of its own, complete with locations for the speaker, a differentiated audience of listeners, and various bystanders who serve as apprentices, tutors, protagonists, and opponents. And as it unfolds, the sermon becomes self-referencing, requiring a certain degree of coherence, incorporating a level of redundancy, and finally arriving at certain conclusions and not others by virtue of what has already been said and how it was said. Some of these constraints are present because of the social context in which the sermon is produced, others depend on the way the sermon textualizes these elements, and still others occur as features of the internal structure of the sermon itself. All of them are likely to follow more or less familiar or established social conventions.

This suggests that we may need to rethink what it means to say that religion is institutionalized. It is institutionalized not only in the organizational realities we point to as churches, sects, cults, or denominations. And it is institutionalized not only in the subjective expectations individuals hold about what things to believe in, how strongly to believe in them, and how to act upon these beliefs. It is also institutionalized in customary manners of speaking. Religion is a kind of code — a code evident in creeds and scriptures but also in the informal ways in which discourse about these creeds and scriptures is organized. In one setting it may be necessary for discourse to include signals of uniformity or consensus — gestures of agreement such as smiles and nods of the head, more formal statements such as the recitation of common creeds, or even informal modes of demonstrating agreement such as reading from a common translation, focusing on childhood experiences likely to have been common to everyone, or incorporating code words such as amen and blessing. In another setting, it may be necessary for discourse to include signals of diversity and experimentation — sentences that begin with "I think" or "in my experience," discussions of diverse denominational backgrounds or different theological traditions, rituals of inclusion that represent symbolic variations in race, age, gender, or wealth, and ways of telling stories that attach distinct personality characteristics and needs to individual characters. These are all features of religious culture that become institutionalized as part of the discourse in which religious communities engage.

And if institutionalization becomes problematic, then the ways in which social forces shape individual religious commitments also become problematic. Differences of education, age, or denominational background may still supply clues to the social forces that shape individual religious commitment. But language games mediate between these broad features of one’s background and the level of one’s religious commitment. A way of talking about religion learned within a certain educational stratum or denominational tradition may come to define the very meaning of religious commitment. To have "really struggled" with one’s faith may be the hallmark of commitment in one setting; to have "kept the faith of our fathers" may be the proper expectation in another. Behavioral differences may result, but the language used to talk about behavior also provides cues for inclusion or exclusion in a particular religious community.

Some of this will of course already sound familiar because it is consistent with arguments put forward by Clifford Geertz in his 1966 essay, or with arguments that have surfaced more prominently in Geertz’s recent work as well as in the work of Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, and others. Whether or not something represents a "new direction" is, then, not really essential. As our discussion of Geerrz has already illustrated, the theoretical tradition is rich — but various themes selected from it resonate with the dominant concerns of particular time periods. If questions about the subjective character and functioning of religion were emphasized a quarter century ago, questions of discourse and practice are gaining increasing attention now.

Religious Culture and the New Cultural Sociology

What some have called the "new cultural sociology" is an area in which questions of discourse and practice have most clearly risen to the surface.11 Work in this area has attempted to make the study of culture a more empirically grounded discipline. It has differentiated itself from grand macrotheoretical formulations concerned with value orientations, the comparison of whole civilizations, or global assertions about dominant themes in modernity such as universalism, pragmatism, and the like. Rather than thinking of culture as something implicit or taken for granted — as something about latent normative patterns that can be inferred only from observing regularities in social behavior — the new cultural sociology regards culture as something tangible, explicit, and overtly produced. It consists of texts, discourse, language, music, and the symbolic-expressive dimensions of interpersonal behavior, organizations, economic transactions, and so on. Proponents of the view hold that any specific cultural artifact should be examined in terms of questions about its production, its relations with other cultural elements, its internal structure, and the resources that determine how well it becomes institutionalized.

What are the issues, strategies, and hypotheses that may be useful to derive from the new cultural sociology for studies of religion?

One important set of issues focuses on the internal structure of culture itself. Rather than asking what symbolism does for the individual or where it is located within the individual’s consciousness, we ask how symbols themselves are arranged and related to one another. We might say that the study of religious culture shifts from a study of the meaning of symbolism to a study of the symbolism of meaning. That is to say, we take Bellah even more seriously than Bellah took himself when he argued for an approach in sociology of religion called "symbolic realism." We regard symbolism as a reality, important in its own right, worthy of systematic investigation. Consequently, we attempt to look directly at symbolism — in the case of religion, at the symbolism of meaning — rather than looking through it to see how it functions for the individual or even to give an interpretation of what sort of meaning it conveys. To be sure, we still engage in a hermeneutic process when we attempt this kind of analysis: we ultimately give our own interpretation of how symbols are put together and, in this sense, say why they convey meaning and perhaps even reveal what they mean to us. This is to say that we do not succeed in turning symbols into objects susceptible to a purely positivist form of analysis. But we recognize that the true object of analysis is symbolism itself, not the supposed meanings that subjects attach to it.

An example of how structural studies of this type might differ from more conventional studies might clarify the discussion at this point. Fundamentalism might serve, because it has been a topic of much interest in critical studies of contemporary religion. Within the more traditional framework, fundamentalism has been described as a "world-view," a rather tight (or narrow, or simplistic) view of the world — an orientation that is perhaps hierarchically organized around the ultimate value of otherworldly salvation, an orientation that supplies totally encompassing normative expectations for how people should behave, a set of beliefs and assumptions that are deeply meaningful to the people who hold them and that give meaning to these people’s lives. It has been called part of an authoritarian or paranoid cultural style. It seems to require a high level of commitment to some group or charismatic leader. It is a kind of elaborate dogmatism involving unquestioning acceptance of a vast set of scripturally legitimated injunctions and theological tenets. It is backward looking, a kind of longing quest to rediscover tradition, to make life simple, and (for this reason) it probably shares an "elective affinity" with dogmatism, bigotry, and political conservatism of other kinds.

If that is recognizably a caricature of fundamentalism, it is at least recognizable — and it is the way, I’m sure, that many fundamentalists and nonfundamentalists alike would describe it. Certainly it is a description that fits the dualism of theories that draw a sharp contrast between culture and social structure. Note how many of the words are subjective and intersubjective: worldview, orientation, value, normative expectations, beliefs, meaning, commitment, longing. It is also true that these ways of characterizing fundamentalism are at least one step removed from empirical observation. They are abstractions: they represent a thematization of fundamentalist culture, an extraction from observations, a way of summarizing what fundamentalism is supposedly all about. They represent inferences, mostly about things that cannot be observed very well directly.

Suppose, though, that we take a more structural approach. Suppose we examine carefully the texts of fundamentalists’ tracts and creeds, the texts of fundamentalist sermons, and the texts of discourse in which fundamentalists engage. Doing so — and this has been done— gives a rather different impression of fundamentalism. For instance, the structure of its discourse is not at all a tightly integrated dogmatic system; in fact, it is a hodgepodge of rather loosely coupled or even discrete statements or tenets. Often the main tenets are merely listed and then related to one another mostly in seriatim fashion rather than in terms of logical dependency. Consequently, they can be combined quite flexibly with other tenets (for example, some fundamentalists emphasize the so-called gifts of the spirit while others don’t, some expect the imminent end of the world while others don’t, etc.). Moreover, these tenets by no means encompass all of life in a kind of normatively determined worldview. They may contain admonitions about gambling and alcohol but have nothing to say about dieting, nuclear weapons, or brands of automobiles. And one could go on and on with this kind of analysis, showing that fundamentalists have a fairly predictable — and common — structure in their moral discourse, that their discourse contains certain distinctions about self, knowledge, agency, authority, community, and the like.

What is interesting about this kind of analysis is that it focuses on observable cultural materials: texts, sermons, discourse. It seldom strays into the subjective consciousness of the individual fundamentalist orinvO~ the collective unconscious of fundamentalists as a group. Rather than fundamentalist culture being a kind of implicit Zeitgeist, it consists of explicit, manifest, observable products. Moreover, the kind of analysis to which these products are subjected is not simply a process of extracting their content. The focus is not to thematize the underlying beliefs of fundamentalists from identifying common assumptions in their literature. The focus is on patterns among discursive elements, structural relations among these elements — their arrangement, the boundaries that separate them, the connections drawn between them, their variety, the degree of repetition evident, formal properties, the structure that gives them internal coherence. In short, the methodological cues are drawn from such writers as Mary Douglas, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Bakhtin, Todorov, Bourdieu, and Derrida. We stand to learn a lot about the ways in which religious discourse is put together from this kind of analysis.

A second general set of issues concerns the ways in which social relations are dramatized symbolically and ritually. As sociologists, we are probably also interested in something more specific about the social dimension of this discourse. Thus far we have taken it largely out of context, frozen it into a static image; now we wish to let the projector roll again, we want to examine culture, as Ann Swidler has put it, "in action."12 We want to take account of the fact that culture is not simply text, product, and object but that it is an act, that it is "enacted." Note that it is still important for us to have examined the internal structure of the discourse itself. We need to know how the discourse is arranged. But now we ask not only about its structure but also about its function. We conceive of it as that thing which it is principally intended to be: as communication. We see it as "expressive behavior," and particularly (given our interest in the social) as expressive behavior that communicates something about social relations.

Consider, for example, two fundamentalist sermons. Both reach their didactic climax by asserting that "Jesus is the answer." We note from our structural analysis that this statement is extremely brief, that the preachers do not spell out "how" Jesus is the answer or what that answer actually is. And we note that before reaching this conclusion, both ruled out a number of alternatives such as success, money, fame, love, education, and a whole variety of other things that might have been thought to be the answer. But now we put each sermon in its real-world context. We recognize that one is being preached in a local congregation of a hundred people, the other on television to a national audience. We also note that the first preacher goes on to say: "If you don’t know Jesus, if you haven’t found that answer, turn to the person next to you before you leave and find out. We want to help you. Join with us and see what it can mean to know Jesus." At the same point, the other preacher says, "Ask Jesus into your heart, right now,’ there in your living room, and you can discover the abundant life, you can experience victory over your problems, you can be happy and know real peace in your life."

Obviously, we have learned something very important about the social relations that are dramatized or expressed in these two sermons. In the one, "Jesus is the answer" is a kind of "restricted code" (to use Bernstein’s term), a phrase that is defined in interaction with a community, that is intended to draw people into a community.13 In the other, the same phrase is connected with individualizing words: "your living room," "you," "your life." In other words, we see that fundamentalist discourse functions as a kind of ritual — indeed, as part of a ritual and that it dramatizes something about social relations. It tells people how to behave in relation to one another, thereby creating a kind of moral order among them. And so looking at this discourse helps us to understand those social relations — and to understand the kinds of social relations in which this discourse may be especially meaningful. In other words, we would expect certain kinds of discourse to be present in some social situations and not in other situations. All of this points to the importance of linking culture with practice or, more precisely, of viewing culture as practice, rather than conceiving of it as something static or embodied solely in texts.

Finally, any adequate sociology of religious culture must also be concerned with questions about institutions and institutionalization. We’ve focused on the dramaturgic or communicative functions of culture as action, and this emphasis may suggest something about their connections between culture and its social context. But we can also push this search for connections to a somewhat more complex level. We can also raise the obvious, but important, fact that cultural acts don’t just happen. They are produced, and like any other outcome, it takes resources to produce them. We don’t quit looking at their internal structure or their dramaturgic functions, but we now ask about the resources that affect cultural production. We make explicit what has been only implicit thus far.

In our fundamentalist example, we make explicit the fact that the discourse is being produced by a real speaker, a preacher; that it takes resources to train, house, clothe, and feed this preacher; that these resources have to be extracted from the social environment (by getting people to put money in the collection plate and by donating some of their time); and that all of this takes place not just in a kind of ad hoc way but in a highly institutionalized setting. There are fundamentalist denominations, fundamentalist seminaries, fundamentalist writers, fundamentalist broadcasting organizations, and, more generally, well-institutionalized relationships between churches and the state and among churches themselves — all of which bear importantly on the production of fundamentalist discourse.

And when we examine these institutional contexts in which cultural production takes place, we are likely to be interested in the relationships between these contexts and the content of what is produced. In other words, we probably will want to go beyond a mere organizational analysis of the numbers of books, sermons, or theater productions that are produced. We will want to give culture itself a more interactive role in this process. Certain kinds of discourse may help the organization solicit resources; at the same time, discourse may commit the organization to certain paths of action that delimit what it can do in the future. So we are not simply ignoring culture and looking at cultural organizations, as some have charged, but are having to pay attention to the complex relationships existing among producers and consumers, the discourse and other kinds of cultural products, and the larger institutional settings in which this interaction takes place.

The Uniqueness of Religious Discourse

Does any of this presuppose something unique about religion as religion? Or does it assume that religion is merely an instance of discourse more generally? That, it seems to me, should be left open as an empirical question. Modern religion is to a very considerable extent a discursive practice. It encompasses ritual, and it mandates behavior and feeling, but it gives a privileged place to discourse: it grounds itself in the Word, whether that means a formally codified text or a broader conception of the divine spirit; it thrives on professional and popular interpretations of the Word; it requires the construction and maintenance of community through communication of shared convictions and experiences; and it mandates verbal expressions of sincerity, emotion, and commitment. But it remains — along with law, science, education, philosophy, and ordinary conversation — only one of the domains of modern society in which discourse is privileged.

Nevertheless, religious discourse speaks to a distinctive realm of existence, and we may wish to look for clues about the special ways in which an analysis of religious culture may prove useful to our understanding of the religious endeavor. Geertz was correct, I believe, in suggesting that religion speaks to our desire for personal meaning and that it does so by clothing concepts of a general order of existence with a powerful and enduring sense of facticity. That is a form of discourse that differs importantly from the talk we engage in about yesterday’s ballgame or tomorrow’s excursion to the beach. It requires a level of seriousness and sincerity but also a substantive scope that exceeds most other forms of discourse. We must, as Durkheim recognized, be able to set it apart from the profane speech (and practice) of everyday life. And we must be able to do so in a way that not only speaks about but also speaks (enacts) the paradoxical nature of life itself. Religious discourse totalizes its content and yet leaves room for individual expressions of faith That is its basic dilemma — a dilemma that we can perhaps understand better as we pay closer attention to the practice of religious culture.



  1. Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966), pp. 1-46; reprinted in Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 87-125.
  2. Parsons divided the world into four systems — physical, personality, social, and cultural, which he linked with the disciplines of natural science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, respectively. See Parsons, The Social System (New York: Free Press, 1951); and Toward a General Theory of Action, ed. Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).
  3. See Bellah, Beyond Belief (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); and Robertson, The Sociological Interpretation of Religion (New York: Schocken, 1970).
  4. See Glock and Rodney Stark, Religion and Society in Tension (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965).
  5. Ortner, "Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties," Comparative Studies in Sociology and History 26 (1984): 126-66. Religion, on the one hand, while on the other hand Parsonian theories, speculative and comparative work in the classical tradition, and some of the newer perspectives of phenomenology posed challenges to empirical positivism. Geertz’s essay was ripe for appropriation by both sides in this struggle because it reflected the broader Parsonian and hermeneutical orientations and yet provided a concise definition of religion and a discussion of some of its empirical manifestations.
  6. See Robert Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987).
  7. See, e.g., George M. Thomas, John W. Meyer, Francisco 0. Ramirez, and John Boli, Institutional Structure: Constituting State, Society, and the Individual (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1987).
  8. See, e.g., Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism (New York: Random House, 1976).
  9. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967).
  10. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).
  11. For an overview of the new cultural sociology, see Robert Wuthnow and Marsha Witten, "New Directions in the Study of Culture," Annual Review of Sociology 14 (1988): 111-33.
  12. Swidler, "Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies," American Sociological Review 51(1986): 273-86.
  13. Basil Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control (New York: Schocken, 1975).