Shifting aims, moving targets:
on the anthropology of religion*


Clifford Geertz





For an anthropologist pushing 80 and feeling it push back, there seems little else to do on a ceremonial occasion of this sort [the 2004 Sir James Frazer Lecture], dedicated as it is to commemorating a marmoreal figure whom most people remember, so far as they remember him at all, as a cloistered Edwardian don who devoted his life to a Causabon-like compilation of the world's exotica, but to reflect upon one's own, rather different, but hardly less transient, career in a related line of work and try to suggest what time and change have done to it. Not that this will avail against what time and change have done, and will continue to do, to it. There is nothing so dead as a dead academic, and any Ozymandian dreams one might entertain will be quickly dissolved by the simple device of looking up the Collected Frazer Lectures, 1922-32 on the Amazon web-site bestseller list and finding them placed at 2,467,068. I want, I hope without undue self-reference or illusions of permanence, simply to put into the record a particular encounter with a particular time.


And a particular subject: the anthropology of religion. Why I have spent so much of my time and energy since wandering into anthropology from the Humanities studying (in heavy quotation marks, here and throughout) 'religion'--in Southeast Asia, in North Africa, in the past, in the present, increasingly in the world at large--is not entirely clear to me, particularly as I have myself no particular religious background or--so far anyway, and as I say, it's getting late--commitment. Some of it, this concern, not to say obsession, with faith, worship, belief, sanctity, mystery, world-view, sorcery, propitiation, and the adoration of trees (on which, you will remember, Frazer has no less than five separate chapters) certainly has to do with that Humanities background: literature and philosophy do incline the mind to recherche subjects. But far more, I think, it is due to the continuing centrality of the description and analysis of myth, magic, rite, and spiritual tonality in anthropology from E.B. Tylor [1889], William Robertson Smith [1889], R.R. Marrett [1917], and Frazer [1890] forward through Bronislaw Malinowski [1948], Raymond Firth [1967], E.E. Evans-Pritchard [1956], Godfrey Lienhardt [1961], Victor Turner [1968], and Mary Douglas [1966], to essay only a local--Oxbridge, London, and Manchester--genealogy. (My own, of course, is American: Ruth Benedict [1927], Gladys Reichard [1923], Robert Redfield [1953], Clyde Kluckhohn [1962].)


Along with kinship, with which, via totemic classification and the incest taboo, it was directly linked from the beginning, religion has been so much at the centre of anthropological thought that anyone concerned, as I was and am, with the emblems and insignia of the human way of being in the world would be immediately drawn toward it as a field of research. And so, when the powers at Harvard, having organized a group of graduate students to go to Indonesia on a team project to study kinship, village life, peasant marketing, the Chinese shopkeeper minority, and local government, found themselves in need of someone to 'do' religion, I jumped at the chance and wrote my doctoral thesis and my first book on the interplay of Islamic, Hindu-Buddhist, and Malayo-Polynesian currents in the spiritual life of the Javanese, and have been worrying over the complexities and puzzlements encountered--theoretical ones, empirical ones, philosophical ones, sectarian ones, perhaps most important, practical ones--ever since.


Thinking back, not to that particular project, or to my work there as such, both of which are by now more or less archival, but to the whole period--the immediate post-World War II, incipient Cold War 1950s--it seems clear that there was around that time a major shift in both the aims and the objects of the anthropological study of religion: what it was looking at, and what it was looking for. Virtually all of the previous forays had been into tribal or archaic beliefs and ceremonies (Australia, the Ancient Semites, Native America, the Trobriands, the Nilotes, the Chuckchee), with the assumption, implied or open, that rudiments and foreshadowings of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and the other so-called 'High Religions' could be seen there and thus the elementary forms of the religious life, in Emile Durkheim's famous slogan, could be defined, classified, and reduced to rule. Now, however, an effort got under way to address the 'High Religions' directly and in their immediate and contemporary, emotionalistic forms, less to ferret out their common features than to place them within the social and historical--dare I say, in this venue, 'cultural?'--contexts within which they emerged and upon which they acted. What had been comparative folklore in search of parallels and prefigurations--shamans as priests, cockfights as sacraments, regicide as redemption (what Frazer called 'our debt to the savage')--became a comparative ethnography in search of consequence: import, impact, significance, weight. How, precisely, and how much, does 'religion' matter in the ongoing course of things? Wherein lies its appeal and force? Its reach? Its persistence? What, as we came soon to put it, is it--the imagery, the discipline, the fervour, the theatrics, the obsessiveness, the storytelling--all about?


This 'turn', or 'move', or 'paradigm shift' was, of course, but part, and a minor part at that, of a general shift in anthropological attention away from deserts, jungles, and arctic wastes, to what came to be known as The New Nations, The Developing Countries, The Third World, The Emerging Powers, or The Non-aligned States [Geertz 1963]. Someone setting out to study India, Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, China, or Brazil, or, as I was, Indonesia, found themselves faced not with an ant-hill assemblage of myths, spirits, and psychical practices to label and sort out, but with massive, deeply historical, and conceptually elaborated social and cultural formations, complete with officials, texts, economies, and ratified names. Complex societies, 'civilizations' if you wish, some of them as large as subcontinents, with multicultural populations, bundles of languages, and spiritual connections across half the world, presented those of us who, trained on benge and Blessing Way, came to be engaged with them not just with a new object of study, but with a revised conception of how to study it--what it was we wanted to find out.


With regard to Java, that anthology of the world's best imperialisms, poised to become the nucleus of a rambling and precarious, conceptually ill-defined political entity, this meant two things: first, a recognition, forced upon one by the merest contact with local life, of adversative, religiously phrased divisions within a single, many-minded society; and, second, the realization that these divisions and this many-mindedness did not preclude, but in fact produced, a distinct and particular sort of spiritual temper--a bent, a humour, a stamp, a moral climate. If the 'function' of religion was, as we were still taught to say in those days, 'the tuning up of ultimate value attitudes of the society', the tuning here was various, contrastive, and contrapuntal, and so were the attitudes. What Denys Lombard [1990: vol. III, pp. 89 ff.], the Braudellian historian of 'le cas javanais', called 'le carrafour des reseaux asiatiques', precariously balanced between 'le fanatisme' and 'la tolerance', between 'les frictions de la concurrence' and 'la volonte d'harmonie', turned out to be an excellent site on which, first, to take apart the very idea of 'religion' and then to try, somehow, to put it back together again.


The conceptual equipment available for performing this sleight of hand--separating out clashing and discontinuous spiritual currents and then reconnecting them in the muddled, composite flow of everyday life--was sparse and cursory. 'Pluralism', 'syncretism', 'communalism', 'denominationalism', 'sectarianism', the received terms for describing competing traditions animating common situations, all seemed inadequate to the tumbling intricacy and intensity of things. The suspicions and jealousies, along with the headlong aspirations to national unity, that drove the early Republic, and before long came within inches (or hours) of destroying it, were far wider and more all-embracing than even the metaphorically or analogically 'religious'. And yet they were, those suspicions and jealousies, and the aspirations as well, coloured and reinforced at almost every point by world-view variations centuries in the making.


It was not so much the ingredient traditions as such--Hinduism (or 'Hindu-Buddhism'), which had been there from the ninth century; Islam, which entered in the fourteenth and fifteenth; Christianity, propagated by European missionaries and plantation managers in the eighteenth and nineteenth; and the Austronesian undercurrent, which remained visible in the witchery and spiritism of popular observance--that most challenged description and explication. They were recognizable, familiar, and not all that distinctive: the usual grist for the ethnographical mill. It was the way in which those traditions, and the mentalities they generated, were stretched taut across the deepest and most divisive fissures of social, political, and economic life, and, in fact, defined and constructed those fissures--shaped them, sustained them, drove them on--that demanded a methodological change of plan.


The details of how all this worked out 'in reality' are again on the record: the progressive polarization of these closed and hardened casts of mind as the passions of the Cold War intruded upon the local scene and attached themselves, like ideological parasites, to one or the other of them; the foundering of electoral politics and parliamentary government as the polarization advanced to all-out culture-war; the eruption of mass violence--hundreds of thousands dead--when factional killing broke out along these lines across the whole of the island. The causes of all this, and of the forced and artificial reintegration which followed it and kept the country in a state of political and intellectual suspension, a sort of cultural time-warp, for thirty-five years, were, of course, various. But that the crash and clatter of religious dispositions was prominent among them is quite clear.


As I say, this sort of difficult intricacy, the interplay of local traditions and world religions, confronted not just myself and my Java-project colleagues thrown into the middle of a forming country; it confronted the whole generation of anthropologists who turned, in the 1950s and 1960s, to the study of old societies trying to become new (or, anyway, newer) states. India, with the communalist division of its nationalist movement and the agonies of Partition, was perhaps the most spectacular case. But Nigeria, with its Islamico-Christian sectionalism and its ethno-evangelical civil war; Sri Lanka with its Sinhalese-Buddhist vs Tamil-Hindu violence; intra-religion discordances, suspicions, and moral distancings in Landino-Indian Meso-America; Sunni-Shi'i sectarianism of small differences in Iraq and Pakistan, Orthodox-Roman ones in Serbo-Croatia; Muslims, Christians, and Jews tumbled together across the Middle East and North Africa; lowland Buddhism and up-country Christianity glowering at one another in Burma; Spanish Catholicism, American Evangelism, and Islamic Revivalism jammed together and set apart in the island Philippines--all these presented anyone concerned to explore their spiritual constitution with a rather different sort of task than that which had faced Reo Fortune and his sorcerers in Dobu, Max Gluckman and his chiefs in Swaziland, or Claude Levi-Strauss and his jaguar stories among the Bororo.


The first question it raised, and the one most productive of abstract debate, is one that was, of course, tacitly there from the beginning, but which could, now that such variousness, multiplicity, rivalry, and clamour were involved, no longer be silently and unreflectively answered by the simple device of training our attention on cults and customs that seem at least generally analogous to ones considered in our own society to have something to do with the divine, the supernatural, the holy, the sacred, the numinous, or the transcendent--namely, 'What Is Religion?' What is to be included under this rubric? Where are its borders? What are its marks? What, when you get down to it, is 'belief', or 'worship', or 'observance', or 'faith'? My dissertation was called 'Religions in Java', the book that emerged from it, cut, polished, and renamed for public consumption, The Religion of Java [Geertz 1960]. It had sections on everything from shadow plays, the hajj, yoga, and speech styles to possession, quranic schools, funeral feasts, and political parties. It is still not clear what its subject was.





The issue here, how we are to name and classify cultural formations in other societies that are at once broadly similar to ones in our own and oddly sui generis, strange and different, is quite general in anthropology: a recurrent crux. Whether it is 'the family', or 'the market', or 'the state', or 'law', or 'art', or 'politics', or 'status', deciding just what goes into the category, as we say, cross-culturally, and why it does so, is an essentially contested matter, a circular discussion that stirs polemic, never ends, and only marginally, and then rather diagonally, advances. The usual tack is to begin with our own, more or less unexamined, everyday sense of what 'the family', 'the state', or, in the case at hand, 'religion' comes to, what counts for us as kinship, or government, or faith, and what, family-resemblance style, looks ... well ... resemblant, amongst those whose life-ways we are trying to portray.


This hardly results in determinate species-and-genera taxa, a Linnaean catalogue of cultural kinds. What it results in is a persistent issue over which endlessly to argue--The Definition Problem: 'What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Religion?' In good part, surely, what we talk about is 'meaning'. If there is any general, immediate, and (at least until it is looked into more carefully) perspicuous category, direct and intuitive, apparently coherent, under which the cabbages-and-kings material of ethnographic accounts of 'religion' in today's potpourri 'new state' societies can be comparatively subsumed, it is that. The oblique, family-resemblance connections between the sorts of phenomena--beliefs, practices, attitudes, imaginings--that we group, casually and unreflectively, 'ordinary language-wise', under the commonsense designation 'religion' for ourselves, and those that we so group, hardly more deliberatively, in connection with societies we see as at least somewhat distant and unlike to our own--as 'Other'--are essentially ones we regard, in either case, as having something critically to do with the overall 'purpose', 'point', 'sense', 'significance', or 'design' of things: with, broadly and momentously, often enough parabolically, 'the meaning of life'.


Put that way, it might seem that all we have succeeded in doing is replacing one obscurity with another; the indefinite with the indistinct. But there is, or so it seemed to me as I struggled to determine what it was I had in fact been trying to bring to integral description in the Javanese case, one advantage of re-focusing matters in such a way: namely, that a large and expanding set of precise and powerful speculative instruments--conceptions, theories, perspectives, modes of discourse, frames of analysis--has been emerging in the human sciences which can be mobilized to sort the unsortable, connect the unconnected; to define researchable questions and devise ways to research them. Putting anthropology, and most especially the anthropology of religion, into the conceptually more complex and self-conscious context of contemporary linguistics, literary criticism, semiotics, psychology, sociology, and, most especially, philosophy is not to obscure what it has to say with imported abstractions or pump it up with concocted jargon. It is, in Charles Peirce's famous advisement, to try to make our ideas clear. Not least to ourselves.


In the flood of work that has appeared since--shall we say, Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure, Gottlob Frege, and Roman Jakobson (who seem to me to have, in their several ways, started most of it off)--with respect to the analysis of what, simply to have a covering term, we can call 'meaning systems', or, as I came to prefer, 'cultural systems', three lines of thought seem to me of particular value in connection with focusing and ordering our comparative understanding of religion.


The first of these is what has been called 'the autonomy of meaning' thesis. (The phrase is due to the American philosopher Donald Davidson [1984], but the locus classicus formulation is Wittgenstein's--no first name needed there--private language argument [Wittgenstein 1953; cf. Colebrook 2002: 70 ff.].) Meaning is not a subjective matter, private, personal, 'in the head'. It is a public and social one, something constructed in the flow of life. We traffic in signs en plein air, out in the world where the action is; and it is in that trafficking that meaning is made. We must, as Stanley Cavell, another American philosopher with Wittgensteinian tendencies, has, with appropriate paradox, put it, 'mean what we say', because it is only by 'saying' (or otherwise behaving, acting, proceeding, conducting ourselves, in an intelligible manner) that we can 'mean' at all [Cavell 1969].


The second thought-line, implicate in the first, is that meaning is materially embodied, that it is (and here one searches for the appropriate term) formed, conveyed, realized, emblematized, expressed, communicated, via ponderable, perceptible, construable signs; symbolical devices, like passage rites or passion plays, differential equations or impossibility proofs, which are its vehicles. (What makes a device 'religious' is not its structure but its use: Pythagoreans, we are told, worshipped right triangles and the square-root of two.) Despite the difficulty of formulating it in a simple, straightforward way, something due to the haunting of our language by the ghosts of departed epistemologies, this is a more or less obvious idea, once those ghosts, Platonic or Cartesian, Comtean or Christian, are properly exorcized. That culture (language, art, science, law, religion, marriage, politics, merriment, common sense--the whole kit and caboodle) consists not of bodiless ideas suspended in impalpable mental states, delicate motions of the soul and spirit, but of what the American action theorist, social critic, and all-round man of letters Kenneth Burke [1941] has called 'equipment for living', equipment that is substantial, at hand, usable, and used, ought not by now to be so difficult a notion.


And finally, connecting all this more directly with religion and worship, there has been the development, important in the human sciences since Max Weber's Religionssoziologie, but which has a long and serpentine history in apologetical speculation of all shapes and varieties and in certain branches of recent theology, of the conception of 'limit', or 'ultimate', or 'existential' problems of meaning: the notion that it is at the point at which our cultural resources fail, or begin to fail, where our equipment for living creaks and threatens to break down in the face of the radically inexplicable, the radically unbearable, or the radically unjustifiable--irresolvable confusion, ineluctable pain, invincible evil, the primitive surds of finitude--that the sort of concern, often enough itself referred to as 'ultimate', that we recognize as religious comes into play [Jaspers 1971; Tillich 1952; Weber 1965]. To cite, as I have done more than once elsewhere, a passage by Suzanne Langer, another unclassifiable, freelance American social theorist:

Man can adapt himself somehow to anything his imagination can cope with; but he cannot deal with Chaos. [Our] most important assets are always the symbols of our general orientation in nature, on the earth, in society, and in what we are doing: the symbols of our Weltanschauung and Lebenanschauung ... [In] a primitive society, a daily ritual is incorporated in common activities, in eating, washing, fire-making ... because the need of reasserting the tribal morale and recognizing its cosmic conditions is constantly felt. In Christian Europe, the Church brought men daily (in some orders even hourly) to their knees, to enact, if not to contemplate their assent to the ultimate concepts [1959: 287].

Equipped, then, with these three general notions, that meaning is autonomous, that it is conveyed in signs or symbols, and that religious meanings so conveyed are directed toward points at which impasse looms, I tried, just about forty years ago now and, curiously enough, here in Cambridge at a famous hands-across-the-sea ecumenical conference designed to gather younger British 'social' and younger American 'cultural' anthropologists into a common discourse community (little hope, apparently, was held out for the elders, most of whom avoided the event), to set forth a brief, general account of 'Religion as a Cultural [or, again, 'meaning'] System', by means of which I hoped I could identify and locate the centre of gravity, so far as there was one, in my dispersed and ad-hocish, engage it first, interpret it later, approach to things [Banton 1966: 1-46; Geertz 1973].


This involved, in the first instance, a tentative, rather awkward, rather diffuse, effort to construct a definition, not, as I thought I quite explicitly and insistently, even repetitiously, stated, to isolate 'an ontological', 'universalist', 'trans-historical' 'essence of religion for now and for always', but to control, guide, and render more explicit, an, at that time anyway, still rather angular and unfamiliar line of argument. (1)


This road-map, tour d'horizon 'definition' (it was really more of a provocation than anything else, directed toward upending the complacencies at once of structuralism and functionalism, then the reigning paradigms in ethnological research) was mainly concerned with stressing the way in which a people's, a group's, or an individual's most comprehensive ideas of order, their worldview, and the pervading tone and temper of their lived life, their ethos, are made to complete and reinforce one another in religious practice: in ritual, in myth, in spiritual discipline, in the reflexive pieties of everyday life. 'Religion', to quote myself, 'tunes human actions to an envisaged cosmic order and projects images of cosmic order onto the plane of human experience' [Geertz 1973: 90; for an earlier, less technical, statement, see Geertz 1958]. It gives, as the epigraph I took from George Santayana's neglected Reason and Religion put it, a particular and idiosyncratic 'bias to life', constructs (a believer might say, I suppose, 'discovers') 'another world to live in'. And 'another world to live in--whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or not--is what we mean by having a religion' [Geertz 1973: 90].


In any case, having thus collected my thoughts as best I could manage for the moment and set them out for the powers to contemplate, I rather quickly tired of position-taking and polemical exchange, the here-we-are and there-we-are of programmatical discourse in scholastical places, and wanted to return to the mine-face, where, once again, the action is after all, to see if all this came to anything useful in understanding, as we say, 'the real world'--the one which people live in, but anthropologists only visit. Accordingly, I began yet another long-term, up-close encounter with another historically old, politically new, or anyway renovated, religiously emphatic society (Java at that time was fully in the throes of the pandemic violence I mentioned earlier)--namely, Morocco.


Like Java (or Indonesia--but let us leave that problem aside), Morocco, is, of course, nominally, publicly, and at least semi-officially 'Islamic', has been so for the whole of its written history, and seems highly unlikely soon to change. But, unlike Java, it is Arabo-Berber, rather than Malayo-Polynesian, in its ground-bass infra-culture; and, unlike Java, it has been largely--not entirely, but largely--free of direct involvements with and intensive influences from other 'high', 'world', 'organized', 'doctrinal', or 'scriptural' religions. (There was, for a very long time, an enclave Jewish presence and, for a much shorter period, a supervenient Christian one, but neither had much effect on the overall drift and tenor of things.) As a result, instead of the diffuseness and conglomeration, the sense of eclecticism, dispersion, and continuous position-taking which marks Java, Morocco presents a much severer, much more focused and concentrated spiritual picture: 'Islam' sans phrase. Against Java's delicate carrefour balance between 'les frictions de la concurrence' and 'la volonte d'harmonie', Morocco seems (in its temper, at least--its social structure is another matter) direct, uncluttered, spare, and monophonic.


To bring this contrast out, to unpack it, and to demonstrate the usefulness of the meaning system approach in focusing issues, I gave a series of rather brief, schematical, and in some ways reductive lectures after returning from North Africa in the late 1960s, in which, rather than offering an encyclopaedic survey of whatever seemed to have something or other to do locally with 'religion,' as I had for Java, I attempted to trace how a single, long-established, highly codified, extraordinarily self-conscious, not to say self-absorbed 'world religion', Islam, had worked itself out in quite different ways with quite different effects in quite different settings: the farthest Maghreb, the most distant Indies. Published later as Islam Observed [Geertz 1968] (which was supposed to be a pun, though I don't know that anyone noticed), my discussion was organized around the construction in each of the two societies of what I called their 'classical styles' of religious expression: in Java, a hierarchical, syncretistic, and rather diffuse, experience-seeking intuitionism; in Morocco, a strenuous, confrontational, and rather puristic, world-correcting moralism. The validity of these capsule characterizations aside (it is not possible in such matters to describe without misdescribing; exception and contradiction are so deeply built-in), my concern was to show how comprehensive, overall ideas of order, some of them derived from Islamic texts and traditions, some of them not, and particular, locally developed, locally accented social practices played into one another, dialectically if you like that sort of language, reciprocally if you don't, to produce concrete and particular trains de vie--distinctive ways-of-being-in-the-world.


But a funny thing happened on the way to the argument. In both countries (and, it all too soon became apparent, in the world at large) the closeness of the tie between large views and local circumstances began to grow drawn and attenuated, transformed to a plane of abstract defensiveness and identity panic, even as I watched. What had been a fairly direct and immediate interplay between the everyday experiences of life among others and deep-laid notions of significance and collective purpose became, at least for large and growing segments of the two populations, though again in characteristically contrastive ways, a much more elusive, intricate, unsteady, and uncertain matter.


To name this phenomenon, and in part to characterize it, though its force and scale, as well as its staying power, remained quite unclear, I coined, for the nonce, the nonce-phrase 'religious mindedness'.

In the course of their separate social histories, the Moroccans and the [Javanese] created, partly out of Islamic traditions, partly out of others, images of ultimate reality in terms of which they both saw life and sought to live it. Like all religious conceptions, these images carried within them their own justification; the symbols (rites, doctrines, objects, events) through which they were expressed were, for those responsive to them, intrinsically coercive, immediately persuasive--they glowed with their own authority. It is this quality that they seem gradually to be losing, at least for a small but growing minority. What is believed to be true has not changed for these people, or not changed much. What has changed is the way in which it is believed [Geertz 1963: 17].

Whatever you want to call it (and, as I say, 'religious mindedness' does not seem to be quite the right term, for it suggests a certain superficiality and falling away from genuineness which I don't think was the case), there seemed in both countries to be a change, then still limited but rapidly accelerating, in the way in which religious convictions were brought together with the workings of everyday life. The relations between the two were less simple, less immediate, and less direct--more in need of explicit, conscious, organized support. The forms which this took in both countries--back-to-the-Quran reformist movements, political-party organization of religious interests, the efflorescence of propaganda, apology, and doctrinal argument--brought nothing so much to mind as another line from Santayana, this one about persons (he called them 'fanatics', but that too is not quite right) who, having lost sight of their aim, redouble their effort.





A great deal has happened, both in Indonesia and Morocco particularly and in the Islamic world generally, since those lectures were delivered in what turned out to be the apres nous le deluge year: 1967. Indonesia has had five presidents since, two of them strong Muslims, three of them more syncretic in outlook. Morocco has had two kings, one of them emphatic and hard-handed, the other hesitant, elusive, and hard to read. The Cold War, which pumped foreign-born ideological passions into home-grown social tensions to the point where the combination threatened to disintegrate politics and dismantle the state, has ended. There are only a few Jews left of what was once a flourishing, if besieged, community in Morocco. Indonesia's rather nativistic Communist Party, once the largest outside the Sino-Soviet bloc and poised for revolution, has been completely destroyed after a failed coup and a popular massacre, its leaders killed, imprisoned, disgraced, or exiled. And, perhaps most important from the point of view of our subject, the 'religious mindedness' as vs 'religiousness as such'--self-conscious, doctrinarian belief as opposed to everyday reflexive faith--that I saw as just beginning to become prominent in the two countries as 'salafism', 'scripturalism', 'reformism', 'purism', and 'double-mindedness' has since become pervasive across the whole of the Muslim world under such generalizing rubrics as 'Islamism', 'Political Islam', 'Neo-Fundamentalism', and 'Jihadist Islam'. Khomeini, Le Front Islamique du Salut, the Taliban, and Osama have occurred since. So have the Al Aksa Intifada, the attack on the World Trade Towers, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the bombings in Bali and Casablanca, the de-Sovietization of Central Asia, and the massive migration, increasingly permanent, increasingly contested, of Near Eastern and Asian Muslims to Western Europe and the United States.


Such, indeed, are the perils of trying to write history as it happens, as I was, in part, attempting to do. The world will not stand still till you complete your paragraph, and the most you can do with the future is sense its imminence. What comes, comes: the important thing is whether, when it comes, it makes any sense as an outgrowth of the directive processes you think you have seen. History, it has been said, may not repeat itself but it does rhyme. And from that point of view, looking back from what I see now to what I saw then, though I am both worried and disheartened (I had hoped for better), I don't feel particularly embarrassed, chastened, defensive, or apologetic. Sensing rain, I may have gotten a flood; but it was, at least, a corroborative one. However unformed and gathering the clouds where then, and however uncertain I was about what to make of them, they were real. And so, it now turns out, was the storm they portended.

In the second half of the twentieth century, The Long Postwar, the study of religion in the social sciences was, with a few prominent exceptions, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann [1967] and Robert Bellah [1970] in sociology, Victor Turner [1968] and Mary Douglas [1966] in anthropology, still pretty much of a backwater, and the reductive version of the so-called 'secularization thesis'--that the rationalization of modern life was pushing religion out of the public square, shrinking it to the dimensions of the private, the inward, the personal, and the hidden--was in full cry. Though spirits and goblins, and even high gods, still had purchase among peripheral peoples and submerged classes, and the churches remained open, the illusion had no future as a broadly consequential social force. It might, indeed probably would, persist for a while, in this place or that, as a primitivist hangover and a drag on progress; but that it would ever again be the directive power, forcible and transformative in social, political, and economic affairs that it had once been, in the Reformation, the Middle Ages, or the Axial Age, was scarcely conceivable. That, of course, may still turn out to be the case, and Weber's nightmare--'specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart'--may yet come to pass [Weber 1958: 284]. But it didn't look like that to me and my out-of-step fellow travellers in 1967. And it certainly does not look like that to anyone now. Hindutva, Neo-Evangelism, Engaged Buddhism, Eretz Israel, Liberation Theology, Universal Sufism, Charismatic Christianity, Wahhabis, Shi'ism, Qtub, and 'The Return of Islam': assertive religion, active, expansive, and bent on dominion, is not only back; the notion that it was going away, its significance shrinking, its force dissolving, seems to have been, to put it mildly, at least premature.


Summing up in a handful of sentences what has happened to 'religion', here, there, and around the world, in the closing decades of the last century and the opening one of this is, of course, quite impossible, a mug's game (or an ideologue's [Geertz 2003a]); and I have, after what I have been through, better sense than to attempt it. But it is possible to suggest a few characteristics of the contemporary scene, within Morocco and Indonesia as well as without, within Islam as well as the other 'world religions', that seem to be at once something rather new under the sun and logical extensions of settled trends.


Of these, I will mention here only two, though they are but part of a much larger social picture and they rather come down to two ways of saying the same thing: (1) the progressive disentanglement, for want of a better word, of the major religions (and some of the minor ones--Soka Gakkai, Mormonism, Cao Dai, Bahai) from the places, peoples, and social formations, the sites and civilizations, within which and in terms of which they were historically formed: Hinduism and Buddhism from the deep particularities of Southern and Eastern Asia, Christianity from those of Europe and the United States, Islam from those of the New East and North Africa; and (2) the emergence of religious persuasion, inherited or self-ascribed, thinned-out or reinforced, as a broadly negotiable, mobile and fungible, instrument of public identity--a portable persona, a movable subject position.


The spread of the named and textualized world religions from their points of origin and most immediate relevance to foreign climes and contexts is, of course, of very long standing; that is why they are called 'world religions'. The missionary expeditions of Protestantism into Asia and Africa, the migration of Roman Catholicism along with Iberian conquest culture into Latin America, Islam's explosive thrust east and west from its backwater Arabian heartland, even the rather more elusive, harder-to-trace radiation of Buddhism out of India into China, Japan, and Southeast Asia or that of Rabbinic Judaism out of the New East into Spanish, Slavic, and Germanic Europe--all these demonstrate that beliefs, creeds, faiths, Weltanschauungen, 'religions', travel, change as they travel, and work themselves, with varying degrees of success and permanence, into the finest of fine structure of the most local of local histories.


What is new in the immediate situation, or anyway different enough to represent something of a sea-change, is that whereas the earlier movement of religious conceptions and their attendant commitments, practices, and self-identifications was largely a matter of centrifugal outreach in one form or another--missionization, conquest, calico-trade proselytizing, and colonial intrusion; itinerant clerics, outpost academies, in situ conversions--the present movement is both larger and more various, more a general dispersion than a series of directed flows; the migration, temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent, of everyday believers of this variety or that, this intensity or that, across the globe. There are an estimated twenty million Indians living outside of India, five million Muslims living in France. There are Buddhists (Thai, Burman, Sri Lankan, as well as some autopoetical ones) in London and Los Angeles; Christians, Western expatriate ones, in Tokyo, Riad, and Bangkok, Filipino guest-worker ones in the Gulf, Australia, and Hong Kong. There are Muride street peddlers from Senegal in Turin, Turkish and Kurdish grocers in Berlin. Latin-American Indio-Catholics will soon outnumber, if they don't already, Euro-American ones in the United States. 'The world', in a phrase I quoted years ago from Alphonse de Lamartine when all this was just getting started and I was just beginning to get interested in the ideologization of religious traditions, 'has jumbled its catalogue' [Lamartine 1946: 328].


This scattering, piecemeal, headlong, fitful, and, except for a certain amount of kinship and neighbourhood chaining, unorganized, of individuals (and families) born into locally rooted, culturally particularized setting alters the whole climate of public belief and spiritual self-consciousness, both for those who move, for those into whose midst they move, and for those who are left behind. The formation of diaspora communities, even religiously marked diaspora communities, is also hardly a wholly new phenomenon in world history--Jews in New York, Maronites in West Africa, Hadramautis in Southeast Asia, Gujeratis in the Cape. But the scale on which they now are forming (50,000 Moroccans in Amsterdam, 100,000 Malians in Paris, 150,000 Bangladeshis in London, 250,000 Turks in Berlin, and, most wonderful of all, 10,000 Tamils in Switzerland--virtually all arrived there in the last two or three decades) surely is. It is not just capital that is being globalized, not just doctrine that is spreading.


The transformation of more or less routinely transmitted, compliantly received conceptions of the good, the true, and the actual into explicitly asserted, vigorously promoted, and militantly defended ideologies--the move from 'religiousness' to 'religious mindedness' of various sorts and degrees of intensity--that was 'observed' as getting underway in Moroccan and Indonesian Islam in the mid-1960s as those countries began seriously to reconsider their religious history is now a quite general phenomenon in a world where more and more people and the selves they have inherited are, so to speak, out of context: thrown in among others in ambiguous, irregular, poly-faith settlements. It is not just Muslims, and not just North Africans and Southeast Asians, who are undergoing this sort of spiritual reorientation. Nor is it only happening to migrant populations. The jumbling of the world's catalogue is altering both the form and the content of religious expression, and altering them in characteristic and determinate ways, changing at once the tonalities of conviction, its reach and its public uses. That much, whatever else is or isn't happening, is quite clear.


Being a Muslim abroad (or a Hindu, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist ... but I must return to my sheep), outside the Dar Al-Islam, is, as increasing numbers of Moroccans and Indonesians gone elsewhere to work, study, tour, or marry are finding out, a rather different matter than being one at home. Going among non-Muslims induces in many, probably in nearly all, a certain amount of conscious reflection, more or less anxious, on what being a Muslim in fact comes down to, on how properly to be one in a setting not historically prearranged to facilitate it. There can be and are, of course, a number of outcomes: an ecumenical 'watering down' of belief to render it less offensive to a religiously pluralized or secularized setting; a 'double-minded' dividing of the self, and the self's life, into but vaguely communicating inward and outward halves; a turn toward a much more assertive and self-conscious Islamism in response to the perceived faithlessness of the new setting. And just about every possibility in between, including, of course, blind, unfettered, slaughterous rage.





So: one, nervously bounding about over four continents for a half century; the other, calm and settled in his rooms at St John's for a similar period--are we, after all, Frazer and I, in the same business? Is he in my genealogy, am I in his? Does an aim connect us? A history run through us? A field embrace us? It is a very long way, it would seem, from the strange goings-on in the grove at Nemi--the 'grim figure', 'the drawn sword', 'the priest murderer himself to be murdered' [Frazer 1890: preface]--to the political agendas of the salafi madrasahs of central Java or the legitimist ambitions of the sherifian zawias of northern Morocco, to say nothing of the 'can we let them wear head-scarves?' comedies of civiste Paris or the 'can we let them read Quran?' ones of chapter-and-verse North Carolina [Bowen 2004; Geertz 2003b]. Is 'the anthropology of religion' a subject, like 'kinship', or 'class', or 'gender'? An issue, like 'the origins of agriculture' or 'the evolution of the state'? A discipline, like 'palaeontology'? A specialty, like 'sociolinguistics'?


It should be clear by now that, at least so far as I am concerned (others may do as others wish), 'studying religion' is not, and never has been, a single, bordered, learnable and teachable, sum-up-able thing. It is, and has always been, a matter of sorting through various happenings variously encountered--large, public ones, like national elections or international migrations; small, intimate ones, like household feasts or Quran chants; merely incidental, parenthetical ones, like a broken funeral, a raided cockfight, or a painted-over house facade--all in an effort to determine how overall conceptions of what reality really is and particular ways of going about in it play into one another to sustain the sense that, more or less anyway and on balance, things make sense. 'The religion of Java', 'observed Islam', and 'the 'jumbled catalogue of The Long Postwar' are but chapters, obliquely related, loosely successive, arbitrarily titled, in a fitful history of meaning-making.


It is that, as I look back over Sukarno's Java, hectic with hope and disappointment, Hasan II's Morocco, half-emergent from 'asabiya, feud, and hommes fetiches, and, now, the tumblings and scatterings of the post-modern postmillennium, which seems to run through the whole and make of it all, after all, a confinable subject--something to regard, steadily and whole.


At each stage, in each place, on each occasion, one is presented with a wild multiplicity of individuals, groups, and groups of groups trying to hold their lives together in the face of change, circumstance, and (Sartre's hell) one another. One doesn't, after all, so much 'examine' religion, 'investigate' it, or even 'research' it, as circumambulate it. Skulking about at the edge of the grove, one watches it happen.


We are, most all of us now, not just anthropologists, folklorists, or connoisseurs of the odd and arcane, thus somewhat employed. The jumbling of the world's catalogue is, by now, general to the point of near universality. Cheek-by-jowl contrast, not only of religious allegiance, but of ethnic background, 'race', language-community, place of origin, and God knows what other allegiance or marking people may contrive to distinguish themselves from one another and persuade themselves of their own solidity, is pervasive, not just in Western Europe and North America, towards which migration has recently been perhaps the most marked, but also in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, drawn with increasing force and inevitability into the whirl of the world's variety. It is, of course, possible that all this here-we-are-and-there-we-are will in time sort itself out and large, neat, hermetic blocs of cultural commonality, what we used to imagine 'nations' to be, will either re-emerge or be created anew. But, so far as I can see, there is at the moment precious little sign of it. Jumble is with us late and soon.


* Sir James Frazer Lecture, Cambridge University, Spring 2004.





(1) The epithets are all taken from a particularly obtuse and interesse critique, Asad (1983). For an excellent critique of the critique, see Caton (forthcoming); cf., along the same lines, but more briefly, Kipp & Rodgers (1987: 29). For another general statement of my own which addresses some of these issues more directly, in connection with the work of William James, see Geertz (2000: 167-202); cf., more broadly, Geertz (forthcoming).





Asad, T. 1983. Anthropological conceptions of religion: reflections on Geertz. Man (N.S.) 18, 232-59.

Banton, M. (ed.) 1966. Anthropological approaches to the study of religion (ASA Monograph 3). London: Tavistock.

Bellah, R. 1970. Beyond belief, New York: Harper & Row.

Benedict, R. 1927. The concept of the guardian spirit in North America. (American Anthropological Association Memoir 29). Menasha, Wis.: American Anthropological Association.

Berger, P. & T. Luckmann 1967. The social construction of reality. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Bowen, J. 2004. Muslims and citizens: France's headscarf controversy. Boston Review, Feb./Mar., 31-5.

Burke, K. 1941. The rhetoric of literary form. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Caton, S. forthcoming. What is an 'authorizing discourse'?

Cavell, S. 1969. Must we mean what we say? New York: Scribner.

Colebrook, C. 2002. Irony in the work of philosophy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into truth and interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and danger. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1956. Nuer religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Firth, R. 1967. The work of the gods in Tikopia (Second edition). London: Athlone Press.

Frazer, J.G. 1890. The golden bough. London: Macmillan.

Geertz, C. 1958. Ethos, world view, and the analysis of sacred symbols. Antioch Review, Winter, 421-37.

______ 1960. The religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

______ (ed.) 1963. Old societies and new states. New York: Free Press.

______ 1968. Islam observed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

______ 1973. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

______ 2000. Available light. Princeton: University Press.

______ 2003a. Which way to Mecca? New York Review of Books, 12 June, 13.

______ 2003b. A strange romance: literature and anthropology. Profession 2003, 28-36.

______ forthcoming. Rituals as model systems.

Jaspers, K. 1971. Philosophy of existence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kipp, R. & S. Rodgers (eds) 1987. Indonesian religions in transition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Kluckhohn, C. 1962. Navaho witchcraft. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lamartine, Alphonse de 1946. Declaration of principles. In Introduction to contemporary civilization in the West: a source book. New York: Columbia University Press.

Langer, S. 1959. Philosophy in a new key. New York: New American Library.

Lienhardt, R.G. 1961. Divinity and experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lombard, D. 1990. Le carrefour javanais. 3 vols. Paris: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Malinowski, B. 1948. Magic, science, and religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Marrett, R.R. 1917. Primitive ritual and belief, London: Methuen.

Redfield, R. 1953. The primitive world and its transformations. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Reichard, G.A. 1923. Navaho religion: a study of symbolism. New York: Pantheon.

Smith, W.R. 1889. Lectures on the religion of the Semites. Edinburgh: C. Black.

Tillich, P. 1952. The courage to be. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Turner, V.W. 1968. Drums of affliction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tylor, E.B. 1889. Primitive culture. New York: Holt.

Weber, M. 1958. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

______ 1965. The sociology of religion. London: Methuen.

Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical investigations. New York: Macmillan.




Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

School of Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein Drive, Princeton, N.J., 08540, USA.



Shifting aims, moving targets: on the anthropology of religion, in: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 11 no. 1 (spring 2005), pp. 1-15.


online source:


Using this text is also subject to the general HyperGeertz-Copyright-regulations based on Austrian copyright-law (2001), which - in short - allow a personal, nonprofit & educational (all must apply) use of material stored in data bases, including a restricted redistribution of such material, if this is also for nonprofit purposes and restricted to a specific scientific community (both must apply), and if full and accurate attribution to the author, original source and date of publication, web location(s) or originating list(s) is given ("fair-use-restriction"). Any other use transgressing this restriction is subject to a direct agreement between a subsequent user and the holder of the original copyright(s) as indicated by the source(s). HyperGeertz@WorldCatalogue cannot be held responsible for any neglection of these regulations and will impose such a responsibility on any unlawful user.

Each copy of any part of a  transmission of a HyperGeertz-Text must therefore contain this same copyright notice as it appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission, including any specific copyright notice as indicated above by the original copyright holder and/ or the previous online source(s).