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Religiosity as a political atom of action

In one of the chapters of his acclaimed The Interpretation of Cultures [1] , Clifford Geertz proposes to take a look at the meaning of religion, or more specifically, to outline a guide to a useful and fruitful way of understanding its practical meaning, especially in its contemporary forms of manifestation. He admits that the most sensible of them is the one that tries to interpret it as an intricate network of mutual relations, that is, in terms inherent to his literary style: as something sewn together by a tangle of webs of symbols and meanings shaped by the actions of the subjects themselves and that, simultaneously, they also serve as a mold for them to weave their own reality. That's more or less what it says. The intensity and duration of the motive for the action of this "symbol system", the general order of the concepts it formulates and the factuality on which this system relies to assume a real character are explored by Geertz as parts contained in the whole of a possible and risky definition. As his method is a kind of verstehenden, that is, of understanding the developments in empirical reality, the American anthropologist did not consider it necessary to rehearse a distinction between religion and religiosity.  

Here, however, and not without pretense, we would like to focus exclusively on this aspect, that of religiosity, as we judge it to be an attribute or human category (if we can call it that) previous and even founding of religion, although we know of the risk of incurring in the hypostasis of concepts or merely logical relationships. As we enter this field, since its notoriously subjective character, we will inevitably make use of references to religious practices, that is, to religion, but with some caution to avoid here a mere imitation of what Geertz has already extensively discussed and to deviate a little from the deep marks of influence that it left imprinted.

In order to place religiosity here and not religion as the center of the analysis, the question of how or where, after all, under what premises, we should guide ourselves to pull the end of Ariadne's anthropological thread on the Subject. It raises a question of epistemological method, or of its inversion, and it is worth asking whether the field of culture alone would be enough to provide the necessary elements, since history, sociology and philosophy indicate relevant angles for this discussion. Furthermore, we are faced with theology and psychology, and with the mysterious bases they claim to propose the theme. But it so happens that, as with all other problems and questions in anthropology, considering religiosity a genuine sociocultural phenomenon, albeit one of the most disparate, is, of course, the very reason for being of this discipline. Therefore, it is their assumptions that we must start. But which or where would such assumptions be, if we should look for them? Perhaps they live in the theoretical chronology itself, in the very lines of the debate on the subject.  

Even if it were merely to enumerate or refute them, we couldn't help but think about the memorable principles, concepts or theories raised so far on the subject - and, of course, those of Geertz, who to some extent tried to synthesize them, already count in that number. In addition to the permanent question of why cultural differences and similarities, the beginning of the long series of versions about the deepest roots of the human penchant for devotion is confused with the very origin of the more systematic humanism of the second half of the nineteenth century. From Max Müller's naturism to Edward B. Tylor's neighbor animism, this current derived from belief in the soul or spirit, and in the experiences of dreaming, death, ecstasy, narcosis, and fainting. But this starting point was relegated to ostracism as soon as the balance was tipped towards the domain of materialist analyzes of reality. Whether they were Marxist or utilitarian, the question of religiosity in anthropology would be no less secondary in the ensuing idealist or positivist ethnological speculations. In one of his scientific raptures, Durkheim proposed a risky and lengthy monograph on the subject [2] . Based on authoritative ethnographies about the totemism of the Australian aborigines, I would conclude once again that the origin of religion corroborated his thesis on social organicism, but this thesis itself, taken to its ultimate consequences, did not fail to contain a certain phantasmagoria, and was so conspicuous in Durkheim's mind only it did not drag him completely to an idealism like that of the Hegelian Geist for lack of time. A decade earlier, in 1902, William James' eclectic psychology had collected startling accounts of the religious experience of ordinary people. The summary of its conclusions, although far from risking a sociocultural genesis, is permeated by terms that suggest an unfolding in physical reality that escapes the mystical ecstasies from which its deponents departed:  


The belief that the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its main significance; [...]; and that prayer or inner communion with the spirit of this higher universe [...] is a process in which work is actually done, and in which spiritual energy flows and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world . Religion also includes [...] a new flavor that adds itself as a gift to life, and which takes the form of lyrical incantation or appeal to vehemence and heroism; and a certainty of security and a mixture of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of extreme affections (JAMES, 2017 [1902], pp. 441 and 442. emphasis added).


Max Weber, like James Frazer and Marcel Mauss, proposed a kind of sociological evolution from magic and shamanism to institutionalized religion and priesthood [3]  ─ made a definitive contribution by postulating that “religiously or magically motivated action, in its primordial existence, is oriented towards this world” [4] . Malinowski, in turn, would try to reveal what was perhaps already implicit in his predecessors when he said that “the first ways of using wealth as power are related to magic and religion” [5] . Insinuated here is also the opinion of AR Radcliffe-Brown. In his diatribe with the Anglo-Polish, he argued against the individual character that Malinowski's pragmatics attributed to occasions when traditional peoples resorted to magic:

Magic, and more generally ritual, are products of demands imposed by the social system. The individual's perception of what is or is not dangerous is guided, in all its aspects, by the community (RADCLIFFE-BROWN, 1973).


More often than not, theoretical clashes are nothing but late and somewhat idealized reflections of trends that are in gestation or even matured, although in a much less clear or verbalized way, diluted in even popular, intuitive perceptions of the drives of life everyday practice. The Parisian proletarian strike of 1848 was already organized when Marx and Engels were asked to draw up a manifesto [6] , and Charles Darwin himself confesses that he rushed to send his originals to the editor because on the eve he had received a letter from the biologist Alfred Wallace in which, to his amazement, even the terms his correspondent employed were identical to the chapter titles in the drafts of Origins of Species [7] . Perhaps Marcuse's example, based on Freud and Wilhelm Reich, here extrapolates these bookish parallels when he pondered that, in essence, the most urgent yearnings of his time were reducible to sexuality [8] . Now, if the idea is attested, or at least plausible, the idea that at certain moments, even if utopian or anarchic, the notion of freedom becomes the common denominator of all sociopolitical expectations, pressing both in the intelligentsia and in the ordinary common sense , it is impossible not to go ahead and consecrate religious dogmas as their most antipodean expression. The Hymn to Aten, by Pharaoh Amunhotep IV, was nothing but an apology for the reforms he undertook against the political institutes added to the polytheism of the ancient Egyptian pantheon [9] ; besides the comfort to the Romans to the invasion of the Visigoths of Alaric in 410 of our era, The City of God perhaps had no other target than the old imperial creed [10] ; nothing more emblematic of a pre-revolutionary epoch than Diderot's paraphrase on Jean Meslier's testamental aphorism that he would only rest in peace “when he strangled the last monarch with the guts of the last priest”; and works such as Vida de Jesus or A Sagrada Família, published at the dawn of historical materialism, obviously emerged charged with a new ideological paradigm [11] . In more recent and orderly times in the theoretical field of anthropology, we find a certain parallel to these links at some point in the process in which articles by a new generation of French sociologists, such as Derrida, Foucault and Bourdieu, dislodged the supremacy of Talcott's sociological project. Parsons and so many others, when theoretical polemics and conceptual questions about what was the role of culture in the juncture of social action, and even what was or was not culture, would suddenly lose their ethnological relevance.  

But what is also less verifiable, nor less plausible, and this is precisely what we want to draw attention to here, is that no matter how far the rings of religion go, the fingers of religiosity always remain. Geertz himself, while going against the constraints of the Parsonian perspective, elaborated ethnographic interpretations of the Muslim world that were originally striking in their struggle against the multitudinous and multiethnic societies of the new postcolonial Asian states, but he failed utterly to have underestimated and even evaded the brutal rise of Islamic fundamentalism that was already lurking in the horizon of the following years [12] .  

Despite the tacit but almost unanimous adherence to historical particularism and the renunciation made at a public auction of any pretensions to a nomothetic speculation of the world, life or culture, deep down anthropologists continued to seek, albeit unknowingly, the happiness of chance of coming to a day with a law or an intelligible code that would appease the anxiety of his wandering destiny in front of his elusive objects of study. Even with the advent of the concept of culture as a network of expressed and transmissible meanings and values through mutual and intertwined meanings in the course of social action, they seemed to be much more fascinated by the very notions they had created, such as structure or symbol, than with the dynamic and unpredictable ethnographic elements with which they could in fact continue to guide their discipline. The already very tenuous anthropological debate about religiosity was perhaps even more restricted than in the previous sphere, which relegated it to a functional category like any other structural manifestation practiced by distant human groups of tribal organization. Thus, we did not have our own tools to deal with the rupture that would surprise us afterwards. Although slow and longed for and no less painful, perhaps incomplete, this rupture did not fail to fulfill the prophecy enunciated in the exegesis about the post-revolutionary hangovers: the infamous existential void. À la Mircea Eliade, we dare to speculate that the boredom in which the fatalism of Stoic philosophy floated was one of the opportunities for the rise of the seductive optimism offered by Christianity in the midst of the decaying Roman Empire. In the western 1960s, however, the movement appeared to be reversed. The rise of ideology did not, by itself, bring the solution to political and social problems, since the most persecutory of the evidence gathered by social scientists in that decade was that “the modern world is disenchanted” [13] . Kant, two centuries earlier, as soon as he glimpsed the debacle of the ancien regime, probably reflected on this issue by proposing a resigned morality and a categorical ethics that would regulate the new conduct in three precepts, namely: what can we know, what should we expect and how we should act [14] . Like the Aristotelian cosmos, which served as a macro-model for ordering this lower world, the symbolic relationships of culture and religion would be twofold, in that they establish both a pattern for the world and the way in which we should conduct ourselves in life. They condition a way to overcome the uncertainties of chaos of a casual and irrational universe, “since there should be a hidden meaning in loss, suffering, injustice and death” [15] . Secularization corrodes faith, and ideology replaces it, but without the apparatus of a framework of general and profound adherence, Kant's precepts are mere artifices. As Geertz stated, ideology needs to create new symbolic forms and offer maps of problematic social reality and matrices for the creation of collective consciousness [16] . There is an ordinary, everyday world in which we can even resort to sympathetic arts to solve small practical problems, but the broader orb, this one is shaped in large philosophical dilemmas and moral principles. Questions of fate, life and death are in the consciousness of all cultures and it seems to be less with Weberian reason than with Henri Bergson's “instinct” that we really conduct ourselves in the interior of life [17] . To paraphrase Ferreira Gullar, if religiosity persists, it is because science is not enough. And it was only from then on that the urgent need to try to fill it with the search for a religious experience in itself was noticed, for a “spirituality”. But due to the individualism and ecstasy affected by the self-referential appeals of a nature concentrated in itself, that experience could donate a lot to anthropological speculation in terms of a socio-political dynamic as a new object of study, however, despite the symptomatic anomie crises perceived with the paradigm shift, it would be ungenerous in providing instruments for a more specific future analysis that would consider religiosity as a latent cultural factor, originating and in the absence of exogenous convulsions that could perhaps atrophy or catalyze it.  

Finally, bringing our discourse back to its center, as we had stated at the beginning, to religiosity, whatever culture or ethos means (it seems to us that the use of these expressions only serves to leave the concept of culture still more dubious,  unintelligible),  zeitgeistu ontogeny, religiosity will always have been its most conspicuous epitome. Let's see. If an ideology, at least in times of transition, is in fact the best fit to replace a religion, that is, if the bases of the new morals or ethics become rational parameters or a matter of common sense according to the dictates of this new paradigm, this same ideology, in order to be effective, will have to possess, however, the same structural and structuring elements of the religious foundation that had just preceded it. To these elements, therefore, the neologism would fit very well: ideology. Although pejorative, this term would correspond in an analogous way to religiosity, as the source of the new system of symbols more suited to the troubled reality of the fragmented modern world.  

As Weber and Talcott Parsons recommended before Geertz, let us dwell here on what matters most, the tactical field of social action. If the confrontation between religion and ideology is, in essence, a struggle for the real, then religiosity is the main primary source of the symbolic system in which the individual's action schemes disputed by ideologies are articulated. If the ethnographic studies that paved Marshall Sahlins' materialist trajectory towards culturalism are coherent and we even have to definitively abandon the version of a world seen as the result of economic relations of production or merely techno-ecological pressures in favor of symbolic production factors [18] , the political origin of culture is only in religiosity, in the instruments it provides for the constitution of a cosmology, not only as in the Geertzian model of something conceived “from” and “to” reality, but also aimed at to the beyond; that is, a policy designed to deal with fear and uncertainty and one that could free us from damnation in this world or the next. Religions, in their myriad of variations, were the human projection of that intrinsic and ancestral political atom, religiosity.  




AUGUSTINE, Saint. The city of God. Petropolis: Voices, 1989.

ARON, Raymond. Marx's Marxism. São Paulo: ARX, 2002.

BERGSON, Henri. The creative evolution. São Paulo: UNESP, 2010.  

DURKHEIM, Émile. The elementary forms of religious life. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2003.

GEERTZ, Clifford. The interpretation of cultures. Rio de Janeiro: LTC, 2017.

HARRIS, Marvin. The development of anthropological theory. Madrid: Siglo XXI, 1979.

JAMES, William. The varieties of religious experience: a study of human nature. São Paulo: Cultrix, 2017.

KANT, Immanuel. Critique of practical reason. The thinkers. São Paulo: April: 1984.

KUPER, Adam. Culture: the view of anthropologists. Bauru: Edusc, 2002.              

MALINOWSKI, Bronislaw. Freedom and civilization. New York: Rey Publisher, 1944.

MARCUSE, Herbert. Eros and civilization. Rio de Janeiro: LTC, 1999.

MAUSS, Marcel. HUBERT, Henri. Outline of a general theory of magic. São Paulo: UBU, 2016.

RADCLIFFE-BROWN, Alfred R. Structure and function in primitive society. Petrópolis: Voices, 1973.

SAHLINS, Marshall. Culture and practical reason. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2003.

PARANHOS, Roger. Akhenaten: The Spiritual Revolution of Ancient Egypt. Limeira: Knowledge, 2014.

WEBER, Max. Economy and society: foundations of comprehensive sociology. V. 1. Brasília: Editora UnB, 2015.




[1]  Clifford Geertz. Religion as a cultural system. In: The interpretation of cultures. 2017 [1973].

[two]  Emile Durkheim. The elementary forms of religious life. 2003 [1912].

[3] Marvin Harris. The development of anthropological theory in Madrid. 1979 [1968]; and Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert. Outline of a general theory of magic. 2016 [1904].

[4]  Max Weber. Sociology of Religion, p. 279, emphasis added by the author [original, 1921].

[5]  Bronislaw Malinowski. Freedom and civilization. 2001 [1944]. for. 247.

[6]  Raymond Aron. Marx's Marxism. 2002 [1962].

[7]  Marvin Harris. op. cit. for. 105.

[8]  Herbert Marcuse. Eros and civilization. 1999 [1955].

[9]  Roger Paranhos. Akhenaten - the spiritual revolution of Ancient Egypt. 2014.

[10]  Carneiro Leão. 1989. p. 27. In: The City of God.  Augustine of Hippo. 1989 [426 AD].

[11]  Raymond Aron. op. cit. for. 464.

[12]  Adam Kuper. Culture: the view of anthropologists. 1999. p. 139.

[13]  Id. Ibid. for. 137.

[14]  Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason.  1984 [1781]. B 833.

[15]  Adam Kuper. op. cit. for. 135

[16]  Geertz apud Kuper. op. cit. for. 137.

[17]  Henri Bergson. The creative evolution. 2010 [1907]. for. 201.

[18]  Marshall Sahlins. Culture and practical reason. 2003 [1976]. for. 211.

By: Ricardo P Nunes

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