Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things

By Ann Taves | Go to book overview
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APPENDIX C Preliminary Thoughts on the Elaboration of Composite Formations

In order to see if I could identify other composite formations, I analyzed a few classic and contemporary definitions of religions. What I learned from this exercise is that definitions have to be constructed ascriptively in order to work in a building block approach. Functionalist definitions do not work because their overarching structure is not ascriptive. The following three definitions illustrate the problem.

Durkheim. Durkheim defines a religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” We can paraphrase Durkheim as follows: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to special things, which beliefs and practices unite into one single moral community [the goal] all those who adhere to them.

In the special-path composite, the goal of the path relates to something special. In Durkheim's formulation, the “system” replaces the “path” and it is the “system” that relates to special things, not the goal. Uniting as a moral community is not the conscious goal of those who adhere to the system of beliefs and practices and therefore the system of beliefs and practices is not explicitly deemed efficacious relative to the goal by adherents. Adherents presumably adhere to the system because it relates to special things. This shift, in which the scholar rather than the adherents identifies the goal, may be the key to constructing a passive functionalist composite in which something (the system) effects a goal (unifying into community) that adherents are not consciously pursuing.

Geertz. We see something of the same situation with Geertz's definition. Geertz (1973, 4) defines a religion as “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” We can rearrange Geertz's definition to read: A religion is a system of symbols that relates to a conception of reality (a general [transcendent] order of existence clothed

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