Notes on the Sociology of Religion (3)

John C. Rankin

Assad, Talal, “The Construction of Religion in an Anthropological Category, “ in Assad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, pp. 27-54.


  1. Background: son of a Jewish convert to Islam (b. ca. 1926), Catholic boarding school in Pakistan,  Edinburgh + Oxford, field studies in Sudan.
  2. Influences: a) Edward Said + post-colonialism; b) Friedrich Nietzsche: genealogy of morals + need for supermen geniuses to govern the masses = “will to power”; c) Michel Foucault: “truth comes from power”; d) Russell McCutcheon: religion manufactured by academic elite for their own power, genealogy of wars back to Lord Herbert.
  3. Ideas: genealogy (origins + tracing of antecedents) of phenomena: a) concern for knowledge and power, in historical situations;  b) concern for institutional power; c) social system is of greatest essence (Marxist thought) w/key is to search for where the power struggle is occurring.
  4. Critique of Geertz: a) being a crypto theologian in Western tradition with ”transhistorical definition of religion”; b) externality of symbols; c) “moods and motivations”; d) too simplistic: “authorizing process by which ‘religion’ is created” (p. 37) + his fear of disorder; e) “Religion has come to be abstracted and universalized” (p. 42); f) “Geertz is thus right to make a connection between religious theory and practice, but wrong to see it as essentially cognitive, as a means by which a disembodied mind can identify religion from an Archimedean point” (p. 44); g) “This modest view of religion … is a produce of the only legitimate space allowed to Christianity by post-Enlightenment society, the right to individual belief; the human condition is full of ignorance, pain, and injustice, and religious symbols are a means of coming positively to terms with that condition (pp. 45-46); h) “Geertz’s treatment of religious belief, which lies at the core of his conception of religion, is a modern, privatized Christian one because and to the extent that it emphasizes the priority of belief in a state of mind rather that as continuing activity in the world (p. 47); i) Geertz does try to connect religion and common sense (p. 51) – “puzzling”; j) Geertz: “religious symbols are sui generis, marking out an independent religious domain” (p. 52); k) “Religious symbols … cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols” (p. 53).
  5. Critique of Augustine: post-Constantinian church coercion in enforcing a top-down chosen set of symbols via the power of the state; a) unifying idea of Scripture in service thereto…; b) Natural religion of Herbert + pre-deistic religion of Geertz.
  6. Conclusion: “The anthropological student of particular religions should therefore begin from this point” (p. 54).
  7. Critiques of Assad: a) essence of social system, and use of power therein, is “thin” in Geertz’s terms (reversing depth order of Parsons); b) power is not defined, and is top down, whereas for Geertz, it starts bottom up; c) power struggle/conflict is assumed over and against harmony.


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House of Lords 17 October 2017

Text of John Rankin’s address on the occasion of the 500th annive5rsary of the Reformation.