This lesson will address the role of religion in the Humanities as a system of system of symbols and meanings that express the human experience across time and across cultures.

Lesson Objectives

  • Understand how religion uses a wide variety of symbols to communicate messages and meanings
  • Identify symbolic representation in religious artifacts
  • Recognize the reciprocal relationship between religious symbolism and representation and the Humanities
  • Analyze a religious symbol to extract and interpret meanings

Investigating Religion in the Humanities

Religion has played a significant role in shaping the human social experiences and interpretations of reality. There are many different approaches to studying religion and religious phenomena. The apologetic approach offers an internal interpretation of religion from the perspective of the believers. Others aim to ‘debunk’ ideas religious ideas and beliefs. From an academic perspective, scholars can take a socio-historical approach that correlates the social and historical circumstances that give rise to religious movements and/or a social analytical approach to identify the role of religion in society and individual experiences.

In the 20th century, scholars began addressing religion from an interpretive analytical framework that aimed to develop a better understanding of the symbols and meanings that comprise religion as a cultural system. In the his book, The Interpretation of Cultures (1966/73), Clifford Geertz defined religion as

‘a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.’

From his perspective, religion provides frameworks for life that shape human behavior by offering a blueprint to understand deep questions that science and reason fail to answer and providing webs of meaning to appease insecurities. Religion can relive  anxiety about life after death, and offer interpretive frameworks on how to organize and structure reality.

Religion in the Humanities

Religious symbolism and iconography has colored the Humanities since prehistoric times with some of the oldest known works of art serving religious and ritual purposes. The video below provides a brief overview of the history of religion in art.


Discussion: Research a religious cultural expression (symbol or representation – this can include an image, story, song, or other symbolic form that communicates meaning.) Analyze the expression using the material presented in this module and the readings. What type of meanings are conveyed? How is the expression part of a system?  How do the meanings reflect the unique socio-historical circumstances experienced by the religious community? Include a link to the image or representation.