Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A framework for analyzing and understanding the role of religion in human life. Originally put forward by Robert Bellah (1970), this framework has informed much work within the study of religion, although the term itself has not been broadly used.

Symbolic realism provides a counterpoint to what Bellah calls the "symbolic reductionism" of some social scientific study of religion. Rooted in a cognitivist bias of some strands of Western intellectual culture, symbolic reductionists understand religious symbols as myth-ridden attempts to express truths that science can better express and substantiate. Such reductionism often reveals itself when social science strives to model itself narrowly on the natural sciences, rather than understanding its position as a middle ground between the humanities and the natural sciences. Examples of such reductionism include a materialist understanding of religion as simply a reflection of economic contradictions and social struggles, or a psychoanalytic view of religious striving as simply projected psychological tensions.

Symbolic realism counters this reductionist view by drawing on Alfred Schutz's (1962) understanding of the multiple realities in which human beings live, some of which transcend the everyday, objective realities. Symbolic realism sees religious symbolism as expressing a dimension of human experience that does not so much contradict everyday life or objectivist analysis as transcend them; religious symbols simply cannot be analyzed in those terms. It insists that religious symbols express a truth of their own regarding the ultimate grounds of human existence or, as many human communities have come to conceive of those grounds, regarding God.

Richard L. Wood


R. N. Bellah, Beyond Belief (New York: Harper, 1970)

G. A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984)

A. Schutz, Collected Papers , Vol. 1 (The Hague, Neth.: Nijhoff, 1962).

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