(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.
I don't think I can argue with this. It doesn't on the face of it prejudice the question of the validity of any particular religion for or against, as far as I can tell. In other words, Catholicism can be true (even the One True Religion) and this definition can be true at the same time, because the definition doesn't address the source or authority of the system of symbols.
I'm going to finish the essay to see if his further explication seems as sympathetic as this definition. And I mean sympathetic, not neutral. There is an underlying sense (subtext) in the essay so far that metaphysics has real value.
I had never heard of Geertz before this. He is apparently very influential in the scientific study of religion.
I also like his definition of culture:
[A]n historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.This is a very intellectual definition. Note the emphasis on concepts and meaning, rather than feeling or power.
The emphasis on concepts extends to his definition of "symbol," "any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception—the conception is the symbol's 'meaning'" Of course, a symbol can represent or express a mystery the full significance of which is beyond conception, but also not completely unavailable to conceptualization. To quote Augustine, "If you can comprehend it, it isn't God." I'm not sure yet whether Geertz allows for the transcendent mystery as the referent for "symbol," but I bet he at least leaves the door open.