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The Diversity & Inclusion Blog

Religion and Culture: How Two Social Forces Unite I

Posted On: Monday, July 30, 2018 Posted By: Sibgha Javaid, Intern DIO Tags: Employee Resource Groups, Events, Interfaith Employee Resource Group

Understanding the Concept of Religion

If culture shapes the way we see the world, religion defines what the purpose of this world is for its adherents.[1] However, in modern discourse, these terms are used almost synonymously; so we must look at the origins and uses of both terms historically as well as today in order to gain a better understanding of both. Religion is often simply referred to as “the belief in or the worship of a god or gods.”[2] However, religion is two-pronged, consisting of both what people believe and also what people do. Belief and ritual are two vital aspects of religion that one needs to study in order to gain a thorough picture of how religion manifests within the lives of believers. However, when looking at ritual and belief in people of various faiths, there are incredible regional differences. When looking at the ritualistic practices of Catholics in Latin America and Catholicsin the United States, there are notable differences in Latin American Catholicism such as an increased belief in supernatural forces and the larger role of faith in the lives of many Latin Americans.[3] Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Muslims in Indonesia are extraordinarily different in both belief and practice because of the strong influence of Sufi merchants who spread their Islamic mystical teachings in Indonesia.[4]

In recent discourse, religion is made out to be some stagnant unchanging force with a backwards notion of reality incongruous with science. However, the undeniable truth is that there are a variety of theological interpretations within traditions that lead to different types of practices. Frequently, different communities may have similar practices, but very diverse theological justifications. When thinking about religion as a societal force one must remember three key factors about religions[5]:

  1. Religions are not uniform; they are internally diverse
  2. Religions evolve over time; they are not static
  3. Religions do not function in isolated “private” contexts, because religious “influences are embedded in all dimensions of culture”[6]

Religion and Culture Religious traditions and practices are often perceived as being uniform, however there are different sects, and also different functions for religious sects in certain political or social contexts. Thus, broad statements regarding theological standpoints within religions do not necessarily represent the overall tradition itself. Common assertions such as “Buddhists are nonviolent”, “Christians oppose abortion”, and “Religion and science are incompatible” are all based off of certain theological interpretations and do not necessarily represent the overall tradition.[7]

Commonly, religions are regarded as static, but that is because religious traditions are often represented as isolated from social, historical, and cultural contexts. However, religions are constantly interpreted and reinterpreted by their believers as their external contexts change.

It is vital to note that religions do not serve in private contexts. Religions, too, are “collections of ideas, practices, values, and stories that are all embedded in cultures and not separable from them.”[8] Similarly, like religion cannot be separated from its cultural context, culture also cannot be understood without its religious dimensions. Religion plays complex and critical roles in how we view the world, and thus it is the most important factor in cultural interpretation and understanding.

By understanding the multifaceted phenomenon of religion and how it is woven into all aspects of the human experience across time, we can gain a better understanding of the immensely powerful social force of religion. Through a contextual view of religion, we can avoid common and inaccurate representations of the role religion plays in both “human agency and understanding.”[9]

Exploring Religion and Culture in the Workplace Event on August 2nd. Learn more:


[1] UNESCO: Culture and Religion for a Sustainable Future.

[3] Pew Research Center: America’s Catholics Occupy a Unique Place in the World of Religion

[5] Harvard Divinity School: Religious Literacy Project

[6] Harvard Divinity School: Religious Literacy Project