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The Diversity & Inclusion Blog

Religion and Culture: How Two Social Forces Unite II

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Religion as a Social Force within Culture 

Do we view culture as a fluid concept, or are there rigid cultural norms deeply instilled within our societies? In the same way that religion seems strict and unyielding, culture can also seem like a concrete system of fixed meanings and symbols.[1] However, both culture and religion are endlessly shifting as people often change their outlooks due to certain political or social contexts. The word culture has origins from the word to “cultivate” or to grow, or care for. Thus to have a culture, to be cultural, is to adapt or grow into the customs of an acquired space. Anthropologist E.B. Tylor notes that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”[2]

Society and culture are ever-changing in the interconnected world we live in today, and our conceptions of norms, knowledge and customs are evolving constantly. Another way of defining religion stems from culture, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously described religion as a “ ‘cultural system’ composed of myths, rituals, symbols, and beliefs created by humans as a way of giving our individual and collective lives a sense of meaning.”[3] Although religion is perhaps more individualistic than culture, there is a collective aspect of belief and ritual that can be likened to a “cultural system.”

Although there is the view of a culture shaped by society, the people closest to us are who make the largest impact on us. Our families, friends, mentors, and peers all affect our thoughts, beliefs, and conception of our place in the world in incredibly diverse and powerful ways. Environmental factors greatly influence who we are and what we believe. In a similar vein, there are vast links between geographical location and religious affiliation, reducing our agency in these matters.[4] As someone born in Pakistan where over 96% of the population is Muslim, and whose parents are Muslim, it is very likely that I, as a product of this environment would have been Muslim. If someone’s parents are a certain faith, then it is very likely that they will also practice that faith. If your parents do not believe in any religion, then it is also likely that you will share their beliefs. Although likeliness is increased, these generalizations are not absolute and often people do not follow the paths laid out for them. However, they show that the external environment is incredibly conducive to our internal experience.

When the world was not as linked as today, culture and religion had much more overlap than they do now, especially as people in the same cultures often had the same religious beliefs. In terms of my own background, the Pakistani cultural customs are incredibly linked to Islamic ritual practices. However, as I have grown up in the United States which is a Western culture, my religion and culture have remained somewhat separate. For Christians living in America, the boundaries between what is cultural and what is religious may be harder to separate as some practices of the Christian faith have integrated themselves so deeply into what we term “American culture.” Religious customs have become enmeshed with culture, as is the case with sacred holidays like Christmas and Easter which are filled with cultural significance even for those who are not Christian (For example, the Christmas exchanging of gifts and Easter bunny photos at the mall are cultural traditions that are not tied to the religious celebration). Thus, in certain situations, the relationship between someone’s religion and their culture may not always be clear, as in many cases, both are so incredibly intertwined that the line between each is blurred. This is why understanding the subtle nuance is vital in order to avoid cultural and religious inaccuracies.


[2] Tylor, E.B. (1974) [1871]. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. New York: Gordon Press.