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What is Culture?

Religion As Culture
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

What we may identify as religion is a pronounced aspect of what we refer to as culture.  Religion includes system, organization, ritual and cult (ceremonies and worship patterns).

Principles and Structures
Religion can be analyzed in terms of philosophy:  beliefs, concepts of relationships including cause and effect and thus personal responsibility and obligation; and in terms of sociology:  the organizational structure, authority patterns, requirements for membership, status and reward.

In some cultures the philosophical principles and their implications, often compartmentalized into theology, administration, etc., are not overtly stated.   The social structure is usually more apparent and open to analysis.

A certain "religion" or religious system of a society may be more developed in one of these areas than in the other.  For instance the Kikuyus of Kenya had a strong philosophy, though orally transmitted, while the cultic life — the sociological aspects — were quite minimal.  Hinduism, on the other hand, has an extensive system of both, with many philosophical schools, and extensive devotional patterns, both public and private.

Religious or Secular
Some societies are primarily religious, with the religious beliefs and ethics unifying every area of life.  Traditional African societies fit this pattern.

Other societies are what may be termed secular, with "religion" compartmentalized.  In this situation, what we call "religion" does not underlie life at large but constitutes one parallel channel of life or governs separate defined spheres of life.

A communicator must understand the religious character of the group or society to which, or within which, the communicator wishes to work.

Some societies are ordered, regulated and administered on the basis of religion.  If one operates on a secular or objective basis in such a society, communication is sure to fail.  It may be difficult to "get into people's heads," to really know them.  Religion is one identifying factor of a culture or society.

Religious Politics
Even some political factors are religious.  Such as the "Islamic state" or the "Christian Kingdom."  The latter is exemplified in Great Britain, where one official title of the Queen is "Defender of the Faith."

An example of a society in which religion has become the primary identifying factor is Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former province of Yugoslavia.  This federation is peopled by three ethnic groups in the news the last year:  the Serbs, the Croats and the "Muslims."

These are all Slavic people, with one language, officially called Serbo-Croatian.  The Serbs are Russian Orthodox "Christians." The Croats are Roman Catholic "Christians." The third group have been referred to simply as "Muslims."  These are Slavs who were converted to Islam centuries ago when this region was a part of the Ottoman Turkish empire.

Otherwise one people, these three Slavic peoples, distinguished primarily be religion, were just a few years ago killing each other right and left.  They do not want to associate with each other.

Somalia, on the other hand, is a society of people who all speak one language and share one religion.  But neither language identity nor religious devotion has been stronger than the smaller, tighter identity of the clan (extended family).  Communicators must take seriously the implications of such situations.

Even atheism is a religion, since it is organized around the question of God and basic life commitment.  Likewise, Marxism-Leninism is a religion.  The "trinity" is just political and human, not divine.

Religion is an integral aspect of culture.  In many societies, religion is culture.

Also related:
Ethnicity and Religion

Related on the Internet:
Race, Ethnicity and Religion — Cornell University
   Online Library:  Ebooks and Links


Original version of this article published in Focus on Communication Effectiveness February 1993
This version pubilshed on Orville Jenkins Thoughts and Resources 16 August 2001
Last edited 27 October 2008

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright 1993, 2001 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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