How Does Religion Affect Culture

How does religion affect culture?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Religion affects different cultures in different ways.  It can affect the same culture in different ways at different times.

When people in a culture believe strongly in a given religion, it can have a huge impact on their culture.  Their culture comes to accept only those behaviors and ways of thinking that are acceptable to their religion.  For example, we can say that many Muslim countries today are strongly affected by Islam.  They have developed cultures that are dominated by men and in which such things as drinking alcohol and socializing with members of the opposite sex in public are frowned upon. 

Such impacts have not been limited to Muslim countries.  In past times, European society was centered on the Christian church.  This had a great effect on European culture of the time.  For example, almost all cultural expression was church-related.  Most art was religious.  Much of the music produced was religious as well.  The cultures of the time valued religion to the point that they were willing to devote major resources to things like supporting monasteries and building cathedrals.

However, religion does not always have a strong impact on culture.  In many countries today, religion has very little effect.  For example, Ireland, which was recently strongly Catholic, has just legalized gay marriage.  This shows that religion’s impact on their society has faded.  In the United States, the weakening of religious belief has had a strong impact on culture.  In American culture, things like premarital sex and divorce are not frowned upon as they once were.

Religion can have a strong impact on culture.  It can dictate what behaviors and ways of thinking are acceptable in a culture.  However, this is not always true as the strength of religious belief in any given society can wax and wane over time. 

For more perspectives on the debate over whether or not religion impacts culture, check out this lecture:

user8210968 | Student


Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Similar to this proverbial question is an alternative question to the topic at hand.  Which came first culture or religion? Answering this query would go a long way in determining how religion affects culture.  But before we venture down that path, we must carefully define terms.

What Is Religion and Culture?

Religion means many different things to many people.  But a good working and simple definition that seems to fit worldwide, is any and all attempts by man to commune with God, nature, or to reach a state of peace and hope for eternity or the end of life solely by man's own efforts (McDowell & Stewart, 2007).

Culture is the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group - the attitudes, thought patterns and behavioral characteristic of a particular people group (American Heritage, 2014).  Culture is often more difficult to identify than religion and the two are frequently intertwined such as in animism.  Culture may not be written down like a creed.  People are expected to know what to do, how to do it, and sometimes why.  There are also unwritten and often undiscussed taboos that must be followed or avoided.

Religion and Culture Inseparable?

In my nearly 15 years of living on a remote Island Archipelago called the Republic of Palau, half-way between Guam and the Philippines, and 300 miles from nowhere, I experienced first-hand many of the realities previously mentioned.  According to cultural anthropologists, Palau has one of the most complicated integrations between culture, customs, and religions of any society thus discovered (Barnett, 1960).  They are interwoven into a complex tapestry where religion and culture are inseparable much like two sides of a coin.  

Furthermore, Palau, which practices a unique matrilineal society, functions as a dichotomy in nearly all aspects of life, from the way foods are eaten to the complex marriage custom.  This dichotomy is thought to maintain balance in nature, society, birth and death, and the life hereafter.

                                             Closing Thoughts

Although there are numerous ways that religion influences culture, there are also examples of how culture effects religious practices. An example of the former is the belief or denial of the life hereafter being a determining factor for the way one lives his/her life on earth.  An example of the latter involved the discrete undergarments worn by the men who are dedicated to Mormon Doctrine becoming a problem for collegiate and professional athletes in the church.  So, the leader of the Mormon Church, Spencer Kimball, had a divine revelation from the Mormon god declaring a special dispensation that exempted such athletes from the religious practice.

To summarize, religion greatly affects culture both in practice and belief.  However, as we have seen, the antithesis can also be just as prevalent. 

jssomers4 | Student

In many respects culture can also effect religion. However, it is important to take note that the culture of a society is deeply rooted in the religion that it is founded on. Many Hispanic cultures have a deep rooting in Catholicism while for many centuries the United States was rooted in Christianity, it still is in many respects but as a nation the United States has embraced multiple cultures and through that the religions also were incorporated.

Most of the decisions people make are seen only by a fraction of what causes those fractions to be made. Sort of like looking at an iceberg in the ocean. Culture is what drives the decisions people make, and the moral foundation that forms the culture is rooted in the religion of that area.