What is the Relationship Between Religion and Culture?

[This post was originally published on my Blogger site on 26 September 2009.]

I often tell students that they need to study the Western cultural tradition, among other reasons, because it displays more Christian influence than any other world culture. I doubt that anyone in a Faulkner University classroom would ever challenge that statement. However, students and/or faculty at other institutions might very well take exception to my assertion in multiple ways. Obviously, anyone who thinks Christianity and its influence aren’t worth studying wouldn’t consider their role in Western civilization a selling point.

Some people might also challenge my statement on a more fundamental level by arguing that the notion of Christianity (or any religion) influencing a culture is absurd. Religion, they may say, is a manifestation of culture, not the reverse. They might advance this position from a materialistic perspective, saying that the technological and economic level of development in a society determines any religious values the people might adopt. Or they could define “religion” narrowly as formal ritual and ceremony, and say that these “superficial” practices are only expressions of more deeply held values. I’m sure there other ways to attack my assertion that just aren’t coming to mind right now.

I hold to the position that people’s thoughts determine how they act, or as Richard Weaver famously stated, “Ideas have consequences.” I furthermore believe that people’s ideas are, as Ludwig von Mises says, “ultimate data.” In other words, there is no scientific way to ascertain precisely how people come to believe what they believe. At some point in trying to determine causation in human affairs, all we can say is, “So-and-so had an idea.” This is a tremendous problem for materialist philosophers and others who claim that Man is completely a product of his environment.

Culture is the sum total of the beliefs and actions of everyone in a given society. (Of course, culture is not monolithic. Within a society there can be various subcultures, but I am speaking in general terms.) When a large enough group of people believe in a certain religious idea, e.g. that the God who holds everyone’s eternal destiny in His hand frowns upon murder, that belief will affect the culture in a concrete way, namely that fewer murders will occur than would have in the absence of such a widespread belief.

Therefore, Christian doctrines have the potential to make a huge impact on a culture. As Jesus said, “By their fruits [actions] ye shall know them [their beliefs].” The same is true of the beliefs of other religions and philosophies: Islam, Buddhism, communism, etc.

None of this is to deny that culture can influence people’s religious beliefs and practices. Had I been born in a village in the hill country of Thailand, I would very likely be a Buddhist instead of a Christian. Culture and religious belief can reinforce each other in subtle ways.

For example, in a recent issue of Chronicles magazine, church historian Philip Jenkins noted the complex relationship between secularization and falling fertility rates worldwide, but especially in the West. Abandoning the Faith makes one less likely to have children because the long-term sacrifices involved in childrearing become less palatable in the absence of Biblical mandates concerning the building of God’s Kingdom. But it is also true that not having children makes one less likely to remain in (or return to) the Church in middle age because the desire to give one’s children a religious and ethical upbringing is a powerful incentive to be involved in a local congregation. Without that incentive, more people “backslide” than would have otherwise.

The upshot of all this is that Christians must seek to influence the culture while guarding against the likelihood that the culture will influence us in ways that are incompatible with our faith. Not all of these influences are as obvious as internet pornography; many are quite subtle and may pass unnoticed. In future posts I hope to point out some of these while proposing classical and Christian alternatives.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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