In discussions about religion, especially those discussions concerning the degree to which religion influenced certain actions on the part of its adherents or certain traditions followed by many people, a common refrain is what I refer to as “the argument from culture”. Someone or another in the debate or in a lengthy comment thread will make the argument that the action or tradition being discussed was influenced or inspired by culture, not religion. I find this argument questionable, and in this essay, I aim to explain why.
Why Religion Is Culture
My main argument against this claim made by religious apologists is that religion and culture are not totally separate. Certainly, there are many beliefs, practices, traditions, and so on, that can be identified as primarily religious in nature, and we can discuss religion; however, religion does not exist in isolation without affecting or being affected. Religious beliefs, along with many other parts of culture, are often an extremely important part of a person’s overall belief system or outlook on life. Religion is a part of their culture, and all the different parts of culture influence each other to a great degree.
I recently reread two fascinating essays by David Eller: “The Culture of Christianities” and “Christianity Evolving: On the Origin of the Christian Species”. In the first essay, Eller writes about religion being a part of culture and how religion and the other parts of culture influence each other. He writes, “Christianity, like any religion, is a culture. It offers its own worldview, specific terms with which to speak and think, and specific symbolic organizational and institutional forms. It is never only beliefs […] It is a more or less complete design for living.” He explains how Christian missionaries have used the fact that religion is made of more than just beliefs to come up with proselytization tactics. Missionaries do not just teach about various religious beliefs, but also try to change various parts of the culture to change the worldview of the targets of their proselytization. Eller discusses language, critical life events, everyday habits, bodily habits, institutions, time, and space as aspects of culture that are influenced by religion. Christianity, in turn, has changed as it has spread and been influenced by the other aspects of the cultures in which it is practiced. It integrates into the culture, changes and is changed. Eller writes, “Religions like Christianity—or rather, their specific local versions—are not so much ‘belief systems’ as, like the missiologists said, worldviews and each is largely invisible to itself.” In the second essay, Eller discusses the fact that many variant Christianities have existed throughout the history of the religion. He writes, “The result is the key process of syncretism, by which elements of culture can be added, subtracted, and reassembled in an infinite number of ways that, nonetheless, belie their historical descent.” He goes on to discuss some of the many different versions of Christianity that grew, changed, split from each other, and so on. He ends this essay with, “The ‘original’ ancestor (the Jesus Movement) long since disappeared, never to be revived, and—as with every evolutionary tree—it was no more true or authentic or special than any of its descendants anyhow.” This shows how religion is part of culture, because there was not some separate entity called Christianity that was separate from culture; all of its forms were, and are, part of the cultures in which they exist.
Outside of this reading, I have also encountered the intertwining of religion and culture in my own life, in the arguments that I have heard about following certain traditions. Both religious language (e.g. what God wants us to do) and references to culture (e.g. saying that this is what we do in our culture) are used by people I know to convince me to follow certain traditions; Indian culture and Islam are used together, as are United States’ culture and Christianity. I have heard religion, culture, and tradition cited as reasons for various things, including approving only of heterosexuality, roles based on gender, and wearing certain clothes. There isn’t a well-defined separation between religion and culture; it is implied very heavily that the religion is part of the culture to such a degree that they are the same or very closely linked.
The ways in which religion and culture influence each other can also be seen in how people talk about the effect of religion on their own lives. Since I’m secular, I don’t think certain ideas and concepts are from a supernatural deity while others are invented by humans, because I believe that the supernatural deities were invented by humans as well. Even among those who do believe in a god, though, there are many who say that religion is an important part of their lives. There are people who talk about how their religion has influenced their worldviews and lives in significant ways, including their views on issues not directly related to matters like the existence of god and the nature of the afterlife.
Given this, I think that it’s accurate to observe that religion is part of culture. It is difficult to separate out religion from the other parts of culture when discussing these topics precisely because of the degree to which religion and other parts of culture influence and change each other and the degree to which people integrate the various parts of their beliefs, traditions, and so on, into a worldview.
Giving Credit, Assigning Blame
As I stated in the beginning of this essay, the topic of religion and culture often comes up in discussions about the causes, inspirations, and motivations for certain actions. People disagree about what motivated a person to do something good or bad. Often in these discussions, there is a double standard being applied. Religious apologists claim that people’s good actions were motivated by religion, but that people’s bad actions were motivated by other parts of culture. These apologists emphasize that culture influenced religion to exonerate religion from blame for bad things, but emphasize that religion influenced culture to give religion credit for good things.
Part of what’s going on here is something Eller also mentions: religious proselytizers who, despite using various aspects of culture as a way of spreading their religion, still give special treatment to their own religion and culture. He writes,
In other words, despite all the sensitive-sounding babble about culture and worldview, and so on, the proselytizers still think (as they would have to think in order to be motivated to proselytize) that their culture/worldview is the true culture/worldview […] Other cultures are cultures, you see, but Christian culture is ‘reality’—which betrays their actual intention and in so doing betrays the message of anthropology.
Eller explains that Christian missionaries don’t accept that the same things that are true of other cultures are true of theirs as well. They realize that there are certain characteristics that are common in other cultures indicating that they are of human origin, but don’t realize that these things are true of their own culture as well, preferring to believe it is somehow perfect or different or “just the way things should be”. There is an unwillingness to admit that their own culture doesn’t make sense to those outside it and that it is assumed to be true by those within it. Likewise, people think of their religion as not being like others, not a human invention like other religions. There are people who’ve said that Christianity is not a religion; other religions are religions, but Christianity is the truth.
I do think that one can (and should) argue that certain cultural traditions are good or bad, that some traditions are better than others in how they help or harm people. In fact, I think it is essential to question the cultures and religions in which we grow up, in order to stop the perpetuation of bad ideas under the label of tradition. However, the idea that there is one entire culture that is the official one, perfect in all respects and worthy of unquestioning support (and even endorsed by a god), is incorrect on a massive scale. To believe such a thing is to ignore human fallibility. Nothing humans create is perfect, because we are not perfect.
There’s more to it than that, though. Not only do religious apologists claim that their culture is better, they also try to separate out the religion from the culture, claiming that the real religion (as prescribed by god) is somewhere to be found. However, this is isn’t the case. As Eller writes, “There is truly no such thing as Christianity but only Christianities, and more and more of them—more and more different from each other and from the ancestral species, the Jesus Movement—every day.” Even the original “Jesus Movement”, like all traditions and religions, grew out of a particular culture. Eller writes, “most traditions are not so much invented as fabricated or compiled over time; a tradition seldom pops up in the world out of nothing, nor does it arise fully formed. A new tradition cannot help but grow out of the preexisting social milieu of prior traditions, ideas, values, and vocabulary; that is why every new invented tradition, no matter how radical, always shows the signs of its pedigree.” Religions influence and are influenced by other parts of culture, to such a degree that it becomes almost impossible to separate them completely. When religious apologists try to separate out religion and culture, it’s not only incorrect (in my view), but it is also sometimes done with the ulterior motive to give religion credit for the good things in a culture, but blame other aspects of the culture for the bad things.
There are people who only partially acknowledge the ways religion influences and is influenced, selecting only the data which makes religion look good. Many religious people know that their religion was founded in a particular culture, in a particular time in history, and therefore has been influenced by the situations, circumstances, and culture in which it was born. Still, there are people who claim that the religious components, the parts that god really meant, are somehow separate and wonderful, and that any bad elements are impurities based on the culture. Related to this, there are also people who argue that religion has motivated people to do great things, giving it credit for various good things in our society. The implied message is that religion influences society in a positive direction, while other parts of culture influence society (and sometimes religion) to go in a bad direction.
I believe this is overly simplistic. All of the aspects of culture influence each other. As Eller writes, “cultural integration is a two-way street: culture adapts to and is suffused with religion, but religion also adapts to and is suffused with culture. In other words, not only does religion replicate itself through the many parts of culture, but culture replicates itself through the religion, recasting a religion like Christianity in the culture’s own image.” We can certainly study the history of cultures and determine where certain ideas originated and how different ideas and institutions influenced each other. We should try, when conducting such studies, to examine our own biases, so that we can reach as correct a conclusion as possible. The assumption that true religion can do no wrong is one bias that is influencing religious apologists’ evaluation of religion and culture.
There are many ideas and movements, both good and bad, which have been contributed to by people with different worldviews, cultures, and religions. Ideas from many different parts of culture, including religion, have influenced each other and contributed to society in positive and negative ways. There is also the role of a particular ideology or institution perpetuating an idea, even if it did not invent the idea, and the related credit or blame we might choose to assign in that situation. We should not single out religion as a perfect entity that can be totally separated from culture, because doing so ignores the real-world evidence about the impact of various parts of culture. If a problem is being contributed to by religion, but we don’t acknowledge that it’s possible for true religion to contribute to problems, we’ll have a more difficult time addressing the problem. Likewise, if there are good things being contributed to by various cultures and parts of cultures, but we assign the credit solely to religion, we won’t have an accurate idea of the situation, assign correct credit, or effectively do all we can to support positive efforts. We should not ignore the real-world impacts of cultures in favor of unquestioningly defending certain parts of them.
I believe that the study of cultures, including religion, is extremely important, due to the great influence they have on the world. People take actions based on their worldview, and it is only by studying these worldviews, finding their wonderful and terrible parts, that we can think about the ideas humans have come up with. This study becomes difficult, if not impossible, if we decide that certain parts of culture (such as religion) are in a special category and perfect by definition. Human beings find it difficult to question the worldview with which we have been brought up, but doing so is important for making the world better.
I owe thanks to David Eller. I encourage everyone to read the essays I’ve quoted from here. I found them very educational. My opinions are my own, and I do not claim Mr. Eller shares them.
 Eller, David. “The Cultures of Christianities”. In: The Christian Delusion (ed. John W. Loftus). Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2010, Part I, Ch 1, p. 25-46.
 Eller, David. “Christianity Evolving: On the Origin of Christian Species”. In: The End of Christianity (ed. John W. Loftus). Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2011, Part I, Ch 1, p. 23-51.
 Eller, “The Cultures of Christianities”, p. 28.
 Eller, “The Cultures of Christianities”, p. 45
 Eller, “Christianity Evolving”, p. 27
 Eller, “Christianity Evolving”, p. 51.
 Eller, “The Cultures of Christianities”, p. 29.
 Eller, “Christianity Evolving”, p. 49.
 Eller, “Christianity Evolving”, p. 25.
 Eller, “The Cultures of Christianitites”, p. 39.