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Religion vs Culture – one and the same?



On many occasions when teaching, training and leading discussion on intercultural topics, I have found that people often think of religion and culture as two separate entities, failing to realise that they are actually very much interlinked. If we look at definitions of culture, we can view it as being the traditions of a group of people, the shared values and beliefs of that group, and the behaviours which are seen as acceptable within it. Religion, just like culture, also consists of patterns of values, beliefs and behaviours followed by people practicing that religion (i.e. belonging to that group). In both religion and culture, the manifestations of these constituents occur regularly in their manner, are expressed in a number of ways and are shared by a wide group of people.

However, not all religions and cultures are homogenous, as the meanings and principles of them are subject to different interpretations by different people. This is why, for example, there are so many different denominations within the Christian faith, and why in some countries there are cultural differences between those living there in their attitudes, habits, cuisine, language and more (such as those living in Northern and Southern Italy). To illustrate this, the following infographic we found online is made from words that describe the culture of differing areas of Italy:


The relationship between religion and culture can influence many aspects of life including values, beliefs, social issues, educational practices, political systems, dress, cuisine, architecture and public holidays. For example:

Good Friday is a religious holiday (a religious practice) observed primarily by Christians commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary, and across the UK as a whole it is an annual public holiday for all (a cultural practice).

In some religions specific foods are prohibited, such as pork among Muslim and Jewish adherents (a religious practice), and so the provision of pork dishes in Pakistani or Israeli restaurants would be rare as dietary guidelines are strictly observed (a cultural practice).

In India the caste system (a system of social classification) has origins in Hinduism (a religious practice), from which the tradition of allowing sons and daughters to only marry someone from an equal or higher caste is still prevalent in India today (a cultural practice).  

Whilst these examples are useful in providing some real life insight, it is important to note that the relationship between religion and culture is never as simple as this, because many different influences come into play. Individual freewill dictates that not all members of a particular group will adopt the same values and beliefs or behave in the same way as others. In addition, the dynamics of living in a multicultural society can also influence the extent to which traditions and customs are either retained or lost. More to come soon…

In the meantime please feel free to comment and discuss, and if you have any examples of your own please let us know!

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