Though most people are completely oblivious to it, one of humanity’s most difficult struggles happens to be that of the tension between culture and religion, not so much how religion relates to a culture, but whether religion is merely a preference of particular cultures. There are questions that are typically never asked by those within particular cultures with regard to its own set of beliefs. At the heart of those questions is a meta question – is religion part of culture? To put it differently, is religion merely a cultural phenomenon and nothing more? Unfortunately, the simple answers are usually insufficient.
As groups form, over time, they tend to create their own set of preferences, norms, customs, art, cuisine, etc. This is how a culture forms and differentiates itself from others. When a culture embraces a belief system, it typically passes that down to the following generation which does the same. This is why specific religious persuasions tend to persist for long periods of time within each culture. As is clearly evident from history, dramatic changes in the dominant religion within cultures are extremely rare. Any change in specific beliefs is very slow.
People of the same particular culture tend to stick together. Those who are proactive in retaining their beliefs, create barriers so that their lineage will not deviate from the beliefs derived from their heritage. The more intensely a culture attempts to retain its own beliefs, the more it will try to isolate itself from other groups. Is religion part of culture? In this respect, yes. Whatever religious beliefs exist within a culture will likely be passed down to the generations that follow. However, since religion is not necessarily a matter of preference, such as art or dance or cuisine, it needs to be looked at separately from those things.
Virtually all cultures have beliefs about God – the belief in God, the unbelief of God, and everything in between – that are passed down from generation to generation. These beliefs are preserved. For most groups, these beliefs about God harden into the fabric of the group. And the more hardened those beliefs are, the more the specific religious persuasion will become part of the identity of the group; this is why there are many cultures in the Middle East that identify with Islam, and Islam is embedded into those cultures.
Because religions differ at their core so drastically, they cannot all be true. Jesus is either the Messiah or he’s not. If he is, then everyone who claims he is not is simply mistaken. I won’t belabor the point here since I’ve written about this at length before. The takeaway is that most cultures are wrong in their persistence of the religious persuasion that dominates its heritage. So cultures often forego the truth In lieu of retaining and passing down their tradition.
Suppose there exists some culture which is well-known for a belief. This belief has been formed and drummed into the collective consciousness of the culture and has been passed down from generation to generation. Now, suppose this belief is not true. But the belief is passed down from one generation to the next. As a whole, the following generation does not question the belief – it sees no impetus for any doubt. Centuries pass. The belief has now completely engulfed the culture. I hope the tension is crystal clear – believe what my ancestors believe or examine objectively whether the belief is true?
For now, I’ll assume that people want to know the truth rather than believe a comfortable lie. If there is disagreement here, we have a bigger problem. We should choose to believe the uncomfortable truth over a comfortable lie.We should choose to believe the uncomfortable truth over a comfortable lie. Click To Tweet
But how would people living within that culture come to be liberated from the falsehood of the belief? It is certainly not better to be ignorant of the truth at the expense of living consistently with unquestioned views inherited from previous generations. We must look at a culture through a microscope and examine the people individually since they are what make up a particular culture. Each individual must be willing to reconsider his inherited views, following the truth wherever it may lead, and be willing to free himself from the bondage of falsehood. Only then can the culture see a transformation from holding false beliefs to true beliefs. This is extremely difficult as culture is so ingrained into people. There is an uneasiness about stepping outside of the accepted views.
All religions either make mutually exclusive claims or they are internally self-refuting. Religion is not merely a preference – a belief of your choice. After all, beliefs either correspond with reality or they don’t. If they do correspond to reality, then the most reasonable thing to do is to accept them to be true and live consistently with those beliefs. If beliefs do not correspond to reality, then the most reasonable thing to do is to abandon them, even if that means to challenge the culture. Is religion part of culture? In this context, no! In this respect religion is no more of a cultural phenomenon as is gravity. If God exists, His existence applies to all cultures at all times and at all places. And therefore, beliefs about God that are derived by no other means that merely inheriting them through one’s cultural heritage are at best of no consequence, and at worst, extremely dangerous. Those beliefs may be true and they may be false. What those particular cultural beliefs about God can never be is merely true for each specific culture independently.
Reality is beyond culture and above it. We can never say that an objective truth, external reality may not be true for you, but it is true for me. If it is true that God exists, He exists the same for everyone. If one group of people identify God with one set of attributes and another group with another set of attributes, then one of them is wrong and the other is right. The existence of God is not like selecting an ice cream flavor. I like vanilla. You like chocolate. Great! There’s no tension. Neither vanilla nor chocolate imposes itself as an objective truth. They are merely subjective preferences. They remain with the individual. God is not like vanilla or chocolate that we should like one kind of God over another. God exists independently outside individuals.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and a current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.