When we reverse the discussion, and explore how we can understand the many ways in which we can explore culture within religion, again the gap between the two disappears.
Thus, culture is the medium through which religion is done, and cultural differences often are the means by which religions differ.
This can be highlighted by the ways in which we talk about differences within what we consider the ‘same’ religion (e.g., the differences within Christianity or within Islam). People live and express different forms of these religions through their culture differences.
Having talked a little about religion in culture, we now reverse that.
The next challenge is to find culture in religion.
As we explore this, we will begin to find that it is not so easy to distinguish the two. An example of culture in religion might also be seen the other way around, as religion in culture. This is not a problem, as it highlights the main issue – that religion and culture are not so easily distinguished.
Even though we are used to the warning to ‘mind the gap’, in fact there is no gap.
If you have seen the first of the Matrix films, you may recall the visit that the protagonist Neo makes to woman known as The Oracle, where he meets with a young boy (called ‘Spoon Boy’ in the credits) who is working hard on a trick with a spoon (a clip of this part of the film can be seen here).
Culture is the medium through which religion is done, and cultural differences often are the means by which religions differ.
When exploring the issue of culture in religion, the next problem we have is deciding what we mean by ‘a religion’. If we are looking for culture within religion, we usually find that it is located within particular religions, rather than in general religion.
The exploration of the meaning of this idea of religion, as particular entities, is quite different from the earlier discussion we had about ‘what is religion?’.
That is, what do we mean when we talk about a particular religion — such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and so on?
What is Christianity? What is Islam?
There are various ways we can answer this:
- institutional, an organisation — that is Christianity is the church (which may, perhaps be the Catholic church, or the body of churches together)
- in terms of teaching and texts —eg Christianity can be said to be located in the Bible, and the teachings that have derived from that book. Such as church doctrine, Christian thinking, the morality of those who consider themselves Christian
- as a group of people — those people who consider themselves as belonging to that religion. Christianity in this sense is the body of Christians (often referred to as the body of Christ, or the Christian fellowship, or simply as Christendom)
- as a discourse, as a way of talking — that the religion exists because the people who identity with that religion consider that they are united into a single religion. Eg Christianity is the entity that Christians say they are part of, associated with certain texts and narratives, and perhaps certain institutions. In many respects this is saying all of the above, but with the addition that the religion exists within discourses, in ways in which people talk — rather than in things (such as what they talk about)
Once we look into this, things become challenging. Is there a single entity that we can call Christianity (or Islam, or Buddhism, etc.)?
An alternative — which has become popular in anthropological studies of religion — is to talk about specific religions in the plural, rather than singular. Christianities, Islams, Buddhisms, etc.
About the Religion Bites Podcast
The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.