Culture or Religion?

by | February 8, 2014

I’ve occasionally experienced a subtle tactic my fellow Canadians use to invalidate the seriousness of many religious observances and practices. When I identify the more pernicious aspects of religion, I’m often waved off and told that the identified practice is not religious, but cultural. I’m told that the Islamic insistence that women cover their entire self in cloth sacks before going outside is not a religious but a cultural practice. When Jews circumcise their male children, this too is defined as a cultural rather than religious practice, and when women mutilate the genitals of young girls, that too is judged as a cultural versus religious practice.

Evoking culture in this way removes religion from criticism and protects it from secular scrutiny because a large portion of the secular and atheist demographic embraces diversity and multiculturalism. Criticizing another culture, especially if you happen to belong to the dominant culture, not only offends the Canadian ideal of multiculturalism, which recognizes that people should live together and express their identity as they see fit, but also marks you as a “cultural imperialist” and this makes you back off.

Arguably, it should not matter if a pernicious practice is cultural, religious or secular; atheists and secularists should and often do criticize it equally. As I’ve argued before no bad ideas should receive a free pass.

However, closer examination of these so-called cultural practices reveals that they are dogmatically incorporated into religion and tyrannically enforced by religious leaders. Take the Islamic requirement for women to cover their heads and sometimes faces in veils or their entire selves in amorphous cloth sacks. Many have rightly pointed out that this practice pre-dates Islam, however Islam enforces this practice as a religious edict across the various cultures that subscribe to it. Consider this atrocious book once used (it may no longer be in use) to teach Muslim children in Ontario, Canada. It states:

Islam helps to secure a females (sic) modesty by preserving her beauty with Hijab.

Islam helps. Not culture helps. Islam. This is a religious practice. There is more:

The importance of Hijab will be briefly discussed in the light of the verses of the Holy Qur’an on the subject. Allah says:

“Say unto the believer men to cast down their gaze and guard their private parts; that is purer  for them. Verily Allah is Well-Aware of what you do. And say unto the believing women that theycast down their gaze and guard their private parts; and not to display their adornment (Zeenat)except what becomes apparent of it; and to draw their headcovers (Khumur) over their neck slits(Juyoob); and not to display their “Zeenat” except to their husbands…

Allah says. A politician does not say. A law does not say. The culture does not say. This is a religious practice. There is still more:

…COVERING THE HEAD IS NOT THE SIGN OF DEGRADATION or oppression. It is a commandment from Allah…

A commandment from Allah. Not a discretionary tradition Not a cultural instruction.  This is a religious practice.

What about a practice like Jihad? Is this cultural? More from this text:


which, sometimes also involves fighting a war against an unjust ruler. But this can only be done with the permission of a Ma’sum Imam. This jihad is known as Al-Jihad Al-Asghar — the Minor Jihad

This requires the permission of an Imam. An Imam is a religious leader. Not a politician, not a doctor, not a lawyer. This is a religious practice. Finally:

The next stage was Jihad or holy struggle, a thing not known in Makkah. It was the natural consequence to the setting up of a state. Unbelievers, ever-intent to stamp out the divine call but seeing Islam finely knit unto a secure state, resorted to arms, and the Muslims had to follow suit to defend their faith, and according to Allah’s injunctions went out to do battle with the aggressors

Allah set his followers to fight the Unbelievers. Not a king. Not a president. Allah. This is a religious practice.

I don’t want to reference only Islamic teachings and I recognize that these examples are extreme, but I show them here to illustrate that these practices are religious and not cultural. Next, let’s look at Jewish religious practices. Take male circumcision. While this practice was adopted for hygiene reasons (recently debunked as myth) in secular societies, it has its roots in religion and the majority of it is practiced for religious reasons and in the context of religious rites:

According to Jewish law, ritual circumcision of male children is a commandment from God that Jews are obligated to follow, and is only postponed or abrogated in the case of threat to the life or health of the child.[6] Jews do not believe that non-Jews are obligated to follow this commandment; only Noahide laws apply to non-Jews.

A commandment from God. Not an optional tradition. Not a cultural exercise. This is a religious practice.

So, it’s pretty safe to say that many of these so-called cultural practices are really religious practices. You didn’t hear the Lev Tahor protest learning about evolution and homosexuality because of culture – it was because of religion.

As I explained above, my examples (besides the circumcision one) are extreme teachings. Thankfully, in Canada such teachings are rare and the majority of religious parents (though I may object to any sort of indoctrination) are good ones whose care does not harm their children in the ways early marriage does with the Lev Tahor, denial of vaccines do with Christian Scientists or refusal of blood transfusions do with Jehovah Witnesses. However, are these religious people good parents because of their religion? If they left their religion would they suddenly become infanticidal maniacs? I suspect not.

Indeed, I have Muslim, Jewish and Catholic friends who I admire greatly for their kindness and their wonderful parenting, but that’s because they are good, kind people and they cherry pick the good, kind parts of their religion and ignore the nasty bits. In this way, their values are not biblical or Koran based, but secular based, handed down from The Enlightenment and continuously improved over the centuries within secular societies.

As Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in Physics says:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

4 thoughts on “Culture or Religion?

  1. Corwin

    The problem with trying to draw a line between culture and religion is that religion is adept at taking cultural norms and practices under its wing. Seasonal feasts are often dedicated to specific gods, but they end up getting rededicated when a new religion comes along, and what keeps them going is custom and tradition rather than theology. Christmas has been influenced and to a degree coopted by Christianity, but isn’t really Christian.

    Similarly, religion can end up endorsing and incorporating practices like circumcision and honour killing, as well as more benign ones like abstaining from cannibalism, without having originated them. It’s probably impossible (even in principle) to completely disentangle the effects of religion and culture, but one helpful test is to look at whether a practice is specific to a religion irrespective of where believers are located or specific to people in a region irrespective of what religion they follow. For example, honour killing seems to be mostly a Middle Eastern and South Asian thing, rather than a Muslim thing, whereas female circumcision is mostly a northern African thing. In both cases, the practice cuts across religions. Here’s an interesting article by a Masai woman who is promoting alternatives to female circumcision (her preferred term) in her culture. Notice that she writes about the custom without referring to religion at all. According to Wikipedia, some of the Masai are Christians and some worship their own god, Engai.

    1. Diana MacPherson

      I think bothering to disentangle religion from culture is moot and distracts from the real issue, which is a pernicious practice often endorsed and enforced by religion even if only in a certain geographic region. Yes, religion co-opts other traditions as with pagan ones in Christmas and Easter and in so doing often distorts the culture it stole those traditions from (Jesuits converting the Huron come to mind).

      1. Stephen

        >>I think bothering to disentangle religion from culture is moot and distracts from the real issue…
        I agree, it is important to point out evil practices regardless of the why and not let them be protected by religion (or tradition).

        I like your point about cultural imperialism – it can be difficult to not be percieved as boorish when you point out a “borderline” practice (for exmaple circumsicion).

        I suppose that is another problem with cherry-picking the good parts of a religion; who are you to say otherwise when someone else does the same thing, but picks a part you don’t agree with.

  2. Pingback: Kitchener, ON Couple Uses “Faith-based Approach” to Bilk People of Money in Ponzi Scheme | Canadian Atheist

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