Recognizing the Difference Between Culture and Religion

There seems to be a real confusion about the difference between culture and religion. What is culture? What is religion? How do they relate? How do they influence our lives? The average Joe uses the terms interchangeably but there is a significant difference that we must be clear about.

What is culture?

Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, and cuisine to social habits, music and more. The easiest way to understand is to imagine you are walking through the streets of old Cairo. You are surrounded by the incredible historic buildings that you know hold so much history. How could they not? There is are incredible aromas coming from the little restaurant on the coroner of the street. You can’t wait to sit down and enjoy a kafta sandwich. You walk past a small spice vendor and he presents to you a sample of an Egyptian spice blend you’ve never tried before. Perhaps in the distance you can hear traditional Egyptian music being played on the oud. You notice some little girls run past you in their colorful galabeyas. You close your eyes and take in the Egyptian culture.

Every country has their own culture and sometimes within one country you can find multiple cultures or some differences in cultural practices. You can find different languages or dialects. This is especially true in larger countries where Northern areas may differ completely in their culture than Southern areas. For example in India there are approximately 1.252 Billion people (2013 stats). They have 22 official languages, 150 languages with sizable speaking populations but a total of a 1652 languages spoken in India! That’s just language! What about everything else in their culture? It must also differ.

What is religion?

Religion is a belief system that a group of people follow. It is an organized set of beliefs, rules, world views, and rituals carried out by this group. Generally religions have a “higher power”/God/Deity that they worship. They each also have their own written tradition or scripture or holy book such as the Qur’an, Bible or Torah. Religion dictates what people wear, what they eat, marriage, and more. Also each religion has its own leader and messenger. Through religion we define our purpose in life. It’s about how we came to be and what happens to us when we are gone. Religion is an ever so personal and intimate aspect of one’s life. Although religion is part of culture they are terms not to be interchanged.

What is the problem with confusing the two?

The problem stems mostly from the fact that as human beings we like to stereotype an entire group based on something that only applies to a small group of people. We use blanket statements like “ A_________ do _________” or “They must ___________ because they are _________” . It’s a bad habit and we need to stop it. Stereotyping leads to very bad misconceptions and we all know that both of those lead to a whole lot of misunderstandings that can simply be avoided.

We have to differentiate culture and religion so that we can see that both influence our behaviors and actions in different ways. To break it down, we have to think do all Muslim women wear their hijab the same way? Do all Christians around the word celebrate Christmas the same way? Do all Hindus have the same traditions in temples around the world? Most of us do not see it but we allow our cultures to influence how we practice our religion even though sometimes they contradict one another.

There are a few examples I can give you from the Muslim faith. Although honor killing does occur in countries such as Pakistan which is a majority Muslim country it is forbidden in Islam. Some people who do carry out this practice as a means to restore honor do so because it is a cultural practice, not a religious practice. Another example, as everyone knows women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. You may be surprised to find out that it has nothing to do with Islam. Islam does not dictate whether or not a woman is allowed to drive. That is simply a Saudi cultural norm.

I have heard the term “Muslim culture” thrown around and in my opinion it isn’t something that exists as prominently as people describe. Although Muslims have a way of dress (hijab) that lends to a Muslim culture, it is not a term I would use with any Faith. How can 1.7 billion people coming from every corner of the Earth (I know the Earth is a sphere so there are no corners) have the same culture?! Surely they don’t all eat the same food, or speak the same language or listen to the same music. I’ve done a bit of travelling and have seen my Muslim brothers and Sisters in countries such as China, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, Egypt, and the United States as well as here in Canada all practice very differently. We may be bound by an unspoken, deep brotherhood of Faith but that is all.

Let’s enjoy each other’s ‘cultures. Let’s enjoy the diversity that this world offers. Try different foods, try adding some different music to your playlist. Maybe learn to say Hello in a few different languages. At the same time, let’s understand and respect each other’s religions. Let’s learn from the beliefs and practices that each faith offers and realize we all have the same deep values. Finally, let’s do our best not to judge other’s based on neither culture nor religion. Everyone has their own journey in life. Let people be who they are, practice how they want and just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.