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One way of making sense of those who claim to follow a religion is to remember that a good part of the beliefs are there to foster a sense of cultural identity. An anthropologist, E. Adamson Hoebel, defines culture as “the integrated system of learned behaviour patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not the result of biological inheritance.”

In a world where there are often competing rival cultures, quite apart from spiritual and moral guidance, religion provides a focus for identity and learned patterns of behaviour.

Thus for example in Old Testament times, in the turbulent setting of what we now call the Middle East where the relatively tiny Jewish nation was struggling for a precarious foothold, the Jews were gradually shaped into a people with a unique clothing, hairstyle and set of behaviours relating to worship and social rules which helped those who wished for the security and support of the group become recognised by other group members.

This resulted in the emergence of a group which had its own view of God, unique appearance of group members and an understood social hierarchy which in turn helped group members know who was “in” to be trusted supported and relied upon for help in times of need – and conversely recognise those who were outside the group whose non conformity to the rules marked them out to be reviled and distrusted as potential enemies of the faith and the state. Parts of the Bible devoted to these aspects – such as many of the rules in the book of Leviticus – have no obvious moral logic other than to help the group of “faithful” recognise the like minded and those who in the eyes of the “faithful” deserve acceptance as a consequence of their loyalty to the set of mores.

The serious consequences of punishments like stoning or being cast out of the group for not conforming to agreed tribal rules may seem strange to the modern mind in an age where there are now clearly defined borders for nation states and complex treaty arrangements which are relatively constant thus improving security – yet we need to remember that that conformity and visible acceptance of rules was once critical for group survival. The vicious approach to those who differed in customs of belief as for example the episodes of genocide lauded as obedience to the vengeful local God (cf Joshua at the Battle of Jericho) seem repugnant today but we might do well to remember that at the time the Jewish nation was surrounded by equally vicious neighbours and such actions helped their’ (though not necessarily their neighbours’) survival.

That such acts were later given religious justification in what became a scriptural record may not stand any serious ethical scrutiny but it remains a perfect example of how religion can be used to prop up a cultural group that might otherwise have become the annihilated.

We can also see how mores of culture have been preserved by various spiritual passages. Paul with his acceptance of slavery and suggestions for how women should conduct themselves in places of worship are two influential views which were then used to subjugate slaves and women for centuries. Nor were such influences restricted to the original authors of the Bible. It is often forgotten that the books of the Bible were selected in part to reinforce particular religious attitudes and the form and translation of subsequent versions of the Bible sometimes had cultural and even political overtones.

The King James Version of the Bible, much beloved by conservative Christians today was not immune from such influences. When King James the first collected his group of scholars together and in 1604 instructed them to produce an English translation of the Bible he specifically instructed them that they were to translate the Bible in such a way as to reinforce the hierarchical authority of the bishops. For example he insisted that the word ekklesia should be translated as Church (as in governed Church) rather than with the more democratic word “congregation”. He also insisted that the dangerous marginal notes such as those in the Geneva Bible be done away with, particularly as some of those notes had questioned the divine right of Kings. Even the impressive size of the King James versions of the Bible – so large that they were clearly for the controlled use in Church where the Church authorities could control what was brought to the attention of the congregations was a form of overt control and contrasted markedly with the tiny pocket sized Tyndale Bible designed in effect for hiding as contraband.


There are cultural features in any religion which might be seen as positive. If we take the example of Christianity it seems reasonable to expect many Christians to see that their religion should give them hope in their lives. Quite apart from the sense of community, it should also be expected to make the community itself more predictable and secure for its members by instilling an ethical code and promoting positive principles such as love thy neighbour. A functioning church might be expected to promote the elimination of poverty and provide procedures for ensuring the hungry are fed. Historically some branches of the Christian church have led the way in promoting education, welfare and health care with the development of early hospitals and in establishing nation wide systems of welfare. More recently some Churches have become active in encouragement of respect for the environment, drawing the attention of government to inequities in the economic system and organising aid for disaster areas and third world countries including some initiatives in the resettlement of refugees.

At a personal level many individuals would probably consider that they are helped by their faith, finding comfort in prayer in times of difficulty, making dying easier, and simply finding a supporting social circle. Having something satisfying to do on Sunday, might sound trite but for some it may even be what gives life meaning.


History teaches that religion has often promoted cultural aspects which have been dubious or frankly negative for at least some parts of society.

In a society where religion is considered to be entirely satisfying is often accompanied by a built in conservatism which develops in response to the accompanying fear of change. The so called culture wars relating to new issues arising through the developments in science then places those determined that their belief set provides all that is needed against those who are working with new techniques. Stem cell research, abortion, immunisation, new understandings about the nature of homosexuality, transplants, evolution, genetic modification, strange teachings about sex education and misleading information about AIDS are just a few of the areas which set some with strongly held beliefs against those who see progress in the new discoveries.

As parts of the religious teaching become elevated in the mind of some, certain teachings become sacrosanct. A common plaint against some conservative religion is that it insists on a patriarchal hierarchy which in effect subjugates women. There have always been some sectors of society who have insisted on holding to outdated science rather than accept the possibility that there might be error in scripture. The flat earth society, those who opposed Galileo on religious grounds and those insisting on a young earth are just a fraction of those holding to such beliefs. It is not always realised that the opposition to evolution may have more to do with a prescientific attitude to the place of humans in nature, and more with the cultural identity of being aligned with true believers than it has to do with objective assessment of evidence.

Probably the worst features of religion are centred on the strength of cultural identity which fosters a “them and us” attitude. In the past this has provided the excuse for many instances of persecution and even genocide. At a more genteel level the chosen cultural behaviours are then used to block those of a different set of behaviours from joining together. For example the simple fellowship meal of communion now has so many cultural add-ons that in many churches only those specially trained and ordained are permitted to lead and for many that means a non acceptance of those leaders with fractionally different training and a refusal to allow others without appropriate initiation to share in the meal. The irony of insisting on a detailed culturally embedded liturgy and closely proscribed set of qualifications both for the one offering the fellowship meal and for those receiving the meal that were totally absent in Jesus’ last supper appears to have escaped the attentions of some of those devising and controlling such functions.

At an individual level the attractions of joining groups with clearly defined cultural identity sometime leads to bizarre expectations and behaviours. . Those convinced that they belong to a relatively small group with exclusive access to the truth have been claimed by a number of mental health specialists to be among those with measurable dysfunctional psycho-sociological conditions. Some are what might be described in non technical terms as pleasantly nutty. I have for example encountered a relative who some years ago insisted that I urgently take in supplies and store water since Christ was about to arrive amidst hot and arid conditions sometime in the next few months. When flood waters rose in her locality some months later I confess to smiling. Similarly when an anonymous chess player I was playing on an internet chess site went to sign off with a stark warning about the latest certain impending date for the world’s end I can only assume the Devil was behind my reply that if my informant truly believed in his certain prediction he should prove it by signing over all his worldly possessions to me to take effect immediately after the date specified.

Not all are so amusing. The Jones cult with their mass suicides and those insisting their children be denied blood transfusions or medical treatment on religious conscience grounds are no laughing matters. Nor are those recruiting innocent women and children for suicide missions to achieve some hypothetical religious joy and eternal blessing for killing those choosing a different faith.

The end of the world cults, those exhibiting religious mania, and those rejecting standard effective medical treatment for genuine serious medical conditions in favour of spectacular instances of attempted and often unsuccessful faith healing are surprisingly numerous. In some ways this should not surprise us. When a few years ago a charlatan named Milan Brych was filling the Cook Island cemetery with the unsuccessful results of his fake quackery in the form of an expensive but ineffective cure for cancer there was no shortage of patients continuing to sing his praises. I remember a medical doctor at the time saying wryly: “Well, it is quite hard to interview a corpse!”

When a religious group is established with clear defining characteristics, no matter how much security this may appear to give group members when they are amongst their own, the very characteristics that identify those in the group are a potential source of misunderstanding and distrust for those listening to a different drum beat. That in turn sets the scene for potential protracted discrimination which seems at odds with the principles espoused by most religions’ declarations of faith.

An interesting challenge for leaders and followers of the major faiths might be to identify the culturally included elements in their individual faiths which no longer serve contemporary needs or interests of the faith’s followers. What do others think?

E. Adamson Hoebel, Anthropology: The Study of Man, 3d ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 5.

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