Religious Influences are Embedded in Cultures

Two women dance on the street, holding a microphone, during a church service

Religions are collections of ideas, practices, values, and stories that are all embedded in cultures and not separable from them. Just as religion cannot be understood in isolation from its cultural (including political) contexts, it is impossible to understand culture without considering its religious dimensions. In the same way that race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic class are always factors in cultural interpretation and understanding, so too is religion.

Whether explicit or implicit, religious influences can virtually always be found when one asks “the religion question” of any given social or historical experience.  For example, political theorists have recently highlighted the ways that different interpretations of secularism have been profoundly shaped by varied normative assumptions about Christianity.[1] This is just one representation of a fundamental shift in political theory that is challenging the legitimacy of the longstanding assertion that religion both can be and should be restricted to a private sphere and separated from political influence.

Modernist claims predicting the steady decline of the transnational political influence of religion that were first formalized in the 17th century have been foundational to various modern political theories for centuries. In spite of the ongoing global influences of religions in political life throughout this time period, it is only in the aftermath of 1) the Iranian Revolution in 1979; 2) the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent rise vs. the widely predicted demise of religion; and 3) the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks that political theorists in the West began to acknowledge the highly problematic ways that religions and religious influences have been marginalized and too simplistically rendered. 

This shift is a welcome one and paves the way for multi and cross-disciplinary collaborations with religious studies scholars across the full range of social science investigations in order to explore the complex and critically important roles that religions play in our contemporary world.

[1] See Charles Taylor, The Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); J. Bryan Hehir, “Why Religion? Why Now?” in Timothy Samuel Shah, Alfred Stepan, and Monica Duffy Toft, eds., Rethinking Religion and World Affairs (NY: Oxford, 2012) pp. 15-24; José Casanova, “Rethinking Public Religions” in Shah, et. Al., eds., pp. 25-35; and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “The Politics of Secularism” in Shah, et. Al., pp. 36-54.

Image Source:

"Holding a vajra empowerment wearing 5 Dhyani Buddha Crowns, lay people, monk, nun, Sakya Lamdre, Highest Yoga Tantra, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal," Wonderlane (2007), from Flickr Creative Commons.