Religion and Culture: Two Sides of a Coin

I’ve just started my third online course in Harvard’s Religious Literacy project. 56c77bc51e000022007026fa This is good stuff. And fascinating. And absolutely vital as we seek to live well together within this diverse, global human family.

Two core tenets guide this continuing education project: one, that the culture of a people cannot properly be understood apart from its religious influences. And two, that no religion can be properly understood without knowing something about the culture that shaped it. The two are inextricably connected. Religion and Culture: two sides of a coin.

I know there are plenty of purists who will want to argue this thesis, but it rings absolutely true for me.

As a recovering Fundamentalist Christian, I am ever so grateful for the larger perspective that I gained about my own faith when I began to name the White Southern Patriarchal cultural influences that created the small Christianity of my childhood. Recognizing the reality that my religion had been shaped by its culture has freed me from a blind allegiance and allowed me to move into a wider, rainbow experience of faith. I have come to believe that there is no such thing as a “pure” religion. Across history, across the far reaches of the globe, my religion and all religions have been molded in deep ways by the various environments in which they are rooted and grown.

This is not a bad thing. Religious faith ought to be multicultural.

Some years ago, when I lived near a popular mosque and would visit there with my Muslim neighbors, I recognized how the one basic religion of Islam has multiple manifestations based on the nations and cultures from whence these people had come. I learned that the dress and the customs and the piety are different for faithful Muslims who come from different nations. I found the faith of Islam to be as diverse as my own Christian faith.

So I’m looking forward to learning more about this religion of Islam and the Scriptures that nearly a quarter of the people on the planet hold dear. I grow weary of non-Muslims quoting the Quran as if they know what they are talking about. As if they are experts. As if there is only one way to interpret the complex sacred texts of a complex people. This kind of presumptuous arrogance does nothing to facilitate greater understanding across our differences.

blogger-image--1857155484 These classes are helping educate me about some of the ways a people’s religion intersects with a society’s culture. These studies are reminding me that the authentic practice of religion will always lead its practitioners to seek the common good of all humanity. These insights are giving me more appreciation for the wisdom we humans need in order to maintain a healthy balance between the two sides of this coin.

So the Religious Literacy courses are adding lots of new knowledge and a new appreciation for the rich diversity of our human community. My faith is wider, richer and more gracious than it ever was before. My faith is both more confident and (at the same time) more humble.

There is a desperate need for people to do a better job of talking to – and listening to – each other across our divides.

More of us need to be students, learners, listeners. The world is a very big place and we all have much to learn. It is possible to be both confident in our own beliefs and curious, open and respectful of other beliefs. This kind of open, humble curiosity fosters a rich climate for talking, listening and understanding.


Harvard-comes-up-with-FREE-Online-Course-to-promote-Religious-Literacy-fight-MisunderstandingsThe courses in the World Religions through Their Scriptures series are offered free of charge. (Free to audit; $50 for a certificate) Follow this link to learn more about Harvard’s edX courses in the Religious Literacy Project.


Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequentlyIntersections logo shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

13 thoughts on “Religion and Culture: Two Sides of a Coin

  1. I started taking this class, and am signed up for the next one. But I became frustrated with the ways in which all Christians were painted with the same (fundamentalist) brush. It felt like the professors were not following their own principles about being open minded and not judgmental. I had hoped for more from Harvard.

    1. The current course about Christianity and its Scriptures is doing a good job of describing the bigger picture. Christianity surely is multifaceted, isn’t it?

  2. I am also taking this series of classes from Harvard. After the Paris bombings, my social media newsfeed was overwhelmed with hate speech, and I watched in horror people who I knew to have good hearts and above average intelligence begin to dehumanize an entire religion and call for genocide. I had..have..a consuming need to understand how this could be, to prevent its happening. I have felt my mind bending and growing throughout this first class, and look forward to more. It’s good to meet a classmate, especially one whose opinions and writing I respect and admire. Thank you! Nancy

    1. I love that you too have “this consuming need to understand…” I’m glad we are doing this work together: trying to comprehend this ugliness and fear and trying to find some small way to counter it. I am so grateful for these classes and I’m especially grateful to know there are so many of us joining the effort to become more literate. Thank you for reading Nancy. And thanks for the conversation. I’ll be watching for you in class. Peace…

  3. I too took this class and am really looking forward to the rest of the series. I have always been fascinated by faith and religion even though I would definitely not consider myself relgious. I was amazed at how much I learned in this first course. I had never really thought about religion in the context of culture and scripture, especially the whole Time & Place kind of matrix as a way to look at religions. I’ve signed up for a class on the Bhagavad Gita at my local community college. Seems like right now I can’t learn enough about it all. Glad to hear from someone else who took the course. Maybe I’ll see you in one of the chat rooms during the next course.

    1. I’ll look for you Elayn! That would be great to find each other!

  4. I just wanted to say that I find your perspective on religion refreshing. As a pagan, it may seem odd that I read your posts whenever I can. It does my heart well to see that there are Christians out in the world that are learning the important lessons. That it isn’t about the path you take as long as you reach the goal of being a better you each day, helping out those in need, and leaving a better world behind. I wish more people of all faiths would take the time to learn about other cultures and beliefs instead of just labeling anything not familiar wrong.

  5. I appreciate that you do not give in to the chronic anxiety that has so C haracterized our country over the last four decades after the Vietnam conflict (I am a veteran of that event). As a son of the South, I also appreciate your departure from our common “White Southern Patriarchal” culture that has crippled our capacity to appreciate the common interests of other cultures. As a career sailor, I have experienced the best of other cultures around the world. And, as a now-retired pastor, I have experienced the continuing smallness of my own. Yours is a gentle way of lighting a path to sharing blessings; sadly, I have always confronted the smallness without helping much to illuminate the bridges I know.

    1. I appreciate the interesting connections of our lives George. You and I – both retired pastors. You and my husband – years in the Navy (he was aviation though). All of us from this very distinctive White Southern Patriarchal Christian Culture. I think about how, growing up in that culture, I didn’t know there was another way to be. I wonder how many other people live their lives within that small world just because they don’t know there is something bigger and lovelier out there just waiting for them to discover? Maybe telling my own story will allow someone else to see what is possible. Thanks for reading and thanks for the conversation. Peace…

  6. I’m an Anglo-American dual national, living about 150 miles SW of London. So all I can do about things in the US is vote, pray, and make posts which I hope are reasonably humane. Not necessarily in that order! We in England have our own problems, as I know you’ll be aware. I guess the same three acts apply… Giving money to causes that you trust is good too. I get a bit tired sometimes, though.

    1. I get tired too Elise. We need to keep encouraging one another. You have encouraged me today. Thank you!

  7. Dear Charlotte,
    I am so much enjoying your literate, considered, humane posts. They provide a much-needed relief from the usual internet dross. I try to keep the same tone in my posts and comments, believing that there’s nothing like reason and kindness to disarm the bigots of this prejudice. I hope! And pray…
    God’s blessings on you!

    1. You make me smile Elise! Thanks for reading. Thanks for your own good efforts wherever you are. Thanks for the kind comment. Peace…

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