Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Civilization

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Civilization

Article excerpt


Many Christian and Muslim believers share the view that secular culture is sterile, purely technical, monotonous, and culturally poor. Christian theologian John Betz holds that "the modern world, insofar as it is a secular world (...) is mindless, heartless and gutless" (Betz: 338) and Muslim cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar is convinced that the aim of all secularists is "to dominate, isolate, alienate, decimate and finally bore all cultures to death with uniformity" (Sardar: 185). For Sardar, secularism spells the end of history in the form of monoculture while "religious worldviews recognize diversity of spiritual experiences" (185).

Curiously, secular people attack the believers' position from the same angle. Often they perceive religion's refusal to recognize cultural values because they are "merely cultural" as nihilistic and interpret this anti-cultural attitude as a refusal of precisely those values that are dearest to them. Even more, they find the dogmatism with which religious people often tend to define their values incompatible with their own ideas of how values should be presented. In other words, though they are not strictly opposed to the idea that religion can be incorporated into culture, they find religious values, once they are spelled out in purely religious and not cultural terms, incompatible with the values of culture. In light of this paradoxical constellation, it becomes necessary to distinguish culture from another term: civilization.

In this article I analyze the relationships between religion and culture as well as between religion and civilization by using thought patterns or paradigms that I believe to be common in Christian, Muslim, and secular traditions. I show that many false ideas about both religion and secularism can be traced to misconceptions about how religion relates to culture and civilization respectively. I am operating with four paradigms: (1) secularism is civilization and therefore "good" while religion is culture and therefore "evil"; (2) secular civilization is "evil" while religion is culture and therefore "good;" (3) religion is civilization and therefore "evil" while culture is "good"; (4) religion is civilization and therefore "good" while culture is "evil." In the end, I show that only by integrating religion into culture can religion avoid both religious and scientific dogmatism.

1. Culture, Religion, and Civilization

Often the difference between secularists and believers is construed along the lines of a religious "culture" unable to join a more progressive civilization. According to Edward Jayne, it has been assumed that "primitive people are consummate believers; in contrast, civilized people possess a residue of belief, but they are also skeptical-and the more skeptical, the more civilized" (Jayne 1993). The identification of culture with religion and of civilization with more general, civic phenomena summarized under the heading of "civilization" is indeed widespread. Often civilization is believed to be "better" because it is more universal than both culture and religion.

1.1 Culture and Civilization

Before analyzing the relationships between religion, culture, and civilization, it is necessary to define the difference between culture and civilization as precisely as possible.

The distinction between culture and civilization is not very well embedded in the English language, but has proved to be relatively meaningful in other European languages. "Culture" (from the Latin cultura) is the older term and corresponds to the Latin etymology both in form and content; "civilization" (from the Latin civis) was coined at a later stage and evolved rapidly, especially during the eighteenth century in France and subsequently in England.

Roughly put, the distinction can be established in the way that the former refers more specifically to material, technical, economic and social facts while the latter conceptualizes spiritual, intellectual, and artistic phenomena - individual or collective concrete human expressions rather than abstract systems. …

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