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

Abstract: I attempt to disentangle the compact knot composed of 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. The identification of culture with religion and of civilization with more general, civic phenomena summarized under the heading of civilization is widespread. I analyze different points of view, which classify "Secularism as Civilization," "Civilization as Evil," or "Religion as Evil." I also consider the converse point of view, which sees religion as a sort of civilization that is opposed to culture.

Finally, I trace the term culture with the help of a few words from Matthew Arnold who delimits culture from the above idea of civilization. Arnold believes that culture "is best described by the word interesting."

From a certain point onwards, Islam was no longer "interesting." Values would be hermetically codified up to a point that this religion offered no intellectual challenge. At present, Islam is losing even more of its cultural appeal, offering few pleasures and entertainment that could be seen as intrinsic to Islam. Islam has submitted to the identification of concrete cultural items with general civilizational guidelines. A civilizational understanding of religion in the fundamentalist sense is more and more emphasized and the distinction between culture and religion is becoming more and more distinct.

Introduction

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. …

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