Back in the 1980s – that decade of abundant pastel makeup – I loved nothing more than sitting in front of my grandmother’s makeup mirror, itself a throwback from earlier times. That style of mirror, very close to the one featured above, worked by sliding a knob that allowed the user to filter the light through a particular color that was supposed to mimic the conditions under which one’s cosmetics would be seen, and thus allow the user to apply makeup that looked best in that setting. Going to work? Turn the knob to “office,” and a sickly green glow mimicking fluorescent lighting would appear. Stepping out for a night on the town? That particular occasion (“evening”) necessitated a pink tint. Although I was nowhere near the age of makeup wearing, I could spend endless hours studying the way that my face looked under the different hues of the mirror’s influence.
I often use this simple (but effective) example of a mirror as a way to communicate the way that I see the connection between religion and culture. I describe religion as a simple mirror reflection of a culture, one that usually replicates the dominant group’s agendas, even though, at times, glimpses of the countercultural might appear in the image (just as they appear within society).
I posit this mirror approach to counteract another, much more standard one that regards religion and culture as two separate, yet interdependent things, a conceptual framework that’s usually quite popular with my students. I sense that this model separating religion from culture is so prevalent because it reinforces the very common idea that religion inhabits some sort of “sacred space” that makes it distinctly different from the humdrum, ordinary cultural world that most of us inhabit. At the same time, this separation approach also permits many to talk about religion’s sometimes counter-cultural actions as aberrations (or moments of this “sacredness,” depending on one’s perspective), which thus allows some of religion’s elements to escape critical analysis by relegating them to categories that, while popular, hold little objective weight (including ideas such as “sacred,” “evil,” “spiritual,” “holy,” etc.).
I’ve always found this explanation of an inherent rift between religion and culture analytically lacking, for the simple reason that so long as religion is an institution involving people, and so long as people have preferences, then we cannot find spaces where we can fundamentally separate religion from culture. Moreover, since almost everything imaginable has been justified in the name of some sort of sacred entity, rather than attempt to figure out who’s right (a futile exercise that often demands a certain degree of religiosity to complete in the first place), it seems more analytically helpful to consider the multiple dynamics informing the use and function of religion.
So if we can begin to help our students think about religion as an institution that, sociologically speaking, is nothing other than a mirror reflection of cultural dynamics rather than separate from (even if interactive with) culture itself, then we can help them approach their own questions with new eyes. When they ask, “Is the hijab (or the caste system? or Christmas?), cultural or religious?,” we won’t be stymied into a dichotomous system that forces us to choose between those two options in order to make sense of the matter. Nor will we be pushed into an even more standard response, the “both/and,” wherein we propose that Christmas has both religious and cultural qualities. While this may seem to be a better answer, it also methodologically fails by making it appear that religious people somehow stand outside of culture when they are being “religious” about their holidays (or social organization, or wardrobe) in a way that they aren’t otherwise. To take this approach seriously is a statement on our unwavering commitment to the historicity of all human positions. The best answer, in my mind, is that social phenomena are always cultural, and depending on the discourse in which they operate, sometimes religious.
To demonstrate this point, one of my favorite articles to have students read is L. William Countryman’s “The Bible, Heterosexism, and the American Public Discussion of Sexual Orientation” (featured in God Forbid: Religion and Sex in American Public Life, ed. Kathleen Sands, Oxford, 2000). In his study of the ways that American culture treats the Bible when considering the ethics of sexual orientation, Countryman reverses the popular idea that a culture first and foremost takes shape at the hands of religion. Instead, Countryman demonstrates that just the reverse is often at play: a culture constrains, shapes, and hones the authority of religion in just such a way that its own viewpoints become synonymous with “religious authority” (in this case, to condemn homosexuality in the name of the Bible). It is not, then, “religion” that determines how a culture views sexual orientation, but culture that first shapes religion into something that it finds palatable and consistent with its values.
What this means is that it’s absolutely accurate to talk about how religion shapes and molds cultures, but only insomuch as we first see Countryman’s talk about the primacy of culture in first shaping religion. While this may seem, to many scholars, an obvious enough distinction, I find that it’s one of the more critical nuances that students often don’t understand. In our class discussions, we cannot bypass the “primacy of culture” argument in talking about all religious phenomena, for ignoring that element permits us to talk about a realm of religion that can stand outside of culture’s forces even as it works upon them. The image of culture is always present in the religious reflection.