To what extent do religion, culture influence us?

When it comes to religion and culture, people choose to observe related customs and practices in a variety of waysand sometimes, not at all. Regardless of the religion or culture with which people associate, there is a potential for religion and culture to impact our actions.

For many people in  the world, their religion and culture are an integral part of their lives, with holidays, traditions and rituals holding an important place. For others, religion and culture are present in their lives, but not to a very large extent. And yet, for some, neither play a role within their lives.

More than eight in ten people identify with a religious group, and 5.8 billion adults and children in the world out of approximately 8 billion consider themselves religiously affiliated, according to a demographic study conducted by Pew Research in 2010. With so many children and adults in the world identifying themselves as religiously affiliated, the extent of religion and culture’s potential impact on our actions and beliefs is unclear.

Although the definition of religion and culture may change for each individual Melissa Fainman, world religions teacher, believes in John Bodley’s definition of culture as being “learned, shared, symbolic, adaptive and integrated.”

For Saloni Nahar ’15, Stevenson’s Indian Student Association executive board member, her culture influences how she acts, especially with her parents. In Indian culture, children should be respectful to their elders, Nahar said.

“Culture dictates how you take action, and it’s the same with religion,” Fainman said. “I like to give the example of a Buddhist monk, who, when upset about something political or social, may set himself on fire in protest, compared to someone who will protest or vote.”

Fainman also sets a broad interpretation for the meaning of religion.

“[Religion is] a set of doctrines, ethics and rituals that give life meaning,” Fainman said.

Though not all religions establish specific rules for behavior and thoughts, many of the most followed religions in the world do set some guidelines. These guidelines could be in the form of religious texts, stories or myths. The Bible, the Quran and the Vedas all correspond with the three most popular religions in the world—Christianity, Islam and Hinduism respectively.

According to Dana Reinert, Program Innovation Manager at Coexist Campaign, religious texts, myths or stories can help others differentiate between right and wrong. Reinert believes that if a person is following a religion, then regardless of the religion, it can help guide them.

“Religion isn’t an end-all-be-all dictation,” Reinert said. “It works well for many as a compass and moral map.”

While the influence of the traditions in religion and culture may lead individuals towards actions that are considered ethical, Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation believes the role that religion plays in our lives should be minimal.

“Religion tends to slow down progress, because people try to conserve traditions,” Barker said. “Much of the progress in history was made by wanting to change traditional things.”

History is also filled with conflict, often times based on differences in culture and religion. Genocide, religious wars and holocausts all exemplify the tension caused by these differences.

Despite these conflicts, Reinert believes that religion and culture in themselves may not be the root of this violence.

“I believe this violence stems from ignorance of different people and ideas,” Reinert said. “Education can help prevent this, because the more you know about different religions, the more you can see what goes on behind their customs and beliefs, and find similarities to your own beliefs.”

Matthew Zalewski ’15 has parents from two different cultures—Asian and European. Both of these cultures have come together for Zalewski.  As a result he currently follows a Protestant faith within the religion of Christianity.

Growing up with Christian values from a young age, Zalewski now heads Uprising, a non-Stevenson sponsored Christian club which was founded by Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, and first led by his older brother.

Religion influenced Zalewski to treat others the way he would want to be treated, and to be humble.

“Religion has provided me with my morals,” Zalewski said.

Both culture and religion are present in our everyday lives. Whether or not a person strongly associates themselves with that culture or religion, both have the potential to mold our beliefs and actions.