Religion and culture
Peter Leithart opens his recent book, Delivered From the Elements of the World, with the following observation:
No purely secular society exists or has ever existed. Define religion how you will: As a matter of ultimate concern, as belief in something transcendent, as the organizing master narrative for history and human lives, as a set of practices. However religion is defined, all institutions, structures and patterns of behavior have religious features. All cultures are infused with values and actions that have religious dimensions and overtones. Whether they name the name of a known God or not, societies and cultures are always patterned by some ultimate inspiration and aspiration.
By the same token, all religions have social aspects; they are all embedded in and rely on patterns of interaction among persons. Even the retreat of a solitary ascetic into the desert is a social act, since it is a retreat from social relation. And all religions deal with artifacts, symbols and rituals that might as well be called “cultural.”
Religion is not the “soul” of culture, nor culture the “body” of religion. Religions have bodies, and cultures have souls. It is rather the case that in dealing with any group of human beings, we are always dealing with socio-religious or religio-cultural entities. The common contemporary rhetoric of conflicts between religion and politics obscures the reality. Conflicts are never between politics and religion. Conflicts are always between rivals that are both religious and both political.
Islamic terrorists kill themselves and innocent bystanders for overtly religious reasons. In response, the United States sends troops to the Middle East to make the world safe from terrorism, but also to sacrifice themselves to preserve and advance America’s values, freedom and democracy. To say that the terrorist and the Marine are both motivated by religious values is not to make a moral equivalence. But we misread the times unless we recognize that the war on terror is a religious war on both sides.
We think ourselves all secular, all grown-up, but we have our taboos, our pollution avoidances, our instincts of recoil and disgust. Not so long ago, many found homosexual sodomy disgusting. In a matter of decades, the disgust has turned inside out, and now those who consider homosexual conduct sinful and unnatural are outcasts, treated with contempt. The freedom to engage in any form of consensual sex is now considered a right, and a sacred one, as inviolable as the sacred precincts of an ancient temple. (Delivered From the Elements of the World, 11-12)