Author(s): J. Carey Jackson, MD
Date Authored: April 28, 2020

Historically religion is one of the most powerful forces shaping culture. Beliefs, practices, rituals, cosmologies, explanatory models, and specialized classes of people comprise culture, and much of this is defined and given significance by religion. And as we have emphasized elsewhere, culture is often about power, who is entitled to it and who isn’t. Religion sometimes has a strong hand in determining this as well, so it is among those systems of power operating in human societies.

But the same religion can have a very different expression in one place compared to another, even though they share the same theology and beliefs. A religious expression is very much influenced by the history of the people practicing it and the surrounding groups influencing them.

For example, Hindus in Nepal and in Bali share similar cosmologies, they share the same Deities, the Ramayana, and the Vedas but the expression of Nepalese Hinduism and the expression of Balinese Hinduism are unique and distinct.

Balinese worship.
Balinese worship. Photo by Astrid Ayla Liberato (cc license).

Or consider Russian Orthodox Christianity and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, both are recognizably Orthodox traditions venerating Christ, his sacrifice, and resurrection yet the cultural overlay, history and expression of Orthodoxy in those settings are distinctly different.

Russian Orthodox Ceremony
Russian Orthodox Ceremony. Photo by Троице-Сергиева Лавра (cc license).

This is one reason we say no one has a single culture, but they participate in many cultures. They may have one or more ethnic cultures they participate in depending on their parentage, religious culture(s), occupational cultures, gendered or non-gendered cultures, hobbies etc.

For example, mothers the world over share certain practices (breast feeding) values (maternal connection) and concerns (the survival of their offspring) that tie them together in a culture of Motherhood. Yet how Motherhood is influenced, and then expressed, varies by social organization.

Muslims the world over share their reverence for the Koran, the Prophet Mohammed, and the pillars of Islam (alms giving, prayer, the Haaj) but its practice in Chechnya and in Mali can appear markedly different on the surface, and include many local customs unique to the expression of faith in that region.

Someone reading the Koran.
Reading the Koran. Photo by Marco Fieber (cc license).

Religion helps many interpret and create meaning in their lives, and often intersects with medical practice. It has a powerful influence on family life,  identity, diet and understanding death.

This collection of resources highlight how, where, and when religion impacts health, or influences other practices that impact health behaviors.