What is the ‘culture’ in the cultural study of religion? Some reflections

Culture is a very broad and complex term, and so to try to put some boundaries around its meaning is in itself very difficult — and perhaps not all that helpful.

Needless to say, if our aim is to avoid a particular, singular definition of the concept of religion then we probably should not try to do anything similar with the concept of culture. Like religion, the concept of ‘culture’ does particular work, and this is the purpose of discussing and analyzing how the term is used.

It is clear that the term ‘culture’ refers to a number of different types of activity, which make it a very awkward concept to pin down.

On one level, we all feel we have a culture that we belong to and that makes us who we are (e.g. Scottish, Italian, Indian, etc.).

There is also another form of culture which we do not possess, but with which we engage — that is, the sort of culture that is manifest in particular things, such as literature, art, and music. Thus, a book, or a film, or a piece of music, are considered as ‘culture’.

Thus we belong to a culture, and engage with cultural things (the products and accomplishment of our culture). And alongside this, there is a sense that culture is a more abstract and universal thing — that exists at the level of the human species.

That is, at its broadest level, ‘culture’ is often a way of talking (in English language) of everything that is human, that is seen as specific to humans as a species. In this sense, when the term culture is used, it is to mark out those aspects of life, behavior, and thought that make humans distinct as human, rather than animal. Although it is perhaps possible to talk of animals (or even particular mammals, such as gorillas, apes, and whales) as having aspects of behavior that may be labeled as culture, for the large part the concept of culture is normally used to encompass humans’ sense of themselves as distinct, as more than ‘merely’ animals.

Here, I want to stress that this does not mean that culture actually is those elements of humanity that are beyond animality, but rather the term serves as a way of thinking about the distinctiveness of humanity.

Part of how people think about ‘being human’ is to consider ourselves as different from non-humans, and in the English language the concept of ‘culture’ is a way of thinking about that.

What complicates this further is that this is, in itself, cultural — from a European English-speaking cultural perspective, the concept of culture is a way of defining how humans are human. If this sounds circular (and probably rather confusing), that is because it is. Put simply, a European cultural perspective defines what culture is (or is meant to be). We cannot stand outside of culture to determine what is culture. The concept of culture is derived from culture.

Therefore, when (in English) we talk of culture, certain aspects of the distinctiveness of ‘being human’ are emphasized. This includes things such as clothes — in general (as in choosing to wear something rather than nothing), as well as in particular (wearing saris, trousers, skirts, dresses, kilts, tunics, etc.). And language — using verbal (and non-verbal) communication — which generally distinguishes humans, it also divides different groups of humans. And very often culture is thought of in terms of ways of thinking, moral systems and shared values, and in terms of religion. These all make up ‘western’, English-language cultural understandings of the concept of culture.

This works mainly at the level of the group, and how people (as humans) are part of the group — of humanity in general and of their particular ‘culture’. Culture encompasses people within itself, but a single person is seen as not being ‘purely’ culture, there is the individual, the person, who embodies and engages with their culture. This is the root of much discussion within English-speaking culture, about where the individual ends and their culture begins — since after all a ‘culture’ is the sum of many different individuals (who all share their culture). One way of exploring this is in relation to contemporary discussions of the concept of (individual) ‘agency’, with respect to the wider forces of structure and culture.

And this brings us to one particular fascination in English-speaking culture, which is about whether or to what extent is it possible for a person (as an individual) to be ‘beyond’ or outside of culture. The hypothetical is very often a scenario of a person (or people) who grows to adulthood without contact with any cultured person — orphaned, abandoned, often due to terrible circumstances.

It is an idea that goes back, for example, to the ancient Roman narratives of the state’s founders Remus and Romulus being raised by wolves, and has contemporary manifestations of wild children growing up in the woods, or of the fictional story of Tarzan, raised by apes in Africa. Questions are asked about what sort of humanity (and thus culture) will be found in such uncultured children — what sort of language, values, and religion will develop beyond any particular (established) cultural influences from parents and the wider social group? Can there be a human if they are not cultured? Is culture innate to humans, regardless of their culture’s influences?

What I think is most important about such questions, though, is not whether they can ever be resolved. The ethics of creating people beyond culture mean that it is highly unlikely to be attempted as an experiment in real life. But also if such an ‘uncultured’ person is ‘found’, then their experiences — and their culture — can only be understood and engaged with once they are cultured enough to be able to communicate. That is, they would need to learn a language of communication (presumably English) to tell of their experiences of being beyond culture. Again, culture (in the form of language) is the means by which beyond culture is understood: the concept of culture is often a way of thinking about all of this — both the singularity/commonality of humanity and the differences between humans.

And this goes deeper still. Any attempt to understand such a beyond-cultural state will always be framed by culture. Even to think of the possibility of a person beyond culture is itself a cultural point of view.

We can see this in the example of the story of Tarzan, a man raised by non-humans in West Africa. The means by which the writer Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined what such a person may be was in itself located within the culture of his time — of British colonial life, in which Africa was stereotyped as a ‘dark continent’, dangerous and yet ‘primitive’, and in itself it was seen as a singular entity largely deficient of culture.

Tarzan was thus not only a way of thinking of what lay beyond all human culture, but in particular the narrative used the racialized cultural assumptions of early twentieth-century England, to think about the cultural differences between Europeans and Africans. Thinking about humans beyond culture requires us to think within our own particular cultural places.

Thus, I come back to the importance of understanding culture as not some ‘thing’ to easily pinpoint and define, but rather as a way of thinking and talking. Like the concept of religion, it is more important to analyse how people talk about culture than it is to simply describe the various aspects of ‘culture’. And the ways in which such discourses on culture are worked out can be fascinating in themselves, since they often take place in particular cultural locations — in stories and narratives, such as important political ‘myths’ like the establishment of Rome, and blockbuster novels and films such as Tarzan. Indeed, the limits and contours of exploring the absence of culture within the framework of culture are very central to much (cultural) fictional writing — particularly in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

I also need to add here that all thinking about this English-language concept of culture relies on particular cultural assumptions based in concepts of gender, sexuality, and race. Culture is always gendered — relying on particular concepts of gender differences, and positioning humans in particular ways due to gender. If culture is what is human beyond being animals, it is culture that makes sexual differences (such as maleness and femaleness) important and meaningful. And indeed, such gender differences may themselves help to define how humanity is understood — whether that be in terms of ‘traditional’ and highly structured gendered divisions, or otherwise in terms of a concept of equality and respect based on gender. And very often, concepts of gender may help to define differences between cultures, so that certain cultures are seen as more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, or as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ due to perceptions of their gender relations (such as European ideas of how ‘Asian women’ are treated by ‘their culture’).

Similarly, culture also relies on concepts of sexuality. How people — as gendered people — should and do behave as cultured sexual people. This is often based on some definition of normative sexuality as hetero, that is, to be practiced by people of different genders (such as binary differences between men and women). Much cultural anxiety then dwells on anything that exists beyond such hetero-normativity, conceiving non-hetero sexualities (homo-, bi- , poly-, pan-, and a-sexualities) as not only ‘unnatural’ but ‘perversions’ of ‘culture’. That is, the boundaries of culture are often policed by conceptions of sexuality.

Race is also an important way of accounting both for culture and cultural differences. The concept of humanity in English-speaking culture is bound up with racialized ideas of difference and similarity. For those who racialise themselves as white, the ideal human is white, and all other humans (and cultures) are defined with respect to that standard. Thus, the uncultured Tarzan needs to learn his culture (and humanity) through ‘returning’ to upper-class English society (which is part of him as his literal genetic inheritance). In short, like gender and sexuality, the concept of race is a very important way of thinking about culture, and vice versa.


To give a short explanation of this discussion — I have written it as a short introduction to a revised version of the chapter on ‘culture’ in my intro book Religion the Basics. The chapter then goes on to briefly cover Geertz and anthropological understandings of culture, and then contrasts this with the concepts of high/popular/mass culture from Stuart Hall.

In this revision, my aim is to simplify some of the discussion of culture — in contrast to the previous editions — hence this a rather general overview. What I am trying to stress is the way (like with the concept of religion), culture is a ‘culture bound’ concept for thinking of what is purportedly universal.

So, I have chosen not to take the discussion too far down, as (like ‘religion’) the concept ‘culture’ is a rabbit hole into which we can easily disappear. So, here I am trying to present a common viewpoint on culture, and set up the common expectations of how ‘religion’ relates to ‘culture’.

My hope is that this will work — and I would in particular be interested to hear if you have taught (or been taught) the chapter in the existing book.

Religion Bites is edited by Malory Nye, an academic and writer who currently teaches on part-time courses at the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website, malorynye.com.

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015). He is currently working on a new edition of the Religion the Basics book, together with a new book on Race and Religion, which will be published by Bloomsbury Academic.

He is the editor of the Routledge journal Culture and Religion.