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Religion as Culture, in a Globalized World

It should be clear to you that religion is deeply embedded in culture. Religion, as part of culture, are often the circumstances that we are born with–the set of behaviors, customs, values ingrained into us by the time we are 12 years old. Religion influences the way we not only understand the purpose of life, but also how we handle everyday things like time, work, and money.

It’s no surprise to researchers like Milton Bennett that we live in a world where cultures too often clash violently. We as human beings are so immersed in our own ways that we fail to see the entirety of what makes us who we are; we only see the tip of the iceberg when most of the submerged material is crashing into each other underneath.

Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity challenges us to go beyond the American ideal of “tolerance” and “diversity.” It challenges us to be intercultural wizards, able to fully grasp, understand, and adapt to religious differences. Applied to religion, the model seems to have the following stages:

Stage 1: Denial

This stage is marked by the belief that all people are like me. In this world, people may or may not be Christian (for example), but they certainly see the world in the same framework. They value the same things as I do.

Stage 2: Defense

This stage is a Us vs. Them setup; it is marked by the belief that while there are others that don’t believe as I do, their religion or belief system must automatically be wrong or inferior. It is upon us, therefore, to convert them or to “pray for them”. Taken to the extreme, people of other religions may be seen as less than human.

Stage 3: Minimization

There are important religious differences, but that’s okay as long as they are not discussed in public. In this stage, all human beings are basically the same: we all have the same basic necessities like food, drink, shelter, and love. Outside of these core principles, religion should not matter.

Stage 4: Tolerance

Individuals at this stage are adequately educated to understand religious differences and why they matter. They are able to see and understand others’ point of view to a limited extent, but will generally not like or agree with others.

Stage 5: Adaptation

Individuals at this stage are able to take their knowledge and experiences of different religions and shift their own worldviews to acknowledge the overwhelming influence of religious culture. Often, people wind up adopting beliefs and values that are not particular to any religion, and they are able to navigate different cultures easily.

So the inspirational challenge to you is this: Where are you on this scale, and how can we be good citizens in this globalized world?