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Are Religious Traditions Different Than Other Cultural Practices?

Are Religious Traditions Different Than Other Cultural Practices?



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Published by: Jeff on May 01, 2007
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Are religious traditions qualitatively different from other cultural practices? Using at leasttwo readings from the syllabus, analyze the significance of religious beliefs in shapingindividuals’ and/or communities’ understandings of the relationship between tradition andmodernity.
To analyze whether religious traditions are qualitatively different from other cultural practices, it is necessary to evaluate how religions utilize and contribute to the shaping of tradition. Specifically, we must look at how tradition is shaped by religion, relative to other  practices. Religion, like other cultural practices is a main vehicle for societal evolution and thedevelopment towards modernity, and because of its influence on other aspects of social life has agreater effect and more pronounced influence on how communities, and the individuals withinthose communities perceive the relationship between tradition and modernity.Looking at Kenyatta’s
 Facing Mount Kenya
, he goes into great detail about the religioustraditions of his people, the Kikuyu. He discusses the practice of ancestor worship, andspecifically the organization of the different types of spirits that are believed to exist by theKikuyu. He writes on how spirits are divided into different familial relationships and age groupsas well as different clans. These differences among the spirits (which are considered to be part of the spiritual beliefs and religious traditions of the Kikuyu) reinforce and support the social andfamilial organization that is at play within larger Kikuyu society. For example, the differencesand emphasis on age groups seen in the spirit world is also present in the physical world.Essentially, the spirit world supports the social structure that is already present in the physicalworld, thus showing that religion supports and reinforces practices in other realms of life. Thisability of religion to move and affect different spheres of society (in this case the realm of social
organization) highlights its importance in shaping how engrained and set a society is. If religionemphasizes or supports changes to the existing social structure in its practices and beliefs (i.e. by putting more emphasis on gender relationships or equality) then it can over the social system of asociety in that same direction. Likewise, if religion is rigid and does not support change, thenother areas of society will also be more resistant to it. All of this can happen because religion hasinfluence on social spheres outside its own. Another example of this sphere jumping ability of religion in affecting social views is seen in the relationship that Kenyatta paints between magicand religion and medicine/health. He discusses the role of magicians and potions/spices inKikuyu society. Clearly, when religion in a given society prescribes using potions and magic tocure ills and a modern colonial view advocates the use of Western medicine there is aconsiderable disconnect between the two. In this way, religion does not only affect other spheres(such as medicine and healthcare) but also provides a direct opposition to the modernity that is being produced. This type of direct opposition is another way in which religion can affect thediscourse on modernity and tradition in a society and influence the way each is perceived by thecommunity. In many cases, it seems that religion tends to take up the view of opposing new andmodern types of thought. This is likely due to the nature of religion to develop organically froma society’s beliefs and customs and concurrently through its history, and the fact hat religion hasa stake in maintaining traditional beliefs because it was born out of them.Mda’s
 Heart of Redness
also highlights the importance of religion in affecting other spheres and the great power that religion can have in shaping how people view the world and inspecific, modernity. In the novel, we learn about the prophetess, Nongqawusem, who had avision and predicted that the whites would be driven from their land and forced into the sea if they were to destroy their cattle and grain. The origination of the vision from the ancestors (whothe Xhosa included in their spiritual beliefs) and the subsequent cattle killings highlights the role
of the religion as a powerful tool. Again, we see that this tension between modernity andtradition is reinforced and in some senses even amplified by religion. The desire to banish thewhites and maintain their lifestyle in its traditional form (to some extent) outweighed and blindedthe Xhosa of the need to modernize and bring about sustainable modernization to their culture.Religion often limits the view of individuals in seeing the need and sustainable benefits of modernization and modernity and instead leaves them to retain a veil of ignorance and try andmaintain their traditional systems of belief. This is not to say that all people will try andmaintain their traditional systems and oppose modernity even if religion supports this view, or that such opposition to modernity would even endure forever, but at the same time it seemsnatural for a majority of people to fall in line with religion when it resists change.Turning now to
 Death and the King’s Horseman
, we see yet another manner in whichreligion impacts the relationship and modernity. In this example, supported by religiousovertones, Elesin must commit ritual suicide as part of his socio-religious structural obligation tothe king. Clearly in line with traditional religious beliefs of the Yoruba, the action of ritualsuicide contrastingly stands in direct opposition to British colonial beliefs, as embodied byPilkings. This direct opposition between the traditional religion of the Yoruba and the Christian-colonial beliefs is organic in nature and not necessarily a direct effect of religion trying to opposemodernity. However, just because religion doesn’t actively intend to go against and shape people’s views and actions against modernity doesn’t stop it from occurring. However, religionas powerful as it is in shaping people’s beliefs and actions in other forms of life (and in this casedeath) does allow for a reinterpretation of the actions and beliefs at issue in a differentframework – which in the case of 
 Death and the King’s Horseman
is in a moral light. Reframingthe relationship between tradition and modernity in a moral framework or attitude (as Elesin’s

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