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Our investigation will begin to address these questions.

There has indeed been a transition in IR thinking about the value of religion and culture. How can we define religion and culture in a way that is useful to the study of world politics? It is important to sketch each term separately before bringing them back together to form a composite picture.

We begin with religion, a category that scholars and policymakers once considered irrelevant to the study of IR because it was not believed to be important for the economic and security interests of modern states and their citizens. Yet, many scholars now hold that religion cannot be ignored. While the idea of culture has equally been underplayed in IR, its inclusion in analyses of world affairs predates that of religion and is considered less controversial.

We shall consider four elements of each category and then make important linkages between them so that religion and culture make sense as whole, rather than fragmented, ideas. Are you numbered among the 20 or 80 per cent? Do you think religious influence on global affairs is a welcome inclusion or a significant problem? The following four elements of religion may provide a useful introduction.

These beings are sometimes understood as a knowable God or gods, sometimes as mythical and symbolic figures from our ancient past and sometimes as impersonal forces beyond the physical realm. Different religious traditions understand the influence of religion upon politics in different ways. In Iran, for example, the highest court in the land is a religious one, drawing its principles from the Shia branch of Islam — the second largest Islamic tradition worldwide after the majority Sunni tradition.

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This court has the power to veto laws of parliament and decide who can hold power. Likewise, in Myanmar formerly Burma an influential group of religious monks has started a movement intent on imposing Buddhist principles on the whole country, including non-Buddhist minorities. For example, religious development organisations such as the Aga Khan Development Network also from the Shia branch of Islam work in areas of health care and education in countries of Africa and Asia without seeking to control entire political systems.

Likewise, in Myanmar, the so-called Saffron Revolution of saw Buddhist monks stand with the poor against the ruling military dictatorship and support the beginnings of multi-party democracy.


Culture and Conflict

In these examples, religious politics is adapted to changing circumstances and takes into account diverse interests and beliefs across society. What is common to both fundamental and contextual religious traditions is an understanding that politics is in some sort of interactive relationship with the intentions of, or traditions shaped by, gods or God and spiritual forces. This contrasts strongly with secular approaches that demote, and sometimes deny altogether, a role for religion in political affairs. Do you believe that religion has a role to play in public debates or should it be confined to private spirituality only?

From an individual point of view, we could address this question by asking what it would be like to live in societies that are either entirely controlled by religion, or entirely without religion. What would the benefits and losses be in each situation?


It can be strongly argued that neither scenario exists in pure form. When religion has been used to dominate the public square, a diversity of groups non-religious and religious have risen in opposition. Likewise, when religion has been expelled from the public domain, religious actors and interests go underground waiting for a chance to re-emerge. The second element of religion are rituals that re-order the world according to religious principle. Our senses are portals to the spirit.

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Therefore, rituals function as tangible symbols of the intangible realm. For examples of different studies that consider the public rituals of Judaism, Islam and Hinduism respectively see Beck , Bronner and Haider While some religious rituals are private or hidden, many are performed in public spaces or in ways that are openly accessible to wider society.

As such, they are a part of public life — which is one of the original definitions of the word politics. For religious adherents, rituals symbolise spiritual truths but they can also redefine how power can be understood in the material world. Thomas Merton once described his experience of watching Trappist monks perform the rituals of the Catholic Mass in very political terms.

Religion and belief

He wrote:. The eloquence of this liturgy [communicated] one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church, the court of the Queen of Heaven, is the real capital of the country in which we are living. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.

Merton , Beyond the experience of individuals, states also seek divine blessing.

For example, over one-fifth of states today have a monarch such as a king, queen or emperor. Although monarchs differ in the extent of their powers — from figureheads controlled by parliaments to absolute rulers to variations of these — they all draw their power from some form of religious or spiritual authority. The elaborate rituals of monarchies worldwide are understood by their subjects to symbolise divine blessing for the realm and its citizens, redefining where the real power lies. The third element of religion is teaching traditions based on stories of significant figures, events and ideas from the past and beliefs about the future of time itself — like a spoiler alert about the end of the world.

For some religions, however, time itself is an illusion and the main focus is living in the now according to sacred ideas rather than the connection of past—present—future. These elements — interpreting the past, projecting the future, living now — are basic to the development of political ideologies also.

Therefore, sometimes religious and political groups can appeal to the same stories or ideas even though the interpretation or intent may differ significantly. In the s members of both communities appealed to one aspect of Jubilee — a tradition of debt cancellation found in the Hebrew Bible — as the basis for addressing the debt crisis facing developing nations.

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Only a few years later, this sacred story was used for very different purposes by US president George W. Sacred stories, ideas and teachings from the past have a richness and power that can influence political affairs today and the aspirations we hold for tomorrow. The fourth element common to most religions is the need for believers to belong to a faith community in order to practice sacred rituals and reinforce the truth of sacred stories.

Some religious traditions could be described as high demand, requiring strict adherence to rules and standards in order to maintain membership of the faith community. Other traditions are low demand, adopting a more flexible approach to the requirements for belonging faithfully to the community. The connection between religion and identity politics can have individual and international significance. For instance, empowered by belonging to a faith community, individuals can act in ways that they might not otherwise have done in isolation.

Rosa Parks, an African American woman who famously refused to obey American racial segregation laws and sparked a nation-wide civil rights movement in the s, is often lauded as a heroic individual.

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  7. This may be true, but as a member of a religious community that affirmed human dignity and the divine principles of racial equality, Rosa Parks was never acting in isolation Thomas , — The four elements of religion described above — the significance of gods and spirits, the power of holy rituals, the telling of sacred stories and belonging to faith communities — seem in their own ways to be a core aspect of the human condition in the twenty-first century.

    We can approach the term culture in the same way we have considered religion. There are many proposed meanings of culture, and these vary from the simple to the complex. While each approach has real value for understanding the social world around us, we will opt for a simple version that still gives us plenty to work with. As such, we begin with an understanding of culture as the combined effect of humanly constructed social elements that help people live together. We will explore four elements of culture, illustrating each element through individual and international political experience.

    Today, health-related cultural traits are under the influence of a medical approach that may be considered as highly conservative almost all around the world. There is an increasing tendency to perceive and evaluate health and disease-related processes explained in medical terms. The rigid medical approach, engaged in extending human life with costly inventions, with a narrow level of knowledge and practices, makes it impossible for individuals to use the potential for qualified living. Modern medicine overwhelms the will of people to experience their own facts and solve their problems.

    On the other hand, the concept of health should be regarded as a dynamic phenomenon in life and be removed from some patterns of thought. Hence, healthcare should be assessed with a comprehensive understanding of culture in order to promote the art of living healthily among people [ 15 ]. Individuals who embrace contemporary public health, evaluate health with a holistic approach, give the other individuals an opportunity to participate in their health care issues, and have the potential to solve problems with appropriate preferences can only be the output of cultural constructs supporting health, values, knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and norms.

    It is not enough for the individual to acquire only health-related information, but basic skills such as comprehending health-related values, developing a healthy lifestyle and self-evaluation must be developed. The main purpose of developing health culture is to raise the level of health in the country scale.

    This can only be ensured by the fact that health education standards be established by well-trained and conscious individuals into practice with the help of their knowledge and skills [ 15 ]. It is vital that health services are also appropriate for the target cultures to the extent that they are compatible with contemporary medical understanding. Cultural characteristics should be seen as a dynamic factor of health and disease.

    In order to be able to provide better health care, it is necessary to at least understand how the group receiving care perceives and responds to disease and health, and what cultural factors lie behind their behaviors [ 7 , 13 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 ]. Unless health care initiatives are based on cultural values, it will be impossible to achieve the goal and the care provided will be incomplete and fail [ 2 , 21 ].

    For this reason, healthcare providers should try to understand the cultural structure of a society.