Culture and Religion


It is often said that we fail to learn the lessons of history—and there are many examples of this—but in the very long run (and we may be talking in millennia), a people will adhere collectively to the set of norms, rules, reactions, and activities that their experience and development have shown to be most beneficial to them. Infants and youth are trained by their parents, teachers, and elders to cling to these rules, which have enabled their culture to survive.

In chapter 1 I mentioned three basic roots of culture: climate, religion, and language. Here I offer a fourth—history—which I will discuss numerous times throughout the rest of the book.

In the modern era, until September 11, 2001, we might have assumed that religious tenets, as guides to behavior, were diminishing in importance in the face of scientific discovery, the advance of technology, and the globalization of business. It is easy to look back on the Crusades as an anomalous period in medieval history whose fervor and exoticism might appear misplaced— over the top—in the twentieth century. In fact the diminution or abatement of the influence of religion on societal behavior is by no means evident. On the contrary, events in the last half of the century tend to support the opposite argument. The partition of the Indian subcontinent, the Gulf War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the hostilities in Bosnia and Kosovo, the killings in Ambon and other parts of Indonesia, the war in Chechnya, the troubles in Ireland, all bear witness to the continuing force and tenacity of religious beliefs. The September 2001 attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon left us with little doubt that these would occupy front stage in our youthful new century.

Hinduism—the religion with the greatest number of adherents— dominates the daily routine of nearly a billion Indians. Islam—the world’s fastest-growing religion—specifies the tenets of behavior in fifty-three countries with a total population approaching one billion. The impact of Islam, with its unfortunate (though not necessarily intentional) links with terrorist activity, is dealt with in detail in my Epilogue (pages 271–93). Buddhism, often practiced in tandem with the philosophy of Confucianism, is the key to the mental workings of more than a billion people in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia. The world’s only super- power—the United States—clings persistently to Christianity and woe betide the American president who fails to declare his faith or forgets to go to church on Sundays! Who said God was dead?

Nietzsche did, for one. The existence or credibility of a Deity met few challenges during the first millennium (after Christ) but had an increasingly rough ride in the second. Christians, Muslims, and Hindus all confidently attested to the reality of God, but they were annoyingly different Gods. In spite of comforting similarities in the descriptions of Jehovah and Allah and in the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad, the rivalry between the two creeds led to ferocious bloodletting for centuries. There were no doubters of divine existence among the Muslim and Christian combatants of the Crusades, but the striking contradictions of piety and devoutness on the one hand and fanatical slaughter on the other led cynics and men of reason to ask themselves what kind of God would permit these inconsistencies.

Few Hindus, Muslims, or Jews question the reality of the Deity even today—certainly not in public, but Westerners have given God a battering for most of a thousand years. Darwin may not have been as outrightly condemnatory as Nietzsche, but he mauled the Old Testament with his scientific findings. The French Revolution, Marx, and the Soviet Union would all bury God in due course, and resurrection became increasingly difficult after each funeral.

The inconsistencies of the God’s “behavior” were matched by the multiplicity of interpretations supplied by different sects and subsects, particularly under the Christian umbrella. The major schism may have been the split between Catholics and Protestants, but the latter went on to spawn innumerable religious denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and so forth. These sects eagerly created subsects, ostensibly to interpret the word of God more “accurately,” so Methodists became Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Independent Methodists, and in the United States, Southern Methodists. Such subdenominations did little harm—there was no bloodletting—but any unity or common vision of the Deity seemed further away than ever.

Even fierce believers were less than helpful in consolidating God’s permanence, for they privatized or nationalized God when it was politically expedient. Whether you were Muslim or Christian, French or German, God was on your side when you went into battle. This put God in a difficult position: Who to help? If God helped both sides, it might add to or prolong the slaughter. Later, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and countless other sects joined the fray.

The kaleidoscopic variety of creeds on offer, in the Christian world alone, gives rise to confusion and bewilderment to a would- be believer. Yet the dilemmas posed by the different interpretations of the nature of God and God’s will and the continual attacks on and outright denial of God’s existence have made only a small dent in humanity’s belief in a Supreme Being. Many people do not attend church or temple or mosque (though a surprising number of Americans do), but less than 15 percent of Westerners deny the possibility of a Divine Being. Humankind seems to be inherently nervous about formally severing links with the Deity. As we shall see as we read on, many other historical and intellectual pressures have contributed (and still do) to the influence of religious beliefs.

Influences on the Religion Culture Connection

The Language Factor

As we examine the inevitable links between culture and religion, we find that a third factor is involved, and that is language. The language spoken by an individual not only restricts liberties of thought and has a pervasive influence on considerations of vision, charisma, emotion, discipline, and hierarchy, but it also has a sociological bearing on religion itself. Religions, from their earliest days, relied heavily on language—in its written form— to spread their tenets. The majority of languages have as their earliest documents religious texts. One can almost suspect that writing was developed not primarily as an auxiliary to speech but as an aid to spreading religion and a depository of religious tradition.

Akkadian cuneiform writing and Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions are almost exclusively devoted to sacred matters (the word hieroglyph means “sacred carving”). The earliest Chinese writings, from about 1500 B.C., describe the soothsayer’s art and techniques. The Indian Brahmanas are religious hymns and rituals. In the Indo-European area, Avestan—the sacred ancient tongue of Persia—was associated almost exclusively with the rituals of Zoroastrianism. Etruscan, though deciphered with difficulty, describes religious matters.

Religions could not spread convincingly or quickly without a prestige language to propagate their message. In turn the success of any particular religion guaranteed (sometimes worldwide) fame to the language that carried it afar. Thus partnerships were established: Jewish and Hebrew, Islam and Arabic (once an isolated language in southern Arabia), Buddhism and Chinese, Christianity and Latin (with some help from Greek).

In some cases languages survived for centuries because they were repositories of a popular religion. The Germanic invaders who overran the Roman Empire would normally have imposed their Germanic tongue on the peoples they had conquered; their conversion to Christianity, however, meant that they adopted different forms of Latin—a language that is still taught in English grammar schools and universities. The first Germanic tongue to boast a literary form—Gothic—was introduced to the world by Bishop Wulfila in the form of a fourth-century Bible. In a sense, when one creates written forms for a spoken language, one creates a culture, which can subsequently acquire status, dignity, and literature. Numerous cultures were established by clerics and missionaries. Armenian and Georgian first appeared in biblical form in the fifth century; Bishops Cyril and Methodius invented the Cyrillic alphabet in the ninth century; a Finnish Bible appeared in 1548. Perhaps the two most influential Bibles in laying the foundation of a national culture-cum-language standard were Luther’s translation in 1531 and the King James Version, which signposted the route to modern English.

Christian missionaries carried their religion to a large number of African, Asian, and Pacific tribes, not to mention the Americas. They were not the only ones, however. In many localities in Asia and Africa, the sole written form of the local tongue appeared in the Arabic script introduced by Islamic missionaries. Indians and Pakistanis, speaking basically the same language (formerly known as Hindustani), demonstrate their religious differences by calling the language Hindi (for Hindus) and writing it in the Devanagari characters of Ancient Sanskrit or in Urdu (for Moslems), which is written in flowing Arabic script.

The Political Factor

Thus culture, language, writing, and religion form a complex blueprint for belief, behavior and survival. Sometimes one of the four leads the way, sometimes another (e.g., Latin in the Roman Empire, religion in Ayatollahs’ Iran). The formula may break up for political or other reasons. Kemal Ataturk, wishing to modernize Turkey after he became president in 1923, gave the Turkish language pride of place by purging it of its Arabic loanwords—many of them religious in origin—and by replacing the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet. These language-cosmetic changes heralded a Turkish cultural shift in the direction of secularism. Ataturk replaced the Islamic calendar with the Western one. He abolished the wearing of the fez, and women stopped wearing the veil. In effect Ataturk tolerated Islam as a religion but banned it as a lifestyle—a situation very different from that in modern Iran!

Ataturk’s intervention in Turkish cultural life in the 1920s raises the question of the political link between culture and religion. How did modern established religions arise? Is there an element of political necessity? The writings of Jared Diamond trace the development of human social organization from bands to clans to tribes to chiefdoms to states, the number of people in each category increasing as one goes along. Small bands and many clans were inherently egalitarian; as hunter-gatherers leading a nomadic life, clan members had little opportunity to practice agriculture, acquire surplus wealth, and develop strict hierarchy to control the wealth. Tribes and chiefdoms arose in many parts of the world many centuries ago, for example, in the Fertile Crescent in 5500 B.C., in Mesoamerica in 1000 B.C., and in most parts of Polynesia, where chiefdoms still reigned in post-Columbian times.

Supernatural Beliefs and Divine Descent

Tribes had supernatural beliefs that most commoners accepted (e.g., Tlaloc brought rain to the Aztecs). If these supernatural beliefs could be institutionalized and classified to form a code, they were then transformed into what we call a religion. Elite rulers from the Aztecs to the Hawaiians to the Japanese emperors claimed divine descent in one way or another. Incan emperors were carried around in litters; Japanese emperors up to Hirohito were considered to be descended from the sun.

Early states had state religions, and if the ruler was seen as divine, this status lent considerable weight to his or her authority. If the elites were too indelicate or unconvincing to persuade the masses of their ability to intercede with the gods, they could always hire a separate group of kleptocrats (priests) to provide the ideological justification for monopolizing wealth and power for the public good. Religions have been very useful institutions throughout history. They served the Pharaohs, the Mesoamericans, the Arabs, and the Europeans. The masses of Russian serfs, often associated with either tsarist or Communist oppression, were in fact governed (ruthlessly) for centuries by the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church, with its rigid laws, control of riches, complete censorship, and even its secret police.

The other great advantage of an official religion is that it is able to instill fervor and patriotism among its adherents, making them willing to fight fanatically and even suicidally. Spain’s slogan, “Por Dis y Espaa,” is only one of many. Suicidal behavior of this kind was unknown among clans and bands of hunter-gatherers.

Raids by ambush or similar cunning occurred throughout early history and prehistory. The fanaticism that drove the Crusades and both Christian and Islamic conquests came in with state religions. During centuries of struggle, religion completely dominated cultural behavior. It remains to be seen how long this alliance will survive in the coming century and beyond.

Relativity of Religious Influence

To what extent does religion influence or dominate a culture? This obviously varies a considerable degree in a nation’s history. Life in Iran changed suddenly and drastically with the departure of the Shah and the advent of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Scandinavians derive their lifestyle from many Lutheran tenets, but they are not obliged to pray five times a day as good Muslims are. British citizens do not vote for their members of Parliament (MPs) along religious lines—Protestant or Catholic—but the division assumes more importance in the Netherlands, where the rival creeds are more evenly balanced. Protestant America could elect a Catholic President—John F. Kennedy—as early as 1960; it is harder to envisage a Buddhist king in Saudi Arabia.

The impact of religion on a nation’s culture also depends to some extent on whether or not it is operating from a “core country.” India is the core country for Hinduism, Israel, for the Jewish faith, Russia (in former times), for the Greek Orthodox Church. In such circumstances the influence is all-embracing. China may be considered the base for Buddhism, but the religion has many varieties in China, not to mention Japan, Tibet, Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere. Christianity has been divided for centuries with Northern Europe and North America embracing (by and large) Protestantism, while Southern Europe and South America remain loyal to Catholicism. Islam, though one of the fiercest creeds, is problematic inasmuch as it has no clear core country. Mecca may be in Saudi Arabia, but Saudis are comparatively few in number; Turkey, with its own brand of Islam, has a population of over sixty million; and Indonesia, with a more relaxed form of Islam, is out on a far distant limb but with over two hundred million adherents. Also, the bitter rivalry between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam complicates the question of “Islamic authority” even further. Who can claim to lead the Muslim world?


Nevertheless, if we wish to consider the question of the impact of religion on a culture’s social, political, or commercial code of conduct, it is perhaps Islam that provides the clearest example. If, for instance, we take the Gulf Arabs as a cultural group, to what extent will Islam affect their interactions with Westerners? What allowances should we make when dealing with them? Can we simply ignore religious differences, or can we put them aside and get on with things? In fact we cannot, much as we may wish to.

In the first place, the Qur’an (Koran) lays down a complete set of rules covering every aspect of human behavior. The rules are clear, and every action in life is classed as Obligatory, Recommended, Neutral, Disapproved, or Forbidden. A Muslim’s whole way of life and thought are thus governed. In the obligatory section are the Five Pillars of Islam:

  1. acknowledge the Oneness of God and his prophet Muhammad
  2. pray five times a day
  3. give alms to the poor and to the mosque
  4. fast during Ramadan
  5. make a pilgrimage to Mecca if at all possible

If you happen to believe in a different God or none at all, if you find interruptions for prayers disruptive, or if you strongly prefer to continue strenuous negotiating during Ramadan, you will have to hold your tongue, be patient, and adapt your behavior to impress Gulf Arabs. The following list of Arab values includes many examples of the influence of Islam:

  • Belief in God (Allah)
  • Extended family
  • Respect for the elderly
  • Conservatism
  • Gender differentiation
  • Limitless hospitality
  • Hunger for education
  • Desire for justice
  • Sincerity
  • Morality
  • Acute sense of honor
  • Integrity
  • Protection of the weak
  • Desire for praise
  • Oratory

Cultural Contrasts with the West

  • The West generally separates church and state. Most Islamic countries do not, and religion strongly influences social behavior, politics, and even business.
  • In the West the individual is the basic social unit; in Muslim nations it is the family.
  • The Westerner believes in cold facts; a Muslim will not let facts destroy honor.
  • Westerners want to be fair but just. Muslims want to be just but flexible.
  • The West believes in organizations and institutions; Muslims believe in individuals (guided by God).
  • Most Western countries have succeeded in or are working on creating equality for men and women. Muslims believe the two sexes have vastly different personalities and roles.
  • A Westerner must appear to behave rationally. A Muslim has to impress others with integrity.
  • In the West friends are good company. In the Muslim world a friend is a person who cannot refuse your request; neither can you refuse his or hers.
  • Westerners like to use official channels to further their business interests. Muslims will often use personal relationships.
  • When negotiating, Westerners try to find logical conclusions, whereas Muslims use personalized or religious arguments, emotional appeals, and persistent persuasion.
  • Men and women mingle freely in Western societies; in most Islamic countries they do not. Muslim sexuality is territorial; women passing through public places (male spaces) are expected to wear a veil to make themselves invisible. They are rarely seen by Westerners indoors.
  • The elderly are often ignored in Western cultures; they expect and receive deference and respect in Muslim countries.

Social and Business Considerations

  • One of the golden rules in Islamic countries is observing their taboos: alcohol, pork, eating with one’s left hand, discussing female relatives, causing embarrassment, and the mingling of sexes in public places.
  • In social situations you should always keep the Muslim concept of immediate and extended family to the forefront of your mind. Each family member may come into regular contact with as many as fifty or sixty relatives, and you may well be introduced to a dozen of them or more. If you are close to one family member, the others will automatically support you.
  • The eldest male is generally the head of the family unless he is incapacitated by severe illness. You must show him great respect even if his physical and mental abilities may have diminished. You should strive to find suitable gifts for him.
  • If the elder is of great age, a younger brother or cousin may assume his decision-making responsibilities (without usurping his authority). He, too, must be shown great deference.
  • In Arab countries and especially in the Gulf, women are not seen socially. They eat separately from the men, often in the kitchen nearby, but are generally “invisible.” The mother or wife of the host may well have cooked the meal you are eating, but it is not advisable to seek entry into the kitchen to compliment her. You may “send” compliments discreetly, through the host, but comments should be brief and reflect the magnificence of the host’s hospitality.
  • The only females you are likely to come into contact with in the dining room of a home in the Gulf are very young ones (three to ten years of age), who may come and play happily around their father or uncles. Treat them as you would Western children. They are rarely seen as they enter their teens and usually wear a scarf after the age of twelve or thirteen.
  • Lamb is the most popular meat and is invariably delicious. Normally it (as well as everything else) is eaten with the right hand only. Don’t worry if gravy runs down your arm; there will be a washbasin nearby, to which you can retire at regular intervals. If you are left-handed and know you will have some difficulty eating with your right, the correct procedure is to inform the host at the beginning of the meal. Normally, he will give you permission to eat with your left hand, but do not then use your right!
  • In general Arabs are governed in their social behavior toward Westerners by the rather strict tenets of their religion, but within this framework they strive to display the utmost hospitality when receiving guests. Mutual respect and showing a genuine interest in each other’s culture is the key to enjoying one’s involvement in the Muslim world.
  • Muslims disregard facts if they interfere with honor or integrity. Subjectivity dominates discussion. Nowhere is this more evident than in business.
  • Securing business depends more on establishing trust than on price or quality.
  • In meetings, order of seating and other items of protocol are important to Muslims. Senior people can appear arrogant or benevolent according to mood or situation.
  • Muslims are hard bargainers and regard the bargaining process as a normal part of both business and social life.
  • If you do not bargain with them, they will be disappointed.
  • When negotiating price, proceed slowly. To offer your counterparts one-tenth of what they propose would be an insult.
  • All kinds of emotional arguments can be used and are often more effective than cold reasoning.
  • When big deals or joint ventures are being negotiated, expect haggling, but the language and manners used are much more dignified.
  • Honor and integrity must always be seen as taken for granted.
  • Always impute the best motives.
  • You may appear tough, but you must always be just.
  • Show kindness (or at least consideration) to weaker opponents.
  • Nobody must lose face.
  • The spoken word, when solemn, has much more weight than written agreements. However, in general Muslims have great respect for the written word, especially if it has a religious connotation.
  • There will usually be one person present who is the real decision maker.
  • In a discussion, speak in a loud voice and emphasize your sincerity and integrity.
  • Most Muslims like to stand close; don’t shy away.
  • Personalize all business discussions. You must show you are interested in this person rather than his company or any contract.
  • Though the cultural gulf between Muslims and Westerners yawns wide, you have a fair chance of making a favorable impression. Muslims admire education, good reputation, and expertise.
  • Muslims are looking for sincerity in your dealings with them and expect to be shown the same respect they show you. If you come across as sincere and true, you will do well.
  • As a Westerner, you may be uncomfortable with flattery or professions of friendship, but Muslims love these utterances. Do not hesitate to praise their country, their arts, their morality and their integrity, and their dress and food (but not their women!).


Westerners usually associate Islam with the Arab world, probably on account of the fact that it is oil-rich and constitutes a large cluster of countries. Arabs, however, account for only about one-fifth of the world’s Muslims. The Arab lands, in alphabetical order, are Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan (partly), Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the West Bank and Gaza (Palestine), and Yemen. These countries have a combined population of approximately 250 million. Most Muslims, however, live outside the Arab world. The Islamic countries of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have a combined population of over 500 million! Iran and Turkey are heading for 70 million each, and there are sizeable populations of Muslims in Malaysia, the Philippines, Central Asia, and the Sahel region of Africa. Neither must we forget that predominantly Hindu India has over 100 million Muslims! In the last part of the twentieth century the Islamic religion made astonishing inroads in the Western world, including Britain, France, and the United States, where at least seven million Muslims reside.

It should also be mentioned that Islamic rules vary in their strictures according to the area and sometimes according to government policy. In general Muslim precepts are most faithfully adhered to in nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iran. Westerners notice fewer restraints in countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, and Tunisia. Eastern Muslims tend to interpret Islamic regulations more freely, especially in Indonesia, where women normally wear Western dress, mingle with men in public (eating out, etc.), drink beer, and exercise considerable political influence.


Hinduism consists of the values, beliefs, credos, and practices of peoples in South Asia, namely in India, parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Sikkim. It is the most ancient surviving religion on earth, having possibly more followers than any other in Asia. Hindu actually means the “civilization of the Hindus,” originally the inhabitants of the area along the Indus River. Hinduism denotes the Indian civilization of the last two thousand years. Interestingly, it evolved from Vedism, the religion of the ancient Indo-European, or Aryan, peoples who arrived to settle in India in the last centuries of the second millennium B.C. Hinduism has experienced different periods of prosperity and decline, but throughout it has demonstrated its capacity for absorbing and assimilating competing creeds. This is because it covers the whole of life and thus integrates a large variety of heterogeneous elements: religious, social, economic, literary, and artistic. An Indian’s everyday behavior, both in social and business life, is strongly affected by Hinduism.

Hinduism is a very tolerant religion. It reveres the divine in every manifestation and does not deny the validity of other religions. A Hindu may regard other creeds as inadequate but does not judge them as wrong or objectionable. Hindus may, for instance, embrace Christianity without ceasing to be Hindus.

Hinduism is both a civilization and a conglomerate of religions. It has no founder, no hierarchy, no central authority, but it does have many thousands of gods. There is a Supreme Being who controls everything in life, but many lesser gods represent forms of natural energy—the sun, moon, water, wind, and so forth; the Indo-Europeans were nomadic people who worshipped natural elements. The ultimate reality is called Brahman. Brahman is in all things and is the Self of all living beings. Brahman also has three physical manifestations—Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. This trinity rules over the minor gods. They are all depicted with four arms—Brahma also has four heads, depicting wisdom. The trinity is described as “the One or Whole with three forms.”

Another characteristic of Hindu belief is recognition of the Veda (or Vedic scripts), which is the world’s most ancient body of religious literature. For Hindus it represents fundamental and unassailable truth. It is, however, unfamiliar to the Indian lower classes, who are largely illiterate or semiliterate. Another Hindu characteristic—the sacrosanctity of the Brahmins (a noble class possessing spiritual supremacy by birth)—is losing its significance in modern India, especially in the north. Vegetarianism and the veneration and protection of the cow are both deemed important. Only about 20 percent of the population do not abhor the eating of beef.

Other, more accepted beliefs are the doctrines of transmigration of souls and karma. Karma is a law of cause and effect, whereby every thought, word, and deed in this life will together determine the conditions of rebirth (after a stay in heaven or hell). The whole process of rebirth is called samsara. Any earthly process is viewed as cyclic. Not only is it personal, enabling an individual to, ultimately, break out of the cycle and attain nirvana (heaven), but it is also collective inasmuch as it conditions the course of world history. The Hindu code of living is termed dharma, where an individual must conform to social and tribal duties, to the traditional rules of conduct for his or her particular caste, family, and profession. It is a close approximation to “religious practice” in the West.

Hinduism often appears playful and good-humored to Westerners, who are used to a more solemn approach. Births, marriages, and deaths are colorful occasions in India, celebrated with fireworks displays, decorated elephants, performing monkeys, music, and plenty of food.

The structure of Indian temples, the outward form of images, and the very character of Indian art are mainly determined and circumscribed by religion. Theatre and cinema also come into the religious equation. Theatrical performances of various types and artistic levels are also events to secure blessings and happiness. An element of recreation is blended with spiritual edification. Drama is produced on festive occasions based on themes from epic and legendary history. Spectators must behave appropriately, and themes are developed according to their tastes. There must be a happy ending; evil is defeated by almost obligatory buffoons. Cinema attendance is large and long films offer audiences a bit of everything in one showing: adventure, murder, struggle, humor, love affairs, wars, mystery, song, and dance.

Hindu Considerations in Social and Business Life

  • Indians make business decisions against the background of their Hindu religion. They are therefore not free agents in the Western sense. The more a Western partner bears this in mind, the more the Indian’s behavior will make sense and the better the Westerner can react to the situation.
  • Certain rituals, ceremonies, and traditions may interfere with the timing of business procedures. Indians are not always available at the times you want them.
  • As Hinduism is quite tolerant of other religions or beliefs, there is not likely to be any friction if you belong to another creed. This contrasts positively with Islam, where Westerners must be careful about what they say and do.
  • The belief in karma means that Indians do not mind taking acceptable risks in business. If successful, well and good. If you fail, you can always blame bad karma.
  • Hindus are not, however, completely fatalistic. The individual must try to follow the “right path” among those available.

This ties in to some extent with Western choice of alternatives.

  • When making decisions, a Hindu is likely to look back for good precedents to follow, whereas a Westerner goes forward with personal pragmatic alternatives and choices.
  • The Hindu rule of nonviolence affects business decisions, inasmuch as brute force or domineering attitudes in business are seen as essentially negative.
  • The caste system must be borne in mind when doing business at different social levels. Gandhi tried to abolish it; since 1947 the Indian government has reserved up to 30 percent of jobs in government-run institutions to groups that have been discriminated against. Yet, caste not only still exists but remains an important aspect of India’s social structures.
  • The Westerner must constantly bear in mind the nature of the institution of marriage in the Hindu religion.
  • The Indian woman (wife) is often in an unfortunate and underprivileged position. Many die burned in kitchens under suspicious circumstances. Features of extreme Hinduism that trouble Westerners are the treatment of wives, widow burning, untouchability, female infanticide, and child marriages. Hindu reform movements have, however, done much to eliminate these excesses.


Judaism, the oldest of the three monotheistic religions originating in the Middle East (the others are Christianity and Islam), is concentrated in Israel, but large Jewish populations exist in many European and American cities.

Judaism was developed by the ancient Hebrews in the Middle East during the third millennium B.C. Tradition holds that Judaism was founded by Abraham, who was chosen by God to receive favorable treatment in return for obedience and worship. Having entered into this covenant with God, Abraham moved to Canaan, from where centuries later his descendants migrated to Egypt and became enslaved. God accomplished the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt and renewed the covenant with their leader, Moses. Through Moses, God gave the Hebrews a set of strict laws. These laws are revealed in the Torah, the core of Judaistic scripture. Apart from the Pentateuch, the other holy books are the Talmud and several commentaries. Local worship takes place in a synagogue, a building where the Torah is read in public and preserved in a replica of the Ark of the covenant. A rabbi under- takes the spiritual leadership and pastoral care of a community.

Modern Judaism is split into four large groups: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Liberal Judaism. Orthodox Judaism, followed by many of the world’s eighteen million Jews, asserts the supreme authority of the Torah and adheres most closely to traditions, such as the segregation of men and women in the synagogue. Reform Judaism denies the Jews’ claim to be God’s chosen people and is more liberal in its interpretation of certain laws and the Torah. Conservative Judaism is a compromise between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, its followers adhering to many Orthodox traditions but seeking to apply modern scholarship in interpreting the Torah. Liberal Judaism, also known as Re-constructionism, is a more extreme form of Reform Judaism, seeking to adapt Judaism to the needs of contemporary society. The religious heart of Judaism is centered in Jerusalem. When the Romans drove the Jews from this area in the Diaspora of the first century, others inhabited the land. Until the twentieth century, the region was called Palestine and was populated by Muslims. In the 1880s the Zionist movement started, whereby Jews began returning in steadily increasing numbers.


Jainism, founded around 500 B.C. by Vardhamana Mahavira, was the first major sect to break away from Hinduism. Vardhamana was an older contemporary of the Buddha. Jainism, which has always remained an Indian religion, has so much in common with Hinduism that many Hindus regard it as a Hindu sect. Many Jains, however, are inclined to see themselves as distinct. Jains, like Hindus, believe in reincarnation but see extreme asceticism as the most direct path to the world of the spirit. Jainist monks wear loincloths and wander the streets with only a staff and a bowl for alms. Jains believe in nonviolence toward every living creature, even stepping carefully to avoid crushing insects (which tend to be numerous in many parts of India). There are about four million Jains, not so many considering India’s population, but they are significantly successful in commerce and finance; in fact they regard all occupations other than commerce and banking as smacking of violence!

Jainist Considerations in Social and Business Life

  • Although Jains are few in number, they are respected members of society.
  • To impress Jains you should support their ideals: speak the truth, do not steal (in any sense), and avoid causing intentional injury to anyone (man or beast).
  • Jains believe one should bear the burdens of life cheerfully, or at least appear to do so.
  • If a Westerner is a vegetarian, is celibate, or is an ascetic, he or she stands in even greater stead (but that might be too much of a sacrifice).


Sikhism is the religion of an Indian group founded in the Punjab in the late fifteenth century by Guru Nanak. It is therefore a comparatively new religion, a breakaway from Hinduism. There are about twelve million Sikhs, most of whom live in the state of Punjab, although about 15 percent live in the state of Haryana and in Delhi. Some Sikhs have also settled in Malaysia, Singapore, East Africa, England, the United States, and Canada.

Sikhs have a rather special relationship with the British. In the period from 1840 to 1856 they fought each other continuously, but when the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857, the Punjab province stayed loyal to the British, and the Sikhs took a prominent role in suppressing the mutiny. For this loyalty they were rewarded with substantial grants of land, and the proportion of Sikhs in the British army was greatly increased. The British also set up a program of reclamation of desert lands in the Punjab through an extensive system of canals, bringing unprecedented prosperity to areas where Sikhs were the most favored settlers. Further, Sikh loyalty to the British cause was evidenced in World War I, when Sikhs formed over 20 percent of the British Indian army.

Sikhs can be recognized by their well-known symbols—kesa (unshorn hair usually wrapped in a turban), kachcha (short trousers), kangha (ivory comb), kara (shell bracelet), and kirpan (sword). The Sikhs have great skill in all forms of mechanical matters.

Sikhism differs from other Hindu-based credos inasmuch as it rejects nonviolence as a principle, allows the killing of animals for food, and recognizes only one God. Sikh violence has been demonstrated several times in the last two centuries. Sikhism had already become a militant brotherhood in the seventeenth century under Guru Govind Singh, but in the early 1980s, one branch of Sikh extremists proclaimed a separate state called Khalistan.

The armed struggles that followed destroyed Punjab’s prosperity. Extremists converted the Golden Temple—the most sacred Sikh shrine—into military headquarters, and the army action in 1984 caused much bitterness among Sikhs, resulting subsequently in the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Sikh Considerations in Social and Business Life

  • Sikhs are proud and sensitive; one must therefore use care when interacting with them.
  • Once their loyalty has been won, Sikhs are hardworking and reliable.
  • Avoid political discussions with them.
  • They ally themselves easily with Westerners, especially the British.


Buddhism is actually an offshoot of Hinduism and once presented it with a great threat. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the fifth century B.C. in northern India, Buddhism was a dynamic force for more than a thousand years. It took a big leap forward in India when it was adopted by the great Emperor Asoka in the third century B.C., as a result of which the religion was carried outward to every part of his extensive empire—Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Korea, China, Vietnam, Nepal, Tibet, Central Asia, and Japan. Buddhism is still the dominant religion in most of these countries, but its power declined in India in A.D. 800, when it was reabsorbed into Hinduism in the revivalist movement started by Sankara.

Buddhism incorporates Hindu elements such as karma and reincarnation but reinterprets them in more dynamic form. Buddha did not see karma as being related to fate or predestination. Rather it was a strict causal law of dynamic action, enabling human beings to better their lot by their own actions and not be bound by the harmful rules, regulations, and general extremism of Hinduism and Jainism. Hindus rejected Buddhism as a religion of compromise.

Buddhism is a “practical” religion with no mention of super- natural beings or deities. In this sense it blends well with Confucianism (a code of ethics) but differs sharply from Islam and Christianity. At the heart of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths:

  1. All life is sorrow.
  2. Sorrow is the result of unchecked desire.
  3. Cessation of desire ends sorrow.
  4. One must follow the Middle Way (and avoid extremes).

The path to follow is eightfold:

  1. right understanding
  2. right purpose
  3. right speech
  4. right action
  5. right livelihood
  6. right effort
  7. seek the truth
  8. contemplation

Buddhist Considerations in Social and Business Life

  • Observance of the four precepts means that a believer conducts his or her life in a visibly unselfish manner and respects you if you do likewise. This may cause problems for Westerners, many of whom are strongly individualistic (for example, Americans and some British), or for those who don’t hesitate to apply drastic remedies to certain business situations.
  • In Buddhists’ eyes one should always display moderation.
  • With respect to the eightfold path, one first has to be sufficiently explicit to clear away any misunderstandings about the meaning or purpose of one’s intentions. This may involve more repetition than a Westerner is used to.
  • One must emphasize the sharing of mutual goals. These must be expressed in “right speech” (clarity plus courtesy) and be followed up by corresponding action (often symbolic) to set out on the right path.
  • Seeking the truth implies not only honesty in business but also the flexibility to change course if circumstances alter.
  • Contemplation implies giving adequate time and thought to one’s procedures and those of one’s associates in order to avoid mistakes by rushing things.


Shinto is the name given to indigenous religious beliefs and practices of the Japanese people. The word means “the way of kami” (the way of the Divine). Shinto is more readily observed in Japanese social life and personal motivations than as a doctrine of formal rules or a philosophy; it is closely connected with the Japanese value system and ways of thinking and acting. As a basic mindset toward life, Shinto emphasizes “sincerity, a pure heart, and uprightness.” Ancient Shinto was polytheistic. People found kami in nature, which ruled the seas and the mountains.

Shinto does not have a weekly religious service; instead, people visit shrines at their convenience. Shinto is less ostentatious than Hinduism or Buddhism; a simple torii gate stands at the entrance of the shrine. Visitors to a shrine will first approach an ablution basin, where the purification that is necessary to make communion between man and kami possible is accomplished. After they have washed their hands and rinsed their mouths, visitors usually enter the shrine to pray and make small offerings of food or money. The history of the shrine is recorded in picture scrolls and small wooden plaques around the back wall. Other articles within the shrine consist of swords and other arms, sculpture, and specimens of calligraphy.

Shinto actually preceded national and cultural consciousness; thus it has no founder. The Yayoi culture, which originated in North Kyushu in the third century A.D., contributed elements to Shinto, and by the fourth century a nation with an ancestor of the present Imperial Household as its head had probably been established.

Confucianism, introduced into Japan in the fifth century, also stimulated the development of Shinto ethical teachings. As Japan became centralized, Shinto began to develop as a national cult; myths and legends of various clans were combined and reorganized into a pan-Japanese mythology with the Imperial Household as its center. The kami of the Imperial Household became the kami of the whole nation and its people. Offerings were made by the state each year.

Buddhism was first introduced into Japan in A.D. 538, and by the eighth century many began to interpret Shinto from a Buddhist perspective. Shinto kami came to be viewed as protectors of Buddhism. The two religions blended well. Buddhist temples were built within Shinto shrine precincts from the eighth century onward. Such coexistence is visible in Japan today among the sixty million believers.

Shinto Considerations in Social and Business Life

  • Believers, in their search for “purification,” tend to be sincere, upright, and basically honest in their social and business dealings.
  • Shintoists are tolerant of other religions; relations are not only harmonious but cooperative. This is good for international business!
  • Shintoists possess an inner depth; Westerners should not mistake their sincere simplicity in many matters for navet.• The Allied powers ordered the Japanese government to disestablish state Shinto at the end of World War II. State rites performed by the emperor are now regarded as the private religious practices of the Imperial Family. Westerners tend to look kindly on Shinto activities, and ancestor worship causes no discord among Latin Catholics and most Protestant Christian sects.
  • Westerners experience great pleasure in the aesthetic and artistic expressions of Shintoism. The major Shinto shrines in Kyoto, Tokyo, Nikko, Nara, and so on, are places of great beauty, often amidst a serene background of magnificent trees and mountains.
  • Japanese art, so much appreciated by Westerners, is largely an expression of Shinto values.
  • Japanese festivals (matsuri) and musical events are popular among Westerners; the mood is gay at matsuri, more solemn and symbolic in Kabuki and Noh theatre. Shintoists have recently begun to compose solemn religious songs using Western music (to be used in the future along with the traditional music).


The three major monotheistic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—started in the Middle East and, despite their differences, share many key beliefs as well as some prophets. Christianity evolved from Judaism with the teachings of Jesus, which were spread to Europe through the ministry of the Apostle Paul and other missionaries and later through the influence of the Roman Empire after the Emperor Constantine was converted in A.D. 313.

Christianity subsequently split into three major branches: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism. Protestantism dominates Northern European countries and some of their former colonies; Roman Catholicism is prevalent in Southern Europe and South America; the Orthodox Church dominates Eastern Europe and the former Russian Empire of the czars.

Were one to ask a selection of Protestants—Americans, Britons, Germans, or Scandinavians—about the degree to which religion affected their lifestyle, they would probably assert that it played a less important part than Catholicism does with Catholics. They often perceive the Roman Catholic Church as a rigid, dogmatic institution, brooking no rivals and dominating the behavior of its flock through a vigilant and somewhat nosy priest- hood. In reality Protestant religions often define lifestyle with more persistence than one might think, while Catholicism in practice (though not always in theory) is blessed with a certain flexibility and liberalism. It is true that the confessional demands regular penitence, which the Protestant does not have to demonstrate (or even admit to), but it also grants immediate forgiveness, which is a handy escape valve for minor sinners. The priests are human, too, and frequently offer comforting advice, often deriving from their own weaknesses. The fatherly Irish priest, so often depicted by Hollywood as sharing a whisky with a local recalcitrant, is in real life a valuable social worker and therapist.

The Catholic Church in Latin countries such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal, while frequently seen as a disciplinarian among its members, is expected to show great compassion toward its less fortunate adherents. In such countries, where the religion has little competition from Protestantism, dogma is less rigid, attitudes toward other creeds less defensive. The “sinister” aspects of the Roman Catholic Church—brainwashing of the young, disregard for other beliefs—tend to be seen only in states where religions are roughly equal in strength (the Netherlands) or where there is a long history of bitter struggle and persecution (Ireland and some parts of England). Such inter-Christian rivalry is markedly on the wane in the early twenty-first century, particularly in the face of rising Islamic influence. World events may lead to an effective amalgamation of Christian religions—at least to the consolidation of a Council of Churches—where not only Roman Catholics and Protestants see more eye to eye, but where Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and splinter groups such as Quakers achieve greater integration.

To return to the question of lifestyle, the average Protestant rarely consults with the local minister about his or her social or business life, except for occasional personal therapy. The typical English vicar retains a certain visibility and reputation in small towns and villages, but many of his flock do not attend church. Scandinavians go to church for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and sometimes for confirmation classes. Americans are more churchgoing. Yet all these Protestants lead their lives according to certain rules that, though largely unwritten, are no less mandatory if they wish to command the respect of the congregation.

The work ethic is a central tenet of Protestantism, bringing with it a code of behavior that supports the concept. This includes rising early, eating meals quickly, rushing to work, planning activities, wasting little time, being efficient and tidy, observing legalities, pursuing success, and making money as soon as possible. The Protestant is expected to

  • play his or her required part in community projects and social functions,
  • be a good citizen who is not a nuisance to the neighbors,• pay debts promptly and respect the police and other authorities,
  • pay taxes regularly and support charities,
  • be frank and direct, and
  • generally tell the truth—scientific truth, that is—without the ambivalence so often heard among non-Protestants.

The rewards for this good behavior include a fine house (with land and a well-kept garden), one or two handsome cars, good local schools for (two) children, and membership in local sports clubs and other associations that provide a rich social “middle” between family and state. The family plays a less dominant role than in Catholic countries, though children are well taken care of, adequately educated, and encouraged to envisage early entrepreneurism, which will in turn lead to their perpetuating the Protestant work-equals-success ethic and their continuing prosperity.

Such a lifestyle, though not formally prescribed by the Church, derives from the drive for independence and self-reliance of early Protestants who divorced themselves from the established sources of power and “made it on their own.” This way of life is particularly evident in the United States, where the pioneering attitudes of the early settlers, the frontier spirit, and the hardships involved in conquering a continental wilderness produced a competitive, driving individual the likes of whom the world had never seen.

The global competitiveness of Protestants in the area of commerce is both astonishing and well documented. The Economist and the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne both publish annual surveys of the comparative global competitiveness of more than two hundred countries. Rankings reflect the ability of a country to achieve sustained high rates of GDP growth per capita. They are based on approximately 250 criteria covering such items as the openness of the economy, the role of government, the development of financial markets, the quality of infrastructure, technology, business management, and judicial and political institutions. In the 2002 rankings (headed by the United States, Finland, Singapore, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), 17 of the top 22 countries had large Protestant majorities. One must assume therefore that there is a good case for Protestant values being conducive to successful commercial practices. Among Catholic countries only Ireland made the top20. Spain ranked 23; France, 25; Brazil, 31; and Italy, 32. As far as the Eastern Orthodox churches are concerned, a lot of ground has been lost in their battles with the Communist Party, particularly in Russia. In the Balkans, too, the Church took a battering, and many buildings were lost due to direct attack or lack of funds. The congregations, however, have remained surprisingly resilient. Under Tito, Yugoslavian monasteries hung on to their riches, and followers attended services in spite of Communist disdain. The Orthodox Church sets great store by lavish ceremonies, especially at Easter, and the priests and bishops continue to enjoy considerable prestige. Particularly in the countryside, in Bulgaria, Serbia and inside Russia itself, once-splendid architecture has been remarkably preserved and refurbished. As religious freedom is now guaranteed all the way from St. Petersburg to Sofia, it remains to be seen what influence will be retained by this once powerful Church.

Christian Considerations in Social and Business Life

While Westerners clearly see the impact of Eastern religions (e.g., Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism) on everyday social and business behavior, it may not occur to them that different branches of Christianity exert varying influences on comportment. The following list contrasts views of society held by Protestants and Roman Catholics.


  • honesty, truth, transparency
  • justice, rule of law, discipline• freedom of speech and of worship
  • equality for women
  • democratic institutions
  • high taxes, social welfare
  • work ethic (work=success=money)
  • entrepreneurism, egalitarianism
  • punctuality, neatness, cleanliness
  • tidy public spaces, civil order
  • early Puritanical precepts gradually liberalizing and splitting into many sects and credos


  • the existence of only one true Church
  • strict dogma and ritual
  • hierarchical society
  • strong leaders, great power distance
  • powerful families, clans, and cliques
  • nepotism in business
  • use of key people rather than officialdom
  • close personal relationships
  • respect for family and elders
  • relaxed attitude toward time
  • liberal view of sin (sin can be absolved through confession)
  • philosophical view of truth
  • compassion in business

The Globalization of Religion

This chapter began by noting that the advancements made by science, especially in the twentieth century, might have been expected to undermine or at least diminish in importance the influence of religion on human social and political behavior. Yet this has not happened. Religion seems to mold human attitudes and subsequent courses of action in a more decisive manner than ever. The diverse religious concepts discussed above indicate widely diverging mindsets regarding morality, restraints, and “right living.” Although commonalities are clearly discernible in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and so on, any movement toward globalization of beliefs, in the twenty-first century at least, is a very tall order indeed, particularly in times when extremism runs rampant.

But what about world peace? How should we best attempt reconciliation not only of political and economic goals but also of humanity’s destiny on the planet we all share? Is religion going to be the panacea or, perpetually, an obstacle to these lofty but surely desirable aspirations?

Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, used the word obstacle when referring to family planning in her opening address to the United Nations’ International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994.

Traditional religions and cultural obstacles can be over- come by economic and social development with the focus on enhancement of human resources. For example Buddhist Thailand, Moslem Indonesia, and Catholic Italy demonstrate that relatively sharp reductions in fertility can be achieved in an amazingly short time.

Mrs. Brundtland, as a Western woman leading a government with an equal number of female and male ministers, was warming to her theme admirably, but culturally she was treading on very thin ice. The idea that religious aspects of life can be separated from such secular notions as politics and economics is entirely alien to a large number of cultures, especially in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In Buddhist, Taoist, Shintoist, Confucian, and particularly Hindu and Islamic cultures, religion is integrated with and permeates the whole way of life. Mrs. Brundtland, in spite of her good intentions, was roundly attacked and castigated for her remarks. Strong criticisms of points in the draft agenda for the conference concerning family planning and the decriminalization of abortions led to the Vatican’s seeking and finding support for its restricted views in several Muslim countries!

If the notion that religious obstacles should be overcome through social and economic development sounds very much like evolutionism, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin went much further in his book L’Energie Humaine in which he attempted to equate evolution with religion. Discussing the pursuit of science, he stated that humanity is not seeking another god of infinite power but rather an understanding of its own evolution. As humanity develops, ethics have to follow suit. Teilhard de Chardin stressed that one of the great deficiencies of the old religions was that they adhered to dogmas that fossilized human thought. What was good two thousand years ago may be inadequate or even degrading in the twenty-first century. Ethics may have to change. Teilhard de Chardin discussed not only familiar arguments in favor of population reduction and depopulation considerations but also went out on a cultural limb with suggestions that scientific methods should be used to control sickness and counterrevolution. He went so far as to suggest selection methods for developing a superior human type to bypass the current “genetic roulette” system. While the earth was unbounded at the time of the creation of the major religions, today’s situation is quite different. Teilhard de Chardin focuses on the sanctity-of-life ethics versus the quality-of-life ethics.

The noted Catholic theologian Hans Kng is considerably more optimistic about raising ethical standards within a religious context. One of the great ironies of our time is that while globalization ties people together economically, it also internationalizes problems: organized crime, drug trade, ethnic and religious warfare, and ecological pollution, to name a few. Globalization frightens people almost as much as it seduces them. Kng, however, sees the existence of an “inner moral standard” that is not associated with any particular religion or philosophy but is shared by most of them. Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Shinto concepts of decency are not so dissimilar. “A necessary minimum of shared ethical values and basic attitudes” (probably already existing) could be specified by religious and secular leaders.

Some progress has already been made in this respect. In 1993 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, representatives from more than 120 religions adopted a “Declaration toward a Global Ethic.” In 1997 former heads of state drafted a “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities” and gave copies to all heads of state as well as to the United Nations and UNESCO. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan formed an advisory committee consisting of Kng, Richard von Weizscker, and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen to help him prepare for UN Year 2001, which focused on the dialogue among civilizations. Kng asked politicians to come up with a plan similar to the Marshall Plan, which created an international order after World War II.

As a theologian, Kng has limited hopes for globalized ethics unless religious leaders begin to lead in what is their particular domain: “There won’t be peace among nations without peace among religions.” A healthy dose of charisma is needed, among leading figures, whether they are statesmen, women, religious luminaries, or monarchs. Empress Michiko of Japan made an illuminating remark in her recent booklet “Building Bridges,” where she detected the beginnings of positive juvenile globalization in the phenomenon of universally read, worldwide children’s books. If we can all believe in Alice in Wonderland….

Cultural Imperative
Cultural Imperative: Global Trends in the 21st Century
ISBN: 1877864986
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 108 © 2008-2020.
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