Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Is it possible to separate out religious influences from centuries-old societal customs? And if so, just how does a journalist go about doing this?

This is not an easy task. That goes double for journalists -- perhaps most journalists -- with little exposure to the principles of group dynamics or the psychology of institutional religion.

This may sound like hubris on my part, but I believe that the wide experience gained on the religion beat prepares journalists to better understand humanity’s complex social and psychological formulations -- allowing religion writers and editors to (potentially) better parse the differences.

This recent New York Times story on the semi-isolation of menstruating women in remote western Nepal, causing the death of some, provides a platform for exploring the question.

But first, a quick return to Brazil.

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted here on the custom of some indigenous Brazilian tribes to murder unwanted children. I tried to explain how from their tribal perspective the practice made sense.

I noted that in their rain forest environment, where food is surprisingly difficult to come by, the children -- fatherless or physically impaired -- were in the tribes’ view being sacrificed for a greater good. That's because they could not contribute to the group's food supply, which tribal leaders deemed an unacceptable burden that threatened the entire group's survival.

I also noted how outrageously obscene the practice seems when considered from a Western mindset rooted in the Abrahamic religious traditions. My point was to illustrate how difficult it is for journalists to put aside their deepest values when covering groups with a vastly different belief set.

The late Huston Smith, the renowned scholar of comparative religion, once wrote, I’m paraphrasing now, that every civilization -- and by every civilization he even included small, semi-nomadic jungle tribes -- is influenced by some spiritual vision of how life is best lived.

I take that to mean that in the Brazilian case, the tribes were following some inner sense of their own notion of right and wrong, even if they did not articulate it in spiritual or religious terms.

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Daily life may collide with law: Why do so many religions care what believers wear?

Daily life may collide with law: Why do so many religions care what believers wear?


Why do the religious authorities feel strongly about what we wear when we go about our daily lives, when we worship -- or indeed when we swim?


One evening The Religion Guy was at the house of a physician who got an emergency summons to visit a hospital patient. Before departing, he took time to change from a polo shirt, ragged jeans, and sneakers into a dark suit, freshly starched white shirt, tie, and shiny shoes. I asked why bother. He explained that no matter what he wears he’s fully focused on a medical problem, but a vulnerable patient cannot know this and needs visual reassurance.

Point is, clothing and related visuals are ingrained in human interactions, even in the highly individualistic United States. Judges always preside in robes, morticians wear somber suits, uniforms identify security personnel, prisoners or gang memers announce solidarity with tattoos, and teens’ fashions obey social expectations.

So it’s no surprise if many religions ask believers to signify their identity, heritage, devotion, or desired virtues in the same way. That’s the basic answer to the “why” question, but let’s scan some examples.

Religious traditions can provoke public disputes. At this writing Nebraska is discussing whether to cancel a law forbidding religious garb in public schools, which barred hiring of a Catholic nun. This obscure law from 1919 was part of the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-Catholic campaign. The AP reports 36 U.S. states had such laws at one time but now Pennsylvania is the only other state with one. In France, school disputes evolved into a nationwide ban on conspicuous religious garb, aimed especially at Muslim women’s headscarves, followed by a ban on their full face coverings as a security measure.

Faith groups typically define attire and regalia for official functions, whether prescribed robes for Eastern gurus or mitres for popes. Protestant preachers may wear suits or the female equivalent when leading worship (while megachurch preachers favor Technicolor shirts to signal user-friendly informality). We can leave aside clergy complexities since “we” in the question refers to ordinary lay folk.

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