Do Religions Account for Important Cultural Differences? An Analysis across 100 Religious Groups in 27 African Countries
Purpose. It is often believed that the type of religion that a group of people follow (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) can account for significant and important cultural differences, with implications for business ethics, corporate and social responsibility, and other business-related variables. The alternative view is that the cultural differences between religions are either trivial or are actually misinterpreted ethnic or national differences. The purpose of this paper is to compare and evaluate these two views.
Design/methodology/approach. The authors focus on Africa, the most religious region of the world, whose cultures should therefore be especially susceptible to the effect of religion. We used latest data from 100 religious groups, following 19 religions, and living in 27 countries, from the nationally representative Afrobarometer. The items in the authors’ analysis reveal cultural ideologies concerning key cultural domains, such as inclusive–exclusive society (gender equality, homophobia and xenophobia), the role of government and the role of religion in politics. These domains are related to cultural conservatism versus modernization and have clear implications for management. The authors compare the group-level effect of belonging to a certain nation to the effect of belonging to a certain religion.
Findings. A hierarchical cluster analysis produced crystal-clear national clusters, with only one of the 100 religious groups systematically clustering outside its respective national cluster. The authors did not obtain a single cross-national cluster of coreligionists. Variation between nations was far greater than between religious groups and the latter was most often statistically insignificant. A comparison of Muslims with other religions revealed that Muslims are not generally more conservative, although they do have a marginally greater tendency to be less gender egalitarian. The authors conclude that the African national environments have a much stronger impact on cultural differences than do religions. The effect of the latter, compared to the former, is negligibly small and often insignificant. Thus, they find no evidence that religions can produce a powerful discriminant effect on some of the most important elements of culture.
Research limitations/implications. Non-Abrahamic religions are poorly represented in Africa. Therefore, we could not assess their effect on culture. Nevertheless, it seems that attempts to explain cultural differences in values and ideologies in terms of religious differences are misguided, even in a cultural environment where religion is very strong.
Practical implications. The findings could help improve executive training in cross-cultural awareness, purging it from erroneous views on the origins of cultural differences. Managers should avoid simplistic explanations of the values and ideologies of their employees in terms of their religious affiliation.
Social implications. Simplistic (yet very popular) explanations of culture as a function of type of religion should be avoided in society at large, too. The idea that different religions generate different cultures is not only dubious from a scientific perspective but also socially dangerous as it may lead to religious intolerance.
Originality/value. This is only the second study in the history of the whole cross-cultural field that provides a multinational and multidenominational comparison of the effect of nations versus religious denominations on culture.
Religions are often portrayed as sources of important cultural differences.
We compared differences in cultural modernization between religions and between nations in Africa.
Variation between 27 African countries dwarfed that between 100 religious groups.
Practically all religious groups yielded perfectly homogeneous national clusters.
We did not observe a single cluster of coreligionists from different countries.
We conclude that nations have a strong effect on cultural differences whereas religions have a minimal effect at best.