What Do Religious Cultures Teach Us About Emotions?

Religious and cultural traditions have a big impact on how people experience and express emotions in their lives. Religions teach them what feelings are moral, good, and desirable and what actions are right, ethical, and appropriate in specific situations and contexts. Religions also teach them what feelings and actions are bad, undesirable, immoral, sinful, and should be avoided (Karandashev, 2021).

Religions not only tell us which emotions are appropriate, but also which are preferable. Religions advise people how intense feelings should be and teach how a person can cultivate intense positive emotions while regulating negative emotions.

Researchers elucidated the diversity in religious teachings about emotions. They show how cultural aspects of different religions impact people’s emotional lives (e.g., Koopmann-Holm, 2013; Silberman, 2003).

Love, in a variety of its meanings and types, is a central tenet of many religious beliefs. Therefore, religions teach people how to experience and express love, admiration, and gratitude (Karandashev, 2021a).

Conservative Religious Values of Positive and Negative Emotions

In general, people prefer to experience positive emotions. On the other hand, they wish to avoid negative emotions. Between these two opposite desires, they tend to prefer to avoid negative feelings more than to experience positive feelings. Religions and cultures have different ideas about what is normative and good about pursuing or avoiding certain desires and feelings. Religions usually follow their cultural traditions of emotional life over the centuries. Many are conservative and advocate moderation in the pursuit of pleasure, novelty, and excitement. For instance, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Greek Orthodox, and Muslims discourage their religious followers from experiencing the emotions and motivations associated with pursuing change, novelty, and excessive pleasure in life. The religious teachings of Dutch Roman Catholics, Dutch Protestants, and Israeli Jews advise more traditional, reserved motivation and discourage hedonistic motivation.

Cultural Variations in Religious Teachings about Emotions  

There is still some difference between religious cultures. For example, lexical content analyses of Christian and Buddhist classical texts showed that Christian teachings are more likely than Buddhist teachings to encourage positive states of high arousal.

Some cultural variability is still evident. In North America, where most people are Christian, and East Asia, where most people are Buddhist, the importance of happy feelings with high and low levels of arousal is different.

According to lexical content analyses, Christian texts more frequently than Buddhist classical texts praise high arousal positive states. The ancient basic texts of the two religions show that in the Gospels in Christianity and the Lotus Sutra in Buddhism, “high-arousal positive emotions, such as excitement, are valued more, whereas low-arousal positive emotions, such as calm, are valued less in Christianity than in Buddhism.” (Tsai et al., 2006).

These differences are consistent with the findings of empirical studies about ideal affective states in both Christianity and Buddhism. When researchers compared the ideal affect of Christian and Buddhist practitioners, they discovered that Christian and Buddhist texts and practices have a significant influence on their ideal affect. The findings of the studies showed that Christian practitioners place a higher value on high-arousal positive affective states and a lower value on low-arousal positive affective states in comparison with Buddhist practitioners (Tsai, Miao, & Seppala, 2007).

Cross-National Variation in Religious Emotional Experiences

Emotional cultural norms vary across national cultures, even within the same religion. For instance, Muslim people in the countries of Egypt and Bali have different dispositions toward experience and the expression of emotions. Egyptians regard emotional expressions as a cultural norm that is essential for good health. The Balinese believe that showing emotions is a threat to others and to themselves because it makes it hard to make rational decisions. Emotional reactions to death also differ between these two national cultures. People in Bali react calmly to the death of a child, whereas people in Egypt react with intense emotional reactions (Wikan, 1988).