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How Religion Contributes to Cultural Change

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  • 0:08 Beyond the Individual
  • 0:53 The Spread of Christianity
  • 2:12 The Impact of Islam
  • 3:23 Effects on the New World
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Religions have the power to dramatically change the culture around them and the people of a community. In this lesson, we'll look at three major examples of how history has been shaped by religion.

Beyond the Individual

Has religion impacted your life in any way? While not everyone will have practiced religion in their lifetime, most of us will interact with religious beliefs in some form, from a friend or family member who talks with us about their faith to hearing about global conflicts that have connections with religious beliefs.

Religion can affect more than a particular person's habits. These beliefs and practices can influence an entire community, nation, or region. Religious practices shape, and are shaped by, the culture around them.

In this lesson, we look at three key examples of religion as a factor in cultural change. We'll focus on the spread of Christianity by the Roman Empire, the impact of Islam in Middle Age Europe, and the role of religion in the founding of the United States.

The Spread of Christianity

In the early Roman Empire, a new religion, Christianity, was at first viewed as threatening or at the very least blasphemous, to the beliefs of the leadership. Easy to blame for troubles in the empire, early Christians experienced persecution, such as penalties for practicing their religion and even being put to death.

This emerging religion that was originally so persecuted would eventually go on to influence the Roman Empire in a big way. In particular, Christianity received a major boost when the Emperor Constantine professed Christian beliefs.

Though he still allowed for pagan traditions during most of his rule, over time his interest in Christianity would impact the spirituality of the empire. For instance, as emperor, Constantine could affect what opportunities were available to practice different faiths. He had the power to create or destroy buildings where people worshiped. The emperor also greatly influenced the degree to which these beliefs were integrated into the government itself.

As a result, the spread of Christianity integrated the Church and the state more than had been previously. While we are used to thinking of a separation between church and state as a critical component of a free society, in the time of the Roman Empire, Christianity became more solidified in the politics of that area of the world.

The Impact of Islam

Even with power more solidified, struggles within the wider belief system of Christianity would make it possible for another religion to have its own major impact on the world.

During the latter part of the first millennium of the Common Era, Islam was growing in influence. Just as Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire, Islam spread throughout regions of Arabia, then North Africa and into parts of Europe and Asia, such as Spain and India.

The influences of Muslim culture include ideas from many disciplines, such as the arts, sciences, medicine, and math. Architecture also experienced shifts as a result of this contact. For instance, some researchers see a connection between the pointed arch from Muslim mosques and the Gothic architecture of that era.

As with Christianity, Islam incorporated some traditions from other religions. It also influenced the politics of the region. As one example of this political impact, you may have heard about conflicts between Sunni and Shia forces today in the Middle East. This division has its roots in the power struggles of the early days of Islam, more than a thousand years ago.

Effects on the New World

Later, in the early days of the American colonies, religion was a driving force for many colonists to risk their lives to travel across an ocean and setup a new life. While there were many reasons for individuals to come to the colonies, for groups like the Puritans, who were escaping persecution, the colonies presented an opportunity to practice their religion in a way that was not possible back home.

Other groups who came to the colonies also had ideas about what it would mean for their religion. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, the concept that religious practices and government should be distinct arenas had taken hold as a principle.

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