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Geography of Religion: Political & Social Impacts

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  • 0:11 Religion and Life
  • 0:51 Geography of Religion
  • 3:25 Religion and Ethnicity
  • 4:24 Difference and Conflict
  • 7:37 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.

In this lesson, you'll consider why geographers take an interest in the religions of people around the world. We'll also discuss how conflicts arise between groups with different beliefs and experiences.

Religion and Life

What will you do with your time today? What will you wear? How do you understand the meaning of your life and your existence? Who will you marry? For many people in the world, religion shapes much of their daily life as well as the big questions, like why am I here, how should I behave, and what happens when I die.

This lesson explores the geography of religion including the distribution of religion in different regions of the world. We'll take a look at the political and social impacts of beliefs and how they can contribute to or alleviate conflict and violence.

Geography of Religion

Geographers don't look at religion with the goal of altering, judging, or influencing the beliefs of others. Their aim is to more fully understand how religious beliefs and practices affect the people of that society and region.

For instance, a geographer might observe how laws and social norms vary by region, and how this is connected with the religiosity of that area. At the time of this lesson, a debate over same sex marriage has divided certain states, while other states have allowed marriage licenses to be issued. Some states have taken up the mission to ban it. Whether a person should be able to marry a person of the same sex is often discussed within religious context. Some states will have more citizens that find same sex marriage against the beliefs of their religion, and this will affect which candidates get their vote. Similarly, abortion often raises intense political debate among those from different religious perspectives.

Geographers take an interest in how religious a certain area is based on factors such as professed belief, attendance at services, and other measures of religiosity. Nonbelievers and atheists will also capture the attention of geographers, who seek to understand both the adherence to and the rejection of religion.

In many cases, numbers of people in a particular religion are not easy to measure. For instance, in one region, a person may be considered a certain religion at birth, whether or not they ever participate in the activities of that religion. Another religion may only count those who experience a certain rite of passage.

What is more certain is that some regions of the world are more likely to have high numbers of one religion over others, while some regions will be more diverse. For instance, in the Americas and in Europe, Christianity is the religion of the vast majority. African countries overall are roughly split between Christianity and Islam, with ethnic religious and nonreligious people making up a minority. Asia, as a continent, includes many different religions as part of the whole area, although certain areas have concentrations of those who are Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Looking at this data can help geographers understand the distribution of certain beliefs and practices, particularly when they look into more detailed levels of information beyond just continental trends.

Religion and Ethnicity

Religious identity is not always separate from concepts such as ethnicity. In the case of someone who refers to themselves as Jewish, for instance, this could mean their religious beliefs or it could mean their ethnic identity, even if they do not practice the religion. It could also refer to both religion and ethnicity.

Religious and ethnic identity can affect every aspect of a person's world, from how they spend their time to how they dress and eat, what values guide their everyday actions, and what meaning they give to life and death. It can also influence the politics of the world around them, and how a person perceives their reality.

Imagine that each person is holding up a certain lens between themselves and the world around them based on their past experiences and beliefs. This shapes how we understand people and events and even the meaning of life and death.

Difference and Conflict

There are many ways of practicing any one religion. Most religions place a good deal of attention on sacred religious texts. They may also value the wisdom of leaders in the faith. Different interpretations of what the texts mean and different approaches of leadership can influence how a person expresses their beliefs. Whether a particular region is dominated by one religion or another may also influence the politics of that area.

In the case of same sex marriage, not everyone who considers themselves religious will share similar views, even within the same overall religion. Some denominations of Christianity have opened their doors to same sex couples, while others debate how to address the issue of acceptance in their community. For instance, at the time this lesson was created, the United Church of Christ holds a position of accepting and sanctioning same-sex marriage, while some other Christian churches, such as the Methodist church, American Baptist churches and the Southern Baptist church, prohibit this. The population of citizens within each state that holds a particular religious view can influence the politics of that state and impact whether a particular state issues same-sex marriage licenses.

If a person believes that their religious texts and leaders advocate for the use of aggression, they may use force to promote their viewpoint, particularly if they have access to weapons. This can involve actual war and terrorism, or it can mean persecuting or restricting those who disagree, depending on where they live in the world and the political context in which this occurs.

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