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How Religion Contributes to Cultural Change

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Instructor
Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

Religion can influence the culture of an entire community, nation, or region and how they solve societal dilemmas of morality. Learn more about how religions contribute to cultural changes and their effects on the New World. Updated: 10/20/2021

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.

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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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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.

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Practice:
How Religion Contributes to Cultural Change Quiz

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Though the founders of the United States called for a separation of church and state, what religious belief within the culture carried over into politics?

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Additional Activities

Religion and Culture: Further Exploration

In this lesson, you learned about the major impacts that religion can have on society. The following activities will give you the opportunity to research one of three major topics. Depending on your area of interest, choose a topic below and write a detailed essay answering some of the questions given. Be sure to supplement your ideas with additional research and consider your answers carefully. Don't feel like you have to answer every question in a given prompt; on the other hand, choose one or two and build a strong thesis statement.

  • Christianity: How did the spread of Christianity change the Roman Empire? What other religions were practiced in the empire at the time? What aspects of early Christian persecution and expansion can still be found in parts of Christianity today? When did Christianity, in its process of expansion, begin to split into multiple sects? What impact did those splits have on human culture?
  • Islam: What roots do Christianity and Islam share? What were the Islamic advances in arts, sciences, and mathematics mentioned in this lesson? How did the spread of Islam impact culture in the parts of Africa that it spread to? What about its influence in India?
  • America: When Christianity came to America, what religions already existed and were practiced by indigenous groups? What kinds of impacts did Christianity have on indigenous people? How has the legacy of Christianity remained relevant in conversations about the impacts of settler-colonialism today? What is the current impact of Christianity on culture, education, and politics in America? What Christian sects were created in America?

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