The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #10 July / August 2014
Religion in Culture
by Erik Zidowecki
July / August 2014 | 

For many people, religion is a very touchy subject. Those that have strong religious convictions often want others to believe the same, and if they don't, a conflict may occur. The tension can be just as intense for those that who don't follow any religious covenants because for them, they not only feel that they are being pressured or judged, they may also believe that people of faith are stupid or ignorant and won't hesitate to tell them that.

A buddhist shrine in Kyoto, Japan

I believe that religion, like science, is a way to examine and explain the world around us. I don't see any real difference between believing that an all powerful being created everything, or that a massive explosion in a vacuum started it all. Both are beliefs that can't be proven, but they provide us with some explanation we can use for what we don't know.

The reason for this article is not to take sides, nor debate faith versus science. I feel that what you believe in is completely up to you, and is personal. If you wish to explain your beliefs to another person, that is fine, but don't push it on them and certainly don't declare that you are right simply because you believe it... that is circular logic.

What I wanted to examine is how religious beliefs have affected our cultures and, to an extent, our language.

A torii gate to a shinto shrine in Japan

Buildings and Structures

I am an American and raised as first a Baptist, then as a Unitarian. That means that for most of my first two decades of life, I saw churches as small wooden buildings, sometimes with tall steeples on the top. The more formal churches had stain-glass windows and benches or pews. Being religious basically meant attending one of these churches for an hour or two every Sunday morning.

My first exposure to something different was when I was twelve. My grandmother had been a Baptist missionary in Japan for seven years, during which time she taught intermediary English. When she was invited to visit some of her friends there, my mother, sister and I also travelled with her. This was my first time I had left this continent and got exposed to a completely different culture and language first-hand.

Japanese culture is a mix of traditional and modern ways, and this is reflected by its religious beliefs. While Christianity is accepted there, the older religions of Buddhism and Shinto are also very prevalent.

The "Great Buddha" at Kōtoku-in, a Buddhist temple in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

Shinto ("way of the gods") is the indigenous religion of Japan which focuses on ritual practises which establish a connection between the past and the present. One of the most common sights and a fascinations to me were the countless Torii gates which were the entrances to the Shinto shrines. These ranged in size from two meters to seemingly indescribably heights and could be very basic in design or highly ornate.

The Shinto shrines themselves are not quite as we might, in western culture, believe them to be. They could be used for worship, but their primary purpose was normally to house sacred objects.

At the age of 12, I was not caught up in any kind or religious ideas, but I loved these gates and shrines because they were a beautiful part of the culture. They showed to me a peacefulness of how the Japanese people embraced their traditions. They play an important part of the culture, even to those not involved in the religion.

The Bell Tower and Baptistery of Pisa, Italy

Another structure that we found everywhere, sometimes in beautiful gardens of bustling cities and sometimes in mountain forests, were the Buddhist pagodas. These are wooden structures with multiple levels, each having a curved roof. They are places of worship, but are also visited by many tourists, including us, for their cultural and historical relevance. Many have fountains or pools with flowing water outside to allow visitors to drink and wash themselves, a ritual of cleansing. I loved these, along with the pools of colourful Koi fish that seemed to be everywhere.

Perhaps the most important revelation to me that has stuck with me all my life is that the Japanese culture and people had their religion as part of their culture. They didn't seem to have them set apart, only to pay attention to one on a fixed timetable. At the same time, I never felt that the people were overtly religious; it all just seemed to be united, religion and culture.

My next major exposure to another culture was my first visit to Italy when I was 17. I was visiting an Italian exchange student whom I had befriended when he came to my school the year before. It was my first time in Europe as well as my first time outside the country without my family. For two glorious weeks, my friend Lucio and I explored Italy, particularly Rome, Florence, Siena, Pisa and Venice.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel

We spent most of a week in Florence alone, during which time we visited many of the large ornate churches that seemed to be on every other street. The boarding house we were staying in itself was across from the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. The various chiese ("churches") and duomi ("cathedrals) were of a kind I had never seen before. These were huge ornate stone buildings, very old and very much part of the cultural heritage. Inside, the walls were often covered in artistic frescos, combining both the artistic and religious aspects of the various time periods. In fact, when we talk about great works of art in Italy, we mention Michaelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel or his famous statue of David, with David being the hero of a Biblical story. Without the religious connection, these works would not exist.

Some of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy are actually religious based. For example, the famous "leaning tower" of Pisa is the bell tower for the adjacent baptistery and cemetery. The baptistery is an example of the transition between the Romanesque style to the Gothic style of architecture, with the lower part being in the first style and the upper part in the second. The Camposanto Monumentale ("monumental cemetery") houses not just bodies but also Roman and Etruscan sculptures and urns along with enormous frescos, mostly depicting religious themes.

Construction of the Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum

The Roman Colosseum, perhaps the greatest historical landmark in Italy, has its own religious heritage. It was first built using money from the raiding of the Second Temple in the Siege of Jerusalem. A popular story about the Colosseum is that Christians were sacrificed there when that new religious was being born, but how common and extensive that really was is unknown. During medieval times, a small church was added to the structure and the arena was converted into a cemetery.

Some of the world's greatest cultural treasures are actually religion based. The Great Pyramids of Egypt were built as tombs for the ruling Pharaohs. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The stone circles of Stonehenge and similar sites are believed to have been built as burial grounds and places of worship. The estate of Machu Pikchu in the mountains of Peru is similarly believed to be of religious significance.

Tower of Babel

Inside, the walls were often covered in artistic frescos, combining both the artistic and religious aspects of the various time periods.

Perhaps the most relevant historical and cultural building to language learners is the great Tower of Babel of Babylon. According to legend, there was a time when everyone on Earth spoke the same language. Many people settled in the land of Shinar and wanted to show how great they were, so they built a great city and a very tall tower. God saw this and was concerned that if everyone was united and had a single language, nothing would be out of their reach, including him. And so, he destroyed their tower and confused their speech, making them speak in many languages, thus making them unable to ever work completely as one again. The ruins of the city can be found today in Hillah, Babil Governorate, Iraq.

Holidays and Holy Days

Carnival celebration on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands

Beyond just the buildings and works of art that were directly or indirectly driven by religious ideas, a great many celebrations around the world have their roots, if not there entire purpose, in religious practices. Carnival, the huge party held every year in several countries, is held as the last time for the consumption of rich food and drink before the forty days of Lent is begun, in which those things are forbidden. The Mexican Day of the Dead is celebration of the deceased and coincides with the American Halloween and the Catholic All Saints Day. The annual ritual of giving your loved ones romantic gifts is attributed to the Christian Saint Valentine. The colourful Indian Holi celebration is based upon the story of the boy Prahlad and his devotion to his god, Lord Vishnu. The Inti Rayma of South America is celebration of the Inca sun god. The Japanese Tanabata festival celebrates not only the legend of star-crossed lovers but also the practise of praying for skills by tying strips of paper to special trees. The Esala Perahera of Sri Lanka is a celebration of both Buddha (or, more specifically, his tooth) and certain Hindu gods. The list goes on and on.

The term "holiday" itself comes from Old English haligdæg for "holy day, Sabbath".

No matter what your views on religion are, we cannot ignore its importance to culture, both historical and modern. It plays a part in our architecture, our art, our legends and our celebrations.

Religion in Culture
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Duomo in Florence (title); Torii gate; Buddhist shrine; "Great Buddha" at Kōtoku-in; Bell Tower and Baptistery; The Creation of Adam; Construction of the Tower of Babel; Carnival celebration on Tenerife; Murō-ji temple; Stone lantern; The Last Judgement

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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