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Holy Undercurrent: How Religion Shapes Cultures Worldwide

Religion Culture
by J. Raimund Pfarrkirchner May 20, 2009
It’s tempting to see exotic cultures as overtly religious. But as the author reveals, Western culture is also rife with religious influence.

Nepal has always seemed exotic for many travelers — not only for its litany of climates, which range from sea level jungles to the ice-caped apexes of the world called the Himalaya.

Despite the bevy of diversity amongst flora and fauna, its culture too has held sway over the imaginations of travelers from around the world.

I was fortunate enough to have had a teaching post in its capital Kathmandu. The duties were minimal and I was able to feed a few sportive passions like trekking and climbing, as well as a few more cerebral ones, including the odd bit of volunteer work and some personally relevant cultural research.

As an atheist with avid interest in religion I was keen to explore the culture that (for me) was tantamount to zealous and devout observance of Hinduism and Buddhism.

My first shock when I realized Sundays are normal work and school days in Nepal; a fact that started me thinking not so much about the role religion played in conditioning the Nepalese and Nepali societies, but rather, the role of religion on a global level.

God Bless You

In the West, whence secularism arose, we are tempted to conclude that we live in a place devoid of religious dominance.

Of course, most people cognisant of history will acknowledge that bank holidays such as Christmas, Good Friday, or Easter Monday come directly from Christianity. Aside from these obvious examples, the prevalence of religion, and not only Christian, is woven throughout the experience of Westerners.

“God bless you,” one might say after sneezing, a statement with overtly religious origins. The phrase is thought to have originated during the reign of Pope Gregory I (aka Gregory the Great or Gregory the Dialogist) when sneezing was considered a sign of having plague. Blessing one another, as per the recommendation of Gregory I, was meant to provide alleviation.

In Law and Loss

In modern law, the phrase Acts of God can be readily found. What was once intended likely for reverence – now the mentioned ‘God’ is no longer inherent, yet the phrase remains intact, exemplifying the role of religion in even secular societies.

Perhaps the most prevalent of places to find religious connotation is in exclamations people employ whilst expressing themselves in a heightened emotion state.

Perhaps the most prevalent of places to find religious connotation in daily life is in the bevy of exclamations people employ whilst expressing themselves on matters of relief, stupefaction, indignation, anger, and any other heightened emotion state.

“For heaven’s sake”, “Devil take the hindmost”, and “Thank God” might be heard on any given day, and all have religious suggestions even if the users are non-believers.

Tthe phrase “by Jove” conjures the head of the Roman pantheon by name directly, Jove, sometimes known as Jupiter, or in Greek, Zeus.

Eat, Pray, Eat

Many people also indirectly observe religion by way of eating. Or maybe it is more apt to say that what many people put—and do not put—into their mouths is dictated or at least influenced by religious observance.

Taboo foodstuffs are the easiest to consider, such as pork in Islam, which is forbidden a la Mohammed (owing to how quickly the meat spoils in the warm climate in which Islam was first founded). The sacred status of cattle in Hinduism that lead to the prohibition of beef amongst Hindus is another well-known example of the interplay between food and belief.

Vegetarianism on religious grounds is certainly not limited to Hinduism. During the Christian time of Lent, red meat is forbidden. This excludes beaver, which was declared a fish in the 17th century by the Catholic Church and is therefore not taboo throughout Lent.

In many English-speaking cultures, one of the ways in which the end of Lent is celebrated is with the pastry hot-crossed buns.

These sweet breads are decorated with a cross, commensurate to the Christian religion and evocative of resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is also evidence suggesting these specific breads having been part of an early Anglo-Saxon tradition celebrating spring.

Regardless of one’s own beliefs, country of origin, and country of residence — whether Nepal and India, or Europe and North America — the fortitude of religion has been secured through celebration, custom, food, and even colloquialism.

What examples of of religion influencing culture have you noticed in your travels? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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