Religion is influenced by geography and in turn can affect geography. Religion has determined political or administrative boundaries of regions (the Vatican), defined a region (the Bible Belt), or created connections (India with Hinduism, Thailand with Buddhism). Throughout history, topographic factors often affected the decisions of where sacred sites were established, such as its proximity to water or elevation. Direction and orientation of indigenous spiritual monuments, churches, mosques, temples, or synagogues are related to specific geography, the east, or even the location of stars. Jewish synagogues face towards Jerusalem, Muslim mosques face toward Mecca, and Mayan ceremonial centers aligned with astronomical positions.
Even the stories related to religious deities often involved climatic and geographic conditions of a region. A rain god was important in India and the Yucatan, where the uncertainty of rain created anxiety among the people. Religious observances, such as pilgrimages, influenced behavior and movement of believers. Marks are left on the environment from religious traditions, such as the Hindu ritual bathing in the Ganges River. Religious structures, sacred sites, or places of worship dominate landscapes and can be used in the social studies classroom to connect themes of culture, religion, and geography.
United States History: The Shakers
In the classroom, teachers can utilize religious themes to enhance student understanding of geographic expansion. To student United States history, students can study how religion may have impacted a variety of settlements and why topographic features impacted development.
One religious sect that demonstrates the connection between geography, history, and religion is the Shakers. The “Shaking Quakers” were known for their ecstatic fits of trembling, singing, and dancing during worship. The Shakers did not marry, practiced celibacy, and believed in the equality of men and women. Life centered around the community for the Shakers. Communal living provided physical security from the dangers of the wilderness, economic stability, and a strong sense purpose and unity among the Believers. The Shakers made efforts to attain self-sufficiency by purchasing land or requiring members to sign over any holdings.
By 1824, the Shakers had established nineteen working communities in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and New Hampshire with estimations of 6000 members at its height. Differences in buildings, crops, products, and worship among the Shaker communities were affected by terrain, climate, distance, and local cultures. Shakers in the South consumed more pork, and seafood was consumed by Shakers in the Northeast. Even the recipes reflected the regional differences: maple syrup was used in the Northeast, and sorghum in the South. In the Kentucky communities, limestone and bricks were used for building purposes, in contrast to the wooden structures of the New York communities. Because the northeast climate was less suitable to farming, more emphasis was placed on furniture and cloth production. Each community became known regionally for their expertise in a particular area.
For teachers wanting to connect a variety of themes in the social studies classroom, use the Shakers as an example to connect culture, community, geography, history, and religion within your curriculum. Pose an essential question to your students like, “How did topographic features impact their community?” or “Why did the terrain affect the culture and location of their settlement?” Encourage a small-group or whole-class discussion to explore these questions further. This can be translated to any other group of people in United States history, including the Pilgrims, Indigenous tribes, Mormons, or similar.
For the Classroom
The Shakers are one example of how understanding religious literacy and themes can intersect with other social studies topics such as topography, geographic expansion, culture, community, economics, and history. In European and world history classrooms, students can also explore the Druids, Orthodoxy, Jesuits, and the clash between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as a way to see how religion impacted geographic expansion and translates to other social studies sects.
The activities listed below can be used to enhance any secondary social studies curriculum and connect themes:
Encourage students to research the success or failure of religious communities or peoples. Primary sources such as, religious newspapers, church bulletins, personal diaries, letters and papers of individuals, or domestic and international magazines, can help students glean insight into the effects of religion on geography and geography on religion. Students can answer questions such as:
- What aspect of various landscape caused religious communities to develop along different lines?
- What part of everyday living initiated differences in religious beliefs?
- What differences in physical environment and regional cultures affected the development of religious groups?
- What conditions allowed for the success of some religious groups but the demise of others?
Have students investigate how new religions had an impact on existing cultures. For example, Hinduism aided in establishing a very strict system of caste in India. With the spread of Islam (which encouraged the belief that all men were equal in the eyes of God), millions of the lower caste Indians easily converted.
Explore the theme of religious pilgrimage as it intersects with geographic locations. Consider utilizing the Vatican for Catholics or Mecca for Muslims as an initial point of reference.
Ask students the following essential questions based to activate their background knowledge:
- Why do people go on pilgrimages?
- How are pilgrims different from tourists?
- What makes the places they visit special?
Have students research pilgrimage locations for Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Inform students that pilgrimage places are generally marked by the presence of physical constructions (temples, shrines, churches, statues, tombs, etc.), but can also include natural landscape and topographic features. Introduce the idea that pilgrimages occur also in the secular world, with visits to gravesites to deceased pop stars or memorials of war. Ask students to plan a pilgrimage of their own to a special place in their community or country.
Religion can be integral to social studies when combining essential themes. Churches are influenced by people and resources of small towns and landscapes can be considered sacred. Introducing the geography of religion can encourage discussion over community constructions, place identities, and the development of religious frameworks. Studying the influence of religion on geography adds a rich dimension to social studies, integrating the daily lives and culture of people into the classroom.
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Dr. S. Kay Gandy is a retired professor of 17 years and a retired elementary teacher of 27 years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books. Mapping is Elementary, My Dear: 100 Mapping Activities for K-6 Students, and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies for Elementary Teachers provide practical lesson ideas for the classroom.