Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

3 Religion in the landscape

3.1 Everyday perceptions

So, how do we recognise ‘religion’ when we encounter it? You can answer this from your own experience.

Exercise 2

Imagine walking through a town or village centre that you know well and think about the signs of religion that you would see. Simply take your own understanding of the term ‘religion’ (however vague) as your starting point.

  1. What sort of things would catch your attention?

  2. Why would you consider these things as having to do with ‘religion’?

  3. Would you expect anyone to disagree with what you see as signs of ‘religion’?

Use your Learning Journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] to sketch out your answers to these questions with plenty of specific examples.


  1. If this walk took place in Britain, churches would be likely to catch your eye, possibly the symbolism of the Christian cross, maybe reference on a sign to the name of a group that you associate with religion. (If you are not resident in Britain, try to apply the general points to your examples.) Some street names and pub signs have Christian associations. You might meet somebody whose dress carries what you recognise as religious symbolism (for example, the collar worn by a member of the Christian clergy), see decoration, hear music or even catch a scent you associate with religion. I am sure that you will have found many more examples, and not just war memorials! I have started with Christian symbolism on the assumption that our imaginary walk is taking place in Britain where Christianity has been the dominant tradition for many centuries. It is quite difficult to find inhabited areas where there is not a church tower or steeple somewhere on the skyline (Figure 2). But if you have been thinking about a larger town, you may well have come up with far more varied list: different expressions of Christianity such as a Quaker meeting house or a Salvation Army citadel, possibly a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque (Figure 3), or centres of Buddhist, Sikh or Hindu activity (Figure 4). You may have listed foodshops, such as a kosher delicatessen providing food prepared according to Jewish dietary law, or charity shops connected to organisations such as Christian Aid. At different times of the year, other shops may be selling seasonal items like Easter eggs or festival cards. Styles of dress, such as the turbans worn by male Sikhs, also may bring religious practice to mind. All these examples are part of Britain's contemporary urban landscape.
Figure 2
Photo: Anthony Coulson
Figure 2 Parish church – Haddenham
  1. Familiarity is probably the short answer to this question. All of us are attuned to look for signs of the familiar. In this case, it would be forms of religion that you recognise in your society, whether you believe in them personally or not.
  2. Others may not agree with how the concept of ‘religion’ should be defined. Some people, for example, hold strong religious convictions and may not admit that other forms of belief and practice could be placed in the same category as their own. Others may simply not be familiar with some of the examples listed above and would not recognise them. For example, imagine an old school building that had been converted into a Sikh gurdwara. This is a place of worship that houses the sacred book of the Sikhs. Although it may not be recognisable as such to someone unfamiliar with the Sikh tradition, it is likely that most people would accept the converted school as a sign of ‘religion’ once they understood its new purpose. Similarly, someone unfamiliar with the signs of Christianity might assume that the use of a green cross over a chemist's shop carried the same significance as the cross found outside a Christian mission hall. An explanation of the difference between the two symbols would probably move the chemist's shop off any list of ‘religious’ buildings.
Figure 3
Photo: Carlos Reyes-Manzo/Andes Press Agency
Figure 3 The purpose-built East London Mosque, Whitechapel
Figure 4
Photo: Carlos Reyes-Manzo/Andes Press Agency
Figure 4 Hindu temple, Greenwich

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