Religion is a huge and diverse phenomenon. In its broadest sense it encompasses belief in God, a variety of rituals and practices associated with that belief, rules for conduct, a moral code, and many more components. When we narrow our focus to a particular type of religion, the concept becomes even more difficult to pin down. There is a polythetic version of the word, a theistic one, and functional definitions, among others. As with other broad concepts, it is important not to be too snobbish about embracing different kinds of definitions. A good sociologist would argue that each offers insights into the way the concept operates, though some may be more useful than others.
The term religion has a long history of shifting senses, from scrupulous devotion to a particular kind of social practice. At one time, the concept was used as a category label for specific religious groups, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. More recently, the term has come to be used as a taxonomic label for a genus of social practices, one of which includes the so-called world religions, as well as religions that are less widely known or have been lost.
Some scholars of religion have argued that defining the concept in terms of beliefs (or any mental states) reflects a Protestant bias, and that the study of religion should therefore focus on institutional structures and disciplinary practices. Others have suggested that, in fact, the structure/agency debate is misguided and that it is more useful to consider the distinctive functions that a form of life can play. This is the “functional” approach, which can be seen in Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a single moral community (whether or not these involve beliefs in unusual realities).
The National Council for the Social Studies has long advocated that the study of religion should be part of the curriculum. In a pluralistic society, it is vital that students understand the wide range of spiritual beliefs, worldviews, and traditions present in America and around the globe. In addition, the study of religion prepares students to think critically about these traditions and aspirations, enabling them to participate in a democratic society that values freedom of religion and expression of conscience. Click here for NCSS’ Position Statement on the Teaching of Religion.