Religion is a powerful force in people’s lives, but it is also complex. It can bring communities together, but it can also divide them. Religion influences the moral codes people follow and how they view their place in the world. It can motivate people to take action and to care for their neighbors, but it can also be a source of stress and tension. Across the globe, there are many different religious beliefs and practices, but there are some general themes that run through them all.
It is important to remember that, although religion is a universal phenomenon, its specifics are often cultural. For example, some people do not believe in God or an afterlife. Other people do not believe that gods created the world, but instead that it arose from natural processes over time. For this reason, the study of religion is a broad and expansive endeavor.
For centuries, scholars have struggled to define what religion is. Some have used a functional approach, such as Durkheim’s definition, which turns on the social function of creating solidarity among a group. Others have tried to describe what religion is by identifying its elements, such as Frazer’s famous statement that it involves a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them.
Other researchers have used an analytical framework based on concepts from evolutionary biology to explore the development of religions. This model looks at how religious beliefs and practices developed out of human curiosity about the big questions in life (like why we die and what happens after death) and out of human fear of forces beyond control. Ultimately, it is this process of transformation that makes religion so significant in the world today.
There are also “monothetic-set” approaches to the study of religion, which treat the concept as a taxon for sets of social practices that share certain characteristics. These models use a similar analysis to other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types, such as “literature” or “democracy.”
One of the challenges in this field is that, while a number of things can be classified as religion, there are no defining characteristics that would make it impossible for some cases to be excluded from the category. For this reason, some scholars have criticized these monothetic models of religion and have moved toward more polythetic approaches.
NCSS recommends that teachers of history and social studies incorporate the study of religion in their classes, so students are better prepared to participate in a religiously diverse society and global context. The study of religion helps foster understanding of diverse cultures, encourages civic participation, and develops skills for working collaboratively with people from all backgrounds. It is essential to understanding and navigating our current world. Click the links to the left to find resources for teaching and learning about religion.