The Study of Religion

The study of religion is a fascinating and valuable area of academic inquiry. It helps us understand the deepest values, social identities and aspirations of people from all over the world and in our own country. The National Council for the Social Studies encourages all students to learn about religion, not only as a way to develop understanding of different cultures, but also in order to participate fully in our democratic society and global community.

Religions are a part of every culture around the world and are entwined with political systems, cultural traditions and history in most countries and regions. The academic study of religion can reduce intolerance and bigotry and help students develop global citizenship skills. The study of religion can also help students connect with spiritual ideas and experiences that provide them with new levels of happiness, contentment and peace.

Almost all people on Earth have some form of religion. It is believed that the need for religion grew out of human curiosity about the big questions of life and death, as well as the fear of uncontrollable forces in nature. The hope created by religion arose out of this curiosity and fear, as humans sought immortality or eternal life, a caring creator who would watch over humanity, and an ultimate meaning to life.

A basic question is how to define “religion.” While there is agreement that religion includes beliefs in a supernatural being or force, some scholars have used the word in ways other than a belief in a unique kind of reality. These include a “substantive” definition, which defines the category by its constituent beliefs, or a functional definition, in which the term refers to the set of practices that unite a group into a moral community, whether or not they involve belief in a particular unusual reality.

Some people have argued that a substantive definition of the term religion is a prejudiced Protestant bias, and that if one wanted to avoid this bias, they should use a functionalist approach and drop the requirement for a specific belief. Nevertheless, this move to a more open polythetic definition has two problems.

First, the resulting categories are very broad and vague. Second, the classical assumption that a concept should be understood by its defining properties is weakened. Moreover, this approach runs the risk of a “family-resemblance” approach to concepts such as religion, wherein all instances that accurately describe the concept are defined in the same way (cf. Laurence and Margolis 1999). In practice, therefore, many scholars prefer to adopt a closed polythetic approach for the study of religion. They recognize that this can lead to some confusion, but they argue that it is better than the alternative of a monothetic approach.