Religion is a broad category that encompasses many types of belief systems. Its central idea is devotion to something or someone sacred, usually involving ritual observance and a moral code of behavior. It also includes beliefs about supernatural powers and forces that are beyond human control. The study of religion allows us to better understand the world’s cultures and people, as well as their deepest values and motivations.
The term “religion” derives from the Latin religio, which means a feeling of devotedness or scrupulousness. In western antiquity, this attitude was often tied to taboos and promises, curses, or threats, and it gave rise to religious practices such as rites, prayers, and offerings. Those practices were often aimed at placating the gods, but they were also intended to create social cohesion and to provide orientation in life.
Today, the word “religion” has come to mean a set of cultural practices that are shared among groups and that have some sort of social sanction or legitimacy. It is widely believed that all human societies have religion in the same form or another. This view is problematic because it obscures the fact that different religions are socially constructed. Moreover, it is not a necessary condition for a culture to have a religion that meets this definition.
For example, the American Indian tribes of the northeastern United States did not have a religion that could be considered to meet the modern definition of religion. But they did have beliefs, rites, and ceremonies that were very meaningful to them and that played a significant role in their lives.
While some scholars treat religion as a universal phenomenon that exists in all human societies, others take a more critical approach. For example, Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993) challenges anthropologists to recognize that assumptions baked into the concept of religion have distorted our grasp of historical realities. Asad uses Michel Foucault’s genealogy to argue that the notion of religion is itself a product of history.
Another important way to look at religion is through a symbolic interactionist lens, which emphasizes the importance of the symbolic aspects of the experience and the meaning that it conveys. This approach allows us to see that, for example, the turbans worn by some men and women are part of their spiritual practice as much as the food at their grocery stores that is marked Kosher.
The National Council for the Social Studies has long advocated the inclusion of the study of religion in the curriculum, both because it is constitutionally mandated and because it offers students the opportunity to learn about the varied beliefs and values of people from around the globe. The study of religion helps prepare students to live in a pluralistic society, to participate actively in civic affairs, and to understand global diversity. In addition, the study of religion helps students to become informed citizens who can contribute to a culture of tolerance and peace. We encourage all teachers to explore the wide range of resources available to help them teach about religion.