What Is Religion?

Religion is a societal phenomenon that impacts global contexts and encourages civic participation. It is also an integral part of many social studies courses and curriculums, particularly those that include multicultural perspectives. NCSS recommends that teachers incorporate learning about religion into all aspects of the classroom, wherever possible.

A definition of religion might vary by discipline or even by school, but a common theme is that it encompasses beliefs and behaviors focused on values and meaning. It may also refer to specific rituals, such as the celebration of holidays or the practice of funeral rites.

Because religion varies so much from culture to culture, it can be difficult to sort and categorize. Scholars sometimes attempt to address this challenge by taking a functional approach, such as by looking at a religion’s ability to foster social cohesion or provide orientation in life. This method, which is similar to the way scientists classify bacteria based on their properties, is often called an open polythetic approach.

Another option for defining religion is to consider its origins. Some scholars view it as a social construct that is born out of human needs and desires, such as the need for meaning and belonging, or a desire to understand the world around them. In this view, religion is a human need that gives rise to other cultural constructs, such as language, mythology, and art.

Some scholars, such as sociologist Rodney Needham, have used a more traditional definition of religion, which focuses on the grouping of people based on their shared beliefs and practices. In this view, a religious group is one that has a core belief system and rituals for conducting social interaction and maintaining community.

Still other scholars have viewed religion as an expression of the working class. They have emphasized that working-class society is hierarchical, with some at the bottom and others on top. These sociologists have suggested that a religion’s primary purpose is to maintain and reinforce this hierarchy, while at the same time providing comfort to the oppressed classes.

One of the most well-known views of religion is that of sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1912). He argued that religion was not just an individual pursuit, but rather that it was a social construct created by the working class to give them power over their lives and society. For this reason, he believed that a society without religion would be a “heartless, soulless, sour place.”

A more recent theory of religion draws on findings from cognitive science. It suggests that some of the most powerful ideas in religion are counter-intuitive, and that this is what makes them so attractive to humans. These theories can be applied to the study of any religion, allowing us to look at it from multiple perspectives, just as we might read a book or poem from different viewpoints and interpret it accordingly. This is the approach taken in comparative religion, a field that seeks to understand how religions develop and are sustained by human communities.