Religion is the human response to questions about meaning, purpose and destiny that can arise in any culture. It includes worship, moral conduct, right belief and participation in religious institutions. It is also the source of sacred texts, a sense of community, and spiritual practices. Whether you’re interested in a new path of spirituality or just want to better understand the beliefs of a friend or coworker, the study of religion will help you find peace and contentment with your life while gaining insight into another culture.
The word religion derives from the Latin term religio, meaning a feeling or inclination to be devoted or faithful. In the early modern period, philosophers began to analyze religion in terms of the adherence to and practice of specific beliefs and behaviors. These analyses are known as “substance definitions” because they determine membership in the category by reference to the existence of a particular kind of belief.
In the twentieth century, scholars developed a variety of other approaches to understanding the concept of religion. Some favored what are called functional definitions of religion. These approaches drop the idea that a form of religion must include beliefs and instead define it in terms of the function that it plays in a group’s social life (a “family-resemblance” approach). For example, Emile Durkheim defines religion as whatever system of practices brings people into a moral community, regardless of whether or not those systems involve belief in any unusual realities.
Other critics of the category of religion have gone even farther in rejecting notions of substance or thing-hood. These critics have argued that the use of the term religion is an artifact of European colonialism and that it should not be used to identify anything that exists outside of its sphere of influence.
Despite this debate, many people believe that there is a need for a more precise and accurate definition of religion than the one currently in use. This need is felt most strongly in social sciences such as sociology, ethnology and psychology, but it is also present among those who are concerned with morality and the philosophy of religion.
The National Council for the Social Studies recommends that the study of religion be a key component of any social studies curriculum. Studying the religions of the world helps students understand cultural differences and fosters civic engagement. This is particularly important in today’s global context, when the diversity of religions is more visible than ever before. In addition, a deeper knowledge of the variety of religions provides valuable insights into the nature of global complexity.