Understanding Religion As a Social Phenomenon


Religion is a social phenomenon with profound impact on the lives of millions of people. It is also an enduring topic for classroom study, a critical part of any education that seeks to understand contemporary and historical global contexts and encourages civic participation. NCSS encourages state education leaders, textbook publishers, and other educational resource providers to offer students a range of learning opportunities that provide a deeper understanding of the subject. This should include teaching about the complexities and nuances of religious life by providing resources that go beyond the standard “dates and doctrine” approach found in many textbooks.

One popular argument is that the concept of religion is a Western construct and, thus, it is not really a valid way to label a universal phenomenon. While this argument is based on flawed assumptions (that a specific religion must be present in every culture, for example), it does not invalidate the concept of religion as a social genus, and the reality that may be so labeled.

It is important to recognize that there is a difference between a realist and a nonrealist interpretation of the concepts of social kinds, such as the category religion. In the former, a specific definition is correct or incorrect, such as a dictionary definition. In the latter, the properties of a specific kind are assessed for their usefulness and purpose, and there is no right or wrong answer. A stipulative definition, such as the one offered above, is a nonrealist one because it restricts the set of properties against which it is compared.

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