Understanding Religion


Religion (Latin: religio, meaning “to bind, connect”) is the broad taxon of beliefs and practices that typically include: a concept of salvation; sacred places and objects; rituals and ceremonies; scriptures; religious law; a belief in one or more supernatural beings with which believers have a special relationship; a code of ethics; and usually a group leader or founder who achieves godlike status. The National Council for the Social Studies has long promoted the study of religion because it provides students with the intellectual and cultural tools to participate in a peaceful democracy that is pluralistic and diverse.

Since the emergence of modern secularism, scholars have resorted to different approaches in order to understand the complex phenomenon that is religion. Some have taken a monothetic approach, sorting the concept of religion into various types, e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Some, notably Richard Dawkins, have suggested that a polythetic approach to religion may be more appropriate. Such an approach rejects the notion that something must be a particular type in order to be considered a religion and instead treats the category as a family-resemblance concept with a threshold at which point it makes sense to introduce explanatory theories.

Others have adopted functionalist or evolutionary psychology perspectives in which the term is defined as whatever beliefs and practices generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life. For example, Emile Durkheim defined religion as whatever unified people within a society in a way that created solidarity. Similarly, Paul Tillich defines religion as a person’s dominant concern that organizes their values.

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