What Is Religion?


Religion is an aspect of the human condition that encompasses a broad range of beliefs and practices. Its role in shaping individuals and societies throughout history makes its study essential for understanding global contexts. The National Council for the Social Studies supports a wide variety of learning opportunities that promote critical engagement with a diverse world, including religious diversity, for students in preparation for civic participation and collaboration with other cultures.

While a number of different definitions are available, most scholars use some combination of features to make sense of religion. The most common features include:

A religious belief system usually has a sacred space, objects, or actions; myths and symbols; a central figure with godlike status, often called the prophet; teachings that provide guidance for life, death, and the afterlife; codes of ethical behavior; and ceremonies and rituals. Some scholars prefer a more functional approach to the concept of religion, arguing that such concerns organize a culture’s values and provide orientation. Such an approach can be seen in Emil Durkheim’s theory of religion as a form of collective solidarity or Paul Tillich’s explanation of the axiological function of religion.

Other scholars, such as anthropologist Clifford Geertz, have criticized the use of these functional definitions because they fail to take into account the cultural meanings attached to the notion of religion. Others, such as Catherine Albanese and Ninian Smart, have sought to add a fourth C to the model of the traditional three-sided model, adding community, which addresses the material aspects of religion that cannot be easily accounted for by functional or other theoretical approaches.

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