Religion is a fundamental human phenomenon that serves as the primary source of faith, meaning and value for its practitioners. It is a complex phenomenon that has evolved over time, across cultures and within individuals, but its basic characteristics remain consistent. It is often defined as a “form of life,” involving ritual and practice, a community of believers, and a belief in a supreme reality.
Some people object to the use of the term religion, claiming there is no such thing as a religion or that all attempts at definition are biased and flawed. Such objections are often motivated by a desire to avoid acknowledging that religion has a long history and continues to play an important role in the lives of many people worldwide. The study of religion provides students with the opportunity to explore and critically interrogate a basic cultural category and its role in shaping modern global society.
For most of the twentieth century, scholars have tried to define religion using substantive criteria such as the presence of beliefs in a distinctive kind of reality. Others have shifted to a more functional approach, such as Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion as whatever system of practices unite a group of people into a moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities). Still others, such as Paul Tillich, have defined it as the faith in the underlying essence or power of the universe.
Regardless of its definition, the study of religion is an essential component of a social studies education. NCSS urges state education leaders, textbook publishers, online content creators and teacher educators to promote the study of religion in ways that support high academic standards and First Amendment principles.