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The Importance of Understanding Religion


Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In more theistic traditions, these concerns are often expressed in terms of one’s relationship with or attitude toward gods and spirits; in less theistic and naturalistic traditions, they may be directed toward the broader human community or the natural world.

The ubiquity of religion and the enormous range of practices that are included in its social taxon makes it an important concept to understand and teach about. However, the semantic extension of the term has raised two philosophical issues that are echoed by other abstract concepts that have been used to sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy, and culture itself.

First, the wide range of practices now said to fall within the category of religion raises the question of whether this social taxon can be understood in terms of essential properties. Traditionally, scholars have debated monothetic versus polythetic definitions of religion (that is, which properties must be necessary and sufficient to constitute membership in the religion). Polythetic definitions are more common today as people seek to avoid the claim that the concept of religion has an ahistorical essence; they recognize many properties that are “common” or even “typical” of religions but do not necessarily form a prototypical religion.

Second, the emergence of the Internet and globalization have made it increasingly difficult to maintain the traditional boundaries between religions, which are often described as if they were separate cultures. As a result, there is increased interest in the study of religion in its intercultural dimensions.

These challenges have also spurred the development of new ways to understand the diversity of religious beliefs and practices. For example, some scholars have adopted a functional definition of religion that drops the requirement of belief in a particular kind of reality and defines it as whatever system of practices unites people into a moral community. Emile Durkheim is an early proponent of this approach, which is sometimes referred to as a “non-relativistic” definition of religion.

For all these reasons, NCSS encourages state education leaders and educational publishers to develop curriculum materials and textbooks that integrate the study of religion in a manner consistent with high academic standards and First Amendment principles. The National Council for the Social Studies also reminds educators and students that a comprehensive understanding of religion prepares Americans to critically engage in a pluralistic, peaceful democracy by helping them to appreciate the deepest values, social identities, and aspirations of people around the world and within our own communities.