The Study of Religion


The term religion refers to beliefs and practices that give a sense of meaning and purpose in life, often providing social support. More than half of the world’s population belongs to a religion—ranging from Christianity and Islam to Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Rastafarianism, Scientology, and many others. The study of religion helps students understand cultural differences and fosters global awareness and civic participation. NCSS encourages schools to integrate the study of religion into all social studies disciplines and courses, including history, geography, civics, government, economics, science, health, art, music, and foreign languages.

Educators must recognize the complexity of religion. It is important to educate students about the wide range of religious views and to provide a safe place for discussion of those beliefs. Teachers should not advocate or endorse the practice of any particular religion, but should encourage respect for diversity and peaceful coexistence in local communities and on a global scale.

Religions develop out of human attempts to control uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as the weather or fertility and pregnancy, and to answer questions that science does not answer, such as what happens after death. Anthropologists believe that early religion evolved in part out of humans’ efforts to manipulate the environment through magic and through supplication, or prayer, to gods and spirits.

As a result of the evolution of the concept of religion, there is much debate about what counts as a religion. Some scholars take a “monothetic” approach, believing that each religion is accurately described by a specific set of characteristics. Other scholars take a more “functional” view, believing that each religion is best understood as a way of dealing with human beings’ ultimate concerns.

Still others, such as the German American theologian Paul Tillich, use a functional definition that leaves the door open to count as religion such ideologies as capitalism and Marxism as well as traditional religions. This broader understanding of religion is the focus of the current research on religion.

The study of religion can be challenging because it requires attention to a variety of disciplines. Some of the most valuable resources include textbooks with detailed, fact-based analyses of current events; books and articles that describe the diversity of modern-day beliefs and practices; and first-person accounts of what it is like to live as a member of a religion. Beware of textbooks that present a one-size-fits-all picture of the world’s religions. Instead, seek out resources that provide the nuances of contemporary religious life, such as interviews with believers and nonbelievers. You can access these sources through JSTOR’s complete backfiles of core scholarly journals or Project Muse for scholarly articles published within the past 3-5 years. Also, be sure to consult scholars both inside and outside of the field in which you are studying a particular religion. They can help you recognize if a certain interpretation is biased or misguided. This is particularly important if you are examining an unfamiliar religion.