Understanding the Concept of Religion


Having a basic understanding of the world’s religions can help you connect with people from different backgrounds. It can also be a great way to have more interesting conversations! Start by researching each religion on the internet. You can find many sites that provide general background information on each religion including its founding story, core beliefs, holidays and more! You can also find a lot of information on each religion’s Holy Book.

The most common use of the term “religion” today is as a taxon, a set of social practices and belief systems that are recognized as belonging to a particular group of people or geographical area. These include the so-called world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), but there are also a variety of other religious beliefs and practices that have not been given a name or taxon, such as some aspects of indigenous African societies.

In this sense, the concept of religion identifies a social genus, something that exists in all cultures, even though individual religions may differ greatly. This is an important point, and it has led to the development of a number of theories of religion. But it is also a mistake to confuse the idea of a social genus with the idea that a particular religion has a universal essence.

A popular idea in the field of religion is to define religion as the beliefs and practices that generate and sustain a sense of social cohesion and purpose in life. This definition is commonly called a functionalist theory of religion. But the problem with this approach is that it assumes that these beliefs and practices must be universal – that they exist in all cultures.

Another view of religion is to think about it as a concept that emerges in one culture at a certain time and place, and is then exported to other cultures, where it acquires new meanings, uses, and forms. This is a critical perspective, and it has been criticized as imperialist and neo-colonialist.

A third view of religion is to see it as a category concept that allows scholars to recognize patterns and similarities between the various faiths of humankind, in order to develop explanatory theories. This is a more polythetic approach to religion, and it is sometimes contrasted with monothetic approaches that focus on identifying a prototypical religion.

All of these ways of thinking about religion can help you make informed decisions about whether and how to incorporate the study of religion into your curriculum. The National Council for the Social Studies calls on teachers to prepare students to participate critically in a religiously diverse, democratic society by teaching the value of understanding and respecting differences among people. For more on this topic, see NCSS’s position statement on Religion in the Curriculum. We invite you to read it in full, as well as our other position statements on Civility, Religious Pluralism and Education, Global Citizenship, and Social Justice.