Religion is a complex aspect of human life that can be both a unifying force and a source of stress. Education about religion should provide students with the tools to explore a variety of beliefs and understand the many ways in which people connect to their faith. Resources should also address the many different denominations and levels of observance within each religion. Ideally, resources will avoid the notion of religion as an ahistorical entity that exists solely in the minds of believers.
A broad definition of religion includes all human beings’ relations to that which they deem holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. In more traditional religious traditions, these concerns are expressed in terms of one’s relationship with or attitude toward gods and spirits; in more humanistic or naturalistic forms, they may be expressed in terms of one’s relation to or attitude toward the broader community of humans or the natural world. Religion is typically associated with rituals, a sacred text, and a belief in the afterlife.
In the early modern period, scholars began to study the various religions of the world and to compile mythological material, a trend that was accelerated by the Renaissance and by discoveries in Africa and the Americas. These advances prepared the way for more modern developments in the study of religion, including a new interest in comparative studies and an increasingly systematic compilation of information about human customs and beliefs.
Scholars have debated the meaning of “religion.” Some believe that to understand religion in terms of beliefs or any subjective states reflects a Protestant bias and that the concept of religion should be understood in terms of institutional structures. Others argue that to focus on institutions and disciplinary practices overlooks the social forces that inculcate those institutions and practices. Still others have sought a middle ground by adopting a Foucauldian approach and viewing religion as a process of inculcation.
In more recent times, there has been a movement in sociology called the “reflexive turn” which emphasizes the constructed nature of concepts like “religion.” Some scholars have criticized the concept of religion as an invention of Western culture; others have focused on its universalism and the fact that it is a tool of oppression. One of the most influential books in this vein is Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993), which takes a Michel Foucauldian approach to demonstrate how the concept of religion was created for particular purposes and then applied to a wide range of phenomena.