Religious beliefs, practices, and organizations are a diverse and powerful part of the world’s cultures. They offer many people comfort and guidance, provide meaning to life, and give expression to the deepest values, social identities, aspirations, and anxieties of human beings. Whether or not one participates in religion, it is important to understand its history and diversity. The National Council for the Social Studies calls on schools to incorporate the study of religion into their curriculums to prepare students to participate in our democracy, which depends upon a mutual respect for different faiths and perspectives.
Many theories have been offered about how religion first developed. One view is that religion evolved as a response to a natural need for humans, especially as humans became self-aware and realized they would eventually die. Religion, in this theory, was a way for humans to control the uncontrollable parts of their environment by appealing to supernatural entities, gods and goddesses.
Another theory of the origins of religion holds that it originated out of a human need to deal with issues that science cannot answer, such as the nature of death and the afterlife. Anthropologists (scientists who focus on the culture of prehistoric humans and their ancestors) have found evidence that early human beings tried to manipulate uncontrollable parts of their environment by using magic, such as drawing animals on cave walls to assure success in hunting, or supplication by offering prayers to gods and goddesses.
Today, most of the world’s 6.4 billion people belong to a religion. Most of these religions have a central theme that deals in some fashion with salvation, either in a literal sense with a heaven or hell after death, or in a more symbolic sense, such as reaching nirvana in Buddhism. Religions generally deal with these ultimate concerns in various ways, including sacred rites or rituals, holy books, and a priesthood that manages the religion.
In order to understand the vast array of practices now claimed to be religion, it is useful to consider two philosophical issues that emerge for this contested concept, issues that are likely to arise for other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types (such as “literature”, “democracy”, or even the concept of “culture” itself). One issue is the question of how many necessary and sufficient properties must a practice have in order to qualify as a religion. The other is the question of whether one should adopt a monothetic or a polythetic approach to the classification of religious practices.
Monothetic definitions of religion fasten on a single defining property, whereas polythetic approaches recognize that just as there are essential properties to a thing, so too there are properties that are common or even universal to all religions and thus should be considered to be prototypical of the category of religion. A key issue is whether these polythetic properties are enough to give a coherent and explanatory basis for the concept of religion.