Religion is a broad term that can refer to an individual’s relationship with god(s) or spirits, the beliefs and practices related to those relationships, and/or the inner sentiments those beliefs and practices evoke. Religion may also refer to the way a community worships or interacts with supernatural forces, and/or to the way a religion organizes itself into an organized moral community with its own hierarchy of rules and expectations. In some societies, belief in disembodied spirits or cosmological orders is the norm, while in others these aspects of religious life are uncommon. Despite these cultural differences, anthropologists have found that people worldwide share many of the same basic concerns and elicit similar responses to them.
In the modern world, it is common to think of religion as a taxon or category-concept that sorts social practice into paradigmatic examples such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. A taxon or category concept posits necessary and sufficient properties that all members of the category have in common, allowing for the emergence of explanatory theories. In fact, the notion of religion as a social genus is probably as old as language itself.
One of the most influential approaches to understanding religion as a social genus is that developed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). In his classic work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915), he defined religion as a system unified around what he called sacred things—beliefs and practices relative to the objects that are held as most holy, absolute, spiritual, divine or worthy of special reverence. He further argued that these beliefs and practices unite the members of a religion into a moral community called a church.
Although the definition of religion that Durkheim offered is a good starting point, it is not without its problems. For one thing, it fails to recognize that there are individuals in every society who do not believe in disembodied spirits or cosmological ordered. Moreover, it ignores the fact that, even in those societies where beliefs in spirits and cosmological order are common, there is considerable variation among cultures as to what is considered sacred, how this is interpreted, and what rituals and behaviors are associated with those interpretations.
A more sophisticated approach is that favored by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (born 1926). His definition of religion is much broader and encompasses not only a set of beliefs, but also the intangible emotional and motivational responses to those beliefs. The study of Religion provides a way to understand the responses to the great riddles and questions that human beings have always faced—questions about death, suffering, tragedy and the nature of the self, society and universe. It is for these reasons that NCSS recommends that the study of Religion be included in social studies curriculums across all grades. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the field of Religious Studies incorporates historical, ethnographic and theological/philosophical tools to analyze the multifaceted complexes that are religions. A comprehensive understanding of the many religions of the world promotes appreciation for the diversity of human experience, encourages civic participation and cultivates skills to work collaboratively with individuals from different backgrounds.