Religion is a collection of beliefs and practices that give people something sacred to believe in, someone or something to worship, and a code of moral conduct. It involves the supernatural, spiritual, and mystical and deals with forces that humans cannot control or explain. It has an ancient history but is still very much alive and influential today.
There is no one answer to the question “what is a religion?” In the early twentieth century, scholars developed a functional definition that focuses on the role a form of life plays in an individual’s moral community, dropping the substantive element (belief in unusual realities). A person can be a member of many religious communities at once and may change one or more over time. This approach was first introduced by Emile Durkheim.
A second approach defines religion in terms of the specific characteristics a religion possesses, thereby restricting its membership to those forms of life that meet certain criteria. This approach was introduced by Charles Taylor and later refined by Charles Williams. This definition is commonly used by sociologists and historians of religion.
It is possible to distinguish among these three broad approaches by determining which aspects of the religion are being considered. A sociological or historical study of religion identifies the beliefs, symbols, and rituals that constitute a religion. It also analyzes the social relationships that are forged within and between religious groups. A historian or sociological study of religion often identifies the historical development of a particular religion, including its origins and expansion in different parts of the world.
The first religions, according to the archaeological record, emerged around the Nile River in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. These were polytheistic religions, recognizing more than one god. Over the course of thousands of years, tribal totems and ancestor worship led to the development of more complex belief systems, which included myths, or stories, about the creation and evolution of the world and stories about gods and goddesses. Other elements that make up a religion might include a set of rules for daily life, sacrifices to appease the gods, or beliefs about good and bad spirits.
The National Council for the Social Studies has long advocated that the study of religion be incorporated in the curriculum as an important part of the study of world cultures. It is vital that students learn about the deep values, social identities, and aspirations of the diverse peoples of our world. By studying the religions of our neighbors, students can develop a more inclusive and peaceful global citizenship.