The word “religion” covers a broad range of beliefs and practices. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) believes it is important to understand this diversity in order to prepare students for critical engagement in a pluralistic democracy, both globally and in our classrooms.
Despite its diverse manifestations, many scholars have attempted to sort out what is and is not religion. Many of these studies use “monothetic” approaches, following the classical view that every instance accurately described by a concept will share a defining property that puts it in that category.
For example, one popular model of religion describes it as any set of beliefs and practices that claim to provide meaning in life by addressing people’s ultimate concerns about death, morality, spirituality, or a higher power. In this model, the religions also typically have texts deemed to be scriptural, rituals for managing and celebrating life, and some form of authority that manages the group.
There are also scientific approaches to understanding religion. Psychologists and neuroscientists, for example, argue that people turn to religion to address their deepest needs, fears, or aspirations.
Sociologists, meanwhile, have offered a more functional approach to religion. They have used the ideational elements of religion to develop a social genus. This is a concept that distinguishes different types of practices in society—like culture, language, and even the ideational concepts of “family resemblance.” As such, it has the kind of power to categorize phenomena that a concept like thing-hood does not have.