Religion is a broad social category that encompasses beliefs, practices, and a sense of community. It may be difficult to pin down what religion actually is, especially in modern society. While some scholars argue that the concept of religion is a Western invention that has no real basis in human experience, others disagree. In either case, it is an important topic to study in the classroom because of its profound influence on human lives and its continued relevance to current events. This is why NCSS has long advocated for the inclusion of religion in the curriculum as a way to prepare students to participate in a diverse and pluralistic society.
Traditionally, religious studies scholars have tried to identify what makes something a religion by looking at its beliefs and practices. Some try to define religion as a set of ideas that form a belief system, such as those taught in a church or mosque. Others use a more historical approach to define religion as a group of rituals and traditions that create a sense of community. Still, other scholars have taken a more functional approach to the study of religion by defining it as the group of activities that unite people into a moral community (even if these activities don’t involve belief in any unusual realities).
These different approaches are referred to as monothetic and polythetic definitions of religion. Monothetic definitions are based on the classical theory of concepts, which states that each instance of a given concept will share a property that distinguishes it from other instances of the same concept. Polythetic definitions, on the other hand, are based on the prototype theory of concepts, which states that there exists a “prototype” structure for each concept.
It is not just these differences that make the study of religion so complicated, but it is also the fact that religions change and grow over time. For example, many religions begin as tribal groups and then transition to a more formal structure when they become state religions. As a result, they often change the principles and teachings that are followed. This is why it’s so important to use a variety of resources when studying this subject in the classroom. Students need to be exposed to a wide range of materials that include detailed, fact-based analyses of current events; descriptions of the complexities and nuances of contemporary religious life; and first-person accounts of what it is like to live as a member of a particular faith.
One of the best ways to do this is by having a student interview someone from their own religion, but it would be even better if students could speak with someone from another faith. Another great way to deepen student understanding of a religion is to have them read the holy book for that religion. Most religions have books that contain their entire teachings and stories, and reading these books can give students a much more thorough and in-depth look at what their specific faith is all about.