Religion is human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is also the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death. In many traditions, religions also entail a sense of community with each other. People may look to texts describing beliefs or stories, and they may seek to understand each other’s inner sentiments by participating in rituals.
This is one of the reasons why it is so important to teach about religion in schools – so that we can better understand other cultures and their beliefs. When we do, it helps us avoid the dangers of bigotry and prejudice and to foster tolerance and respect for all religions.
The academic study of Religion has been stimulated by the rise of scientific history, archaeology, and anthropology, which made it possible to acquire systematic knowledge of religions worldwide. It has also been helped by the development of the social sciences, including sociology and psychology, which allow for empirical testing of theories about Religion.
In the last century, several different theories have been advanced to explain the origin and evolution of Religion. Some have been based on philosophical or theological schemes; others have been derived from the study of human behavior. A number of scholarly debates about Religion have also taken place.
One issue has been the extent to which we can say that a particular practice is Religion. Some scholars have argued that we cannot meaningfully talk about the nature of Religion without using a definition, and that this definition must be a substantive rather than lexical one. Others, however, have criticized this argument by showing that it is not valid to say that a word can be defined only in terms of its referents, and that there are other ways to sort cultural phenomena into categories that are substantive in nature rather than lexical in form.
Another debate about Religion has been the function that it serves in society. Some see it as promoting social unity and stability; others point to its role in perpetuating inequality and other problems in society, such as hatred and violence. Still others emphasize the positive social functions of Religion, such as promoting personal morality, providing psychological and physical well-being, and motivating people to work for social change.
Whether we take the view that Religion has substantive or lexical definition, it is important to note that Religion has played an essential role in societies throughout the world and continues to do so today. The goal of a sociological study of Religion is to gain an understanding of the way that people around the world respond to and organize their beliefs, values, practices, and institutions, and of how these contribute to human life. To do so, three broad questions are asked about Religion: what motivates religious people in a proximate or immediate sense to practice their faith; what functions religion serves for society; and the role it plays in our daily lives.