Religious studies is a multidisciplinary field that includes anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, and even cognitive science. There is an ongoing debate about how best to define religion, and scholars across the disciplines use different approaches. In particular, anthropologists and historians tend to focus on a definition of religion that emphasizes belief, while philosophers and social scientists often focus on function and behavior.
One common sense definition of religion involves a system of beliefs that provides meaning and purpose in life. In this sense, people who follow a religion might pray frequently, attend church, or read religious texts. They may also believe that their deeds will be rewarded in heaven or hell. However, this definition has some problems. It leaves out atheists, who might have the same sense of meaning and purpose in life as believers, and it ignores the fact that some people do not follow a religion.
Another popular sense of religion is that it is a set of beliefs or practices that unite people in a moral community. This sense of religion has some advantages. It avoids the problem of defining religion in terms of a particular set of beliefs, and it allows for inclusion of behaviors and practices that might not involve any particular belief. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion as whatever social practice might bring together a group of individuals in a moral community.
A number of scholars have tried to develop more formal definitions of religion. These tend to be structural in nature and seek a model that resembles known cases. For example, some scholars like Zeldin (1969) have used a narrative structure of a fall from and return to an ideal state as a definition of religion. Others, such as Blasi (1980), have used a functional definition that describes how a belief system functions in society.
More recently, scholars have begun to take a reflexive approach to the study of religion. They have pulled back the camera, so to speak, and examined the constructed nature of a term that was once considered unproblematically “there.”
Many scholars have pointed out that the concept of religion is not just a social category but a cultural construct. They have also argued that the semantic expansion of this concept went hand in hand with European colonialism.
Because of the complexities and nuances of contemporary religious belief systems, it is important for schools to offer students a variety of resources when teaching about religion. Instead of relying solely on textbooks that take a standard “dates and doctrines” approach, teachers should seek out materials that provide detailed, fact-based analyses of current events; descriptions of the varying rituals and beliefs in the world today; and first-person accounts of what it is like to live as a member of a specific religion. By doing so, they will help their students to prepare to participate in a diverse global society. This will require a definition of religion that is open to the stunning array of human beliefs and experiences.