Religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and values that believers and worshippers share in common. It includes a devotion to someone or something sacred, such as gods and angels, a code of behavior that guides ethical decisions, and rituals that bring members together. Religious people often try to understand the universe and human life through a system of beliefs about the origins, nature, and future of the world, humanity, and the cosmos. These beliefs are sometimes called spiritual or supernatural. Many religions teach that there are some things that can only be understood through prayer or meditation, such as the existence of an invisible spiritual reality and the souls of those who have died.
One theory of how the term religion developed is that it grew from the need to give meaning to human experience, including a desire for immortality or life after death, and for control over uncontrollable forces, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, or success in hunting. Some scientists, particularly anthropologists (scientists who study human cultures and societies), believe that religion emerged from humankind’s attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of life and the universe. Another theory of the origins of religion is that it grew out of humankind’s fear of death and the need to find ways to cope with it.
Many religions are based on teachings that have been handed down from generation to generation by their priests or other leaders. These teachings are often called “sacred texts” and may be interpreted in a number of different ways by believers. There is often debate amongst religious communities about what is “sacred” and how these sacred texts should be interpreted.
A defining feature of most religions is that they are social institutions with leaders and followers, who come together to perform rituals, participate in community activities, and have a shared understanding of what is morally right and wrong. Some scholars argue that the term religion should be redefined to drop the “belief in a distinctive kind of reality” element and focus instead on the social functions of religions and the governing structures they create. This approach is sometimes referred to as the functional definition of religion.
It is important to use resources that teach about the complexities and nuances of contemporary religious diversity. Avoid resources that take a standard “dates and doctrines” approach, which may help students with standardized tests but does not adequately prepare them for participating in a multicultural society. It is also helpful to get students to talk about their own experiences with their own religion and those of other faiths. Encourage students to read the holy books of their religions and talk with people from other faiths about what their lives are like. This helps them see that the word religion can encompass more than just a list of dates and doctrines. Ideally, this can be done in class by having students work with classmates from other religions and bringing in speakers who are both inside and outside of the religious community.