Religion is a human phenomenon rooted in spirituality and expressing itself through a variety of forms. Its enduring influence on the lives of individuals and communities makes it an important topic for study in the academic context. Unfortunately, questions about the origins and functions of religion tend to get conflated with questions about its truth, which often lead to controversial controversies that hinder development of common concepts and methodologies for research. Rather than attempting to prove or disprove the existence of religion, social scientists employ a range of techniques to study the nature and role of this phenomenon in diverse cultural contexts.
Scholars have argued that in order to be a religion, an idea or practice must be based on belief in God or a supreme being and must involve some kind of worship or devotional activity. Others use a functionalist approach, in which religion is defined by whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values. The problem with a functionalist definition is that it leaves open the possibility that a person might organize his or her values around an ideology not traditionally considered a religion, such as capitalism or nationalism.
A third way to view religion is through the lens of a symbolic interactionist perspective. This perspective focuses on religious rituals and ceremonies, as well as the emotions and psychological states that they invoke. These experiences may involve crying, laughing, screaming, trancelike conditions, a sense of oneness with those around us, or a feeling that we have been transported to another place or time. Religion ideally serves several functions in society: It gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, provides a basis for moral conduct, promotes physical and psychological well-being, and motivates people to work for positive social change.
The study of religion is a valuable tool in a multicultural society, as it helps to facilitate communication and understanding across differences. NCSS encourages state education leaders, textbook publishers and providers of online content to include in their materials and curriculum a wide array of religious beliefs, practices, traditions and worldviews in ways that reflect high academic standards and First Amendment principles. Religious Studies is also essential for preparing students to live in a diverse world in which religions have an increasing role in public life. For this reason, the Association for the Study of Religion and its member schools have created an extensive set of resources to support teachers in developing courses and programs that foster religious literacy. These resources, which include syllabi and teaching modules, are available on the ASR website. In addition, the Lilly Endowment and other private foundations have supported the development of curricula for teaching religion. The American Academy of Religion and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion provide additional support for these initiatives.