Defining Religion

Religion has been an important factor in human history. It has influenced moral and ethical codes, laws, and political and governmental structures. It has also helped shape worldviews and life views. The concept of religion is most often used as a label for sets of social practices that are shared among groups of people. The most common examples include the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. But the term can also be applied to religious traditions that are local or even unique to individual cultures, such as shamanistic beliefs in spirit guides and healers in some indigenous societies, or the myths of the Kurukshetra War in the Hindu epic poem Mahabharata.

Educators have long debated how to define religion. One approach, described as a “substantive definition,” requires that a group practice have certain elements to qualify for the category of religion. This includes the belief in a higher spiritual power, the existence of a judgment after death, and organized institutions to manage a society’s affairs.

Another approach, which is more nuanced and inclusive, defines religion by the functions a practice serves in a society. This is sometimes referred to as a “functional” definition because a practice can be considered a religion when it performs certain functions, such as providing comfort to believers, binding members to a community, and regulating behavior.

To help teachers understand the complex and varying ways that religions function today, NCSS calls on state education departments, textbook publishers, and online content creators to provide resources that go beyond a standard, “dates and doctrines” approach. These resources should address such questions as: What are the beliefs, values, and rituals that define contemporary religious life? How do these beliefs and values affect daily life?