Religion is an ancient, complex, and sometimes contentious topic. It is a social construct, meaning that it is not a physical entity. Rather, it is a set of beliefs and practices that give meaning and purpose to people’s lives. The study of religion can help students gain a better understanding of the world in which they live. It can also help students develop empathy and tolerance for those with different beliefs. NCSS recommends that teachers incorporate the study of religion in all social studies disciplines and courses.
In its early forms, the concept of religion referred to scrupulous devotion. This sense was retooled into a belief in gods and supernatural powers, and then morphed again into a specific type of social practice, called religio or religion in Latin. Since then, the term has evolved further still and now carries many different senses. It can refer to a particular faith, the way people practice their faith, or even how they behave in public.
Sociological perspectives on religion seek to understand the functions that religion fulfills, the inequality and other problems it can reinforce and perpetuate, and how the phenomenon of religion affects our daily lives. In a nutshell, the conflict and symbolic interactionist theories are the two most prominent views.
The conflict theory explains that religion can have both positive and negative functions, depending on the context in which it is practiced. It can promote morality and ethics, or it may serve as a tool to control behavior. In addition, some religious practices can be used as a source of identity and can lead to in-group vs. out-group dynamics (as in the Inquisition and Salem witch trials).
A functionalist perspective on religion focuses on the role that it plays in fostering group cohesion. It suggests that it can provide a sense of common purpose and identity, and that it offers a place to seek guidance, spiritual and material, in difficult times.
One issue that arises with functionalist definitions is that they exclude mental states and focus on external behaviors and structures. This can be problematic for scholars who wish to address issues of belief and theology, which are arguably internal phenomena.
Some theorists have sought to correct this problem by developing real and lexical definitions of religion that could be evaluated for their accuracy. However, this approach is flawed because it assumes that a definition can be corrected in the same way that it can be created. For this reason, stipulative definitions are typically not assessed for their truth value. Instead, they are analyzed for their utility. De Muckadell argues that such an assessment is “purpose-relative” and cannot be critiqued in the same way as a real or lexical definition can be.