The Nature of Religion


Religion is a cultural system of beliefs, values and practices that expresses inner sentiments through outer behaviors. Many of these systems of belief and behavior are characterized by rituals, symbols and ceremonies, community support, and a sense of ineffable truth. Religion can be practiced individually or communally and may include a wide range of social and ethical values. In addition, religion often imposes costly requirements on its members (such as food taboos and fasts, constraints on material possessions, repression of sex or marriage, and abstinence from alcohol). These costs seem to have an effect, at least psychologically, on the long-term persistence of religiosity.

For centuries, scholars have attempted to define religion by examining its characteristics. These attempts have been categorized as monistic and polythetic, reflecting different ways of thinking about the nature of religion. Most monistic definitions of religion have been based on the classical idea that a social genus can be identified by a defining property shared by its instances. Polythetic approaches have tended to treat the concept of religion as having a prototype structure.

The debate over the nature of religion has been largely driven by the emergence of religious studies as an academic field, and the need to create an intellectual framework for understanding the diverse practices of human beings around the world. The study of religion combines insights from other academic disciplines such as history, sociology, philosophy and anthropology. It seeks to understand why humans hold certain beliefs, values and practices in common despite the great diversity of human cultures.

Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the teaching of religion in public schools was not a violation of the First Amendment, the study of religion has been integrated into the curriculum in most American colleges and universities. The National Council for the Social Studies has long advocated that a rigorous study of religion prepares Americans to live in a diverse, pluralistic democracy by helping students understand the deepest values, traditions and aspirations of people from a wide range of religious communities.

As the field of religious studies has developed, there have been debates over the definition of “religion.” Some have claimed that religion names a category whose development went hand in hand with European colonialism and that it should be replaced by more accurate terms such as ecstatic experience and spirituality. Others argue that it is possible to understand a particular culture’s beliefs and practices without making a substantive definition of religion. The debate is ongoing. In this issue, we explore the complexity of religion through a variety of articles that examine its many dimensions and functions. The articles also highlight the ways in which religion continues to shape the lives of people around the globe. We hope you will enjoy this special edition.