The Definition of Religion in Social Studies

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Religion is one of the most fundamental cultural categories in all societies. Its study draws students into complex and enduring systems of meaning that have affected millions of people through history. As a result, a primary objective of studying religion is to clarify and define the category in order to facilitate discussion and investigation. This critical interrogation of a basic cultural category is an important element of a well-rounded social studies education.

Historically, the majority of scholars have used “substantive” definitions of religion, which rely on belief in a distinctive kind of reality. Examples include Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion as any system that unites people into a moral community, Clifford Geertz’s hermeneutic approach to culture which considers all actions and texts as religious symbols, and Sigmund Freud’s notion of psychoanalytically defined “delusions of the soul” as the basis of all religions.

More recently, scholars have started to drop the substantive definition of religion and adopt a functional definition. This definition of religion is based on the assumption that some beliefs and practices always appear in human societies, regardless of their nature. Examples of this type of definition can be found in the works of scholars such as J. Z. Smith and Talal Asad.

While some may be concerned that functional definitions of religion lead to a nonrealist conclusion, others point out that it is possible to critique the concept without arguing against its validity. In the end, the study of religion provides us with a lens to examine all aspects of society and cultures from diverse perspectives.