Religion is one of the most pervasive, enduring human constructs. It is an essential part of many cultures around the world, and it has been a fundamental force shaping knowledge, the arts, and even technology. It has been both a source of liberation and oppression, and it has helped people organize their lives and communities. It has also been an important source of power and conflict in the history of the world.
Because of this, the concept of Religion has become an important object of study for scholars in social science and humanities disciplines. Over the past few decades, there has been a “reflexive turn” in the field, where scholars have pulled back the camera and looked at the construction of objects that they had previously taken for granted as unproblematically “there”. The idea is that, just as we have learned to critically examine other abstract concepts such as culture or democracy, we can learn to analyze the way we use the concept religion.
A key issue is how to define Religion. The first approach, which is often referred to as a realist definition, looks at the practices that are said to belong to Religion and asks whether they are based on belief in some sort of unusual reality. The problem with this approach is that it cannot take account of practices whose beliefs are purely cultural, such as the belief in a deity in Judaism or the conviction that there are forces in nature at work that can be exploited to improve human well-being, such as the practice of yoga.
Another alternative to the realist definition is what Asad called the disciplinary approach. This looks at the social structures that are reflected in actions and asks what their function is in society, but it still leaves room for belief in diametrically opposed truth claims. It is therefore a critique of the hermeneutic approach to culture taken by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz.
Ultimately, this view of Religion takes the form of an axiological taxonomy, with the term referring to whatever dominant concerns serve to organize one’s values (whether or not those concerns involve belief in any unusual realities). The most common example is Emile Durkheim’s 1912 definition, which defines Religion as what system of practices unite people into a moral community.
The NCSS position statement concludes: “We must encourage the study of a wide variety of religions and nonbelief, but we should not sponsor or promote any particular view, nor discriminate against those who do not choose to participate in organized religion. Religious illiteracy fuels prejudice and antagonism, so we must work together to promote respect for diversity and peaceful coexistence.”