Religion is one of the most widespread, pervasive, and powerful human institutions in the world. It is present in almost every culture and affects nearly 85 percent of the planet’s population. It is a source of comfort and strength, inspires moral beliefs and behaviors, provides a sense of community, and encourages healthy habits. In addition, some research suggests that religious people may be healthier than others.
The study of religion was born in the 19th century as an academic discipline, a result of the need for a comparative treatment of the diverse customs and beliefs that humans practice. The study of religion draws on methods from a variety of disciplines, including history, philology, literary criticism, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. As a result, the study of religion is highly controversial and has not yet settled on a set of agreed-on methods or topics.
One point of controversy is over what to include in the definition of a religion. Some scholars, such as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, emphasize a hermeneutic approach to culture that treats actions as if they say something and focuses on how symbols convey meaning. Others, such as the historian Martin Smith and the sociologist Émile Durkheim, call for a more neutral description of religion that emphasizes human social structures and how they shape what is observed in the world around us.
When teaching about religion, it is important for teachers to provide students with detailed descriptions of the variety of beliefs and practices that exist in modern-day society; first-person accounts of what it is like to live according to these beliefs; and historical analyses of how the concept of religion has evolved over time. This helps students better understand global contexts, encourages civic participation, and enables them to work collaboratively with people from different faith traditions.