Three Basic Issues to Consider When Teaching Religion in the Classroom

Religion is the social genus that encompasses beliefs, rituals, and institutions based on a personal relationship with an all-powerful, transcendent being. The pervasiveness and power of religion throughout history makes it a worthwhile academic subject to study, and students should learn about the diverse forms that this category can take to foster well-rounded and cultured young scholars.

The academic study of religion has long been a multidisciplinary endeavor, combining textual, historical, linguistic, philosophical and other approaches to understanding the phenomenon. It is also a field that is constantly changing and reshaping itself in the face of new knowledge and events. Because of this, religion is a fascinating topic to research and explore, but there are some basic issues that must be considered when developing classroom curricula or teaching this subject.

One of the most important issues is how to define “religion.” Historically, definitions have focused on the presence of a belief in a distinctive kind of reality. These are called “substantive” definitions, and they have traditionally been the dominant form of religion in society. In the twentieth century, however, a new approach emerged, characterized by a drop in the focus on the content of religious belief and an emphasis on the function that a religion can serve.

A variety of functional definitions have been developed, with some going as far as to call any organized concern that serves to organize human values a religion. This has led to controversial cases, where the term religion has been applied to political ideologies such as communism and fascism.

In order to avoid such problems, some scholars have adopted polythetic definitions of religion, which recognize many properties that are common to most religions without claiming that any particular religion has an essential property. This approach is still controversial, but it is a valid one, and it avoids the problem of an unavoidable ethnocentrism that comes with monothetic identification of the essence of any evolving social taxon.

The final issue that must be taken into account is that, even if a social genus can be defined in functional terms and be found in every human culture, there are still differences between cultures. This point is illustrated by the fact that there are some cultural traditions in which beliefs in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders do not appear, or at least do so in a very minor way.

These differences illustrate that it is not possible to construct a universally acceptable definition of religion, and that any definition will be arbitrary at some point. Nonetheless, the value of studying religion in schools lies in the way that it can help students develop the ability to understand diverse people and cultures, and to think critically about their own values and beliefs. It is this that will make students well-rounded and cultured citizens of the world. This is a goal that can be achieved only by an educational system that provides rich and varied resources for learning about the various aspects of religion.