The word religion has traditionally referred to a set of beliefs and practices that bind individuals into moral communities and that have the effect of regulating their conduct in certain recognized spheres of obligation. In modern usage, however, it has come to mean any system of social formations and practices regarded as divine or supernatural. This newer meaning is problematic and has led some scholars to reject the notion of thing-hood and to embrace a more functional definition of religion (Possamai 2018: ch. 5).
Historically, most attempts to analyze religion have used monothetic approaches. These are types of analyses that propose necessary and sufficient properties for the category to apply, and in which a form’s membership in a class is determined by whether it has these properties. One of the most prominent monothetic approaches was Emile Durkheim’s theory of totemism, which defined a religion in terms of the belief that a god personifies and governs a clan.
A more recent development in the analysis of religion has been a move away from monothetic approaches toward what are called polythetic approaches. In these, a religious phenomenon is analyzed not in terms of what it does, but rather in terms of the functions that it serves, and the polythetic approach consists of identifying those functions.
As a result of the diversity and importance of religion, the National Council for the Social Studies has long advocated that it be included in the curriculum as an academically appropriate subject. We believe that the study of religion prepares students to live in a diverse and democratic society, by developing critical thinking skills and an awareness of the deep values, beliefs, and aspirations that shape people from around the world and across our country.