The Importance of Understanding Religion

Religious illiteracy contributes to prejudice and antagonism, which in turn hinder efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local and global contexts. The National Council for the Social Studies encourages all educators to include in their curriculum an understanding of religion, including its diverse expressions and functions, to promote a more informed worldview.

The study of religion became a formal discipline in the 19th century, and scholars enlisted the methods of history, philology, literary criticism, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and other disciplines to try to determine the origins and functions of religion. Yet no consensus has emerged concerning how to approach this difficult subject. One reason may be that the field of religion encompasses the inner, personal side of human existence, which cannot easily be observed or quantified.

To analyze religion, some scholars adopt a “monothetic” view, according to which any instance accurately described by a concept must share certain properties that distinguish it from other instances. Others, however, have favored an “open polythetic” approach, in which the set of properties a concept can accurately describe grows continually and informally.

Even this approach, though, has its limitations. For example, researchers have found that secular communes are more stable than religious ones because they do not impose costly requirements, such as food taboos and fasts, restrictions on material possessions, or prohibitions on marriage, sex, or communication with the outside world (Sosis and Ruffle 2003). The fact is, the nature of religion can only be discovered by observing its effects, which require a degree of observation and dialogical interaction that is impossible to achieve through textual analysis alone.

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