Traditionally, scholars have sorted social practices into a taxon called religion (with the paradigmatic examples being Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). These definitions have been described as monothetic because they determine whether something is a religion by its belief in a distinctive kind of reality.
The 19th century saw the emergence of an important alternative approach. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined religion in terms of a set of practices that unite people into a moral community—a functional definition. Paul Tillich followed a similar path, defining religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not those concerns involve belief in any unusual realities).
A third approach, based on an idea by Rodney Needham (1975: 363), is polythetic, and defines a religion in terms of a class of properties that are shared by members of the religion. This is a family resemblance approach that relies on the recognition that there are certain properties that are common to most forms of life.
NCSS recommends that all teachers of social studies incorporate an understanding of the religious dimensions of history and culture into their curriculums, wherever possible. This will foster global context-based understanding, encourage civic engagement, and cultivate the skills needed to work collaboratively with diverse populations. NCSS also recommends that schools adopt policies, learning standards, and instructional methods that are consistent with high academic standards and First Amendment principles. Click here for more information about NCSS’s position on the study of religion in public schools.