The Study of Religion in Social Studies Classrooms


Religion is a complex, diverse, and powerful force in human societies. Whether it’s the belief in an afterlife, the fear of ghosts or demons, or the ritual of taking an oath in court, most people believe in something that guides their lives. Because religion is so pervasive, the study of religion in social studies classrooms is a critical element of understanding the world and its many cultures.

Traditionally, academic discussions of Religion have been divided into monothetic and polythetic approaches. Monothetic definitions fasten on a single property that, according to the classical theory of concepts, defines the category in question. Polythetic approaches recognize multiple properties that, when combined, make something a religion.

The debate between these two approaches has never been so pronounced as in the last several decades. One reason is that scholars have come to recognize that a social genus can exist without its being fully present in every culture. For example, the belief in disembodied spirits is part of the religion of some Chinese cultures and not others.

For this reason, scholars are seeking to avoid the claim that a social category has an ahistorical essence and are instead adopting polythetic definitions. In particular, anthropologists like Clifford Geertz have focused on the importance of context when examining the meaning of religious symbols and practices. Foucauldians like Talal Asad, on the other hand, have used their knowledge of historical sociology to highlight how a disciplinary approach can help us understand religion as something that is shaped by and shapes human subjects.