You are on page 1of 4

Defining Religion and Its Purposes

By Mitch Bogen

Lesson In Brief:
This lesson will help students examine their assumptions about what religion is and will explore some of the reasons why religions are important to humankind.

Time: Anywhere from 10 minutes to a full class period, depending on your choices Materials:
Handout 1.1 Defining and Understanding Religion

Learning Outcomes:
Students will develop a conceptual framework for understanding religion Students will explain their reasoning, defend their ideas, and learn to reach consensus in a group context. Students will make connections between and distinctions among abstract ideas.

Notes and Suggestions:


1. You might choose to condense this lesson into a quick introduction for the lesson, Exploring the Impact of Religion on Society, which is on religion and its social and political impact. Instead of doing the student writing and group activity, you might go straight to the handout and use it to shape a ten minute class discussion. 2. Make sure to set the tone for exploring religion in a public school setting. Let students know that you arent intending to promote or judge any particular religion. Also, let them know that, from time to time, you might present ideas about a religion that are subject to differing interpretations. Encourage students to ask questions when their understanding is different from what is being discussed in class. 3. It makes sense to put in solid prep time before launching your unit on religion, since many questions are sure to arise. The references offered below are reader friendly and good for developing an accurate, baseline understanding of the worlds religions.

Lesson Sequence:
1. Explain to the class that the objective of todays lesson is to begin to think carefully about what religion is and why it continues to be i mportant in human life. The

Educators for Social Responsibility 2005

objective is not to judge whether religion is good or bad, right or wrong. Nor is it to advocate for a particular religion. 2. Ask students to take five minutes or so to respond to this prompt: Write a one-sentence definition of religion and offer three or four reasons why religion is important to people who practice it. Here are some guiding questions to help them get started. How do religions help people? What questions do they answer for them? You might offer an example of the latter, such as this: What happens to people after they die? 3. Now have students work together in groups to reach consensus on their definition of religion and the three main reasons why people practice religion. Move around the room as they work to help students with their reasoning processes and dialogue/discussion skills. Tell students that they will be reporting to the whole class and must be prepared to explain their choices. Note: Try to divide the class into no more than four groups, if possible, so that the subsequent discussion will be more manageable. Balance this goal with the need to keep your groups to a size that will facilitate effective interactions. 4. Ask a spokesperson from each group to share the groups one sentence definition of religion along with a very brief explanation of their reasoning for this definition. Write the definition on the board. Proceed around the room until all groups have reported. 5. Next, share these definitions of religion, drawn from the American Heritage College Dictionary: 1. a) Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe and b) a system grounded in such belief and worship. 2. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader. 3. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion. Ask students how their definitions compare with these? What do they have in common? How are they different? Did any students touch on the concept of secular religion, as found, for example, in complete devotion to a political system such as communism? 6. Now have a different spokesperson from each group state one of their reasons why religion is important to people. Go around the room, encouraging each group to share a reason that hasnt already been presented. Using your judgment, continue until you have a solid list. Ask clarifying questions of the students as needed, and invite students to do the same. 7. Distribute Handout 1.1. Defining and Understanding Religion. As a whole class, look at each entry, or selected entries, from the list the class created and ask where that entry fits into Youngs framework of questions. Note: This exercise isnt calling for right or wrong answers. It is intended to help students make connections and distinctions among ideas, many of which are abstract in nature. 8. To conclude, have students write in their notebook or journal on the following prompt: Because of todays activities, my understanding of religion has changed in this way

Educators for Social Responsibility 2005

Extension Activities:
If you think of other extensions for this lesson that you want to try, be careful not to let the activities or assignments get too personal, or have students end up attesting to their own religious beliefs. Whatever self-reflection students engage in should occur indirectly, through a structured examination of a wide range of beliefs (as in the Exploring the Impact of Religion on Society lesson).

Suggested World Religions Resources:


Keith Crim, editor, The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990. John R. Hinnells, editor, The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions, Penguin, 2003. Huston Smith, The Worlds Religions, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. (Previously published as The Religions of Man.) Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. William A. Young, The Worlds Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues, Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2nd Edition, 2005

Educators for Social Responsibility 2005

Handout 1.1 Defining and Understanding Religion What is Religion?1 1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe, and a system grounded in such belief and worship. 2. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader. 3. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

A Framework for Understanding Religion2


All religions provide humans with answers to these questions: What does it mean to be human? All religions place humans in the context of the cosmos. They define the relationships between humans and God, the natural world, and each other. They answer questions such as whether or not humans have an immortal soul. What is the basic human problem? All religions define a situation that requires some kind of transformation. Some religions might say that the problem is human separation from a personal god; others might say that the problem is lack of harmony with the rest of life. What is the cause of the problem? Religions define the root of the human dilemma. It might be defined as disobedience (as in the Garden of Eden) or maybe as excessive desire, which keeps the human trapped in a cycle of rebirth (as in Buddhism). What is the end or goal of transformation? Having identified the basic problem and its cause, religions define the ultimate goal for humans. One such goal is the Christian goal of spending eternity in heaven with God. What is the nature of reality? Religions even offer a vision of space and time. For example, religions that describe a cycle of reincarnation see existence as cyclical. Religions that that predict the coming of a messiah see history as pointed toward the future. What is sacred and how can the sacred be known? The sacred can be seen as a synonym for the perceived ultimacy referred to in our definition of religion. While this often means god or some kind of deity, in the case of a secular religion such as Communism, the sacred might be interpreted as full economic and political equality for all humans.

From the American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition Adapted from William A. Young, The Worlds Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues, (New York: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2nd Edition, 2005)
1 2

Educators for Social Responsibility 2005