The concept of Religion can be defined in a variety of ways. Different disciplines will use the term to describe their own focus and approach. Anthropologists, for example, legitimately study a key dimension of human experience, the religious. Theologians, as a rule, study the doctrine and dogma that capture our fundamental dependence on something greater than ourselves. Historians of culture and intellectual historians will often work with a more content-based definition of religion.
For some scholars, religion is simply a set of beliefs and practices that generates social cohesion and provides a sense of direction in life. This functional view of religion reflects the ideas of Emile Durkheim and other sociological thinkers. It is a view that treats religion as a universal phenomenon in all cultures and that assumes the existence of a shared human nature and a common human experience.
It is an approach that can be very useful for understanding how some cultures work. But this view also has some serious flaws. The problem with this kind of functional approach is that it creates a dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. This dichotomy may or may not be accurate, but it certainly does not correspond to the way that many people experience religion.
The alternative to the functional approach is to treat religion as a unique and specific aspect of human experience. This view is based on the idea that religious experiences are inherently powerful and meaningful, but that they are not to be confused with the normal everyday experiences of most people. This is a view that can be very helpful in understanding how some religions function. But it can also lead to a reductionist view of religion that treats it as a collection of beliefs and rituals.
A third kind of definition of religion is a mixed definition. These take a cue from the Christian tradition, which analyzes religion as simultaneously fides and fiducia. That is, they are a combination of metaphysics and axiology.
For this kind of definition, it is important to understand the distinction between beliefs and practices. Beliefs are statements that describe a belief system, such as “There is no god but God.” Practices are observable actions, such as prayer or sacraments. Values are the underlying values that drive both beliefs and practices. This is where it can be tricky to draw lines between different types of religions, since all faiths have values that drive their beliefs and rituals.
The best way to get a feel for the different religions in the world is to talk with people from those cultures. Read their Holy Books and see how they celebrate their lives. Encourage your students to be open and empathetic toward their views, even if they are not the same as yours. Then, ask them to think about what they have in common. For instance, all religions have a view of the afterlife and they all have holidays that are celebrated.