Teenagers like definitions. And they like them to be concrete, printed in black and white text, unyielding and unchanging. So I start the year trying to give them what they want, while sneaking in loads of room for interpretation.
The very first day of class, I ask students to write down their own definition of religion and to try and determine a list of “requirements” that a religion must fulfill. Usually this takes just a minute or two, and as we share out I hear lots of ideas about god or gods, moral systems, and followers. I have them compare answers with each other, combining and refining their lists of characteristics. And then I introduce them to the definition that we will use for the year:
A response to the sacred in life, as shaped by institutionalized traditions.
This is a paraphrasing of the description offered up in the textbook we use, Living Religions by Mary Pat Fisher, 7th edition. It’s a simplification, sure, and I think there might be a hundred more definitions out there. But I like it because as a class, we can break it down into 2 core parts:
1) A response to the sacred or unknowable in life. The questions unanswered by science or those mysterious, unexplainable happenings in the world.
2) Institutionalized traditions. Meaning there is an “institution”–the kids can think of this as a physical building, a community, or an organization that carries beliefs and practices on. This explains how religion differs from spirituality, how it holds on to traditional ways of living while evolving in modern times.
We also use Ninian Smart’s seven characteristics of religion to help create a checklist to use with various religions or ways of thinking. There is an excerpt here, for those interested. We use the acronym MR. SNEED (or MRS. NEED, depending on the day. These include: Materials, Rituals, Social, Narratives, Ethics, Emotional Responses, and Doctrines. A key point here is htat a god or deity is NOT a required component of a religion. This can be tough for some kids to wrap their heads around, but I think it’s important to address before we delve into different traditions. Using this checklist becomes an integral part of our class. When we discuss atheism, we compare some of the structures of atheism today to this list; when we study Buddhism, Judaism, and any other belief system, we use the checklist to review what we have learned. It helps identify similarities and gives the students something firm to work with, while proving enough flexibilty that we can sneak in some new and perhaps challenging ideas.
What about you? How would you define religion?