Religion is a human activity, practiced in all times and places, that addresses ultimate concerns about life and death and the nature of things. Its core features are a sense of something sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence and a set of beliefs and behaviors that express that sense. Its expressions vary from a belief in a god or gods to a non-theistic worldview such as a naturalist one that sees humans and the rest of nature as part of a single system of living.

The word “religion” is most often used to refer to a particular religious tradition but it may also be applied to any form of organized human life that meets certain criteria, such as the way people live together and how they organize society. Religions have sacred histories, narratives, and mythologies, which are preserved in oral traditions, written scriptures, icons, symbols, rituals, and holy places. They may attempt to explain the origin of the universe and other phenomena. They are also characterized by a moral code, ethical practices, a social hierarchy and a set of values that guide human behavior.

Many theories of religion, notably the sociobiological ones, suggest that early and, for millennia, successful protective systems grew out of human biological potentialities and needs. Religions provide maps of time and space that can help to orient people in a complex world, giving them confidence and security to explore their own lives and the environment around them. Such exploration, known in the jargon of religion as ‘somatic exploration’, involves the body and its potentialities as well as the world.

Despite the complexities involved in this process, religions remain central to many people’s lives. They are a source of love and a ground for community, as well as a means to cope with fear and despair. They give meaning to family life, create a context for personal growth, and offer hope of salvation or immortality. People who are highly religious are generally more devoted to their families, more likely to volunteer and engage in their communities, and more satisfied with the way their lives are going than those who are not.

Ideally, every college student in the United States should take a course on the academic study of religion. Currently, however, most colleges and universities in the country have only a few courses on the subject or teach only about one specific religion. This is unfortunate because the study of religion has a rich history and valuable contribution to make to the humanities and social sciences, and should be taught using the same critical skills that are applied to other subjects. These Guidelines were developed over a three-year period with broad consultation within and outside the American Academy of Religion (AAR). This project was supported by an Arthur Vining Davis Foundations grant. The AAR is the world’s largest association of scholars who research and teach about religion. Its members are professors at a wide range of universities, colleges and theological schools in North America.