URI Kids: What Is Religion?

Traditional Learning: What Is Religion?


To address the question: What is religion? What is a spiritual tradition? 

Here are some answers from the URI Kids World Religions section (www.uri.org/kids) to help get a sense of the direction the lesson should take:

Religion is all or some of the attributes described below. Religion is different for different people and cultures. Some religion is so much a part of the culture of a given people that it is not so much a formal religion, but simply the spiritual aspects of that culture or group - the spiritual traditions which help define it. This is especially true of the indigenous traditions of a geographical area.

Religion can be a way of explaining many mysteries of life, such as:

  • How the world was created 
  • Why it was created
  • Why there is life and death
  • What happens when people die
  • Why there is suffering 

It can be a way of explaining:

  • A supreme power or absolute power, whether impersonal or personal, nameable or not
  • Who or what created the world and all the living beings
  • Dimensions beyond the physical world -- the spiritual world
  • How to lead a good life on Earth and in an afterlife (these codes of behavior are often written in sacred documents or passed down through oral tradition)

Religion often includes forms of worship that honor the creator(s) or spiritual beings who are believed to have power over the world and people's lives. Worship can:

  • Be a way of paying respects and drawing inspiration from spiritual leaders 
  • Be prayers of thanks, prayers of hopes, prayers of supplication
  • Be in honor of god or gods
  • Happen in sacred places and spaces
  • Include ceremonies and rituals conducted by spiritual guides
  • Involve sacred objects and images as a way of joining with others as a spiritual community
  • Include celebrations of festivals or holy days. Religions and spiritual traditions often have special calendars that mark the important historical events in the evolution of the religion
  • Include both private and public worship and practice 
  • Be introspective and draw on the practitioners' own ability to be responsible for his/her own spiritual path.


The book, The Story of Religion by Betsy and Giulio Maestro This book was written for older children and has beautiful illustrations. It serves as a wonderful overview of what religion is as well as an overview of the history of world religions. Although you can hold a provocative discussion and help children address the question "What is religion?" without this book we like it so much we strongly encourage you to use it. We used it effectively with seventh graders but it can be used with younger or even older students. There are other sources as well, which could provide springboards for this kind of discussion (see resource list).

The Lesson: 

This can be done one of two ways. Either you could read the entire book cover to cover in one or two sittings and then discuss it, or you could read parts of the book, in order, throughout a world religion unit as one small but regular feature. This is, in many ways, more effective as it is a small book but packed with wonderful ideas and content worthy of discussion and serves very well as a scaffolding for student's knowledge and understanding. Homework and/or in-class assignment: As you read and discuss, have student write their reflections, questions and ideas in their learning logs.


At the end of a world religions unit, students should be able to articulate either orally or in writing about what religion and spiritual traditions are using the kinds of ideas listed above. It would be appropriate at the end of a world religion unit to again address together "What is religion?" and then ask students to write a formal essay answering, "What is religion?" Hopefully, the exposure throughout the unit will have broadened and deepened student understanding of what religion is.