Religion is a vast and complex area that has been studied from a variety of perspectives, including history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Studying the different forms of religion can help you understand and appreciate the many differences that exist in our global society.
The Various Definitions of Religion
Over the past 150 years scholars have produced a staggering variety of definitions of religion. This article aims to orient readers in the ongoing multidisciplinary debate by providing a brief historical account of the origin of the term “religion” and a general taxonomy of the various kinds of definitions (including monothetic, polythetic, substantive, functional, mixed, and family resemblance).
Most attempts to analyze the concept of religion have been monothetic, meaning that they use the classical view of concepts that every instance accurately described will share a defining property that puts it in that category. The emergence of the polythetic approach, however, has led to an important departure from this standard definition.
The polythetic approach entails arraying a master list of “religion-making” features and claiming that, when enough of them are present to a sufficient degree, we have a religion. These lists are often generated by examining prototypes, which are more or less the things that come into one’s mind when hearing the word “religion.”
The first of these kinds of definitions is the most familiar, the so-called “substantive” approach to religion. It is usually traced to the French social philosopher Emile Durkheim (1912). For the intellectual descendant of Durkheim, any system of beliefs and practices that unite a number of people into a single moral community can be properly understood as a religion.