Religion is a term that describes various types of beliefs, practices, and attitudes that people have about spiritual or supernatural elements of their world. It also includes the way those people treat certain writings, persons, or places that they believe relate to these aspects of their lives.
Many scholars have argued over the meaning of the word religion and the relationship between it and other terms such as philosophy or tradition. In addition, some thinkers have sought to correct a perceived Western bias in the definition and study of religion.
Among contemporary critics of religion, the most common objection is that the term “religion” names a “thing.” This objection is rooted in a belief that the concept was invented in modern times and has come to mean something outside of traditional cultures. It is based on a critical analysis of the ways that the term has been used in the past to categorize, and later to label, various groups of people as godless or superstitious.
This critique of the concept religion is part of the “reflexive turn” in historical sociology. It asks scholars to abandon a classical view that every instance of a given category has a defining property and instead to accept a polythetic approach that sees the concept as a prototype structure.
Monothetic Definitions and Polythetic Definitions
A common criticism of religion is that the term names a “thing.” It is a form of thing-hood, a kind of ahistorical identification that is unavoidably ethnocentric. In response, some scholars argue that the term should be defined in a polythetic fashion.
For example, Edward Tylor proposed that the minimal definition of religion is the belief in spiritual beings. In a polythetic approach, religion would be defined by the presence of these beliefs and would have more properties that distinguish it from nonreligion than Tylor’s single criterion monothetic definition does.
One of the most popular approaches to religion today is to define it as a social genus, a taxon for sets of social practices. These taxa are characterized by paradigmatic examples such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Other scholars have defined religion functionally, as a group of beliefs and practices that generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life. This is a more subtle approach that reflects the fact that some social practices are prototypically religious and others less so.
Polythetic Approaches to the Definition of Religion
A growing number of scholars are adopting a polythetic approach to the definition of religion. They use the theory that concepts have a prototype structure and are thus able to recognize more properties than monothetic definitions can. The problem with this approach is that it can be very difficult to make a monothetic statement about the essence of religion and, even more so, a polythetic statement about a prototypical religion.
Nevertheless, the polythetic approach can be helpful to understanding how and why the concept of religion has developed as it has. It can allow us to understand why some social categories have evolved into the social genus that they are and why others do not. It can also help to illuminate the underlying process by which people create and adapt social phenotypes, such as religion.