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A Polythetic Definition of Religion

Those who take the concept of religion to be an important part of human life usually believe that it has several functions: it gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social cohesion, provides stability in society, helps people to cope with psychological and physical stress, serves as a source of moral guidance, and motivates efforts for positive social change. These functional definitions of religion are used in studies of the arts, social work, psychotherapy and education. They are also used to evaluate the effectiveness of religious institutions and philosophies in promoting human well-being.

Many scholars argue that such functional definitions do not adequately capture the essentially religious character of a way of life, and that religion has more than one dimension. They suggest that it is essential to understand the religious aspects of a social formation as a four-sided model: it has metaphysics and axiology (i.e., it is grounded in accounts of the nature of the universe and has prescriptions for life), it has ritual and symbolism, and it has a sense of community.

Some scholars, in a different approach, have tried to define religion as a complex of features that it is not possible to identify and isolate as essential for being a religion. This is known as a polythetic definition of religion, and it is increasingly popular. One strategy is to build a master list of the kinds of things that make something a religion, which would typically be based on prototypes that people immediately think of when they hear the word. This can be a problem, however, because it is difficult to identify a single prototype that would be universally applicable.

Another problem is that a polythetic approach is too broad, because it includes anything that people do that they might call religious. This can lead to the criticism that it is ethnocentric, since it focuses on Western religion and fails to consider faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

The most serious problem of all is that a polythetic definition of religion does not recognize that, even in social formations that are not explicitly religious, there is always some form of religion present. It is this form of religion that anthropologists and other sociocultural scientists have studied. For example, the sociologist Richard Sosis found that communes that were not religious were still able to function effectively because they all shared a common structure rooted in religious concepts of the truth, beauty and goodness.

The concept of religion has long been an important one in the study of humans and culture, with the emergence of disciplines such as history, archaeology and anthropology. In recent times, the rise of reflexive studies in all disciplines has enabled scholars to pull back the camera and examine the constructed nature of objects that had previously been taken for granted as unproblematically there. Such studies have shown that the notion of religion is a powerful cultural tool that should be considered carefully by those who seek to influence public policy, psychotherapy and education.