How to Define Religion

Religion is the name given to a vast and varied taxon of social formations. In its most basic form, a religion is a community in which people share the same beliefs and practices regarding a supreme being or gods. Moreover, such communities often share a sense of vocation as well as specific rituals. Religious practices typically address human concerns such as how to deal with death or how best to live a life of meaning. Consequently, it is not surprising that religions have an extraordinarily complex influence on the lives of their adherents.

Scholars have engaged in an endless multidisciplinary debate about what constitutes a religion, and they have produced a variety of definitions. Most approaches to the study of religion fall into one of two categories: monothetic and polythetic. Monothetic approaches tend to focus on a single essential property of religion and draw relatively clear lines between what is and is not a religion. For example, Tylor’s monothetic definition of religion held that a religion must include belief in spiritual beings; a form of life without such a belief would not qualify as a religion.

By contrast, a polythetic approach tends to array a set of features that are commonly found in religions and hold that a phenomenon must possess a sufficient number of these features to be considered a religion. The problem with this type of approach is that it may be difficult to generate a comprehensive list of religion-making characteristics and that the resultant classifications are often subjective, rendering them open to criticism.

A third way to view the question of how to define a religion is to treat it as a family resemblance concept, arguing that all practices have certain aspects in common. This method of understanding religion has the advantage of being flexible enough to accommodate the wide range of practices currently deemed to belong to the category. This method also avoids entanglements with the structure/agency debate that has roiled many areas of social inquiry.

The challenge for scholars today is to sort out the complex phenomena whose diverse forms are said to be a part of the religion taxon. A significant trend in recent research has been a reflexive turn, as scholars pull back from the lens through which they view the world and take stock of the social construction of concepts that once seemed unproblematicly “there.”

As a result, the conceptual terrain surrounding this issue is continually changing. This article offers an orientation to this debate by considering the evolution of the term “religion” and a brief survey of the various kinds of definitions that have been advanced, including monothetic, polythetic, substantive, functional, and mixed. It concludes by examining the emergence of the concept of a religion as a social kind and by raising issues that are likely to come up in discussions of other abstract concepts used to categorize cultural types, such as literature or democracy.