A Polythetic Approach to the Definition of Religion

Religions are complex phenomena that have been the subject of intense study since antiquity. They provide a framework for moral action, explain what matters in life and death, give people hope for the future, and offer answers to ultimate questions such as the origin of the universe. They are also social and cultural institutions that bind communities together over long distances and through the major events in life such as birth, marriage and death. They may be practiced alone or in community with others.

In the modern era scholars have debated the concept of religion and what it is. Some argue that it is nothing more than a belief in gods or spirits, while others suggest that the term covers an even wider range of social and cultural activities. In addition to the beliefs, many scholars emphasize the importance of practices such as rituals, spiritual guidance and social interaction.

A definition of religion that incorporates all of these aspects has been proposed by Ninian Smart (of Lancaster and the University of California, Santa Barbara). He suggests that there are seven shared characteristics of world religions: mythic (stories that give shape), doctrinal (the ideas that underlie and emerge from the stories), experiential (mystical encounters with some larger reality), ethical (moral or legal requirements), symbolic (artifacts and rites) and social (organizational structures and leadership).

More recently scholars have suggested that instead of trying to find one definition that encompasses all aspects of religion, it might be better to try and identify common traits that all religions share. This approach has been termed a polythetic strategy. It has a number of advantages over the formal definitions discussed above.

These approaches have been criticized for making a fundamental mistake in the way they treat the concept of religion. In a broader sense, they fail to recognize that the word “religion” has a history of changing meanings and for this reason it is inappropriate to use a single definition.

For example, the admonition to “have faith” in something has not always been regarded as religious; nor have the beliefs in a higher power. In this sense, a more accurate description might be that most humans have religion in some form or another, regardless of whether they believe in a monotheistic god or not.

Other scholars take a more formal approach and attempt to define religion in terms of a particular structural type. This approach tries to look for a particular pattern of related discontinuity between an empirical, mundane order and a superempirical, cosmic-level order. For instance, Zeldin (1969) and Lemert (1975) have both used this model.

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