Defining Religion


Religions give meaning and identity to people. They provide a context within which sanctions and rewards, approval and disapproval, inspiration and ideation are held in common (often in the form of laws and codes of behavior, and often with the help of somatic rituals that ‘visit’ the past and enable people to relive or deal with it). They also allow them to recognize the many different kinds of limitation that lie before them and to approach their lives a little more successfully.

Various theories of the concept of religion have sought to develop a definition or an analysis of its properties. These usually take one of two forms, monothetic or polythetic. Monothetic definitions focus on defining the term so as to include only those practices which have certain characteristics, thereby excluding phenomena such as capitalism and Buddhism. Polythetic approaches, on the other hand, operate with the belief that a social genus can have different varieties and variants without losing its identity, and that the prototype structure of a concept allows it to be accurately described by a set of properties.

Attempts to define religion have been made at the level of the social genus as well as its individual varieties and variants. Edward Burnett Tylor argued that narrowing the concept of religion to mean only beliefs in spiritual beings would exclude many cultures and their beliefs. He favored an open polythetic definition which would distinguish it from other types of human activities by its characteristic of being the most intensive and comprehensive method of valuation that humans experience.