The Polythetic Definition of Religion

Religion is a socially defined category that encompasses a broad range of practices. It is often defined as the belief in a transcendent supernatural power or, more generally, any set of beliefs and values that give meaning to one’s life, whether or not the religion includes a specific god or goddess. It often involves a concept of salvation; rituals to mark important events in the lives of believers; codes of behavior; and sacred places and objects.

The term religion has historically been used to describe many different faiths, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Christianity, and the Native American religions. It has also been used to refer to other forms of group organization, such as a political party or sports team. Because of this variety, it can be difficult to define what religion is or how it functions in society.

Until recently, most studies of religion have been “monothetic” in that they have held the classical view that all instances of a concept share a single defining property that puts them into that category. In recent years, however, scholars have been discussing the possibility of using a “polythetic” approach, wherein each instance has a number of characteristics that can be used to distinguish it from other cases.

The use of polythetic methods is particularly appropriate for the study of religion because of the great diversity of religious practices. Moreover, the polythetic definition of religion makes it possible to recognize that religions are not just abstract ideas or concepts. They are, in fact, living systems that provide people with the tools to cope with the limits of their physical bodies and of their social environments.

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