The Definition of Religion
Religion is a concept that describes human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is also the way in which people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death.
There are many different forms of religion, and there are also various beliefs about them. Some of them are very common, such as the belief that a particular god or gods exists. Others are less common, such as the belief that one can achieve enlightenment by performing rituals or attending ceremonies.
Historically, religion has been described as a collection of social practices that unite a large number of people in a single moral community (whether or not those people believe in unusual realities). This definition was formulated by Emile Durkheim and is now the standard for most scholars of religious life.
It is commonly assumed that every instance of a given concept accurately describes its own nature, or that if a phenomenon is described in terms of its characteristic features, it will automatically be included in the category. The problem with this approach is that it overlooks the fact that many phenomena don’t have a defining feature, and so don’t necessarily fit the category.
A related concern is the question of whether a definition should be based solely on the conceptions held by religious participants, or if it should include mental states such as judgements, decisions, and dispositions that are not held directly by those who are involved in them. The problem with this approach is that it can muddy the waters by making it impossible to isolate the cognitive and affective structures that make up an individual’s religious experience.
The ‘Monothetic’ Strategy
In classical philosophy, the theory of concepts maintains that all instances of accurately described concepts will share a defining property. The “monothetic” strategy in the study of religion, therefore, tries to find this property and use it to define the term.
This method resembles a structuralist approach to the study of social structure, wherein the goal is to identify a universal structure that all instances of a given social phenomenon share and then to describe its features in terms of this structure. It has been widely used in the social sciences, where it is a useful tool for the analysis of social institutions.
The ‘Polythetic’ Strategy
In the last several decades, a new type of approach to the study of religion has emerged. It focuses on what is called the “prototype” structure of a given concept.
The prototype structure is the structure that every instance of a given concept would share if it were an accurate description of its own nature. It is often associated with a narrative structure, i.e., the structure of a transition from and back to an ideal state–a narrative that is common in Soviet Marxism and world religions.
It is also often associated with a discontinuous relatedness, wherein an empirical, mundane order is complemented by a superempirical, cosmic-level order. It is often seen as an important structure of a particular religion, and it has been argued that it explains a great deal about its development.