Polythetic Definitions of Religion


Religion is pervasive in our lives. It shapes beliefs, values, morals, and spiritual practices. It forms communities and social institutions, and it shapes culture and the history of humankind. Like any other social institution, it evolves over time. But while other institutions change rapidly, religion changes more slowly and often retains older features along with new ones.

The academic discipline that studies religion (which includes anthropology, theology, and religious history) has long wrestled with how to define it. Scholars who study religion tend to be divided into those who focus on the nature of the experience itself (such as anthropologists and sociologists) and those who focus on its content and practice, such as theologians and intellectual historians.

Some anthropologists suggest that religion developed out of an attempt to control uncontrollable aspects of our environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, or success in hunting. Others suggest that religion was created as a response to death and a desire to find a way to avoid it or, failing that, to go on after death.

Other scholars, especially those influenced by Foucauldian and postcolonial theory, argue that the concept of religion is itself deeply implicated in Western statism and imperialism and should therefore be abandoned. Still others argue that the reality of religious life is too complex and diverse to allow for the rejection of a concept that so powerfully defines it. Consequently, many scholars now use polythetic definitions of religion, which incorporate elements from various theories into a broad, inclusive, and holistic approach to understanding religion.

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