Polythetic Approaches to the Study of Religion

Religion describes a variety of systems of beliefs and practices that people hold as sacred or transcendent. Religious beliefs often involve concepts of God(s), spirits, morality, an afterlife, the natural world and human relationships. They often include mythologies, rituals and holy texts and places. In some cases, they seek to explain the origin of life and the universe.

The academic study of religion has evolved rapidly over the past two centuries. Across the social sciences and humanities, scholars have pulled back on the concept of religion to examine the assumptions baked into its definition. This reflexive turn has revealed how the term is not just a social construct but also a cultural tool shaped by political interests.

The definition of religion has shifted, but it continues to play a central role in the lives of most people. Religious groups organize their activities around common concerns that people identify as the most important issues of life. Religious beliefs and practices provide a framework for understanding these concerns, as well as offering hope and meaning in the face of suffering.

Traditionally, the field of religion studies has been dominated by monothetic approaches that define a concept in terms of a set of properties that all instances of that concept must possess. This approach may be as simplistic as saying that a religious belief is one in which a person assents to a proposition and takes it to be true. However, the last few decades have seen the emergence of polythetic approaches that analyze a concept by examining its component parts and comparing them to a prototype.

A variety of arguments have been advanced in favor of this new approach. Some scholars argue that, if we take a functional view of religion—such as when Durkheim defined it as the beliefs and behaviors that generate solidarity or Paul Tillich defined it as whatever dominant concerns serve to organize a person’s values—then there are universal features of humanity that must be present in all religions.

Other scholars question the assumption that there are universal properties underlying all religions. They argue that it is more productive to treat religion as a complex and to use the concept of complexity theory to analyze how the components of religion interact with each other. These scholars also point out that the notion of a social genus is not without precedent.

In fact, many anthropologists and historians have analyzed religion as a cultural construct using similar techniques. These studies are revealing the profound influence that religion plays in our everyday lives, from the ways in which people form their families to the way they choose political leaders. Religion is a powerful force that should be understood by policy makers, psychotherapists and educators alike.