The Concept of Religion

Religion is a broad category of social practices, including feasts and festivals, the worship of God or gods, adherence to rules and rituals, belief in heaven and hell, and an overall sense of spiritual significance. It is found in every culture, and is often an integral part of a society’s culture, providing guidance for how people should live their lives. People use religions to create meaning and value in their lives, and to cope with the largely unknown future that lies ahead of them. Despite the harm that some religions have done in the past, they continue to be an important resource for many people, a source of comfort and support.

The term religion comes from the Latin religio, which means’respect for what is sacred or spiritual’. Its classical sense, which Max Weber extended, includes the idea of a group’s sacred values and practices. Religion is also a way of exploring the nature of one’s body and soul, with some religions seeking to understand outer space in terms of stars and planets (astrology), while others seek to explore what Thoreau called “the private sea” of one’s inner self, including enlightenment, peace, emptiness or Buddha-nature (Jainism and Buddhism).

For most of its history, the concept of religion has been treated as a sort of social taxon. Attempts have been made to define the term, and there is a great variety of activities that are now said to fall under this rubric. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because the very definitions that have been developed tend to be overly restrictive.

In the last several decades, however, there has been a move to treat the concept of religion as a complex rather than as a social genus or cultural type. This is sometimes referred to as a polythetic approach, and it has emerged from a desire to avoid the claim that a social concept such as religion can be understood by identifying a single essential property.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that even a polythetic definition of religion will still involve a number of properties that are common to all religious phenomena and are therefore helpful in classifying them. This approach can be compared to the way in which scientific research has traditionally been conducted, and this comparison helps to make it clear that polythetic approaches do not imply that all religious phenomena are identical. In fact, polythetic classification reflects an ethnocentric bias, just as monothetic approaches do. It is for this reason that it is important to distinguish between polythetic and monothetic approaches when discussing the phenomenon of religion. In doing so, it is also worth noting that both types of approaches are capable of generating useful and insightful analyses. Seeking out patterns and similarities is the best way to understand any phenomenon, including religion. This article is based on the original publication by the author in 1999, and is available at