A Taxonomy of Religion


The word religion describes a collection of beliefs and practices that bind people together in specific cultural contexts. These beliefs often rely on a shared canonical vocabulary of venerable traditions, writings, history, and mythology. Religious traditions also contain moral codes that outline the relationships believers are expected to cultivate with respect to themselves, other believers, outsiders, and the supernatural world.

A variety of approaches to defining religion have emerged in the past 150 years, and are now incorporated into the multidisciplinary debate on this topic. This article aims to orient readers in the ongoing conversation by providing an overview of the historical origins of the term and a general taxonomy of various kinds of definitions (including monothetic, polythetic, substantive, functional, mixed, and family resemblance).

Monothetic Definitions

The classical view is that any social form that accurately describes itself as religion must share one or more defining properties – what Durkheim called “church” – that make it a religion. These include “unity,” or the ability to bind together into a group; “belief,” or the belief in a transcendental Absolute; and “practices,” or the practice of a system of beliefs and rituals that bind people together into a community.

These criteria might also be combined, as is the case in a mixed definition. For example, a form of life that has five of the criteria would still be considered a religion by most scholars, although it might not have a clear-cut relationship to Christianity or Islam.