What Is Religion?


The scholarly study of Religion has long focused on understanding its complex influences, whether in fostering unity or promoting conflict and even hostility. While it is true that many religions have been used for nefarious purposes, and that people have often abused the ideals of the faiths they claim to represent, it is also the case that many religious and spiritual traditions offer individuals a package of distinctive coping skills that can make their lives more meaningful.

Despite the controversies that have swirled around definitions of Religion, most sociologists recognize that it is possible to sort practices into the category based on their shared properties, and that there are advantages to doing so. For example, Emile Durkheim’s work influenced subsequent sociological analyses by focusing on the social functions of Religion (such as creating solidarity), and Paul Tillich developed his theory of religion based on its dominant concern for organizing a person’s values.

While such open polythetic approaches have their virtues, they are problematic in the sense that they require a large number of properties to be present for something to qualify as a religion. As such, it may be more practical and helpful to use a closed polythetic approach that limits the set of properties to include only those that are necessary and sufficient for classification, or to employ a monothetic method in which a single property is used as the defining one. Such an approach could be called “family resemblance” anthropology.