A Taxonomy of Religion


Religion is one of the most contested concepts in human society. It is a subject of intense interest in anthropology, archaeology, history, economics, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, religious studies, sociology and cognitive science. Scholars have produced a staggering variety of definitions. This article orients readers to this ongoing debate by providing a brief historical account of the origin of the term religion, along with a general taxonomy of some of the different types of definition (monothetic, polythetic, functional, substantive and family resemblance).

The word religion is often associated with belief in god or supernatural entities. However, this is a false association because there are religions that do not involve any beliefs in deities. There is also a widespread misconception that religion is primarily about inner states or emotional experiences such as feelings, moods and motivations. This view is flawed because it overlooks the fact that the practices of religion are inculcated through disciplining techniques that aim to mould beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in a specific direction.

The majority of the world’s 6.5 billion people are believed to be religious. Of these, about a third are members of one of the three largest religions that are actively seeking new converts. Despite its inability to agree on a single definition of religion, there is strong evidence that all religions are rooted in a fundamental need for faith and meaning. They are an expression and source of what people most value in life, and they are willing to live according to and even die for these values.

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