The Debate Over the Definition of Religion

Religion encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practices, including worship, moral conduct, spirituality, and the belief in the existence of a supreme being. It also involves sacred texts, symbols and holy places. There is no consensus on what constitutes a religion, and the term has been applied to many different phenomena.

Scholars have offered a staggering variety of definitions of religion over the years. Most have been “monothetic” in the sense that they operate on the classical view that a concept can be accurately described by identifying its necessary and sufficient properties. But in the last several decades there has been a move towards “polythetic” approaches to the study of religion, which abandon the classical view in favor of the prototype model of concepts (see Laurence and Margolis for incisive discussions of this theory).

Some critics have even gone so far as to assert that there is no such thing as religion, that the notion of a religion is an artificial category that resulted from historical contingencies in modern Europe. This claim is mistaken. Like other abstract concepts that sort cultural types, the notion of religion is a social taxon, and it is useful for assessing cases.

Even so, a debate over the definition of religion continues to rage across disciplines, with anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, and religious studies taking part in the discussion. This article orients readers in this ongoing multidisciplinary debate by providing a brief history of the development of the concept, a general taxonomy of the various kinds of definitions (monothetic, polythetic, substantive, functional, mixed, and family resemblance), as well as some commentary and criticism.

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