A Polythetic Approach to Religion


Religion is human beings’ relations to those things they hold to be holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. These concerns may be expressed in terms of a belief in a single god, a single supreme being, or many different gods; or they may be focused on a belief in the spirit world. In more naturalistic or humanistic forms of religion, such beliefs and attitudes are focused on the broader universe or the natural world.

There are a wide variety of ways to categorize social practices and beliefs as religions, ranging from functional approaches such as Durkheim’s, to taxonomic approaches such as those of Lewis and McCleary and others in economic history. Most of these approaches are “monothetic”, in that they assume that each practice or belief has one defining property that qualifies it to be included in the category religion. In the last few decades, however, some scholars have developed a polythetic approach to religion, analogous to the way in which modern biology sorts biological species into classes using a set of defining properties rather than looking for any particular inherited essence (e.g., Possamai 2018: ch 5).

This new polythetic approach to religion has been partly prompted by the recognition that the phenomenon is very complex and that it might be helpful for researchers to look at its various dimensions. This is not a new idea; in fact, the founder of formal sociology, Simmel, had already used this perspective when he analyzed religious forms as assemblages or constellations.

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