The Nature of Religion

Religion is one of the most persistent and pervasive features of human society. It has shaped world views since prehistoric times and is a central feature of every culture in the modern era, influencing morals, laws, psychotherapy, education, and economic policy. Research shows that the practice of religion provides a range of positive benefits for individuals, families, communities, and states, including improved health, learning, financial well-being, self-control, and empathy. It has also reduced the incidence of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and prejudices.

Despite these many benefits, scholars continue to debate the nature of religion. A common approach is to examine whether religion can be defined in a way that is objective and scientifically meaningful. Scholars often divide into those who favor a monothetic (narrowly defined) approach to religion and those who favor a polythetic (broadly defined) approach.

The monothetic definition of religion focuses on beliefs and practices that involve taboos, curses, promises, and commitments to gods or spirits. This is the definition that most academics use to categorize religions, and it is the definition that most people understand by the term “religion.”

Monothetic definitions of religion are widely held to be unscientific. The problem with narrowly defined categories like this is that they tend to exclude many models of thought and belief that are important to human life, such as Confucianism and Buddhism.

A polythetic approach to religion allows for the inclusion of a wide variety of religious models, ranging from Hinduism and Jainism to Evangelical Christianity and the New Age movement. This definition is not without its problems, however. It is possible to define religion too broadly and end up with a category that includes cults such as Scientology, which does not share any of the characteristics of traditional religions. It is also possible to define religion too narrowly and end up with a category that excludes faith traditions that emphasize immanence or oneness, such as some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Moreover, it is not clear that a polythetic approach to religion will be more objective or meaningful than the monothetic one. It may be possible to develop a theory of religion that depends on the emergence of a class of attributes that can be explained by scientific theorizing, but this could be problematic in the same way as any theorizing that relies on selecting an attribute that is associated with religion — for example, believing in gods — to explain religion.

For this reason, most sociologists of religion today reject a monothetic or functionalist approach and use a broad, lexical definition of religion. Some scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that the word religion is an artificial construct, invented in the nineteenth century by European colonizers, and that people should cease treating everything outside of Western culture as if it were a religion. This view, however, is based on an erroneous assumption that the emergence of a social kind depends on language, and that it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about religion without developing a common term for it.